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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LIV

Approach of Winter—Contentedness of the People—Poets and Wild-Bird Song—Differences in the Colouring and Markings of Birds' Eggs—Late Nest-Building—Anecdote of Provost Robertson of Dingwall, Mr. Gladstone's Grandfather.

The meteorological vaticinations of our weather-wise octogenarian neighbours have met with abundant and speedy verification in the storms and heavy rains of the past ten days [October 1876]. Eor the month of October, however, the -weather continues wonderfully mild; even with wind and rain the temperature is higher than it usually is at this date; an occasional fine day, besides, encouraging us in the hope that winter proper, winter with its thousand discomforts, its snow and sleet, its cold and cheerlessness and gloom, may be checked in his advance for some weeks to come, by the uncompromising attitude of an autumn so lusty of life and bright of eye, but, despite an occasional overclouding of countenance, it seems yet but only little past its prime. Agriculturally the season is being wound up satisfactorily enough ; crops have, upon the whole, been secured in very fair condition, and although the herring fishing in our lochs as elsewhere has proved a failure, our people are prepared to meet the coming winter in comparative abundance, and with a cheerfulness calculated to disarm the gloomy season of more than half its terrors. The poet has philosophically observed that man

"Wants but little here below, if Nor wants that little long "—

where "wants," you will observe, has to be read in a restricted and peculiar sense : the plain prose of it being, that for all his essential needs man requires but little, that merely to live a little suffices, and that, on account of the shortness and certainty of human life, even that " little " is soon dispensed with—is no longer required. Granted, 0 Poet! but not the less true is it that during man's allotted time the "little," however small, is indispensable all the same, and any sensible diminution or curtailment of his "little " will make a man, however abstemious and sober of life, just as miserable as his fellow who has to bewail the diminution, not of his "little," but of his abundance. Nothing pleases us in our people here more than their constant cheerfulness in the enjoyment of their "little." They would doubtless take more if they could get it, and rejoice exceedingly if their "little" could be converted into an abundance; but meantime they have the good sense to be contented, and even happy with what they have, and that, too, to a degree that no one perhaps less intimate with them than we are could believe possible in the circumstances.

Our "Indian summer," that seems still to linger, as if loth to leave us to the tender mercies of a winter that is likely to prove unusually inclement, has been a season of unwonted jubilation to our wild-birds; for, guided by an instinct that is a monitor sufficiently to be depended upon in ordinary circumstances, they had already, each after his kind, prepared themselves, not for equinoctial warmth and sunshine, but for equinoctial storms. All the more, then, from its very unexpectedness, did they feel bound to rejoice in the incalculable blessing of twenty free days of midsummer warmth and calm at a time when, in the usual course of events, the tempest should have been howling through the woods and careering over moss and moorland, they the while glad to cower for shelter and safety in such crevices and corners as might be best suited to their purpose. At and after the autumnal equinox, in ordinary seasons, the only one of our native wild-birds that sings, or attempts to sing, a fairly finished song, is the redbreast; though, to be sure, the wren also sometimes strikes up an occasional voluntary when we least expect it; the lively Lilliputian in his song, as in everything else, being a creature of unbridled impulse, guided solely by the whim and caprice of the moment, as if in utter contempt and disregard of the method and order by which other birds are fain to regulate the conduct of their lives. Not the redbreast alone, however, backed by the intermittent melodies of the wren, who, Sims Reeves-like, only sings when the humour seizes him, obstinately silent when you would expect him to sing, and as obstinately singing when you would expect him to be silent; but the blackbird also, and chaffinch, the corn bunting and goldfinch, have been of late delighting us with their music, in volume and compass and exquisite finish hardly inferior, though so out of season, to their most successful performances in spring and early summer, which, be it noted, is the season for wild-bird song at its best. Our poets, as if by tacit arrangement and preconcert, do all in their power to impress us with the notion that June is not only the month of flower and leaf, but the great bird music month as well, a mistake partly owing, no doubt, to their ignorance of bird life, but mainly, we suspect, arising from the fact that "June" and "tune" are such pat and perfect rhymes, that the poet dealing with summer glories and summer joys never fails to pounce upon them for instant use, without a thought of their inappropriateness, so far at least as bird music is concerned. It is true that with reference to bird song our poets are also liberal enough with their "May" and "lay" which, as nearer to the mark, is somewhat better. Better still, however, would be April, if our poets would be correct, to which we might perhaps suggest " trill" as a rhyme; not a good rhyme to be sure, even if "April" could be decently placed at the end of a line (as in the old "valentines") without being misaccented; but we ornithologists could forgive the halting rhyme and barbarous accent for the sake of the correctness of the "colouring" otherwise. The truth is that our hest wild-bird music time may be set down as properly belonging to the eight weeks between the 15th March and the 15th May. Let our poets, then, look out for and find appropriate rhymes for "March," "April," and "May." It is their business and not ours; but for any sake, in dealing with wild-bird music and summer joys, let them beware of the fatal facility of the rhymes of "June" and "tune." Poets and poetry apart, however, it was extremely interesting to watch the conduct of our wild-birds during our late "Indian summer." For the first few days they fluttered about and chirped interrogatively amongst themselves, as if in a state of doubt and indecision, if not of actual bewilderment, evidently puzzled what to say to it, but, upon the whole, of opinion that it was too good to last. Last, however, it did, longer than either they or we thought at all likely, and before the end of the week the chirping had developed into actual song, and the fluttering into a business-like activity, as if they had fully thought it over, and had decided that it was best, proverb wise, to be making some hay while the sun shone. Our attention was first of all attracted by a pair of house sparrows passing and repassing our study window, now with a stray feather, now with a bit of straw in their bills, with which they disappeared in a clump of ivy high up on a corner of the garden wall. On climbing by the aid of a small ladder to inquire what they were about, we found that they were repairing a nest, in which they had already reared a brood this season, and which the youngsters, in their unfledged and awkward babyhood, had considerably damaged and generally knocked out of shape—"into a cocked hat," in fact, as they say across the Atlantic. With a care and painstaking, however, which our "featherless biped" architects, in executing their repairs on our stone and lime habitations would do well to imitate, the sparrows in a surprisingly short time got their house in order, and in a few days thereafter we found a couple of eggs in it.

These eggs we took away, for it would only he cruel to allow a brood to be hatched at this season, only to starve and die before they could possibly be strong enough of wing to shift for themselves. And here, in connection with these same sparrow eggs, let us record a fact that seems to have hitherto escaped the notice of our oologists (egg-students), even the most lynx-eyed and observant of them, and it is this : that in the case of such of our wild-birds as breed more than once in a single season, the eggs of the second laying, and of the third, if third laying there is—of all eggs, in short, dropped after the first laying—are, as a rule, either entirely free from spots, or, if they have the spots, they are so faint as to be scarcely distinguishable. In the case of the sparrow eggs, for example, taken from the nest as just related, they were perfectly spotless, pearl-white and clean as they could be. Even under a lens of considerable power they presented hardly a trace of spot or colouring in any form. And yet take an egg from a sparrow's nest in early spring—from the first laying that is—and you will invariably find it to be spotted or blotched with a perfect constellation, so to speak, round its larger end of greyish and dusky brown dots and markings. On due examination, we suspect it will be found to be the same in the case of all our "spotted" egg layers; and to this fact, that has been so unaccountably overlooked hitherto, is to be mainly attributed, we make no doubt, the many dissensions and disagreements that so frequently have set our best, and otherwise good-natured, oologists by the ears. In another particular, too, the eggs of later laying differ from those of the first—in the thickness, namely, of the shell; that of the later laying being thinner and more fragile in the handling. On account of their fragility, indeed, it is extremely difficult to blow without damaging an .-egg of this kind, taken from one of our smaller bird's nests towards the close of the season. All which, the faintness of colouring in or total absence of the spots, with the thinness, transparency, and general fragility of the shell, is doubtless due to an impaired vitality, quoad hoc, consequent upon the prodigality of energy thrown into the loves and labours of rearing the first or spring brood.

On this occasion, too, a pair of blackbirds began a nest de novo, either despising the labours of mere repairing, or having no old nest, perhaps, to repair. The blackbirds, however, wiser than the sparrows, left off before a third—the lower flat, so to speak—of their building was finished; as if they had duly thought it all over again, and had wisely concluded that it was better to wait till spring, it being manifestly too late to finish a nest and attempt to rear a brood any more this season. We fully expected to see the redbreast, and wren perhaps, also attempt the rearing of an "Indian summer" brood; and had they tried, they might, perhaps, have succeeded, for both birds in such circumstances select cozy corners about open sheds and out-houses, where they are pretty safe from the assaults of the weather, and can always find suitable food in more or less abundance. So far as we could see, however, they never once thought of anything like love-making or nidification, contenting themselves with thoroughly enjoying the calm and sunshine while it lasted, as was abundantly, and, so far as we were concerned, very delightfully evidenced by the frequency of their loud and lightsome song.

A recent paragraph in the newspapers about Provost Robertson of Dingwall, whose daughter was Mr. Gladstone's mother, reminds us of an anecdote which was told us some years ago by the late Mrs. Morrison of Salachan, in Ardgour, an old lady whose reminiscences of the people of the Hebrides and mainland of Ross-shire, about the beginning of the present century, were extremely interesting. Provost Robertson of Dingwall—Mr. Gladstone's grandfather by the mother's side—on one occasion paid a visit to London, for the first, and, we believe, the only time in his life. His friends in the metropolis put him under the charge of a gentleman, a faraway cousin of his own, who undertook to show him all the wonders of the great city, and look after him generally. The worthy Provost was thoroughly Scotch, and dressed after a somewhat outre fashion, a la Dingwall of the period. Walking one day along one of the streets of London, a little in advance of his guide, the worshipful Provost's appearance and tout ensemble attracted the attention of some half-dozen street arab hoys, who, always ready for a "lark," desired no better pastime for the present than to chaff and poke their fun at the Chief Magistrate of one of Scotland's most distinguished northern burghs. The Provost, indignant at the impudence and rudeness of the young rascals, at last turned round, and, shaking his silver-headed cane at the offending gamins, exclaimed, in tones loud enough to be heard by his guide, who was almost choked with laughter at the scene, "Ah, you young vagabonds! if I had you in Dingwall, wouldn't I make you pay for your davayrshon! " The term "diversion" was then used, both in English and Gaelic, all over the Highlands, as indeed it still is to some extent, in the sense of fun with a backbone of mischief to it; rough horse-play, in fact, accompanied by what is now-a-days commonly called chaff.

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