|Where the Forest Murmers,
Vol VI by Fiona Macleod
I remember that one of the most strange and perturbing pleasures of my childhood was in watching, from a grassy height, the stealthy motions of the tides. The fascination never waned, nor has it yet waned: today, as then, I know at times the old thrill, almost the old fear, when through a white calm or up some sea-loch I watch those dark involutions, in sudden twists and long serpentine curves, as the eddies of the tide force their mysterious way. For one thing my childish imagination was profoundly impressed by the words of an old islander whom I had asked where the tides came from and what they were and had they names. We were on the steep slope of a small grassy hill, and overlooked the eastern end of an island where the troubled waters of a caoileas or strait to the south met the vast placid reach of ocean on the north. Through the lustrous green of the Sound, fleckt with long mauve shadows or clouded here and there with great splotches of purple-brown; and, again, to the left through the near calm heave of deep water so blue that as a child I could not understand why the shells which were washed up from it were not blue also: to right and to left I saw the sudden furtive motions of the flowing tide. I had often watched the blindworm move thus through the coarse seagrasses, and again and again had seen the adder dart through the bracken like one of those terrible living arrows of Faerie of which I had heard: often, too, I had followed the shadow-swift underwave glide of the hunting seal: and once, in a deep brown pool in Morven, when I was looking with trembling hope for the floating hair or dim white face of a kelpie, I had seen an otter rise from the depths . . . rise like a fantastic elfin face and half-human figure in a dream . . . make a soundless sinuous plunge and in less than a moment vanish utterly, still without sound or the least ruffling of the brown depths. So, it was natural that I should associate those mysterious gliding things of the sea with these sinuous things of the grass and heather and the shadowy pool. They, too, I thought, were furtive and sinister. There was something as of the same evil enchantment in their abrupt and inexplicable appearing and in their soundless departures. Thus it was I felt no surprise when my old island-friend Seumais remarked to me:
"They are creatures of the sea."
"What are they, Seuniais?" I urged; " are they great eels, or adders, or what? Can they put death on a swimmer? Have you ever caught one? Have--"
"Ay, for sure they might put death on a swimmer: and by the same token I will be remembering that Rùaridh Stewart, the Appin poet, has a rann about them as the Hounds of the Sea."
"And have they names?"
" For sure, that: Lualh (Swift) and Gorm-Dhu (Blue-Black), Luath-Doinn (Fleet-brown-one) and Braco (Speckled), Rùn-fotuinne (Underwave Secret) and Cu-Bhais (Hound of Death), and others that I will be forgetting."
"But, Seumais," I persisted, " are they male-seafolk and women-seafolk like the seals, and have they little ones, and where do they go, and where do the big tides come from? "
"Well, well, I will not be knowing that, though, for sure, it is likely. But as to where they come from, and where they go. there will be none in all the world who can tell that; no, not one. They will be just like the wind, that no one knows the road of, behind or before. Ay, the sca's just like the grey road: the green road an' the grey road, they show no tracks. The wind an' the tides, they just come an' they just go. Blind as the wind," " blind as the tide" . . . ay, it may be; but not so blind as we are, for they know their way, an' brightest noon an' darkest night, an' summer an' winter, an' calm an' storm, are one an' the same to them."
It is long ago now since I heard these words from old Seumais Macleod, but I am certain (so deeply did they impress my childish imagination, and sink into a child's mind) that I repeat them almost exactly. I had no hesitation in believing in Gorm-Dhu and Luath-Donn, and the rest, and took these names to be real names of actual creatures, as Daoine-Vhara (folk of the sea) for seals, or as piocach for the brown saithe I was wont to watch swimming amid the fronds of the seaweed, or as sgàdan for the flashing herring whose shoals so often made a dazzle in the offing beyond the strait, and whose radiant scales glorified as with gems the nets hauled up in the moonshine or in the pale rose and cowslip-yellow of August dawns.
And, in truth, I am not much the wiser now. There is no great gain in wisdom in the
knowledge that the tides are not mysterious creatures of the deep, and are nameless as the
winds, as homeless as they, as silent, furtive, as formless, as incalculable almost, as
variable. The old islander knew how to turn into service their comings and goings, how to
meet them when friendly, how to evade them when hostile, how to wonder continually at
their strange beauty, how to reverence the terrible order of their rhythmic flow and ebb.
What matter if, also, his old-world Gaelic imagination imaged to him these dark forces of
the sea as living creatures; not of flesh and blood as the slim brown, seals who, too, can
glide not less swiftly and secretly through dusky green water-ways.; not even of such
consistency as the tide-wrack floating on the wave, or the dim , wandering medusæ which
drift like pale, quenchless fires in the untroubled stillness of the twilit underworld;
but at least of the company of lightning, of fire, of the wind, of dew, of shadow . . .
creatures without form as we know form, but animate with a terrible and mysterious life of
their own--a secret brotherhood among the visible and invisible clans of the world. What
matter if remembering songs and old tales and incalculable traditions, he thought of them
with names, as the " fleet-brown-one," as "swift-
Everywhere this tidal mystery, this beauty of flood and ebb, is to be seen . . . along whatever coasts sea-waters move or wherever they penetrate. The "tideless Mediterranean " is but a phrase. Even along the shores of Malta and Sicily there is a perceptible rise and fall, and at a thousand points between Marseilles or Tangier and Venice or Cape Matapan the tidal movement is as mysterious and impressive as among the shoals of Ushant or in the Norsk fjords. There are few places where the trained eye could not perceive a difference of rise or fall. I recollect being shown a spot on the Argive coast of the Peloponnesus where, it was said, the tidal difference was non-existent. On that very day, a day of windless calm, I noticed a fall of over a foot in depth. Dark, steep rocks shelved to deep waters, and to all ordinary appearance there was nothing to indicate the slightest variance between flow and ebb. Even a Morean Greek declared " there is no flood, no ebb, here."
But, in our own home-waters, what marvellous changes take place under the strong continuous pull of the lunar reins. Think of wind and flood-tide on the Channel coasts, with the strange sound as of a murmurous host confusedly marching: think of the daily two-fold flooding of estuaries, and the sinuous invasion of the sea past curving banks and among remote island meadows. Are rivers not enhanced in mystery when through the downward flow a salt serpentine envoy from the distant sea forces its way, revealing itself in circuitous eddies, in dark revolving rings, in troubled surface-seethe: bringing to the flags and rushes, to the leaning grasses and gold kingcup and purple mallow that salt lip, which a score or half-score miles away had been laid on the sea-grapes of the bladder-wrack, or on the slow-involving tresses of the twisting long-weed. Then there is that miraculous halt, when the cold hand of the tide can reach no farther: when at a boat's helm a curl of dark brackish water will indolently lapse, while at the prow the clear-brown rippling rush will be fresh with gathered rains and dews and the unsullied issues of wellsprings and sunlit sources.
The tide-flow may be more beautiful and obvious seen from the high shores of certain estuaries, as, say, from the Falmouth uplands, or from the hillsides of our narrow Highland sea-lochs, but the mind is deeplier impressed and the imagination compelled by the more obscure, menacing, and almost terrifying swift arrivals along vast shallow estuaries, such as The Wash or the inner reaches of Solway Firth or by the Sands o' Dee. With what abrupt turbulence the calms arc violated, with what a gathering sound the invisible host is marshalled, with what impetuous surge the immeasurable sortie advances! Of a sudden those little shallows in the sands, those little weed-hung pools below slippery rocks covered with mussel and dog-whelk, shiver. A faint -undulation thrills the still small world. A shrimp darts from a sand-mound: a blood-red anemone thrusts out feathered antennæ: now one, now another shell-fish stirs, lifts, gapes. It is the response of the obscure, the insignificant, to that mighty incalculable force which is hastening from the fathomless depths and across countless leagues of the great Sea. Soon the flood will come: perhaps in furtive swiftness and silence, perhaps with a confused multitudinous noise among which are inchoate cries and fragmentary bewildering echoes of muffled songs and chants, perhaps as in charging hordes of wild seahorses where the riders are not seen in the dazzle of spray nor their shouting heard in the tumult of wave dashed against wave and billow hurled on billow.
To be in some such place . . . say, again, where the Breton tide races against the flank of Normandy and in a few minutes isolates Mont St. Michel from the mainland; or where the Northumbrian flood pours across the narrow sands of Lindisfarne; or, more than everywhere else I think, where the fierce Atlantic tides leap with bewildering surge and clamour across the vast sea-gates of Uist and rush like a cataract into the Hebrid Sea . . . to be in some such place and at the first mysterious signals of the oncoming flood,by night, is to meet the unforgettable, and, as Blake says, to be at one with the eternal mystery.
Flow and ebb, ebb and flow it is that ancient inexplicable mystery, the everlasting and unchanging rhythm which holds star to star in infinite procession, which lifts and lowers the poles of our sun-wheeling world, which compels the great oceans to arise and follow the mysterious bidding of the moon. It is wonderful that the moon travels along the equator at the rate of a thousand miles an hour: but more wonderful that these loose, formless, blind and insensate waters should awake at the touch of that pale hand, should move to it and follow it as the flocks of the hills to the voice of the shepherd.
Flow and ebb, ebb and flow . . . it is the utterance of the divine law, the eternal word of Order. It is life itself. What life is there, from the phosphorescent atom in the running wave to the enfranchised soul stepping westward beyond the twilights of time, that is not subject to this ineffable rhythmic law. The tides of the world, the tides of life: the grey sap, the red blood, the secret dews, the tameless seas, birth and death, the noons and midnights of the mind of man, the evening dusk and the morning glory of the soul . . . one and all move inevitably, and in one way: in one way come, and go, and come again.