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Reminiscences of the Lews
Chapter VI - Our Firm and the Whales

R. M. was also a first-rate sportsman at everything, and one of the very best men I ever saw in my life to face a rough country with a dog and get stuff out of it. He was, in his day, one of the best hill-walkers I ever knew; indeed, too good, for he was always walking at his dogs, his gillies, and any unfortunate man that went out shooting with him. He was a capital stalker, for he had the eye of a hawk and the bump of locality; but, being of a very excitable nature, he was not as cool as he might be when he came to shoot. He was always sighting and trying his rifle, and the white spots on the rocks and hills about were plastered with the lead of his trial bullets, showing the accuracy with which bull’s-eyes could be made. Once, indeed, a memorable and most provoking instance occurred of this mania of sighting. They had been collecting sheep in Harris for the Falkirk fair, the Harris Hills not being then, as they are now, clear of sheep; and consequently the Aline Hills, Lewis, and Carneval, were full of deer, huddled together like driven sheep. To stalk them was out of the question, and therefore R. M. was placed in a pass while the forester and the gillies went round to manoeuvre the deer to him. This they were doing well, while R. M. was amusing himself with surveying the prospect, and now and then sighting an innocent white lamb that was watching its mamma feeding. On came the deer, and they were all but within shot when our friend took a last sight at his pet lamb, forgetting that he had not uncocked his rifle; bang went both his barrels, bah-ah went the poor little innocent, pierced with both bullets, and back went the deer.

So amusing, and at the same time so thoroughly annoying, was the incident, that the Aline farming tenant, old Mr. Stewart, who had been a keen stalker in his day, never would hear of any payment for the lamb, saying that it was bad enough to lose such chances at the deer without having to pay for the lamb. The occurrence, however, had its annoyances. It got wind, and was, some years afterwards, the cause of considerable legal and uselessly ludicrous inquiry. A red (Lewisian for chestnut) horse was found dead in a peat-hole somewhere under Stachshal Hill, on the Soval ground. R. M. and I had been stalking there, and upon it found a good stag, which he unaccountably missed with both barrels. The dead horse being also found, as I said, in this locality, the lamb story was revived, and our friend, after he had left the island, got the credit of having potted the horse. Of course, the story grew into a good one, and I was one of the last to hear it; but when all but legal proceedings were about being instituted, I was enabled to say that I had watched the latter part of the stalk with my "prospect," the ground being too ticklish for more than the stalker; that I had seen both the stag and the red horse, who were in opposite directions; and that unless bullets, without a ricochet, flew backwards, neither of the two could have touched the horse. This sufficed for the legal question, but to this day the Lews gives R. M. the credit of missing the stag and killing the horse. However, notwithstanding all these little misadventures, few men would have beaten him as a stalker, for he was not to be .tired or turned by difficulties; and as he grew older, and more up to his work,, he became steadier, and was no mere poodle dog at his stalker’s heel, as many of your fanaticos are.

Ah, me! the day—I remember it well—when we started early from Soval, and stalked away right past the Barvas Hills, on to near the Glen House on the Barvas Road, and round by Rosheval and the mouth of Glen Bhragair to my bothy at Diensten, killing a fine royal, whose head I am looking at now; and then, because we had left another stag somewhere near the glen’s mouth, stalked the same ground the next day back again home, blank—a fine walk indeed, and we shall never do the like again. The home is gone, and more—all that made it then what it was! And poor Bob, as we called R. M., and I are now two old cripples, that can only live on the memory of those bygone happy days. But enough of this sad theme.

R. M. was a very good fisherman, and threw as long, as straight, and as light a line as anyone; but then he was always admiring his throwing, and casting too much line—the greatest mistake a man can ever make—more than he or anybody could ever command. There were few streams he could not cover. He had also a very pretty notion of dressing a good fly —a great qualification in a fisherman; not that I am a believer in dressing flies by the riverside after the pattern on the water, at least for salmon or sea-trout fishing. Lastly, R. M. was a capital game shot, and therefore his dogs, when he had patience to give them time, were very good.

I suppose I must say something about myself, but it won’t be much. The reader will, by this time, have found out that I am passionately fond of dogs, and not averse to sport of any kind; but, though shooting from childhood almost, not being early accustomed to good shooting, I never learnt to shoot. I was never quick, almost always most uncertain, and never could ascertain why, from youth till now, I remained decidedly a most indifferent shot, though I might be able to hit a haystack flying. I was and am passionately fond of fishing, and have killed a great number of fish in my life; but I never could throw—and never, I presume, shall be able to throw—a line as it ought to be thrown. I threw from the shoulder, not the wrist. I could kill a fish when I got hold of him—that I could do; and I never tired of fishing as long as fish were worth catching. The moment they get red and full of spawn, their heads big, and long snouts—bah ! I don’t care for them. I attempted dressing flies, and produced anomalous things—certainly not ephemera—though, strange to say, I once fastened a bundle of something on a hook that killed fifteen fish—kelts, mind you; but what won’t they take? I did love stalking, indeed. I began well with a single rifle, was not the least excited, killed four out of five of the chances I had, and impertinently wondered how any living soul could miss a stag broadside on at, say, eighty to a hundred yards; and so, fired with ambition, I took to a double rifle—a wonderful weapon, made, at F. M’s suggestion, by Askey, of Bedale—with which I broke so many bottles at long distance, that the said F. M. would stand no more. Had we had cups then at Aline I should have won them all. I made an example of cormorants and herons, even of gulls; but when it came to deer—oh ! F. M.’s bottle imp sat across my sight, and no longer was my ear gratified with the dead thud of success, but grated by the ringing crash of some rock either over or under him. The fact was, I was afflicted with the stalking fever, and when I came to shoot I was like Gil Bias when, in the encounter between the robbers and Don Alvar and his suite, he shut his eyes and fired his carbine anywhere.

Such was our firm, and three good men and true were we. We were all sitting together one of those fine days when there is nothing to be done but admire the prospect—if the midges will let you—with just mist enough on the hills to prevent stalking, no breeze for fishing, and grouse too small to shoot, when our notice was attracted by several boats appearing at the mouth of Loch Seaforth. Out went the prospects, and M'Aulay was summoned; after a long look through his glass, he remarked, shutting it up, with emphasis, and with that look of pleasure and determination which gleams in his eye when he sees a good royal:— “It’s just the whalls.” An electric shock seemed to pass through the whole party, and in less than no time every craft in the establishment was manned, and everybody seized every conceivable weapon of offence, and hurried into the boats. The whale boat, our own particular conveyance across Loch Seaforth, was manned by the best crew, under the special guidance of M‘Aulay, who hoisted his flag on board of it, and then took command of the whole squadron, to watch the movements. The whales had been descried off West Tarbert Loch, in Harris, when all the inhabitants got into their boats, and, following them, “put them ” as it is termed, “into Loch Seaforth ”

The reader is not to imagine that the whales I am describing are the great whales. They are what are called the “bottle-noses,” from twelve feet to twenty feet long, and they consort together and go in shoals—for what purpose I don’t pretend to say, nor am I sufficiently read in natural history to say what their birth, parentage, or education may be. But they every now and then make a voyage of discovery to the Hebrides. When they come they produce great excitement, and their capture is a great object to the inhabitants, as each bottle-nose contains within itself a certain portion of very good oil. The method of capture adopted is, by following and flanking them at a very respectful distance, to get them into some sea loch, at the head of which lies some shoaling ground. An indented rock-bound loch is of no use. Having thus induced them to enter such a loch, you follow them up in the same manner, slowly and distantly, cautiously outflanking, but never pressing or disturbing them. Thus, as it were, left to themselves, they gradually advance up the loch, following their leader; and, if the tide and shoal and all be propitious, he will of his own accord take the shoal water, even sometimes beach himself on the sandy spit, when the whole band will follow him like a flock of sheep, and strand themselves. But, if you press them too hard, they will be apt to turn short round and make for sea again.

Now, Loch Seaforth is admirably adapted for a whale-hunt. The loch runs up from the Minch straight to Seaforth Island, about six or seven miles, pretty well iron-bound on both sides. At Seaforth Island, which is nearly opposite Aline, the lock turns almost at right angles, and runs by Aribhruich, where are some sharp rapids, up to Skipnaclet, its head. Here, or on the shoals above—the Aribhruich Narrows, as they are called—is the best place for stranding the bottle-noses. We, therefore, in our boat division, hugged the shore by Aline, so that, if they liked, they might take the sand and shingle between Aline and Harris, at the mouth of the Glenviedale river. Bottle-noses preferred passing up to Aribhruich, and seeing as much as they could before landing. When they had well passed, and when the other squadrons of boats hove within communicating distance, as soon as ever it was ascertained what squadron ours was, and that Murdoch McAulay was our skipper, the command of the whole fleet was by universal acclamation conferred on him.

The whales passed round the island without hesitation, and pursued their way upwards, our boats following slowly. There was little delay or stoppage till we came to the Narrows. There the whales paused, and did not much seem to relish the idea of putting their noses to the steam. We, of course, rested on our oars, awaiting their determination, and there we waited all night.

Towards dawn, as it was low water then, and it was quite clear that the whales were waiting for water, or something before proceeding higher—once past the Narrows, they were ours —and that could not come for some time, we, who had started shortly after our breakfasts without any luncheon, were getting hungry; so we rowed back to Aline to soothe our very clamorous stomachs, and, that done, returned without delay.

During our absence a reinforcement had joined our fleet, and a curious, and, as it turned out, a most unfortunate one it was. It was in the shape of one of the dirtiest, crankiest tubs of a boat, with the roundness, not the steadiness, of what was called at Westminster, in my day, "a punch-bowl,” and as little hold in the water as a skiff. How it got round from Tarbert-in-Harris, whence it was said to come,

I cannot imagine. The crew consisted of three of the ugliest, noisiest, most ill-conditioned-looking viragoes of women I ever looked upon. No one knew, or, if they did know, would own them. There they were, perched up in their boat, like so many witches, barring their broomsticks. One of them sat upon a turf creel in the bows, knitting for her bare life. What Hebridean female, be she witch or not, does not, under every circumstance and every occupation, knit as if her bare life depended upon that exertion ? Their voices set your teeth on edge, and their laughter made you try and stop your ears. It was evident they were bent on mischief, and that to maintain discipline with these three Gorgons was impossible ; and so it turned out. The tide was now making fast. The rocks over which the rapids had been foaming were disappearing. We could see the leaders of the band of the bottle-noses moving about, and gradually feeling their way as to taking the Narrows. Half-an-hour’s patience now, and our troubles would be repaid, and this band, like the last that had visited Loch Seaforth a few years before, would be ours; when, just at this critical moment, this triumvirate of demons, deaf to all entreaties, to offers of bribes innumerable, to threats (for it was proposed to fire across their bows to bring them to)—these demons, with an indescribable yell, broke loose, and being on the outside, but nearest, flank to the whales, rushed their boat at the Narrows with the incoming tide. Deep were our imprecations, for in a second the whales turned, and the game was up. I have seen a fox headed back into a small gorse in the middle of a fine grass country, with not a bush to shelter him for six miles, by a jealous tailor, and have, with a good many others, had feelings far beyond manslaughter ; but I have often wondered since how those three female fiends escaped. Fortunately for them, however, so great was the confusion that followed their memorable exploit, that they got off unpunished, and were, I understand, never heard of more.

The moment the whales turned it was all over, unless they could be met and turned again at Seaforth Island. The whole fleet, with the exception of our boat, started at once for the island, with that object. Our admiral kept his position, and waited to see what the whales would really do, and, on their apparently remaining quiescent, we approached nearer. All at once he called out “Steady!” Ahead of us the loch seemed to seethe like boiling milk; and, as again MfAulay roared out, “They’re coming! ” and faced our boat hard at them, they came indeed, and for some seconds—I do not know how long—our boat stood on whales. We all looked at one another, and thought of those on shore; but it soon passed, and, to our infinite delight, we found our boat floating again. But it was touch and go. One crack of one whale’s tail would have smashed our boat, and landing on the whales would not have been very pleasant. There was nothing to be ‘done now but to join in the chase. We could not succeed in turning or making any hand of the band, and they made good their retreat to sea again. A good many shots were fired, and apparently a good many whales received rifle-bullets, which drew blood; but they sank, and I do not think that eventually more than three or four carcasses were recovered.

We all returned home, tired and disgusted; and we certainly did not lay our heads on our pillows with those feelings of Christian charity towards the three women that ought to fill the hearts of sinners.

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