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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXX

Midges and other Bloodsuckers—The Tsetse of South Africa—The Abyssinia — Livingstone—Adders and Grass Snakes—Lucan's Pharsalia—Celsus—Legend of St. John ante Portam Latmam.

Along the west coast the weather is now [May 1872] as mild and May-like as you could wish; the swallow twitters gaily in the sunlight, and when he ceases his zig-zag flight for a moment to rest on chimney-top or house-ridge, he sings a gladsome song, low and faint indeed, and frequently lost on that account in the general chorus, but exceedingly sweet and musical, as you will find if you give it the attention it merits; while in the distance you hear the cheery notes of the cuckoo, wild and startling as yet, as they burst suddenly upon the ear from out the woodland glade or from the old rowan tree that finds root room, you wonder how, in yonder crevice in the rock above the foaming waterfall, hut soon to become familiar as the season advances, and pressed upon your notice whether you will or no, and at all sorts of impossible times and places, by the truant schoolboy's oft-repeated, though rarely successful, attempts at imitation. For the first week in May the temperature is unusually high, and we do not recollect ever before having seen insect life so plentiful so early in the season. Midges, gadflies, and other bloodsuckers are already astir in their thousands, their taste for their favourite fluid keen and unabated, as they fail not abundantly to manifest by an activity that one cannot help admiring, even while wishing that it could possibly be directed to a more legitimate and less personally annoying end. But "'tis their nature to," as the hymn-book says, and we must grin and bear it, protecting ourselves from their assaults as hest we may, thankful the while that the evil is no worse. Our winged pests are innocence itself compared with their congeners in other lands. Our midge, for instance, is to the mosquito as the dog-fish is to the shark, as the domestic cat is to the tiger; while our gadflies and Æstri, though sufficiently annoying to our cattle at certain seasons, are to he regarded as absolutely harmless if we compare them with the venomous Zimb of Abyssinia, or the still deadlier Tsetse of Southern Africa. The Abyssinian insect, by the way—the Zimb—is probably the Zebub of the Hebrew Scriptures, the estimation in which it was held from the earliest ages being clearly enough indicated by its place in the word Beelzebub, "the prince of devils." Livingstone's account of the Tsetse is one of the most interesting chapters in his Travels. Shall the intrepid explorer be restored to us? We are afraid not. It is only too probable that, as Scott said of his protege and friend, the author of the Scenes of Infancy—

"A distant and a deadly shore
Has Leyden's cold remains!"

The districts of Ardgour and Sunart have always had an unenviable notoriety for the great numbers of adders and grass snakes to be found in them, the reptiles frequently attaining to a size unknown, we believe, anywhere else in the West Highlands. Within the last two or three years we have noticed that they are rapidly becoming numerous in Lochaber, much more so than they used to be, though the general opinion, in which we heartily concur, is that we were getting on very well without them. During an ornithological ramble among the hills a few days ago, we knelt to drink at a fountain that we fell in with, welling up cool and sparkling beside a large moss-covered drift boulder among the heather, when we were not a little startled by the presence of no less than three adders that lay coiled together in a sort of Gordian knot on a patch of green moss close by the fountain's brink. The day was hot and dry, and they had probably come there to drink and bathe; but we were very thirsty, having just smoked a pipe on the top of the hill, and there being no appearance of water anywhere else for miles around, and knowing, besides, that there could be really no danger, even if the vipers had been ten times larger and more venomous than they were, we drank a long draught of the pure sweet water, and then proceeded with the stick in our hand to attack the enemy, and soon had the satisfaction of knocking them into wriggling, writhing bits, and crushing their heads under our heel. Our assault was so sudden and unexpected that they had no time to show fight; otherwise an adder, when his blood is up and thoroughly on his guard, is an ugly customer to attack with no better weapon than a walking-stick, and nothing can be imagined more deadly, wicked-looking, and savage than such an animal, as with erected crest and flashing eye he steadies himself in act to strike. It is curious that the poison of these reptiles, though certain death if commingled in sufficient quantity with the blood through an abrasion or wound, is perfectly innocuous if taken into the stomach—a fact, by the way, that has been known from very early times. On taking our drink, for instance, from yonder viper-guarded fountain, we recollected that Lucan had something on a somewhat similar circumstance in his Pharsalia. Describing Cato and his soldiers coming to a fountain of water in the desert, and how horrified they were to find innumerable serpents of the deadliest kind—asps and dipsades—disporting themselves in and around the pool, he has the following fine passage, the finest indeed in the poem, which we took care to turn up when we reached home :—

Which has been elegantly rendered into English as follows :—

"And now with fiercer heat the desert glows,
And mid-day sun-darts aggravate their woes;
When, lo! a spring amid the sandy plain
Shows its clear mouth to cheer the fainting train;
But round the guarded brink in thick array,
Dire aspics roll'd their congregated way,
And thirsting in the midst the deadly dipsas lay.
Black horror seized their veins, and at the view
Back from the fount the troops recoiling flew;
When, wise above the crowd, by cares unquell'd,
Their trusted leader thus their dread dispell'd—
Let not vain terrors thus your minds enslave,
Nor dream the serpent brood can taint the wave;
Urged by the fatal fang their poison kills,
But mixes harmless with the bubbling rills.
'Dauntless he spoke, and, bending as he stood,
Drank with cool courage the suspected flood."

Celsus, an older writer still, and styled the "Roman Hippocrates," tells us in his great work, De Medicina, that the poison of serpents may be safely enough sucked by the mouth from the wound, warning the operator, however, to be careful that the lips and palate are free from any cut or excoriation by which the venom might find its way into the blood, in which case it might be just as 'dangerous as if introduced into the circulation by the fang itself. It should be stated that the grass or ringed snake spoken of above is not in the least poisonous, though ugly enough to look at, and ready enough to assume a threatening attitude if rudely disturbed. Nor, by the way, is the date of the present writing inappropriate to the discussion of such a subject, as we have at this moment discovered by the merest accident. The 6th of May you will find is a Saint's day in the Calendar, being dedicated to St. John ante Portam Latinam, the legend connected with which is as follows : —The Beloved Disciple, after preaching the Gospel in various parts of the world, was in his old age taken to Bome by the Emperor Domitian, and because he refused to renounce the religion of Christ, was put into a cauldron of boiling oil before the Latin Gate—Porta Latina—which, however, did him no more harm than did Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; on the contrary, John came out of the cauldron rejuvenated, younger, fairer, and more beautiful than before. Afterwards a cup of deadliest poison was given him to drink, but as he was putting it to his lips, the poison, assuming the appropriate shape of a venomous serpent, glided from the cup, leaving the draught harmless and pure. He was finally banished to Patmos, where he wrote the Apocalypse.

Old Fingalian rhymes and proverbs having reference to dogs and the hunting of the stag, as it was then pursued, are very common in the Highlands, and show how devoted to the chase were our Celtic ancestors. Our neighbour, the Rev. Mr. Clerk of Kilmallie, in his splendid edition of Ossian, gives some of these old rhymes in his very interesting and learned notes on Fingal. The following was sent us a short time ago, and as it has never appeared in print, we present it to the reader with a liberal translation. "We are always glad to be able to rescue from oblivion even the smallest shred of the folk-lore of the olden time. The story goes that this rhyme was first of all taught by a fairy to a gay young hunter "of the period," under the following circumstances :—Once upon a time, a sprightly, green-robed fairy, a sort of princess in her way, fell in love with a young Fingalian hunter, who had frequent occasion, on his way to and from the chase, to pass the shian or green knoll in which the fairy hand of the glen had taken up their abode. The fairy and her hunter lover had frequent opportunities of meeting in secret, until some evil-disposed sister fairy divulged Brianag's— for that was the fairy's name—imprudent and unfairy-like conduct to the powerful fairy prince Aerlunn, who was himself over head and ears in love with the beautiful Brianag, though she gave him no encouragement at all; on the contrary, she flatly told him that, great and powerful as he was, she did not love him in the least, and would have nothing to do with him. On hearing how things were going on, Aerlunn was very jealous and very angry, just as a mortal might be under similar circumstances, and he issued an edict, as Prince of the Fairies of that glen, by which, after reflecting severely on the unfairy-like conduct of Brianag and others of the band, he prohibited Brianag from leaving the shian on any pretence whatever, except for the one hour before midnight on the night when the moon completed her first quarter—perfect liberty to do as they like during this one hour in the month is every fairy's birthright, and no power can deprive them of it. He would have done something very dreadful to Brianag's lover, only the latter was protected from any evil a fairy enemy could do to him by a talisman of extraordinary value, which his uncle, a priest of the Druids, had given him, and which he always carried on his person. Brianag and her lover were thus able to meet for one hour in every month, despite the opposition of the angry Aerlunn, whose jealousy became at last so insupportable, that he resolved to shift his court and people from that glen to another at a great distance. To this arrangement, much as she regretted it, as it separated herself and her lover, Brianag dare not object. It is a prerogative appertaining to the Princes of Fairyland that they can shift their court at will, when and whither they please. The fairy palace thus forsaken is still to be seen in Glen Etive, and has ever since been called An Sithean Samhach—the Quiet or Deserted Eairy Knoll. On parting with her lover at their last interview, Brianag presented him with a silver horn, whose blast could be heard, loud and clear, over the Seven Hills and across the Seven Glens ; and knowing that it was his ambition to excel all others in the chase, she instructed him as to the best kind of dog to have and hunt withal as follows :—

Which may stand in English thus :—

Get a yellow brindled dog,
First-born of his dam's first litter,
With a muzzle black as jet,
Reared on whey and milk of goats;
No stag in forest can escape him.

Those who rear deer-hounds, et juvenes qui gaudent canibus, might do worse than experiment a little according to the fairy's receipt; we shouldn't wonder at all if a splendid dog was the result, for these old rhymes are rarely devoid of reason. There is no reason at all events why such a dog might not turn out well.

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