Where the Forest Murmers,
Vol VI, Fiona Macleod

At The Rising of The Moon

"The dew is heavy on the grass: the corncrake calls: on a cloudy juniper the nightjar churrs: the fhionna or white moth wavers above the tall spires of the foxglove. The midsummer eve is now a grey-violet dusk. At the rising of the moon a sigh comes from the earth. Down the moist velvety ledges of the dark a few far-apart and low-set stars pulsate as though about to fall, but continuously regather their tremulous white rays. The night of summer is come."
With these words I ended my preceding essay, "The Coming of Dusk" There was not space there to speak of other, of so many of those nocturnal things which add so much to the mystery and spell of the short nights of summer: the arrowy throw of the bat, a shadowy javelin flung by a shadowy hand against a shadowy foe; the nightjar, the dusky clans of the owl, moonrise at sea or among pinewoods, the dance of the moths round certain trees, the faint woven cadence of the wheeling gnat.-columns, the sudden scream of the heron or the wailing of seafowl, or the mournful noise of the moon-restless lapwing, wind in the grass, wind in the hollows of woods, wind among the high corries of the hills. These and a hundred other sounds and sights fill the summer-darkness: the hill-fox barking at the moonshine, the heather-cock in defiance of alarm, deer panting among the bracken, the splash of herring or mackerel on the moonlit breast of the bay, dogs baying a long way off and from farmstead to farmstead. One could not speak of all these things, or of the hundred more. In the meadows, in woods, on upland pastures, from beech-thicket to pine-forest, on the moors, on the hills, in the long valleys and the narrow glens, among the dunes and seabanks and along wave-loud or wave-whispering shores, everywhere the midsummer-night is filled with sound, with fragrance, with a myriad motion. It is an exquisite unrest: a prolonged suspense, to the dayworn as silence is, yet is not silence, though the illusion is wrought out of the multitudinous silences which incalculably intersperse the continuous chant of death, the ceaseless hymn of life.
Everywhere, but far north in particular, the summer night has a loveliness to which the least sensitive must in some degree yield, creates a spell which must trouble even a dulled imagination, as moonlight and the faintest rippling breath will trouble unquickened pools into a sudden beauty. It is a matter of temperament, of mood and circumstance rather, where one would find oneself, at the rising of the moon, in the prolonged twilights of summer. To be in a pinewood shelving to a calm sea breaking in continuous foam: or among mountain solitudes, where all is a velvety twilight deepening to a green darkness, till the sudden moon rests athwart one hill-shoulder like a bronze shield, and then slowly is lifted and dissolves into an amber glow along all the heights: or on great moors, where one can see for leagues upon leagues, and hear nothing but the restless crying of the curlew, the screech of a heron, the abrupt unknown cries and fugitive sounds and momentary stealthy rustlings of nocturnal solitudes. Or, again, on a white roadway passing through beech-woods: or on a gorse-set common, with the churring of a nightjar filling the dusk with the unknown surge and beat in one's own heart: or on the skirts of thatched hamlets, where a few lights linger, with perhaps the loud breathing and trampling of cattle: or in a cottage-garden, with mignonette and cabbage-roses and ghostly phlox, or dew-fragrant with musk and southernwood: or in an old manor-garden, with white array of lilies that seem to have drunk moonlight, and damask and tea-rose in odorous profusion, with the honey-loving moths circling from moss-rose to moss-rose, and the night-air delaying among tall thickets of sweet-pea. Or, it may be, on quiet seawaters, along phantom-cliffs, or under mossed and brackened rocky wastes: or on a river, under sweeping boughs of alder and willow, the great ash, the shadowy beech. But each can dream for himself. Memory and the imagination will create dream-pictures without end.
Of all these midsummer-night creatures, alluded to here or in the preceding essay, there may be none more allied to poetic association than the nightjar, but surely there is none more interesting than the owl itself, that true bird of the darkness. That phantomflight, that silent passage as from the unseen to the unseen, that singular cry, whether a boding scream or a long melancholy hoot or a prolonged too-whoo, how blent they are with one's associations of the warm husht nights of summer. But is not the nightjar also of the same tribe? Fern-owl is a common name; also jar-owl, heather-owl. I have heard it called the heather-bleat, though probably that name commonly indicates the snipe. How well I remember from childhood that puzzling riddle

"The bat, the bee, the bittterflee, the cuckoo and the gowk,
The heather-bleat, the mire-snite; how many birds is that?"

I was never "taken-in " by the first three, but as I had been told, or had somehow discovered, that the cuckoo was often companioned by the meadow-pipit I thought the latter must be the "gowk." So I guessed "four," taking the beather-bleat to be the nightjar: and it was long before I discovered that the answer was two, for only the cuckoo and the snipe were really named.
I wonder how many names the Owl has! Those alone which, like the archetypal name, derive from the old root-word ul (to howl or hoot or screech), must run to some thirty to forty at least, from the Anglo-Saxon "hule" and later " ullet " to the familiar " hoolet " or "hoolit " or "howlet," or again, the still current south English "ullud," "ullot," or "ullyet." We have many Gaelic names also, as (for the snowy or barn owl) "cailleach-bhan," the white auld wife, or "cailleach-oidhche," the night-witch; or (for the tawny owl) "bodachoidhche," the night-bogle ; or (for the screech-owl) the onomatopoeic "corra-sgriachaig," or several terms meaning "long-eared " or "horned"; and three or four designations, either onomatopoeic, as perhaps "ulacan" (though both in sound and meaning it is the same as the Southland "hooligan"), or adaptations of the Teutonic root-word, as "Olcadan" or "ullaid." The name "yogle" may be heard along the Lothian, Yorkshire, and East Anglian coast-lands, and is doubtless a "lift" from the Danish "Katyugle" or "Katogle": indeed "catyogle," "catogle," and "catyool " (with the quaint by-throw "cherubim ") occur in several parts of England. In Clydesdale I have often heard the horned owl called the "luggie" (long-ears). Some names with probably only local meaning I do not understand, as for example, the "Wite" (not the adjective, but possibly the old word for churchyard and even church) ; the "padge" or "pudge" of Leicestershire; the Jack-baker, billy-wix, and the eastland "will-a-wix." Is this the cry of the young owl awaiting food?) The "jilly," which I heard once at or near Windermere, is probably a corruption of the Gaelic "gheal" (white), as many north-Celtic names survive in that region. Our commonest name in the Highlands is "comhachag" (co-ach-ak) probably as onomatopoeic a term as "cuach" or "cuthag" (coo-ak) for the cuckoo, or "fitheach " (fee-ak) for the raven. It is said that the longest poem on the Owl in any language is in Gaelic. The Oran na Comhachaig or Song of the Owl was composed by an aged Highland bard named Donald Finlay somewhere about three hundred years ago---about 1590 says one local account, though I do not know on what authority: a rinn Doinhnull Mac Fhionnlaidh nan Dan, sealgair 'us bard ainmeil Abrach, mu thiomchioll 1590 (done by Donald Finlay of the Songs, the celebrated Lochaber huntsman and poet, in or about 1590)--- I have again and again heard the second of its sixty-seven---in another version seventy---quatrains quoted in support of the theory that an owl lives at least a hundred years; some are credited with far greater age:

"'S co-aoise mise do'n daraig,
  Bha nafhallain ann sa choinnicli,
  '
S ioma linn a chuir ini romham,
 
'S gur mi comhachag bhochd na sroine."

("I am old as the oak . . . lit. 'the ancientness upon me is that of the oak' . . . whose mossy roots spread wide: many a race have I seen come and go: and still I am the lonely owl of Srona.")

In every country the owl is a bird of mourning. It is also the bird of night pre-eminently (what a pity the old-English owl-light as a variant for twilight has become obsolete); the bird of moonlight or the Moon; the bird of Silence, of Ruin, of the Grave, of Death. In some places a dead owl is still transfixed to the outside of a door, to avert lightning. Perhaps it is for the same reason that a caged owl is held to be a dangerous co-inmate of a house during a thunderstorm. A thousand legends have woven this sombre raiment of associations, though the owl's only distinction from other birds of prey is that it can see in the dark and is nocturnal in habit. It loves solitary places, because there undisturbed, but is not all darkness solitary? In Syria the peasant calls the owl "the mother of ruins " which is poetically apt, as is the German, "the sorrowing mother," but our northern  night-witch" and the grim Breton "soul-harrier " (surely a survival of the Greek idea of the owl as a soul-guide) are unjust to an inoffensive bird whose concern is not with souls and graves and ruins but with rats and mice. A German naturalist has even, I remember, written to prove that the owl is pre-eminently a bird of love, of singlehearted devotion, "the dove of the night" and there is a Danish poem about "the SilverSpinner" weaving a thin invisible web in the dusk wherein to entangle and bring close the hearts of lovers. Old Donald Finlay of the Songs must have had some such idea in his mind when in his Song of the Owl he makes the bird say in effect, ,I may be old and forlorn, but am not to be blamed for that.neither of rapine nor of lies have I ever been guilty: is there a grave anywhere that I have ever violated? and to the mate of my choice have I ever been faithless?"
This name of the Silver-Spinner, however, though often in Germany, Scandinavia, and our own country associated with the poetic legend alluded to, is really a romantic derivative from the ancient connection of the small owl with the Maiden Maid goddess who presided over spinning as one of her foremost womanly attributes. "The Woman's Bird," as the small owl is sometimes called, deserves the name, for in almost every language ancient and modern, except English and Finnish, its name is feminine. The sacred bird of Athens or the Lesbian Nyctimenê is still " the woman's bird" among the Australian aborigines: Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Celtic, Icelandic, Vendish, German, French, Hungarian, all afford the same sex-indication. The great white owl, however, is the bird of heroes, wanderers, the night-foray, war, lightning, desolation, solitude, and death. It is said, I know not how demonstrated or traced, that the name Ulysses is but the variant of the Etruscan Ulixé or Sikulian Oulixes, words supposed to indicate the ululation of the owl's cry (in Italy I have heard the name of the sweet and plaintive little aziola or aziolo derived from the same source): and that it was given to the Homeric hero because he was the first to adventure sea-voyaging on moon-lit nights, because he too was a night-wanderer. But unless Ulixé or Oulixes be older than the Greek name, what of Odysseus? In like fashion some speculative philologists derive "Pallas", from the Turanian owl-name Pö11ö.
I heard a singular fragment of owl-folklore once on the island of Arran. The narrator said the white owl had seven distinct hoots, but all I need recall here is that the seventh was when the  Reul Fheasgair" ceased to be the Evening Star and became the "Reul na Maidne," the Day-Star. Was this a memory of some myth associating the owl with the other world (or darkness or moontide or Night) disclosed every eve at the opening of the Gates of Dusk? . . . the time of sleep and dreams, of strange nocturnal life, of silence and mystery, between the soft white fire of the Vesper Star, the star of Labour as the Bretons call it, meaning that with its advent the long day's labour ceases, and its cold serenity when it has climbed the ramparts of the midsummer night, and, as Phosphoros, the Day-Star, Son of the Morning, flashes like a lance-point against the milky onflood of the dawn?

contents