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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter IV - The Harris Lochs and a word about Dog rearing

I WAS disappointed with the first winter I spent in the Lews. I had expected to see many wild things there, but noticed few. Of eagles, gulls, hawks, ravens, and crows, there were plenty, and some martin cats; but I had expected numbers of wild-fowl, in which I was mistaken. There were ducks and teal, occasionally wild geese (these last breed in the island). I have heard of wild swans, which are occasionally shot, but never saw one. From the lochs, on which the wild fowl are, being very open, they are hard to be got at. Snipes and plover breed in the country, but generally leave it towards the middle or end of October. Some remained, and many came over from other parts to those more northern and western. Golden plover breed largely there, and abounded on the north and west; but, though a famous bird to eat, I never saw much pleasure in that sort of shooting. Woodcocks generally do not arrive in flights till the first or second week in November, though I have shot them early in October. Strange to say, though they breed largely on the adjacent mainland, I never knew an instance of their breeding in the Lews. As there is no wood in it, all the woodcock shooting is on heather. Particularly good dogs are wanted to find them; and both you and your dogs must have a very accurate knowledge of ^ where to look for them. A really good woodcock dog ought never to forget any spot in which he has ever found a woodcock. Certainly, the first year of my sojourn I found very few; but then, perhaps, I did not know where to look for them.

Some parts of the Park had a great reputation, and justly so, for cocks; but then there was Loch Seaforth to get over, and the winter days were short, and not so serene as one would have wished. I got through this first dreary winter, as I said, very much disappointed, for I never was in any place where there was so little to shoot or to do, and the weather was so vile, that once I remember being all but confined to the house for three weeks; but I solaced myself with the idea (a fond one) of spring fishing—alas! it was but an idea, for there was no spring fishing to be got—unless you call catching kelts and foul sea-trout fishing: I don’t. The streams held brownies, or brown trout, doubtless; but when you did get them, they were not worth carrying home; and I formed then the opinion that I have ever since adhered to, that, except in the Grimesta, there is no such thing as spring fishing in the Lews. And I do not think the fish come into Loch Seaforth before the middle or latter end of July, if so early.

As the summer drew nigh, F. M. and his family, and R. M. came up, and the former brought with him a little yacht, schooner-rigged, which we flattered ourselves was to be of the greatest service in taking us round into the different sea-lochs in the country for fishing, shooting, and stalking purposes. The Heather Bell was that little craft named; and never were men so deceived as we were in her useful capabilities. She had a skipper who was a tolerable carpenter; also an able-bodied seaman, as he styled himself, and we called him “John of the Yacht”—the most arrant poacher that ever stepped: he used to shoot deer with slugs on his way home and back Saturday evening and Monday morning, to pass his Sabbath. The gillies and our forester occasionally served as crew, and but for the latter, the sole serviceable seaman of the lot, I believe we should have come to grief. With no wind that blew could this useful vessel get out of our loch, and if she ever did get out, she never came back again for months. F. M. once took his wife a cruise in her, and, coming back, was glad to land on a rock in the middle of the loch, where he would have been now, but that, fortunately, R. M. and I were shooting in the neighbourhood, and our boat was drawn up on the shore, with a gillie in charge, who descrying the party, relieved them from their position and took them home. After this event, F. M. only embarked his own precious person in this sylph of the waves. Did he attempt taking her anywhere stalking, the odds were he had to land where best he could, and make his way across country to his ground. She looked pretty from the windows of the house, and that was all the use she ever was to F. M., who, after keeping her for two seasons, sold her for less money than he paid for the cables he furnished her with. She never was of any use to any one but the skipper and “John of the Yacht,” who both saved money enough out of their wages during the time she was in service to take them out to Australia, where they did well. One lesson I learnt from her, and that was, that no yacht is of the least use in those parts that is not a steamer; then one is most useful. Indeed, if I had the world to begin over again, and had a shooting in one of those far-off regions, I should never bother myself with a land establishment, but make my ship my home, keeping my dogs on shore.

I remained three seasons at Aline, passing my time most pleasantly; but certainly, at that time, though there was ground,, there was not game enough for three guns. The ground got up slowly to be what it was when F. M. performed his great feat of killing one hundred brace of grouse to his own gun in one day. It was not all at once that the improvements made began to tell. There was then neither road nor path across the Park, and really the stiff walks across the hills there, either for fishing or shooting purposes—for each day’s sport there necessitated an expedition entailing crossing Loch Seaforth—were not repaid by the sport obtained. F. M. had not then made a good walking-path for nearly four miles up to Benmore, which greatly facilitated operations there; neither had he so increased the size of the house at Aline, and so improved it in every way, that it became a much more comfortable residence.

At that time, too, if ever man was insane on the subject of fishing, I was, and Aline did not afford me the salmon fishing I pined for; therefore, in 1852, I took Soval for myself, because it then possessed two salmon rivers. I did not, however, remove there till 1853, and I have often wondered how my legs carried me through that same year, 1852.

One of these two salmon rivers, the Laxay, was about twelve miles off; but I did not much care for it, as, till doctored by me afterwards with artificial spates, it was little worth. The other river, the Blackwater, was distant, I should say, fifteen miles good—seven along the road, and then eight across the muir—perhaps more, a strong walk, with a ford or two to cross, that in good fishing weather was not low. I used to start early and walk to it, fish all day, and go on to sleep at the Callernish Inn, three miles off, and reverse this home the next day. Then, also, I stretched my legs, in order that they might not stiffen, backwards and forwards, between our place and the Harris lochs, that were some seven or eight miles off—a stiff walk, btit it was worth it; for what lochs they were ! Loch Scoost, with its high peak above you, that yon almost feared to walk under lest it should fall and crush you ; Loch Yosimit, with its rocks and little islands, the grandest loch I ever threw line in; and Loch Ulavat, with its overlapping eagle’s cliff and cavern; and all three with such awful squalls that you had hard work to hold on, particularly if standing on a rock up to your knees in water, fighting a salmon, or two big sea-trout on at the same time.

Oh, the happy, glorious days I passed in that fairyland of fishing among the Harris lochs! No wonder the legs have felt and suffered for it, and are stiff and feeble now, and call out, “Hold! enough,” as I stumble, and blunder, and potter over fallows and stubbles. But the dog has had his day, and, if he is used up, you cannot take his day back from him, and he will still whine and dream over it—ay, and more than that, if I visit those parts again, which I hope to do, I’ll put a charge on the old legs, and they shall carry me, God willing, another season yet into those fine glens.

A curious thing happened on one of those long walks. I was returning from Loch Yosimit, where I had been fishing one very hot day, and narrowly escaped drowning, the boat I was in choosing to fill with water and topple over; and no wonder, as her seams had been opened by the sun. Fortunately, she chose the immediate vicinity of a little island for this exploit, so my gillie and I scrambled on to it, none the worse, and not even wetting our luncheon, which we discussed on it, and then sorted our boat, which held water better after submersion. I was returning home, when I lost my prospect (Scotch name for telescope) —without which I never stirred—out of its case. I retraced my steps, but it was past our finding. I was sore vexed, for it had been my father’s, and was knocked out of his hand at ^the Battle of Bylau by the bursting of a shell, which killed his horse, but did no further damage to him than a slight scratch on the nose. I tried every means of recovering it in vain. At last it was found, nearly two years after, by one of Burnaby’s sappers—strange to say, none the worse after cleaning, though it had been out in the open, caseless, for two winters; and I have it still, and a very good clear glass it remains.

When in these diggings I learnt, or rather perfected, a lesson on dogs and their ways, that I had studied a good deal before; and I shall say a little about that lesson here, more particularly as public attention has lately been called to it in the Field by the discussion between W. O. and “Idstone,” as to the point of—in broad terms—breaking dogs to what they are wanted for. I have always held W. C.’s opinion. If you want a grouse dog, break him on grouse; a partridge dog, on partridges ; a snipe dog, on snipe; but I think you want more than this. You must break a dog according to the country you shoot in, for here what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.

For the first year or two that I was at Aline, F. M.—than whom no better sportsman and shot at everything exists in Europe—used the same team of dogs he had brought from the south. They were an excellent lot of pointers, very well bred, very handsome, and perfectly broken. I had shot over them on the Yorkshire moors, and in the border counties of Scotland, and they were perfection. In the Lews the whole lot were not worth five shillings. They quartered their ground in the most scientific manner; but they might have quartered it to all eternity and done no good. Their range was not high enough; they were not wild enough for ground on which there was then but little to find, and the poor animals gave up the thing in despair. F. M. soon found out this, saw it would not do, sent his pointers back to England, where they were as good as ever, and took to setters and a different style of breaking. I did the same, though I always kept one or two of my old pointer blood. It was poor “old Tom’s” first season then, and he was early trained to gallop hard and range wide for his game, which I think the pointer w~ith a cross of foxhound in his blood will do better, more judgmatically,—ay, and longer,—than any setter I ever saw. I then, for the remaining time I spent in that country, took special care not to break my dogs there as I would for English, or Perthshire, Aberdeenshire, or other lower Scotch moor ground; in fact, not to overbreak them. Obedience, of course; perfect stanchness, backing, down-charging; but I left their range alone. With dogs that have to gallop miles, perhaps, before they come on grouse—which in that country are most migratory in their habits —if you kept drawing your parallel lines you would make very small progress indeed. Therefore, when I saw my dogs, on whom I could perfectly rely, making their casts, I never played on the flageolet to them, but let them make it, and well was I repaid for the confidence placed in them. True, you could not let the grass grow under your feet; but they stood for ever, you got to them at last, and birds generally lie well in those northern regions. R. M., who shot with me my last season of the Lews, as he did the first, and who knows a dog as well as most men, did not like their desperate range at first, and exclaimed, “Where are they going to?” But he came to, and owned it was the proper breaking for those parts.

I remember well, one fine evening, poor old “Whack/3 a pointer, was let off, and he took one of those sweeps that no dog I ever saw could surpass. The beat was a large flat, running down to a loch, round by its side to a river, along its banks, and then up to the higher grounds above it. I had taken up a position where I could watch his movements. He scoured the plain, tried the lake sides, down by the river to the pools, and swept by me up the glen to the hill tops. I should be afraid to say what was the distance Whack traversed in that wonderful cast, but it was miles. Back came the old dog down the glen to me. “ Got them at last, master, but I have had a hard gallop for it. Let me fetch my wind—a sup of water—and now come along, and we’ll have a good evening’s sport.’3 And so we had. The good old dog had at last found the line of birds —the flat at the head of the burn—he took us to them, and we were well rewarded. Now, with ordinary ranging dogs this never could have been done; yet this very same Whack, the first time I took him out in a civilised country, in Yorkshire, where there were clouds of unapproachable grouse in a small compass, was useless. In about half an hour he came to me, and said, “ I’m no use here; I don’t understand this, and if you please I’ll keep at heel.” And so he did; and when at last, by a fluke, I or some one else killed a grouse, he retrieved it, for he is a perfect retriever of winged game. After laying it carefully at my feet, and turning it over and over in every direction, and smelling it, he looked up and said, “I believe it is a gronse, but it is not like ours.” The next day he trotted before me like a turnspit, and became used to the ways of those parts; but I do not think we either of us very much cared for them. I am convinced from all I have seen—and I have watched dog-breaking very carefully since I was a boy of fifteen, both in Great Britain and Ireland, and abroad—that W. 0. is right, and that you should break your dogs according to your game and your country. Your in-ground, your well-stocked moor, or partridge ground, will produce a more perfect machine ; but it is your wild, not overstocked country, that forms the beau ideal of what the setter or pointer should be—speed, nose, pluck, and energy, combined with perfect stanchness, and that wonderful instinct or reasoning faculty which the dog possesses.

For developing these qualities I know no country like the Lews; and as I sit and look at Whack, and call back to memory our last evening on its hills together, poor Morris’s old song haunts me. It runs, I believe,—

“And when the lesson strikes my head,
My weary heart grows cold.”

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