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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part III.—Natural History of Gairloch

Chapter III.—Anecdotes and Notes

THE loneliness and wildness of most parts of Gairloch are of course highly favourable to the presence and observation of some of the rarer British birds and animals.

The list of Gairloch birds given further on reveals a curious fact, viz., that several kinds, such as the house-sparrow, bullfinch, blackbird, and red-shank, formerly unknown or rare in Gairloch, are now plentiful; whilst other birds, including the house-martin, skylark, and whimbrel, formerly abundant, are now scarce. No local causes for these changes can be suggested. There is no wholesale destruction of the smaller birds here as in France. What then can be the reason?

Dr Mackenzie has some interesting remarks on this point. Speaking of his young days (1815-1820) he writes as follows :—

"Now, gentle reader, please explain why, till we were men, no blackbird was ever heard of in Gairloch,—only heaps of ring-ouzels; not a sparrow nor a magpie (except one unfortunate who was shot, and report says cooked as game, at Kerrysdale, and pronounced excellent), no rooks nor wood-pigeons, tho' plenty blue-rocks, and for many years now these then strangers have found their way to the west. Indeed blackbirds are now in crowds there, and have so entirely superseded the ring-ouzel that one of these is quite a rarity. And please explain also why not only

"When I was young and was werry little,
The only steam came from the kettle,"

but why then no bird ever touched any fruit but cherries, while now no fruit, ripe or unripe, except black currants, is safe unless netted; the very pears, not full grown, being all pecked full of holes (or their mere skeletons hanging on the tree) by the blackbird pests, who, one might suppose, would die on the spot but for fruit that long ago not one of them would touch. Till three years ago I never dreamed of netting my morello cherry-trees. No blackbird tin then would look at a morello, had I offered him £5. Now, unless netted, I need to use them before they are really ripe, or the black villains will eat them all up.

"When I was young house-swallows were legion. Nov they are easily counted in the north. In our western church (Gairloch) then broken window-panes were too plenty, and the swallows' operations (building, feeding, and other arrangements), to the discomfort of those in the pews below the nests, I suppose I should admit interested us a good deal more than the preacher. Nightjars also then were very plenty, and one could hardly take an evening walk without seeing them flit in the dusk and light on the footpath before us, with their singular cat-purring song. I have often come on their extra-simple exposed nest in the heather."

The golden or black eagle may frequently be seen in Gairloch, soaring aloft in the sky. There is a general inclination now to preserve this noble denizen of the air. The eagle does comparatively little injury to game, but is accused of killing lambs and even sheep. The golden or black eagle is a size smaller than the erne or white-tailed eagle, which latter is also sometimes seen in Gairloch.

There are several Gairloch anecdotes of eagles. On the edge of the wood at the base of Craig Tollie an eagle pounced upon a roe-deer, and deeply fixed its talons in the poor beast's side. The roe taking to the wood, was near crushing the eagle against the trees. The eagle clutched at a branch with the claws of one foot, still keeping its hold of the roe with the other foot, but the speed of the roe was so great that the bird was actually torn in two. One portion was found fixed to the deer, which died from loss of blood, and the other in the tree.

Doubts have been thrown on the credibility of this anecdote; the following extract from "Martin's Western Islands of Scotland" helps to confirm it. Writing about 1695, Martin says:—"The eagles are very destructive to the fawns and lambs, especially the black eagle, which is of a lesser size than the other. The natives observe that it fixes its talons between the deer's horns, and beats its wings constantly about its eyes, which puts the deer to run continually till it fall into a ditch, or over a precipice, where it dies, and so becomes a prey to the cunning hunter. There are at the same time several other eagles of this kind which fly on both sides of the deer, which fright it extremely, and contribute much to its more sudden destruction. The foresters, and several of the natives, assured me that they had seen both sorts of the eagles kill deer in this manner."

In further confirmation the following paragraph is quoted from "Natural History Notes from Russian Asia," by A. H. M., which appeared in the Field of 27th October 1883 :—

"The Kirghiz train the grey hawks to catch larks and quails, and showed me an eagle I could not recognise, assuring me they could train it to fly at wolves. This bird was a long way off, but it looked to me like the golden eagle. I was told that, after being kept without sleep or food for nine days, this bird became quite tame, and would feed from the hand of the man who had trained it during this period. A strap of stout leather is fastened round each leg, allowing some ten inches play. When the wolf is sighted the eagle is flown, and, as soon as it seizes him, it plants one foot firmly in the wolfs loins, and with the other drags along the ground, catching at anything that gives a little hold,—stones, weeds, &c. Should the wolf turn, the eagle drives at his eyes with its powerful beak, and, the heavy drag on his back causing him to go slowly, the falconer rides up and settles him with blows from a heavy whip, or with a knife. This is something like hawking. My driver swore, by all that was holy, that he himself had killed many wolves with these 'birghuts,' or small eagles."

The method employed by the eagle of the Kirghiz in dealing with wolves, appears to be exactly on all fours with that of the eagle attacking the roe on Craig Tollie.

Mr H. E. Dresser, F.L.S., F.Z.S., &c, author of "The Birds of Europe," informs me he is sure he has been told that trained eagles are sometimes breeched, to prevent their being torn asunder. The strap employed by the Kirghiz seems to be an example of this. Mr Dresser states that Atkinson (" Oriental and Western Siberia," pp. 492-494) gives an account of trained golden eagles being flown at deer; and M. V. Scully relates ("Stray Feathers," iv., p. 123) that he has seen many such trained eagles, and he adds that in a wild state they prey on stags, antelopes, wild-cats, foxes, and wolves. Surely the fate of the unbreeched eagle of Craig Tollie is not improbable!

The next anecdote is of an eagle near Kenlochewe. This injudicious bird carried off a cat to feed its two young at its eyrie,— probably on Meal a? Ghubhais. The cat was alive and well when deposited in the eagle's nest. Pussy made short work of the two young eagles, and returned home safe and sound.

The incident is traditional, not only in Gairloch, but also in the neighbouring districts. I understand that in Assynt and Kintail, as well as in Gairloch, the following Gaelic riddle is often asked, the answer being this very anecdote. The riddle is as follows:— "Chaidh biadh do dithis go ceann Loch Maridhe dhith am biadh dithis thainig am biadh dhachidh a rhithisd." Here is a literal English translation,—" Some food went to two at the head of Loch Maree, the food ate the two, and the food came home again."

Another eagle, not long ago, at Talladale, was seen soaring above a foal, with the manifest intention of attacking it. The mare watched her foal with evident anxiety, seemingly prepared to defend her young at all hazards. The eagle, foiled in his design, took up in his talons a part of a tree stump, and let it fall, apparently in the hope that it would strike and kill the foal.

Dr Mackenzie has the following note of a good bag of eagles made in Gairloch in the early part of the present century. He says:— "Our game-killer, Watson, had a good day once with eagles, producing three splendid birds from a day's shooting, besides two young birds also killed. A pair nested on the west side of Bus Bheinn, and another pair on its east side, both out of reach, even by rope, although the nests were visible from tops about eighty to one hundred yards away. Watson, by daybreak, was on the top of Bus Bheinn, with swan shot in one barrel and a ball in the other. Peering over the rock, away sailed one of the eagles, but the swan shot dropped him in the heather below the rock. Another eagle at the nest at the other side of the hill came to the same end. Then hiding himself among the rocks, near where a wounded eagle flapped his wings, a third eagle, coming to see what this meant, was invited down by a shot, making a brace and a half of old eagles before breakfast. Then to shorten matters with the two chicken eagles, he climbed the hill again, and ere his bullets were all used up, both of them were dead, and their remains were visible on the nests for many a year after, having got more lead to breakfast than they could digest. I wait to hear of the gunner in Britain who could shew his two and a half brace of eagles killed in one day, before breakfast!"

The most numerous and noticeable birds about Loch Maree in the months of May, June, and July, are the black-backed gulls. They fly with great speed and apparently little effort. I have often endeavoured, watch in hand, to estimate the velocity of their flight, and I have come to the conclusion that in a calm atmosphere, or with a favourable breeze, they attain the speed of a quick train, viz., nearly fifty miles an hour. They breed on the islands of Loch Maree, and appear to have almost displaced the herring gulls, which used to be pretty numerous on the islands. Very few gulls now breed on Eilean Ruaridh Mor, though it seems from the following anecdote of Dr Mackenzie's that this island was a favourite gullery until the incident he relates occurred:—

"Some years ago it was observed that, without any visible reason, the gulls quite deserted Big Rorie's island for another at a little distance, till a shepherd, landing with his dog, found a pine-marten-cat in the island, mere skin and bone, and despatched him. How he had got to the island, half a mile from the mainland, and the water never frozen, no one could imagine; but though he may have lived well for a time on the gulls, there being nothing else to feed him on the island, unless a chance grouse or a roe, he soon made a desert of it, and would have died of hunger, but for the collie who ended him." Gairloch is not without examples of very rare birds, but those usually seen, though rare in many parts of the kingdom, are mostly the common birds of the Highlands. They are interesting enough to all,—to the lover of nature they are delightful; let the gunner spare them; let the bird-nester allow them to rear their young in peace. In the bright spring-time there is to my mind nothing sweeter than to listen on a calm evening to the sounds of the various birds that haunt the neighbourhood of Inveran. You may hear the whirring wings of the wild ducks, goosanders, and mergansers flitting up and down the Ewe; the sand-pipers, in great numbers, piping as they hurry along the river banks; the black-cocks crooning in the adjoining fields; the cock-grouse crowing on the moors close by; the rooks cawing all around; the wood-pigeon cooing in the neighbouring woods; the herons screaming on the margin of the water; the curlews whistling their weird call not far away; the night-jar humming his prolonged trill below Craig Tollie; the corncrake uttering its creaking note in the meadows and growing corn; the owl hooting from his tree or rock; the familiar cuckoo calling on all sides, near and far; a host of the smaller birds singing, chirping, and twittering around; whilst above them all the ravens croak, the grey crows screech, the sea-mews cry, and (sometimes) the wild geese gabble, high in air.

Observation of this teeming bird life has a wonderful fascination for many, and I can imagine no purer pleasure. Mr Alexander Cameron in his song about Tournaig (Part II., chap, xxiii.) notices some of the birds of Coile Aigeascaig; he must have often enjoyed their exquisite symphonies.

The insects which frequent the air are not all delightful. Some of the moths and butterflies, as well as the large dragon-flies (supposed by many to be the originals of our artificial salmon-flies), are beautiful enough. These abound more especially on the north-east side of Loch Maree, where limestone occurs. The flies that sting or bite force themselves upon our notice, and the tiny midge is the most obnoxious of them all. Wasps are rather plentiful in some seasons, but the midges are always in swarms on warm calm evenings from July to October. Even royalty can claim no immunity from their attacks ! Her Majesty the Queen notes in the diary of her visit to Loch Maree, "the midges are dreadful, and you cannot stand for a moment without being stung;" and again, " there is a perfect plague of wasps, and we are obliged to have gauze nailed down to keep these insects out when the windows are open, which, as the climate is so hot, they have to be constantly."

A visitor to one of the hotels recorded his opinion of the midges thus:—

"I love Maree's soft rippling waves ;
I love her mountain ridges;
I love her silver birken trees,—
But I detest her midges!"

It is a curious fact that prolonged residence in the country seems to render one slightly less liable to the attacks of these minute pests ; but when they swarm on a calm evening in September, every one must give in, and cease all stationary occupation out of doors. Many different washes for the skin, aromatic and otherwise, are recommended, and some persons wear veils ; but preventive measures are never wholly successful, and it is best to retreat before the little aggravating foe. How dreadful must have been the sufferings of the Rev. John Morrison, minister of Gairloch, when stripped naked, tied to a tree, and exposed to the attacks of the midges, at Letterewe, as related in Part I., chap. xvi.! With some people each particular midge bite inflames, and produces a small lump like a pea under the skin. Total abstinence for the time from alcohol, or at least from whisky, will generally mitigate this unpleasant result. If it be a midgy evening, choose if possible an exposed breezy road for your stroll, and you will escape the creatures. Fishing is out of the question if it be so calm that the midges are bad.

The stone-flies, gad-flies, or horse-flies, are very troublesome at times, but can easily be dealt with. The large caterpillar which is the larva of the fox-moth, is very abundant on the heather in the shooting season.

The beasts of the earth next claim our attention. Except deer, hares, rabbits, and (on calm evenings) a few bats near woods or houses, few of these beasts come under the observation of the ordinary visitor to Gairloch. Some indeed of the beasts which are considered vermin, such as badgers, otters, marten-cats, and polecats, are now nearly extinct; great raids were made upon the two former some years ago for the sake of their heads and skins, which were and still are much used for sporans to wear with the kilt.

With respect to martens, Dr Mackenzie says:—"Martens have so fine a fur, that I remember a lady friend going into a London furrier's shop with a boa made of martens' skins, trapped by our gamekeeper, and which the furrier would insist was sable fur! I once shot a marten entangled in a net spread over a magnum bonum tree on the Flowerdale garden wall, the gardener being provoked by finding many plumstones on the top of the wall, and blaming jackdaws for the theft, while the marten was evidently the thief, his caggie on dissection being well packed with magnums!"

There are plenty of wild-cats in Gairloch, but the majority of them are domestic cats gone wild, and their offspring. Occasionally specimens of the true wild-cat are trapped. Here is another anecdote of Dr Mackenzie's; it tells of a wild-cat having its young in a singular place :—

"One morning the fox-hunter's dogs picked up a scent behind the Tigh Dige (Flowerdale) garden, on charming jungly Craig a chait (rock of the cat), that carried them away over the hills for about five miles to the side of Loch Tollie, where they lost scent opposite to a mite of an island, all covered with bushes, about a hundred yards from the shore. No more scent being found, the dog-master made up his mind it must be an old cunning fox, whose bedroom the island was. So he stripped and swam to the island, followed by his dogs; to his and probacy their amazement, they were faced by a monster wild-cat, hardly yet dry from her swim, who had brought home to her six kittens a nice grouse for breakfast. They needed no more grouse after that interview. What a deal of thought pussy must have had ere she could make up her mind to constant swimming in Loch Tollie till her kittens could leave the island, as her only chance of saving them from the detested fox-hunter! Did she reason out the question, or was it mere instinct? Who can tell?"

The lover of the picturesque must admire the shaggy cattle of the breed now called "Highland," especially those of Mr O. H. Mackenzie of Inverewe, and of Dr Robertson of Achtercairn. The black-faced lambs are particularly bonnie when young, but visitors seldom come to Gairloch early enough to see them. Goats, mostly in a semi-wild state, are kept on some of the rocky sheep-farms; the idea is that they, being good climbers and fond of cropping the herbage in steep places, may safely consume the tender grass in spots where, if left uneaten by goats, it might tempt the "silly sheep" to destruction.

Some small horses and ponies are bred in Gairloch. A shaggy pony sometimes adds to the interest of the landscape, or diversifies the appearance of a shooting party.


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