Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Life of a Scotch Naturalist, Thomas Edward
Chapter VIII. Forms a Natural History Collection

Banff was the central point of Edward’s operations. Banff is a pleasant country town, situated on the southern shore of the Moray Firth. It lies on a gentle slope inclining toward the sea. In front of it is the harbor. Although improved by Telford, it is rather difficult of access, and not much frequented except during the fishing season. Westward of Banff, a low range of hills lies along the coast. The burns of the Boyne, Portsoy, and Cullen cross the range, and run into the sea.

The fishing town of Macduff, which may be considered the port of Banff, lies about a mile to the eastward. To reach it, the river Deveron is crossed by one of Smeaton’s finest bridges. The harbor of Macduff is more capacious and more easy of entrance than that of Banff. Many foreign vessels are to be seen there in the fishing season, for the purpose of transporting the myriads of herrings which are daily brought in by the fishermen.

Eastward of Macduff the coast becomes exceedingly rocky. The ridges of the hills, running down toward the sea, seem to have been broken off by the tremendous lashings of the waves at their feet, and thus the precipitous rocks descend in several places about six hundred feet to the shore. The coast scenery at G-amrie is unrivaled on the eastern shores of Scotland. The cliffs are the haunts of myriads of sea-fowl. “On a fine day,” says Edward, “and under the mild influence of a vernal and unclouded sun, the scene is particularly beautiful. The ocean lies tranquil, and stretched out before the spectator like an immense sheet of glass, smiling in its soft and azure beauty, while over its surface the kittiwake, the guillemot, the razor-bill, and the puffin, conspicuous by the brilliant orange and scarlet of its bill and legs, are beheld wheeling with rapid wing in endless and varying directions. On firing a gun, the effect is startling. The air is immediately darkened with the multitudes of birds which are roused by the report. The ear is stunned by the varied and discordant sounds which arise. The wailing note of the kittiwake, the shrill cry of the tammy-norie, and the hoarse voice of the guillemot, resembling, as it were, the laugh of some demon in mockery of the intrusion of man amidst these majestic scenes of nature—all these combined, and mingled occasionally with the harsh scream of the cormorant, are heard above the roar of the ocean, which breaks at the foot of these tremendous and gigantic precipices.”

The view from the heights of Gamrie on a summer evening is exceedingly fine. The sea ripples beneath you. Far away it is as smooth as glass. During the herring season, the fishing-boats shoot out from the rocky clefts in which the harbors are formed. Underneath are the fishing-boats of Gardenstown; to the right those of Crovie. Eastward you observe the immense fleet of Fraserburgh vessels, about a thousand in number, creeping out to sea. Westward are the fishing-boats of Macduff, of Banff, M lutehills, Portsoy, Cullen, Sandend, Findochtie, and the Buckies, all making their appearance by degrees. The whole horizon becomes covered with fleets of fishing-boats. Across the Moray Firth, in the far distance, the Caithness Mountains are relieved against the evening sky. The hills of Morven and the Maiden’s Pap are distinctly visible. The sun, as it descends, throws a gleam of molten gold across the bosom of the firth. A few minutes more, and the sun goes down, leaving the toilers of the sea to pursue their labors amidst the darkness of the night.

Gamrie Head is locally called Molir Head.1 The bay of Gamrie is a picturesque indentation of the coast, effected by the long operation of water upon rocks of unequal solidity. The hills, which descend to the coast, are composed of hard graywacke, in which is deeply inlaid a detached strip of moldering old red sandstone. The waves of the German Ocean, by perpetual lashing against the coast, have washed out the sandstone, and left the little bay of Gamrie —the solid graywacke standing out in bold promontories — Mohr Head on the one side, and Crovie Head on the other.

The fishing village of Gardenstown lies at the foot of the Gamrie cliffs. It is reached by a steep winding path down the face of the brae. The road descends from terrace to terrace. The houses look like aeries, built on ledges in the recesses of the cliff. As you proceed toward the shore, you seem to look down the chimneys of the houses beneath. The lower and older part of the village is close to the sea. The harbor seems as if made in a cleft of the rocks. The fishers of this village are a fine race of men, with a grand appearance. They are thorough Northmen; and but for their ancestors having settled at Gamrie, they might have settled in Normandy, and “come in with the Conqueror ” at the other end of the island.

A little eastward of Gardenstown is the little fishing village of Crovie, containing another colony of Northmen. Farther out to sea is the majestic headland of Troup. It is the home of multitudes of sea-birds. Its precipices are penetrated with caves and passages, of which the most remarkable are Hell’s Lum and the Needle’s Eye. Hell’s Lumf consists of a ghastly opening on the slope of the hill near Troup Head. From this opening to the sea there is a subterranean passage about a hundred yards long, up which, on the occasion of a storm, the waves are forced with great fury, until they find their escape by the “ Lum ” in the shape of dense spray. The other opening, the Needle’s Eye, runs quite through the peninsular rocky height. It is about a hundred and fifty yards long, and is so narrow that only one person at a time can with difficulty make his way through it.

Eastward of Troup Head, the scenery continues of the same character. The fishing village of Pennan, like Gar-denstown, lies at the foot of a ledge of precipitous rocks, and is inclosed by a little creek or bay. From the summit of the Red Head of Pennan, the indentations of the coast are seen to Kinnaird’s Head in the east, and to the Bin Hill of Cullen in the west.

The scenery of this neighborhood, besides its ruggedness and wildness, is rendered beautiful by the glens or dens which break through the ridges of rock and form deep ravines, each having its little streamlet at the bottom, winding its way to the sea. The water is overhung by trees or brush-wood, sometimes by bowlders or gray rocks like buttresses, which seem to support the v ails of the den. These winding hollows are rich to luxuriance with plants and flowers—a very garden of delight to the botanist. Heaths, furze, primroses, wild rasps, wild strawberries, whortleberries, as well as many rare plants, are to be found there; while the songsters of the grove—thrushes, blackbirds, and linnets—haunt the brush-wood in varying numbers.

The most picturesque and interesting of these dens are those of Troup, Auchmedden, and Aberdour. The dens, when followed inland, are found to branch out into various lesser dens, until they become lost in the moors and mosses of the interior. The Den of Aberdour is particularly beautiful. At its northern extremity, near where it opens upon the sea, the rift in the glen is almost overhung by the ruins of the ancient church of Aberdour,2 said to have been founded by St. Columbanus, who landed on this part of the coast to convert the pagan population to Christianity. The Bay of Aberdour, with its bold headland, forms the sea entrance to this picturesque valley.

The coast-line of Banffshire, without regarding the indentations of the bays, extends for about thirty miles along the southern shores of the Moray Firth. This was the principal scene of Edward’s explorations. His rounds usually extended coastwise, for about seven miles in one direction, and about six in another. He also went inland for six miles. But lie very often exceeded these limits, as we shall afterward find.

Having referred to the coast-line, we may also briefly refer to the inland portion of the county. Banffshire is of an irregular shape; and extends from the southern shores of the Moray Firth in a south-westerly direction toward Cairngorm and Ben Macdhui—the highest mountain knot of the Grampians. The middle portion of the county is moderately hilly. Glen Fiddick, Glen Isla, and Strath Deveron follow the line of hills which descend in a north-westerly direction from the Grampians toward the sea.

The county generally is under cultivation of the highest order. The valleys are intersected with rich meadows and pasture-lands, which are stocked with cattle of the choicest breeds. There are numerous woods and plantations, both luxuriant and verdant, though there is a great want of hedges. Agriculture is gradually extending upward toward the mountains. Moors and morasses are fast disappearing. In places where the wail of the plover, the birr of the moorcock, and the scream of the merlin were the only sounds, the mellow voice of the lark, the mavis, and the blackbird are now to be heard in the fields and the woods throughout the country.

In the extreme south-western district lies the great mountain knot to which we have already referred. T be scenery of this neighborhood can scarcely be equaled, even in Switzerland, though it is at present almost entirely unknown. Cairngorm, Benbuinach, Benaven, and Ben Macdhui surround Loch Avon and the forest of Glen Avon. The Banffshire side of Ben Macdhui forms a magnificent precipice of fifteen hundred feet, which descends sheer down into the loch. This lonely and solemn lake is fed by the streams flowing from the snows that lie all the year round in the corries of the mountains above. These streams leap down from the bare and jagged cliffs in the form of broken cataracts. One of these falls has a descent of nine hundred feet. The parish of Kirkmichael, in which this scenery occurs, is almost unpeopled. It has only one village—Tomin-toul—the highest in Scotland. The people who inhabit it and the other hamlets of the parish are of a different race and religion, and speak a different language, from those who inhabit the middle and lower parts of the county.

To return to the labors of our naturalist. For about fifteen years Edward made the greater part of his researches at night. He made them in the late evening and in the early morning, snatching his sleep at intervals between the departing night and the returning day.

His rounds, we have said, extended coastwise along the shore of the Moray Firth, for about seven miles in one direction and about six in another. His excursions also extended inland for about five or six miles. He had thus three distinct circuits. Although he only took one of them at a time, he usually managed to visit each district twice a week.

Having sometimes wandered too far, as he frequently did, he divested himself of his hunting paraphernalia, rolled them up together, hid them in a hole or some convenient place, and then ran home as fast as he could, in order to be at his work at the proper time. He once ran three miles in twenty minutes. He measured the time by his watch— for he had a watch then, though, like himself, it is worn out now.

Occasionally, when kept late at work, he was prevented from enjoying his evening ramble. After going to bed, and taking a short sleep, he would set out in the dark, in order to be at the place where he had appointed, from whence he worked his way homeward in the morning toward Banff.

But though he made it a general practice during his nightly excursions to return home in time for the morning’s work, he occasionally found it necessary to deviate a little from this rule. When he was in search of some particular bird, he was never satisfied or at rest until he had obtained it. On one occasion two geese, the first of their kind that he had ever seen, caused him to lose nearly a whole week before he could run them down.

He saw them while walking out one Sunday afternoon. They were swimming about on a piece of water near the town. He went out before daylight next morning to the same place. But he saw no geese. He waited for an hour, and then they made their appearance. They alighted on the water within a short distance of the bar where he was sitting. Had his object been to secure them at once, he could easily have shot them, for they were both within reach of his gun. But he wished to observe their habits, and he waited for some time. Having satisfied himself on this head, he next endeavored to possess them. He shot one of them; the other flew away.

He now desired to possess the other bird; but it was with extreme difficulty that he could accomplish his object. Though the goose returned, it was so extremely shy that it could scarcely be approached. It was only by making use of many precautions, and resorting to some very curious stratagems, that Edward was able to capture the bird. A week elapsed before he could secure it. He shot it on Saturday, but he did not recover it until the following morning.

On another occasion a little stint (the least of the sandpipers) cost him two days and a night. It was the first bird of the kind he had ever seen — and it was the last. Though he was occasionally within a mile or two of Banff during the pursuit of the bird, and though he had not tasted food during the whole of his absence, lying during part of the night among the shingle on the sea-shore, yet he never once thought of leaving the chase until final success crowned his efforts. We must allow him to tell the story in his own words:

“I once had a desperate hunt after a little stint (Tringa minuta). Returning home one evening along the links, I heard a strange cry coming, as it seemed, from the shore. I listened for some time, as I knew it was the season (September) for many of our migratory species to visit us. Never having heard the bry before, I was speedily on the beach. But it was growing dark, and I had not cat’s eyes. The sound, too, ceased so soon as I had gained the beach. After groping about for some time, I thought I espied a rather large flock of birds at some distance along the shore. I approached cautiously, and found that I was correct; the flock consisting chiefly of ringed plovers, dunlins, and sanderlings. From the latter circumstance, and from the fact that the cry was that of a sandpiper, I was pretty sure that a stranger was among them. Although I could see well enough that the birds were on the wet sand between me and the water, I could not make them out distinctly. Once or twice I thought I could distinguish one considerably smaller than the others, but I soon felt that I had been mistaken. I was now in a state of great excitement. Every limb shook like an aspen-leaf, or a cock’s tail on a windy day. What was I to do? True, I might have fired at them, but the odds were greatly against my being successful.

“It was now fairly dark, and the birds had retired to rest on a ridge of rocks which intervenes between the sands and the links. Instead of returning home, as any one else would have done, I laid myself down in a hollow till morning, to wait their first appearance, in the hope of attaining my object. It proved a wet and windy night; but daylight brought with it a fine morning. With it also came two gunners from Banff, striding along the beach on a shooting excursion. This vexed me to the very heart. The birds were not yet astir, but I knew they would rise at the approach of the men, who would doubtless attempt to shoot them. Just as I anticipated, up went the birds; crack! crack! went the shots; and down fell several birds. Rising from my stony couch, I rushed at once to the spot to see the victims, and found them all to consist of sanderlings, dunlins, and one ringed plover. The gunners were strangers to me, but I ventured to ask them to abstain from firing until I had satisfied myself about the bird I sought; but they seemed unable to understand why one bird could be of more interest than another, and they told me that, as there were plenty of them, I could fire away and take my chance. I declined to shoot with them, but eagerly watched each time they fired; and if a bird fell, I went and examined it; but I did not meet with the one I sought. The men at last got tired and went away.

“It was now my turn; but, unhappily, the birds, from being so often fired at, had become extremely shy, so that. to get near them for my purpose was all but impossible. By perseverance, however, I at length made out one, as I thought, a good deal smaller than the others. I succeeded in creeping a little nearer. They rose; I fired, and down fell four. I rushed, breathless, hoping to pick up the bird in which I took such interest. But, alas! no. It was not there. Away went the remaining birds to the sea; then, turning, they rounded a point or headland called Blackpots, and disappeared from view. From this, and from their not returning, I knew that they had gone to the sands at White-hills, about three miles distant, to which place I proceeded. But no sooner had I reached there, than back they flew in the direction from which they had come. Back I went also, and found them at the old place.

Just as I reached them, away they flew once more, and, of course, away I went likewise. In this way we continued nearly the whole day—they flying to and fro, I following them. Toward evening my strength beginning to fail, and feeling quite exhausted, I gave up the chase, and once more took up my abode among the shingle, in the hope that they might again return there for the night. Just as I wished and expected, and while it was yet light, they came and alighted about thirty yards from where I lay. Away went fatigue, hunger, and thoughts of home ! In fact, the sight of this object of my day and night’s solicitude made me a new creature. Off went the messengers of death. Two of the birds fell; the rest fled once more to the sea. I followed, but had not proceeded far when I observed one falter. Leaving its companions, it bent its course toward where I stood, and suddenly dropped almost at my feet. As I picked up the little thing, I could not but feel thankful that my patience and perseverance had at last been crowned with success. It was the first little stint I had ever shot, and the only one I have ever seen in this neighborhood.”

In thus pursuing his researches, Edward lost much of his time, and, in proportion to his time, he also lost much of his wages. But his master used to assist him in making up his lost time. It was a common remark of his, “Give Tam the stuff for a pair of shoes at night, and if he has any of his cantrips in view, we are sure to have them in the morning ready for the customer.” Edward took the stuff home with him, and, instead of going to bed, worked at the shoes all night, until they were finished and ready for delivery. He had another advantage in making up for lost time. His part of the trade was of the lightest sort. He made light shoes and pumps. He was one of those who, among the craft, are denominated ready. He was thus able to accomplish much more than those who were engaged at heavier work. This, together with his practice of spending not a moment idly, was much in his favor.

He also contrived to preserve his specimens during his meal hours, or in his idle times “betwixt pairs” — while, as shoe-makers would say, they were “on the hing.” During the long winter nights he arranged the objects preserved, and put them in their proper cases. In order the better to accomplish this work, he did not go to bed until a very late hour. As he was not able to afford both fire and light, he put out the lamp when engaged upon any thing that could be done without it, and continued his labors by the light of the fire.

When forced to go to bed, he went at once, and, having slept at railway speed for an hour or an hour and a half, he was up again and at work upon his specimens. He felt as much refreshed, he said, by his sound sleep, as if he had slept the whole night. And yet during his sleep he must have had his mind fixed upon his work, otherwise he could not have wakened up at the precise time that he had previously appointed. Besides stuffing his own birds, he also stuffed the birds which other people had sent him, for which he was paid.

One of the objects which he had in view in making his “rounds” so frequently was to examine the traps he had set, in order to catch the beetles, grubs, and insects which he desired to collect. His traps were set with every imaginable organic material — dead birds, rats, rabbits, or hedgehogs; dead fish, crabs, or sea-weed. He placed them everywhere but on the public roads—in fields and woods, both on the ground and hung on trees; in holes, in old dikes; in water, both fresh and stagnant. Some of these traps were visited daily, others once a week, while those set in water, marshy places, and in woods, were only visited once a month. He never passed any dead animal without first searching it carefully, and then removing it to some sheltered spot. He afterward visited it from time to time. Fish stomachs, and the refuse of fishermen’s lines, proved a rich mine for marine objects. By these means he obtained many things which could not otherwise have been obtained; and he thus added many rare objects to his gradually growing collection.

He was, however, doomed to many disappointments. One of these may be mentioned. Among his different collections was a large variety of insects. He had these pinned down in boxes in the usual manner. He numbered them separately. When he had obtained the proper names of the insects, his intention was to prepare a catalogue. He knew that there were sheets of figures sold for that and similar purposes, but he could not afford to buy them. He accordingly got a lot of old almanacs and multiplication-tables, and cut out the numbers. It was a long and tedious process, but at length he completed it.

When the insects were fixed and numbered, Edward removed the cases into his garret preparatory to glazing them. He piled them one upon the other, with their faces downward, in order to keep out the dust. There were twenty boxes, containing in all nine hundred and sixteen insects. After obtaining the necessary glass, he went into the garret to fetch out the cases. On lifting up the first case, he found that it had been entirely stripped of its contents. He was perfectly horrified. He tried the others. They were all empty! They contained nothing but the pins which had held the insects, with here and there a head, a leg, or a wing. A more complete work of destruction had never been witnessed. It had probably been perpetrated by rats or mice.

His wife, on seeing the empty cases, asked him what he was to do next. “Weal,” said he, “it’s an awfu' disappointment; but I think the best thing will be to set to work and fill them up again.” To accumulate these nine hundred and sixteen insects had cost him four years’ labor! And they had all been destroyed in a few days, perhaps in a single night!

It will be remembered that Audubon had once a similar disappointment, On leaving Henderson, in Kentucky, where he then lived, he left his drawings, representing nearly a thousand inhabitants of the air, in the custody of a friend. On returning a few months later, and opening his box, he found that a pair of Norway rats had taken possession of the whole, and gnawed up the drawings into little bits of paper. Audubon did what Edward now determined to do. He went out into the woods with his gun, his note-book, and pencils, and in the course of about three years he again filled his port-folio.

Edward duly carried out his purpose. He went moth-hunting as before; he hunted the moors and the woods, the old buildings and the grave-yards, until, in about four more years, he had made another collection of insects; although there were several specimens contained in the former collection that he could never again meet with.

Edward had now been observing and collecting for about eight years. His accumulations of natural objects had therefore become considerable. By the year 1845, he had preserved nearly two thousand specimens of living creatures found in the neighborhood of Banff. About half the number consisted of quadrupeds, birds, reptiles, fishes, Crustacea, star-fish, zoophytes, corals, sponges, and other objects. He had also collected an immense number of plants. Some of the specimens were in bottles, but the greater number were in cases with glass fronts. He could not afford to have the cases made by a joiner; so he made the whole of them himself, with the aid of his shoe-maker’s knife, a saw, and a hammer.

In order to make the smaller cases, he bought boxes from the merchants; and in breaking them up, he usually got as many nails as would serve to nail the new cases together. To make the larger cases, he bought wood from the carpenters. He papered the insides, painted the outsides, and glazed the whole of the cases himself. The thirty cases containing his shells were partitioned off, each species having a compartment for itself. This was a difficult piece of work, but he got through it successfully. There were about three hundred cases in all.

His house was now filled with stuffed birds, quadrupeds, insects, and such-like objects. Every room was packed with the cases containing them, his shoe-making apartment included. What was he to do with them? He had, indeed, long had a project in his mind. In the first place, he wished to abandon the shoe-making trade. he was desirous of raising money for the purpose of commencing some other business. He also wished to have some funds in hand, in order to prosecute his investigations in natural history. How could he raise the requisite money? He thought that he might raise a part of it by exhibiting his collection. Hence his large accumulation of specimens, and his large collection of cases.

There was a feeing fair held twice a year at Banff, on market-days, called Brandon Fair. Young lads and lasses came in from the country to be feed, and farmers and their wives came in to fee them. It was a great day for Banff. All the shows and wild beasts, the dwarfs and giants, the spotted ladies and pig-faced women, accompanied by drums and trumpets, converged upon Banff on that day. The town, ordinarily so quiet, became filled with people—partly to hire and be hired, and partly to see what was to be seen. The principal streets were kept in a continual rowT until the fair was over.

Edward gave an exhibition of his collection at the Brandon Fair in May, 1845. he took a room in the Trades’ Hall, and invited the public to inspect his “Collection of Preserved Animals, comprising Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes, Insects, Shells, Eggs, and other Curiosities.”

The local paper called the public attention to the rare and beautiful objects contained in Edward’s Collection —"the results of his own untiring efforts and ingenuity, without aid, and under discouraging circumstances which few would have successfully encountered Our young friends especially should visit the collection: it will both amuse and instruct them. They will learn more from seeing them in half an hour than from reading about them in half a year.”

Edward took the inhabitants by surprise. They had never been able to understand him. His wanderings by night had been matter of great wonderment to them. The exhibition fully explained the reason of his frequent disappearances. When his public announcement was advertised, some of the better classes called at his house in Wright’s Close, to ascertain if it was true. True, indeed! He pointed to the cases of stuffed birds and animals which nearly filled his house. Then the question came, “What made you a naturalist?”

“When I was first asked this question,” says he, “I was completely dumfoundered! I had no notion that a naturalist could be made. What! make a naturalist, as you would make a tradesman! I could not believe that people became naturalists for pecuniary motives. My answer to those who put the question invariably was, and still is, I can not tell. I never knew of any external circumstance that had any thing to do with engendering in my mind the never-ceasing love which I entertained for the universal works of the Almighty; so that the real cause must be looked for elsewhere.”

In preparing for the exhibition of his collection, Edward brushed up his specimens and cleaned his cases, before removing them to the Trades’ Hall. But in looking over his collection, he found that he had sustained another serious loss. He regarded it at the time as a heart-rending catastrophe. Some time before, he had put nearly two thousand dried and preserved plants into a box, which he had placed at the top of the stair, in order to be out of harm’s way. The plants were all dried and preserved. They were the result of eight years’ labor employed in collecting them. But when he went to overhaul the box, he found that the lid had been shoved to one side, and that numerous cats had entered it and made it their lair. The plants were completely soaked, and rendered utterly worthless. The box smelled so abominably that he was under the necessity of making a bonfire of it in the back-yard.

All this was exceedingly disheartening. Nevertheless, he removed his remaining collection to the place appointed for exhibiting it. He had no allurements, no music, no drums nor trumpets, as the other show-people had. His exhibition was held in an upper room, so that the sight-seers had to mount a long stair before they could see the collection. Nevertheless, many persons went to see it; and the result was, that Edward not only paid his expenses, but had something laid by for future purposes.

He went on collecting for another exhibition, and increased his specimens. He replaced, to a certain extent, the plants which had been destroyed by the recklessness of the cats. He obtained some wonderful fishes and sea-birds. His collection of eggs was greatly increased. He now prepared for a second exhibition at the Brandon Fair, 1846. On that occasion he was able to exhibit many old coins and ancient relics.

This exhibition was more attractive and more successful than the first. It yielded a better remuneration; but, what was more satisfactory, Edward was much complimented by those who had inspected his collection. It excited general applause. In short, it was considered by Edward himself to be so successful as to induce him to remove the collection to Aberdeen, for exhibition in that important city.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus