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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LV

Spring—Hood's Parody of Thomson's Invocation—The excellence of Nettle-Top Soup— Cock-crowing — Birds'-nesting — Professor Geikie — Curious Story of an old Pipe-Tune.

This is the 1st of May [1877], sacred, in the ecclesiastical calendar to St. Philip and St. James the Apostles. In ordinary speech we may now call it summer, we suppose, and it is to he hoped that it may prove summer indeed, not in name merely, or astronomically, but veritably, that is, meteorologically as well; such a summer as delighted our boyhood with its bright sun and cloudless skies, or with such clouds only as served to modify and temper a brilliancy and heat that might otherwise have been excessive; the earth verdant and flower-bespangled under foot and around, the very floods and trees of the forest, in the grand hyperbole of Scripture, "clapping their hands for joy:" the singing of birds the while, jubilant and joyous, in copse and wild-wood, its fitting bass, the murmur of innumerable bees ; while the fluttering of splendidly coloured butterflies, as they danced along in many a lawless zig-zag and merry-go-round, constantly verified and bore witness to the beauty of the Roman poet's famous line, which may be rendered—

"Lo! fluttering past, flowers swimming in liquid air!"

However the summer may turn out, of the spring at least but little good—speaking of course meteorologically—can be said. It was, quoad hoc, an imposture, and nothing else, and always reminding us of Hood's wicked parody on the opening lines of Thomson's hig and bow-wow invocation to the season:—

"'Come, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness, come!'
0, Thomson, void of sense as well as reason;
Why in our ears such arrant nonsense drum?
There's no such season!"

To housewives in rural districts we offer a "wrinkle " that may be found of use at the present season, when most vegetable gardens may be ransacked in vain for delicacies that shall be common enough at a later period. While rambling through the district a few days ago, we chanced to drop in upon a widow lady and daughter, who occupy a nice little cottage. They were going to sit down to an early dinner, and although we were not very hungry, and could have fasted till a later hour, not merely without inconvenience, but from choice, yet on their earnest invitation we sat down along with them. The fare consisted of soup and a boiled fowl, the latter fat, tender, and good as a fowl should always be, and the soup was simply delicious. A green vegetable of some kind floating thickly in it, gave it a relish and gout that was very remarkable, and we asked what it was. "Nettle-tops, sir," was the answer, and had we not been told, it is probable that we should have guessed and blundered long ere we could hit upon it. But not only can nettle-tops be thus utilised as an admirable condiment in soup at this season, but they may also be served up asparagus-wise, and, to our taste, are every whit as good. In this latter form we have eaten them often, and, as Johnson said, after swallowing several platefuls of Scotch broth, in reply to Boswell's observation— "You never ate it before?" "No, sir, but I don't care how soon I eat it again." And so say we invariably when we have finished a dish of nettle-top asparagus. After our nettle-top soup it occurred to us that there might be more truth in Goldsmith's remark about the French than he was perhaps aware of, for he meant it as satire, that they can roast a sirloin if they only had beef, and prepare "ten different dishes from nettle-tops."

We had occasion to be up and about very early this morning, not, however, for the purpose of washing our face in May dew, although the morning was very beautiful, and the dew lay plentiful enough and pearl-like on grass and birchen bough, but in order to go on what some may think an even sillier errand, to wit, a birds'-nesting. For this sort of thing the earlier the hour the better at this season, and as we mounted the coppiced slopes which we proposed searching, the sun was beginning to gild the loftiest peaks of Glencoe with purple and amber and gold, and all the cocks in the hamlet, as if at a preconcerted signal, were cheerily greeting the rising god, or if their thoughts were more mundane and prosaic, as perhaps they were, you may interpret the crowing of each individual chanticleer as some one else did before you in some such lines as these—

"The cock rose in the morning;
He called his favourite hen,
With a cockle-do-doo, and a how-d'ye-do,
And how-d'ye-do again."

In the economy of birds, the most important labours are those of nest-building and incubation; and owing to the wintriness of the spring, we were quite prepared this morning to find matters in a decidedly backward state throughout the length and breadth of bird-land, wherever we might wander. We were not, however, prepared to find things in anything like the sad plight in which we actually found them; for in no district of the remotest Highlands, we venture to say, are the agricultural labours proper to man at this season so backward as are their own proper labours this year amongst our native wild-birds. Usually at this date nine-tenths of our birds have already completed the labours of nidification, and with some species even incubation is far advanced, if not actually completed. The results of our morning's ornithological ramble may he very briefly stated. Of thirteen nests discovered, four only contained eggs, and even of these four only one had its proper complement, that of a song-thrush, namely, which contained five bonny blue eggs, spotted with black at the larger end, a number rarely, if ever, exceeded. In a merle or blackbird's nest there were only two eggs, instead of the usual complement of four or five. A chaffinch's nest had only one egg, whereas four is the proper number; while in the nest of a greenfinch, there was also only one egg instead of five, and that one, from certain signs known only to the initiated, we decided had only been laid yesterday, or even early this morning—perhaps shortly before our visit. Of the remaining nests, a few were fairly completed, and ready for their egg treasures at any time, but the greater number were only partially finished, and in their unfinished state had suffered so much from sleet and wind and rain, that we much doubt if their builders will have anything more to do with them, for it is a curious fact, that with such rare exceptions as only serve to accentuate and emphasise the rule, all birds prefer building a new nest from the very foundation to occupying an old one, or making the slightest repairs on one that has met with any serious injury. And this, too, you will please observe—a bird never improves in his architecture and never declines. He builds to-day neither better nor worse than did his ancestors a thousand or five thousand years ago. The sense or instinct that taught him to build of certain materials and of a certain form, long before Homer was born or Troy was besieged, is the same sense or instinct still. Nothing added; nothing subtracted. From all we have seen, we should say that the annual addition to bird life in our country will be considerably smaller than the average. Even first broods will be so Late that second hatching is out of the question. Bird-song, however, will last longer into the summer, and begin again earlier in autumn than in ordinary seasons.

On a dull day last week we were routed out of our study hy a visit from Professor Geikie, who, accompanied hy some half-dozen others, was geologising in the districts of Appin and Lochaher. In such a place as this, it was impossible but that they should find much to interest them geologically and otherwise; and we were glad to hear them all say that they were much delighted with their wanderings. An occasional invasion of this kind, sometimes, too, when you least expect it, never fails to do one good. It makes you, nolens volens, shake yourself clear, as best you may, of the accumulated cobwebs of months, and you return to your ordinary work not a little invigorated and refreshed by having had an opportunity of comparing notes, rubbing shoulders, and even crossing blades—in all friendship of course—with foemen worthy of your steel.

A lady correspondent writes us from London as follows:—"I was much pleased with your reference to the old pipe tune. The music I have long known, but the origin and history of the piece was unknown to me, nor had I ever heard any of the words attached to it. I agree with you that all such scraps of information should be collected and preserved, adding so largely as they do to the interest with which we Highlanders must always regard our national melodies. I need not, of course, ask you if you know the very fine pipe tune 'Macrimmon's Lament,' Cha till mi tuilleadh. "When I was a girl in the Hebrides—I am afraid to say how many years ago—I often heard the following story associated with this tune. In the island of Mull there is a large cave which in popular belief reaches right across the island from the east shore to the west. This cave, in the old times, was inhabited, so ran the tradition, by a colony of wolves and other wild animals. No man in consequence had ever the courage to explore its dark labyrinthine windings. At a wedding party assembled in a hamlet in the neighbourhood of the cave, its vastness and many dangers became the subject of conversation. All agreed that no human being could possibly pass through it and live. The piper of the district was a very brave man as well as an admirable piper, and in an evil hour for himself, as it proved, he offered for some slight wager to traverse the cave from side to side of the island, with a pine torch stuck in the front of his bonnet to give him light, and playing the pipes all the time. The piper thereupon entered the cave, playing a lively march, while most of the wedding guests followed above, led in the proper coarse by the music, which could be heard faintly from below. More than half the cave was traversed, when suddenly the music changed from a brisk march to a doleful lament. This lament, duly interpreted, told the people above that things were becoming uncomfortable with the piper; first, that the pine torch was almost burnt out, and again that his breath was failing him, while the boldest of the wolves slowly retired before him, only kept at bay by the flickering of the torch and the sound of the pipes, but ready to spring upon and devour him the instant the torch should be extinguished and the music of the pipes should cease. It was then that the doomed piper played Cha till mi tuilleadh' so mournfully—' I will return no more !' And this too—

'Mo dhlth, mo dhlth, gun trl lamhan;
D& lhrnh's a phlob, s lkmh 's a chlaidheamh.'

('Alas, and my great want, that I have not three hands,
Two for (playing) the pipes, and one to wield my sword.')

If he had only a third hand he thought he could manage to kill the wolves that were every instant becoming bolder, as if they knew he must fall into their jaws at last. The last notes caught by the people above were known to mean— if

''Si ghall' uaine 'shhraich mi, 'Si ghalla' uaine 'shkraich mi !'
('It is the green bitch wolf that most harasses me!')

And then-the music ceased, and they knew that the poor piper had been torn to pieces hy the wolves. Such is something like the story I used to hear in connection Avith the big cave in Mull and the well-known lament, more than fifty years ago."

The cave referred to is on the estate of Lochbuy. So far as it has been explored, its length is over 500 feet, with a breadth of some 25 feet, and a height of 40. It is proper to say that the people of Skye claim the whole story as belonging to their island. The piper was a Macrimmon; the cave is pointed out near Dunvegan, and the story of the wolves and the piper's sad fate is just as likely to be true of the one island as of the other. Our own opinion is, that so far as there is any truth in the story, it must be located in Skye rather than in Mull, although our friends in the latter island will perhaps be angry with us for saying so.

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