Where the Forest Murmers by Fiona Macleod



To be far north of the Highland Line and among the mountains, when winter has not only whitened the hill-moors but dusted the green roofs of every strath and corrie, may not have, for many people the charm of the southward flight. But to the hill-born it is a call as potent as any that can put the bittersweet ache into longing hearts. There is peace there: and silence is there--and, withal, a beauty that is not like any other beauty. The air and wind are auxiliary; every cloud or mist-drift lends itself to the ineffable conspiracy; the polar breath itself is a weaver of continual loveliness often more exquisitely delicate than the harebell, often incalculable or immeasurable, or beautiful with strangeness, as moonlight on great waters, or the solitary torch of Jupiter burning his cold flame in the heart of a mountain-tarn. There is no soundlessness like it. And yet the silence is relative; is, in a word, but an imagination laid upon an illusion. If there is no wind on the moor, there may be a wandering air among the lower heights. If so, many hollows of rocks, caverns lost in bracken, caves of hill-fox and badger, sudden ledges haunted by the daw and the hoodie and filled with holes as though the broken flutes of the dead forgotten giants of old tales, will make a low but audible music; a lifting and falling sighing, with singular turnings upon itself of an obscure chant or refrain, that just as one thinks is slipping into this side knowledge and is almost on the edge of memory, slides like rain along that edge and vanishes, vague as an unremembered fragrance. Or if the suspense be so wide that not a breath moves lower than where the corries climb towards the very brows of the mountains, one will surely hear, far up among the time-hollowed scarps and weather-sculptured scaurs, that singular sound which can sink to a whimpering, as of unknown creatures or lost inhuman clans strayed and bewildered, or can be as though unseen nomads were travelling the mountainway with songs and strange flutes and thin wailing fifes, or can rise to a confused tumult as of embattled hosts, or to a crying and a lamentation more desperate than the cries of men and a lamenting as of that mysterious and dreaded clan, the Grey Children of the Wind. The wind, in truth, is almost always to be heard, near or far. Sometimes the eye may learn, where the ear fails: as when one is in a glen or strath or on a shore or moor, and, looking up, may see smoke rising from the serrated crests or the curving sky-lines, like the surf of vast billows--to realise soon, that this volcanic apparition means no more than that vast volumes of driven snow are being lifted by the north wind and whirled against and over the extreme mountain-bastions. Trath chaidleas 's a ghleann an t-ile, "when the air sleeps in the glens," goes a Gaelic saying, "you may hear the wind blowing in the high corries mar chaithream chlr," like the symphony of harps.

Then, too, it is rare that the snowy wilderness is without voice of mountain torrent, for even when frost holds the hill-world in a grip so terrible that the smaller birds cannot fly in the freezing air, there are rushing burns of so fierce a spate that the hands-of-ice are whirled aside like foam, and the brown wave leaps and dashes from rock to rock, from granite ledge to peaty hollow, from brief turbulent channels to chasms and crevasses whence ceaselessly ascends the damp smell of churned surge, above which as ceaselessly rises a phantom spray. Again, there is that strange, continual earth-movement, the alarm of all unfamiliar wayfarers. Who suddenly unloosened that rush of rock and earth yonder? What enemy moved that boulder that leapt and hurtled and crashed downward and beyond, but a score yards away? Of what elfin-artillery are those rattling stones the witness? What hand, in the silence, thrust itself through the snow and crumbled that old serrated ledge, where, a week ago, the red deer stood sniffing the wind, where, yesterday perhaps, the white ptarmigan searched the heather?

Moreover we are in the domain of the eagle, the raven, and the corbie. They are seldom long silent there. And that sudden call on the wind?. . . what but the Merry Folk, Clann Aighean Siubhlach, the Wandering Deer-Clan, passing like drifting shadows over white heather-pastures lost to view? It is long since the love-belling of the stags made musical the mountain-side: was not "the Silence of the Deer" the first sign of winter come again? But that cry was the cry of hunger--a guth acaimeach, a sobbing voice, as once I heard a prosaic roadmender unprosaically and with kindly sympathy allude to the winter-bleat of the snow-famished deer. And that other bleating: of sheep left upon the hills, and overtaken by the White Weather. How goes the sound, the translated echo of their mournful iteration, that is now a long ululation of lament and now a rising and falling bleating as of confused words? The same roadmender I speak of said--after himself lamenting in sympathy tha 'm fuachd a muigh's a staigh an diugh . . . " the cold is outside and inside to-day "--that it went like this: Tha sinn carr, tha sinn carr, tha sinn cary 's gun fhios againn! . . . "We are astray, we are astray, we are astray and have lost our bearings!"

Up here everything may have a snow-change "into something rich and rare." It was in a hill-solitude, in white weather such as this, that, for example, I heard from an old shepherd names for the eagle, the corbie, and the ptarmigan that I had not elsewhere heard, nor--have seen in print, though for long now I have been collecting all whenever and wherever chance permits the Gaelic and Lowland names of birds and animals. The corbie he called An t-Eun Acarachd, the Merciless, literally, "the bird without compassion," no doubt with thought of its love for young lambs or its savage lust for the eyes of stricken or dying sheep. The ptarmigan he called An t-Eun (Adhar or Aidhre), the bird of the snow or frost-though this is but a variant, of course, of the more familiar Sneacag or Eun-an--Sneachel. When he spoke of the eagle simply as An t-Eun Mr, the great bird, that seemed less noteworthy, but when he added, Ab! An t-Eun Mr Ab, I was puzzled. I thought he meant aboo to simulate the Iolair's cry, though it sounded much more like, the muffled hoot of the great owl than the eagle's screech. He said he remembered that was the eagle's name in an old tale he had often heard his mother tell when he was a child. I never thought of it as Ab,however, till one day I came upon this word in a Gaelic dictionary and found it entered as being an ancient war-cry of the Gael. Truly, a fit survival, for a wild slogan that has ages ago died away from the Gaelic hills: to live still among these desolate mountains, around those wind-tortured scarps and scaurs, in the scream of the golden eagle. The old man had a special bird-name for most of the birds he spoke of or about which I asked him. Doubtless he was as good a naturalist and with as good a right to make names as any ornithologist who would know what the old man could not know, and would be familiar with common and other names that would be unfamiliar there among the far hills, or, at least, to the old mountaineer, for whom the hill-birds were the best of company. For the curlew, for instance, though he knew the common Scots name, Whaup, he had the good name An t-Eun Chaismeachd, "the bird of alarm"--how good a name (though perhaps equally applicable to the grey plover, the green whistler, or the lapwing) must be obvious to all who have walked the moorland or travelled the hillside. And where an islesman or a man of the mainland coasts would, for swiftness, use a comparison such as
cho loath ri sgadan, "as swift as a herring," he would say, cho loath ris na feadag, "as swift as the plover."

White Weather, he said, was always first called "by the linnet, the "heather lintie" so loved of Scots song-writers, to which he gave several names ("out of a good ten that will be known to any one whatever"), one a curious blend of Scots-Gaelic, Shilfa-monaidh (i.e., the moor-chaffinch), another a pretty name, Breacan-Beithe, "little speckled one of the birch." But even he, for all his hillwisdom, could not tell me why it is that when the lapwing come again after the great winter-end storm about mid-March, welcome pioneers of the Spring that is stealing slowly up through the glens and straths of the south, they always, if they nest on the slope of a hillside, choose the east side for their unsheltered homes and where to lay their eggs. Do they so love the bleak wind ol the east? Hardly any bird takes so little trouble with the nest: often it is but the frost-hardened delve of a cow's hoof, a tangle of bent, or the hollow of a misplaced stone. I have heard that this is truer of the mainland than of the isles, but I have not found it so. Last March or April I remember that on the long, low-hilled and mainly "upland" island where I then was, not a single lapwing's nest but was on the east slope of grassy brae or sloping moor or pasture. But though he could not say a word on so strange, almost so inexplicable a habit, he could be positive as to the age of the eagle, and especially as to one aged iolair that he often saw on Maol-Aitonnach, the great hill that was half the world and more to him: namely, that the king-bird lived to be three hundred years. And he computed it thus; that an eagle lives three times less than an oak, and three times more than a deer. There is a familiar proverb that "Tri aois feidh aois firein; tri aois firein aois craoibh dharaich," "thrice the age of a deer,





White Weather


the age of an eagle" ("ferain," "fireun", and "fiolair" are variants of "iolair," whose more ancient name is "antar"
(an t-ar), one of the oldest names in the Gaelic language); "thrice the age of an eagle, the age of an oak." The stag lives a hundred years, or so it is universally believed: therefore the eagle lives three hundred, and the oak's age is at least nine hundred years. I recall, in connection with the eagle, a singular saying which I heard many years ago and have not since heard or anywhere encountered, to the effect that between dusk and dawn a bat's flight will be the equivalent of a thousand miles, that between dawn and dusk a swallow will cover a thousand miles, and that a thousand miles is the measure of an eagle's flight between sunrise and sunset.

Well, I must leave Maol-Ationnach, and the snow-held hills. Everywhere, now, the White Weather may have spread. Far south, listeners may hear the honk-honk of the travelling solander, that most musical and thrilling of all nocturnal sounds or of winter-dawns: or, like phantom-voices from the world of dreams, the kuilliyak-ee, kuilliyak-o of the wild swans, the Clann righ fo gheasan, the Enchanted sons of Kings, who, as they wheel through the snowy twilight under the dawn-star may remember the dim lands of the north, and a great mountain that rises among white and silent hills and looks down upon a black tarn I know of, so dark in the grip of black-frost, and so strangely spared of the snow, that not a white wing rests there, or floats overhead, but is mirrored as an enchanted sail in an enchanted sea.

Return to Contents