|Where the Forest Murmers
Vol VI, by Fiona Macleod
Children of Wind and
The Clan of Peace
I was abroad on the moors one day in the companyof a shepherd, and we
were talking of the lapwing that were plentiful there, and were that day wailing
continuously in an uneasy wavering flight. I had seen them act thus, in this excess of
alarm, in this prolonged restless excitement, when the hill-falcons were hovering overhead
in the nesting season: and, again, just before the unloosening of wind and rain and the
sudden fires of the thundercloud. But John Logan the shepherd told me that now it was
neither coming lightnings nor drifting hawk nor eagle that made all this trouble among the
"peewits." "The wind's goin' to mak' a sudden veer," he said---adding
abruptly a little later, "an' by the same token we'll have rain upon us soon."
I looked at the cold blue of the sky, and at the drift of the few clouds trailing out of
the cast or south-east, and could see no sign of any change of wind or likelihood of rain.
"What makes you think that?" I asked.
"Weel," he answered literally, " I don't think it, It's the peewits an' the
craws that ken swifter than oursel; it's they that tell, an' I think they're better at the
business than thae folk wha haver awa' in the papers, an' are sometimes richt because they
canna help it an' oftener wrang because it's maistly guesswork.
"Well, what do the peewits and the crows say?---though I haven't seen crow or rook or
corbie for the last hour."
"Thae peewits an' a' the plovers are a' the same. If the win's gaun to leap out of
the east intae the sooth-wast, or slide quickly from the north intae the wast, they'll
gang on wheelin' an' wailin' like you for an hour or mair, an' that afore there's the
least sign o' a change. An' as for the craws . . . weel, if ye had been lookin' up a wee
whilie ago ye'd 'a seen a baker's dozen go by, slantin' on the edge o' the win', like
boats before a stiff breeze. Aye, an' see there! . . . there's a wheen mair comin' up
I glanced skyward, and saw some eight or ten rooks flying high and evidently making for
the mountain-range about two miles away to our left.
"D'ye see that . . . thae falling birds?"
"Yes," I answered, noticing a singular occasional fall in the general steady
flight, as though the suddenly wheeling bird had been shot: "and what o' that,
"lt's just this. when ye see craws flyin' steady like that an' then yince in a while
drapping oot like yon, ye may tak' it as meanin' there's heavy rain no that great way aff,
onyways, when ye see the like when thae black deils are fleein' straight for the bills, ye
maun feel sure frae the double sign that ye'll bae a good chance o' being drookit afore
One question led to another, and I heard much crow and corbie lore from John Logan, some
of it already familiar to me and some new to me or vaguely half-known---as the legend that
the corbies or ravens, and with them all the crow-kind, were originally white, but at the
time of the Deluge were turned sooty-black--- because the head of the clan, when sent out
by Noah from the Ark, did not return, but stayed to feed on the bodies of the drowned.
"So the blackness of death was put on them, as my old mother has it in her own
"Your old mother, John ?" I queried surprisedly: "I did not know you had
any one at your croft."
"Aye, but I have that, though she's a poor frail auld body an' never gangs further
frae the hoose than the byre an' the hen-yaird. If ye want to hear more aboot thae birds
an' the auld stories forenenst them, she'd mak' you welcome, an' we'd be glad an' prood to
offer ye tea: an' I'll just tell ye this, that ye'll gie her muckle pleasure if ye'll hae
a crack wi' her in the Gaelic, an' let her tell her auld tales in't. She's Hielan', ye ken
: tho' my faither was oot o' Forfar, Glen Isla way. She's never got hold ol the English
yet varra weel, an' to my sorrow I've never learnt the auld tongue, takin' after my
faither in that, dour lowland body as he was. I ken enough to follow her sangs, an' a few
words forbye, just enough to gie us a change as ye micht say."
I gladly accepted the shepherd's courteous offer; and so it was that an hour later we
found ourselves at Scaur-vàn, as his croft was called, from its nearness to a great
bleached crag that rose out of the heather like a light-ship in a lonely sea. By this
time, his prognostications---or those rather of the wheeling and wailing lapwings, and the
mountain-flying rooks---had come true. Across the wide desolate moors a grey wind soughed
mournfully from the south-west, driving before it long slanting rains and sheets of
drifting mist. I was glad to be out of the cold wet, and in the warm comfort of a room lit
with a glowing peat-fire on which lay one or two spurtling logs of pine.
A dear old woman rose at my entrance. I could see she was of great age, because her face
was like a white parchment seamed with a myriad of wrinkles, and her hands were so sere
and thin that they were like wan leaves of October. But she was fairly active, and her
eyes were clear--- and even, if the expression may be used, with a certain quiet fire in
their core---and her features were comely, with a light on them as of serene peace. The
old-fashioned white mutch she wore enhanced this general impression, and I remember
smiling to myself at the quaint conceit that old Mrs. Logan was like a bed-spirit of
ancient slumber looking out from an opening of frilled white curtains.
It was pleasant to sit and watch her, as with deft hands she prepared the tea and laid on
the table scones and butter and grey farrels of oatcake, while, outside, the wet wind
moaned and every now and then a swirl of rain splashed against the narrow panes of the
window, in whose inset stood three pots of geranium with scarlet flowers that caught the
red flicker of the fire-flaucht and warmed the grey dusk gathering without.
Later, we began to speak of the things of which her son John and I had talked on the moor:
and then of much else in connection with the legendary lore of the birds and beasts of the
hills and high moorlands.
As it was so much easier for her (and so far more vivid and idiomatic) she spoke in
Gaelic, delighted to find one who could understand the ancient speech: for in that part of
the country, though in the Highlands, no Gaelic is spoken, or only a few words or phrases
connected with sport, sheep-driving, and the like. I had won her heart by saying to her
soon after the tea---up to which time she had spoken in the slow and calculated but
refined Highland---English of the north-west---Tha mi cinnteach gu bheil sibh aois
mhór . . . "I am sure that you have the great age on you." She had feared
that because I had "the English way" I would not know, or remember, or care to
remember, the old tongue: and she took my hand and stroked it while she said with a quiet
dignity of pleasure, Is taitneach leam nach 'eil 'ur Gàidhlig air meirgeadh . . .
(in effect) " It is well pleased I am that your Gaelic has not become rusty."
It was after the tea-things had been set aside, and old Mrs. Logan had said reverently, Iarramaid
beannachadh ("Let us ask a blessing"), that she told me, among other
legendary things and fragments of old natural-history folklore, the following legend (or
holy Christmas tale, as she called it) as to how the first crows were black and the first
I will tell it as simply but also with what beauty I can, because her own words, which I
recall only as the fluctuating remembrance from a dream and so must translate from the
terms of dream into the terms of prose, though simple were beautiful with ancient idiom.
Thus she began:---Feumaidh sinn dol air ar n'-ais diùth fichead ceud bliadhna, which
is to say, "We must go back near two thousand (lit: twenty hundred) years.''
Yes, it is nigh upon twenty hundred years that we must go back. It was in the last
month of the last year of the seven years' silence and peace. When would that be, you ask?
Surely what other would it be than the seven holy years when Jesus the Christ was a little
lad. Do you not remember the lore of the elders? . . . that in the first seven years of
the life of the young Christ there was peace in the world, and that the souls of men were
like souls in a dream, and that the hearts of women were at rest. In the second seven
years it is said that the world was like an adder that sloughs its skin: for there was
everywhere a troubled sense of new things to come. So wide and far and deep was this, that
men in remote lands began moving across swamps and hills and deserts; that the wild beasts
shifted their lairs and moaned and cried in new forests and upon untrodden plains; that
the storks and swallows in their migration wearied their wings in high, cold, untravelled
ways; that the narwhals and great creatures of the deep foamed through unknown seas; that
the grasses of the world wandered and inhabited hills; that many waters murmured in the
wilderness and that many waters mysteriously sank from pools and wellsprings. In the third
seven years, men even on the last ocean-girdled shores were filled with further longing,
and it is said that new stars were flung into the skies and ancient stars were whirled
away, like dust and small stones beneath the wheels of a chariot. It was at the end of the
third seven years that a Face looked out of Heaven, and that from the edges of the world
men heard a confused and dreadful sound rising from the Abyss. Though the great and the
small are the same, it is the great that withdraws from remembrance and the small that
remains, and that may be why men have grown old with time, and have forgotten, and
remember only the little things of the common life: as that in these years the Herring
became the king of all fishes, because his swift gleaming clan carried the rumour of great
tidings to the uttermost places of ocean; as that in these years the little fly became
king over lions and panthers and eagles and over all birds and beasts, because it alone of
all created things had remained tameless and fearless; as that in these years the
wild-bees were called the Clan of Wisdom, because they carried the Word to every flower
that grows and spread the rumour on all the winds of the world; as that in these years the
Cuckoo was called the Herald of God, because in his voice are heard the bells of
But, as I was saying, it was in the last month of the last year of the seven years'
silence and peace: the seventh year in the mortal life of Jesus the Christ. It was on the
twenty-fifth day of that month, the day of His holy birth.
It was a still day. The little white flowers that were called Breaths of Hope and that we
now call Stars of Bethlehem were so husht in quiet that the shadows of moths lay on them
like the dark motionless violet in the hearts of pansies. In the long swards of tender
grass the multitude of the daisies were white as milk faintly stained with flusht dews
fallen from roses. On the meadows of white poppies were long shadows blue as the blue
lagoons of the sky among drifting snow-white moors of cloud. Three white aspens on the
pastures were in a still sleep: their tremulous leaves made no rustle, though there was a
soundless wavering fall of little dusky shadows, as in the dark water of a pool where
birches lean in the yellow hour of the frostfire. Upon the pastures were ewes and lambs
sleeping, and yearling kids opened and closed their onyx eyes among the garths of white
It was the Sabbath, and Jesus walked alone. When He came to a little rise in the grass He
turned and looked back at the house where His parents dwelled. Joseph sat on a bench, with
bent shoulders, and was dreaming with fixt gaze into the west, as seamen stare across the
interminable wave at the pale green horizons that are like the grassy shores of home. Mary
was standing, dressed in long white raiment, white as a lily, with her right hand shading
her eyes as she looked to the east, dreaming her dream.
The young Christ sighed, but with the love of all love in His heart. "So shall it be
till the day of days," He said aloud; "even so shall the hearts of men dwell
among shadows and glories, in the West of passing things: even so shall that which is
immortal turn to the East and watch for the coming of joy through the Gates of Life."
At the sound of His voice He beard a sudden noise as of many birds, and turned and looked
beyond the low upland where He stood. A pool of pure water lay in the hollow, fed by a
ceaseless wellspring, and round it and over it circled birds whose breasts were grey as
pearl and whose necks shone purple and grass-green and rose. The noise was of their wings,
for though the birds were beautiful they were voiceless and dumb as flowers.
At that edge of the pool stood two figures, whom He knew to be of the angelic world
because of their beauty, but who had on them the illusion of mortality so that the child
did not, know them. But He saw that one was beautiful as Night, and one beautiful as
He drew near.
"I have lived seven years," He said, "and I wish to send peace to the far
ends of the world."
"Tell your secret to the birds," said one.
"Tell your secret to the birds," said the other.
So Jesus called to the birds.
"Come," He cried; and they came.
Seven came flying from the left, from the side of the angel beautiful as Night. Seven came
flying from the right, from the side of the angel beautiful as Morning.
To the first He said: "Look into my heart."
But they wheeled about him, and with newfound voices mocked, crying, "How could we
see into your heart that is hidden" and mocked and derided, crying, "What is
Peace? Leave us alone! Leave us alone!"
So Christ said to them:
"I know you for the birds of Ahriman, who is not beautiful but is Evil. Henceforth ye
shall be black, as night, and be children of the winds."
To the seven other birds which circled about Him, voiceless, and brushing their wings
against His arms, He cried,
"Look into my heart."
And they swerved and hung before Him in a maze of wings, and looked into His pure heart:
and, as they looked, a soft murmurous sound came from them, drowsy-sweet. full of peace:
and as they hung there like a breath in frost they became white as snow.
"Ye are the doves of the Spirit," said Christ, "and to you I will commit
that which ye have seen. Henceforth shall your plumage be white and your voices be the
voices of peace."
The young Christ turned, for He heard Mary calling to the sheep and goats, and knew that
dayset was come and that in the valleys the gloaming was already rising like smoke from
the urns of the twilight. When He looked back he saw by the pool neither the Son of Joy
nor the Son of Sorrow, but seven white doves were in the cedar beyond the pool, cooing in
low ecstasy of peace and awaiting through sleep and dreams the rose. red pathways of the
dawn. Down the long grey reaches of the ebbing day He saw seven birds rising and falling
on the wind, black as black water in caves, black as the darkness of night in the old
And that is how the first doves became white, and how the first
crows became black and were called by a name that means the clan of darkness, the children
of the wind.