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NORTH BRITISH REVIEW.
FEBRUARY 186 4.
ART. I.-1. Natural History and Sport in Moray : Collected
from the Journals and Letters of the late Charles St. John.
Edinburgh, 1863. 2. Life in Normandy, Sketches of French Fishing, Farming,
Cooking, Natural History, and Politics. Drawn from Na
ture. Two vols. Edinburgh, 1863. 3. Reminiscences of the late Thomas Assheton Smith, Esq.; Or,
the Pursuits of an English Country Gentleman. By Sir
JOHN E. EARDLEY-WILMOT, Bart. London, 1860. 4. Home Walks and Holiday Rambles. By the Rev. E. A.
JOHNS. London, 1863. 5. The Recreations of a Country Parson. London, 1862. 6. The Field—the Country Gentleman's Newspaper. London, v.y.
Is it possible to give a stranger some idea of the country life of England--of those enjoyments which enter so deeply into the nature of our islander? Perhaps not; but with the help of the books named above, and selected from the more recent works bearing on our subject, we propose to try.
Let us begin at the beginning. When a French parent has a son to educate, he sends him to a “college” in a town. An English paterfamilias, if he can afford it, sends his boy to Eton or Harrow, or, if he cannot stand the expense, he seeks out some minor rural school, where there are good masters and also good playing fields and a river to row on. And each has his reward. The French school-boy is a pretty-behaved young gentleman. The Jesuits make fair classical scholars still, though not so good as of old; and an average French educated boy can write his own language, and speak whole sentences grammatically-accomplishments which fall only to the favoured few in England.
VOL. XL.-NO. LXXIX.
On the other hand, the English public school boy, if not taught like the ancient Persians “to ride, and shoot with the bow, and speak the truth,” can for the most part, and as a class, sit a horse across country, shoot with fowling-piece and rifle, box, row, swim, and play at cricket and foot-ball. The love of truth, we hope, is not peculiar to either country; but the courageous training of an English boy must have some effect in bracing the mind to honesty, as well as the limbs to labour. There is another result of this English training. From school-days to old age an Englishman looks for his recreation and pleasure to the country. The feverish whirl of a London “season," or a tempting of fortune at Baden or Homburg, only sends him back more eager for the sport, the farming, planting, gardening of home. The rural passion is imitated and affected in other countries. In an Englishman it is genuine, and instead of wearing out amidst the straight hedges and restraints of civilisation, is extending with new pursuits and modern acquirements. A huntsman (of hounds) or a deer-stalker always knew he must study the nature and habits of his “ chase," and of the serviceable animals which he trained to assist in it. But now every sportsman worthy of the name is more or less a Naturalist. Å good part of his enjoyment is derived from observing and comparing the habits of the game, the country, the climate; and so, the circle widening, all natural sights and things. When we speak of “ Englishmen,” we include the whole inhabitants of our islands, and with some modification, what we have said is even peculiarly applicable to Scotsmen; for many natives of the capital and of the provincial towns of England have no definite connexion with any rural district; but in Scotland, all of us without exception are “of” some country. Even the tradesman who works in a hereditary shop in Edinburgh, has a bond of kindred in some farm or rural village, where his children go to spend their holidays; and Donald MacAlpine, who sells whisky in a cellar of the Gallowgate of Glasgow, has his memory stored with the stories of his native glen in the far west, and perhaps some notion of gentility, as the laird's far awa kinsman. To that glen his affections turn. He may never get there : he is unfit for its life. But in feeling and imagination he is still the Highlander.
We have said that a sportsman readily becomes a naturalist. The pleasure of studying the animals of game is apt to preponderate over the amusement of hunting them. A good specimen of this order of sportsman was Mr. St. John, the author whose work stands first of those prefixed to this Article. Without a scientific education, or any peculiar addiction to science, he has, by the accuracy of his observations and faithful
description, made a name and established an authority among naturalists; while his hearty love for sport and all rural pleasures has given his volumes a place on the shelf with White's History of Selborne, and the books that charmed our youth.
Charles St. John was well-born, being the grandson of Frederick second Viscount Bolingbroke. We get a slender outline of his life in this volume, and something of his school-habits we derive from his friend and fellow-sportsman, Mr. Jeans :
" At school he was far ahead of me in all the theory and some of the practice of wild sports. But it was under the tuition of a certain old pensioner, who in virtue of his weekly function in the school, went by the name of the drill-sergeant, that we both attained to no mean proficiency in spinning for trout and trolling for pike in the river Arun whenever we could shirk out of bounds on half-holidays, as well as in setting night-lines artistically for eels.
“Even at that time St. John had the zoological bump largely developed. His box (or scobb, as we used to call it, after the Winchester fashion) was generally a sort of menagerie-dormice in the one till, stag-beetles of gigantic size, and wonderful caterpillars in paper boxes, in the other, while sometimes a rabbit, sometimes a guinea-pig, or perhaps a squirrel, was lodged below in a cell cunningly constructed of the Delphin classics and Ainsworth's Dictionary. He was scarcely ever without live stock of some sort."
A youth of this nature was not likely to endure the restraint of a public office in London,—the life appointed for him by his family, and he soon emancipated himself, got down among the solitudes of Sutherland, had the fortune to find a wife there, and continued ever after to lead the life of a sportsman and naturalist, his choice of residence only partly modified by the convenience of his family, and their education.
“ In due time," writes his biographer," he discovered the region best suited to his taste and happiness, in the “ laigh' of Moray, a fertile and well-cultivated country, with dry soil and bright and bracing climate, with wide views of sea and mountain, within easy distance of mountain sport, in the midst of the game and wild animals of a low country, and with the coast indented by bays of the sea and studded with frequent fresh-water lakes, the haunt of all the common wild-fowl and of many of the rarer sorts.”
What an advantage to a district to attach to it a writer like St. John! The whole land, its rivers, lakes, hills, and valleys, become classical, and that which before was only known as a good wheat-growing champaign is henceforward familiar in the mouths of naturalists and that larger class, the lovers of nature and sport.
St. John continued to reside in Morayshire for the most part till his fatal malady and premature death. His Wild Sports of the Highlands has, since its publication in 1846, been a standard work with all lovers of his pursuits. The present volume is a selection from his journals, and correspondence with friends. The arrangement of these materials, which is according to months, may in some instances have the advantage of furnishing a comparison of a particular season in several different years,
but this scarcely compensates for the broken and fragmentary shape it has given the book. We observe, too, some uncertainty as to the precise years in which certain observations are recorded, and here and there a little repetition, either of something already noticed in this volume, or of remarks in the author's other works.
These defects make us regret the more that St. John had not lived to give his collections to the world. His arrangement of his own materials would have added immeasurably to their value; but, taking it as it is, we find in this little volume a mass of very careful observation of natural objects of interest to all sportsmen and naturalists. For the district where the writer lived, and to which he especially directed his attention, the book is invaluable.
In trying to give some account of this unpretending collection, let us first state the author's own claim of merit :
“I have been particularly careful to describe and note down nothing, the authenticity of which I am not certain of. Indeed, every bird here mentioned, with one or two exceptions, I have either killed or seen myself during my wanderings in wood and plain for several years in this district. I have carefully avoided the great error of taking things on hearsay.”
Take a description of a minute favourite as a specimen of simple, truthful painting :
“ The little water-rail (Rallus aquaticus) seems to be a great wanderer. I find its track, and the bird itself, in the most unlikely places ; for instance, I put up one in a dry furze field, and my retriever caught another in a hedge, at some distance from the water. I took the latter bird home alive to show to my children. When I took him out of my pocket, in which most unaccustomed situation he had been for two hours, the strange little creature looked about him with the greatest nonchalance possible, showing fight at everything that came near him; and when, after having gratified the curiosity of the children, we turned him loose in a ditch of running water, he went away jerking up his tail, and not seeming to hurry himself, or to be in the least disconcerted."
St. John's residence was always a receptacle for wounded animals, and a multitude of pets kept by his children,-wildfowl, hawks, roe, owls, ravens, now and then a trapped fox; whatever was tameable was tamed, but nothing was refused the benefit of that sanctuary.
Anecdotes of Animals.
The keeper at Spynie had caught a wounded pochard, and it was taken to St. John's, where it soon got familiar, and lived in comfort till an accident occurred :--
“ About three weeks ago our tame pochard had been carried away in a hurricane of wind. To my surprise, one day this month, I saw this same pochard swimming about the loch alone, and apparently very tame. One of the children who was with me, and whose own especial property the bird had been, whistled to it in the same way in which he had been accustomed to call it; upon which, to his unbounded joy, it immediately came towards us, and for some time continued swimming within a few yards of where we stood, evidently recognising us, and seeming glad to see us again.
“A few days afterwards we again saw him; but he was now accompanied by a flock of fourteen or fifteen others. This was remarkable, both on account of the time of year, and because this kind of duck is very rare in this region, and has never been known to breed in the neighbourhood: but all birds seem to have some means of calling and attracting those of the same species, in a way that we cannot understand."-(June, p. 169.)
We do not remember to have seen the following fact noted by naturalists before. It may serve for an illustration to the philosopher who prefers the virtues of savage life :-
"Some wild ducks that I had domesticated became gregarious, one drake serving many ducks, like tame poultry. But, one season, having been neglected, and wandering out in the fields and ditches, they resumed their wild habits, paired, built, and lived in pairs quite conjugally."
Most sportsmen know, by the peculiar sloping upward soar of the wood-pigeon, when the bird has young, but we have not before heard this observation of the crow =
“When a crow leaves her nest on being disturbed, her quiet, sneaking manner of threading her way through the trees tells that she has young or eggs in the thicket, as plainly as if she uttered cries of alarm.”
Let this touch of nature help to show that sportsmen are not cruel and hard-hearted :
“I remember a hen grouse being caught by the leg in a common vermin trap which had been set for ravens. It happened that the trap was not looked at till late the following day, when we found that the cock grouse had brought and laid to his unfortunate mate a quantity of young heather shoots: they were cnough to have nearly filled a hat, and the poor bird must have been employed many hours in collecting them. I cannot express how grieved I was at the hen having been caught."
The following observation, though not new, is more definite, and apparently from more precise experiment than it has been given before