|Where the Forest Murmers
Vol VI, by Fiona Macleod
Tribe of the Plover
In the preceding paper I alluded to a Galloway rhyme---
By this time the neatherd by Loch Ken and the shepherd among the wilds of Kirkcudbright, like their kin from the Sussex downs, to the last sliabh or maol in Sutherland, may repeat the rhyme with safety. "The worst o' 't 's over." For to-day the curlews cry above the moors, the whimbrel's warning note echoes down the long sands o' Solway, and everywhere, from the salt bent by the coasts to the loneliest inlands, the lapwing wails. The Tribe of the Plover is in the land once more, and so Spring is with us. Not, perhaps, the Spring of the poets, who look (as Ailil in the old Celtic tale) under boughs of white blossom as to where the sunlight moves like a fawn of gold in a windless land, where the songs of birds turn to flowers, and where flowers change in the twilights of dawn into singing birds. Not thus does Spring come to us in the north. The black-headed gull screaming on the east wind, restless before his long flight to the wilderness and the grassy homes of the mating season: the hoodie-crow, weary of the south, heard on grey mornings when sleet whips the uplands: the troubled fieldfares, eager for lands oversea: the curlews crying along the Anglian fens and lamenting over Solway Moss: the mallard calling to his mate in them chill waters: the shadow of harrier and peregrine from Surrey upland to the long braes of Lammermuir---these, rather, are the signals of our bleak northern Spring. What though the song-thrush and the skylark have long sung, though the wheatear and chiff-chaff have been late in coming, though the first swallows have not had the word passed on by the woodpecker, and somewhere in the glens of Greece and Sicily the cuckoo lingers? How often the first have called Spring to us, and, while we have listened, the wind has passed from the south to the north and the rains have become sleet or snow: how often the missel-thrush has rung-in the tides of blossom, and the woods have but grown darker with gloom of the cast while the first yellow clans along the liedgerows have been swept by hail. How often, again, the wind of the west has been fragrant with cowslip and ox-eye, with daffodil and wallflower, with the pungent growing-odours of barbery and butcher's broom and the unloosening larch, when, indeed, the swallow-blooms have put on their gold, and the green woodpecker is calling his love-notes in the copses, and yet the delaying swallow has not been seen north of the Loire or where the Loiny winds between Moret and the woods of Fontainebleau. How often the wild-rose has moved in first-flame along the skirts of hornbeam-hedge or beech-thicket, or the honeysuckle begun to unwind her pale horns of ivory and moongold, and yet across the farthest elm-tops to the south the magic summons of the cuckoo has been still unheard in the windless amber dawn, or when, as in the poet's tale, the myriad little hands of Twilight pull the shadows out of the leaves and weave the evening dark. But when the cry of the plover is abroad we know that our less ideal, yet hardly less lovely, and welcome Spring is come at last: that Winter is old and broken and shuffling north, clinging to the bleak uplands and windygates: and this, even though Summer tarries still among the fields of France.
Because of their Association with solitary and waste places it is not strange that these harbingers of Swallow-time should everywhere have an evil repute. Even amid the unimaginative Sussex or Wilts peasants, the cry of the curlew, the wail of the lapwing, forbode sorrow, cover a vague menace: heard, at least, at dusk or at night, or in the grey gloaming at the edge of day.
The Cornish or Devon moorlander has many wild tales of the whimbrel, whose swift repeated whistle hurtling suddenly in lonely places has given rise to innumerable legends of the Seven Whistlers, the Demon Huntsmen, the Hunted Souls. In Iona and along the Earraid of Mull, where the whimbrel or "little curlew" is rarely heard till May, though it is generally called Guilbinnach, a diminutive of the Gaelic name of the curlew, Guilbin (pronounced sometimes Kooley-pin or guley-pin and sometimes gwilley-pin, a compound word signifying wailing music, I have heard it called Guilbhròn (Kwillyvrone), Wail of Sorrow, and again Keenyvàs or Death-Cry, and once, either in a tale or poem, by the singular name Guilchaismeachd, the Wail of Warning. Any lowland cottar, from west of Lammermuir to east of Ballantrae, will "ken a wheen strange tales o' the whaup," as the curlew is commonly called north of the Tweed and south of the Highland Line: and in some parts it is not only the children who shudder at its cry in lonely places at dusk, fearing "the bogle wi' the lang neb" like a pair of tongs, emissary of the Evil One, who gave this bird his long curved beak so that in the dark he might, like tongs lifting a stray coal or a nightjar snatching a wandering moth, carry off wrongdoers, unrepentant sinners, truants, and all naughty children generally. As for the lapwing, though more familiar than the curlew, and for many of us associated only with pastures and pleasant wilds, in the countries of the Gael dark things are whispered of the Adharcan-luachrack, or Little Horn of the Rushes ---thus poetically called from the pretty tuft of the male weep or peaseweep, curving like a horn over the delicately poised head, and from the bird's fondness for nesting in rushy places or among tangled grasses. Is he not said to be one of the bitter clan who mocked on the day of the Crucifixion, and so was made homeless for ever, with a cry that should be for ever like the cry of wandering sorrow? It is of little avail to say that love among the rushes is as sweet as elsewhere, that the wilderness can be home and that the wailing of repentant souls may be no more than angry vituperations against the hoodie-crow or laughing-gull or other marauders after lapwing-eggs. Is the weep not a spirit of the waste that was once human, but lost his soul, and so can never reach heaven nor yet dwell on earth, but must night and day be restless as the sea, and wail the long hours away from grey dawn to moonrise, from darkness to the paling of the stars? So they say, they who know: and who know with the unshakable surety of the unlettered peasant? In the Gaelic imagination the lapwing is something stranger and wilder still: a bird of the ancient world, of the dispossessed gods, nameless in truth because in truth a god nameless and homeless. The Gaelic poet hears in its lament the lamentation of what is gone never to come again, of what long since went away upon the wind, of what is going away on the wind: and he has called the weep the Birds of the Sorrowful Past. Is not the lapwing the bird of Dalua, that unknown mysterious god, that terrible Shadow who is the invisible, inaudible, secret, and dread divinity of weariness, separation, gloom, sadness, decay, desolation, madness, despair ?
It is not only in our own land that the lapwing and all the tribe of the plover bear so evil a repute. Not always thus, however: for in some parts of Germany this plover, I do not know why, is called the Virgin Mary's Dove, and is greeted with welcome. Even in Argyll there is a lost or confused kindly legend, for sometimes when children run along the moorland mocking the Pibhinn (pee-veen . . . the Gaelic equivalent of the lowland peaseweep and the southern pee-weet) they cry:
or words to that effect. In the East the Mohammedan women have a beautiful name for this bird---the Sister of the Brother: and, says the authority whence in some forgotten reading I took this note, "when these women hear the cry in the evening, they run from their houses and throw water in the air, that the bird may use it to assuage the pain of the burn on the top of the head, still marked by some black feathers." This is in allusion to an oriental legend that the lapwing was once a princess. This princess had a passionate love for a brother who had long been absent, and when one day she heard that he was on his return and close at hand and weary, she snatched a bowl of hot milk from the fire and hastened to meet him. But an evil-wisher, knowing her great love and how she would not rest till she found her brother, had misinformed her, and for all the pain on her head caused by the heated bowl, she ran now this way and now that, continually crying Brother! O Brother! Hours passed, and then days, and week after week and month after month the girl vainly sought her loved one. At last, feeling her strength ebbing, she cried aloud to Allah. Allah, moved by compassion, gave her wings and changed her into a lapwing or black-plover, the better to accomplish her purpose. Hence, when the little brown children on the desert or on the sun-scorched ways of the East look up and see the lapwings wheeling overhead in long circling flights and sudden dashes, they hear, in the wailing voices, either the long yearning or the sudden eager hope in the cry which to their ears sounds as Brother! O Brother!
Perhaps the German name of the Virgin Mary's Dove is merely a variant of the Swedish folk-legend concerning the lapwing. The tale goes that this bird was once one of Mary's handmaidens, but lost place and honour because of her theft of a pair of scissors. The punishment was transformation into a bird with a forked scissors-tail, and to go out across the fjords and above all the meadows and pastures and keep crying incessantly Tyvit-Tyvit-Tyvit (i.e., I stole them! I stole them!), I think, however, I have heard or read the same story in connection with the wagtail. In his interesting book on the Manners and Customs of the Russian People, Mr. Ralston has the following Slavonic plover-legend. When God had created the earth, and wished to supply it with seas and lakes and rivers, He ordered the birds to convey the waters to their appointed places. All obeyed except the lapwing, whose reason for this indolence and impiety was that it had no need of seas, lakes, or rivers, to slake its thirst. At that the Lord waxed wroth, and forbade it and its posterity ever to approach a sea or stream, and that it might quench its thirst only with that water which remains in hollows and among stones after rain. So from that time this sorrowful plover has never ceased its wailing cry of Peet-Peet! (i.e., Drink! Drink!). In another northern book (Thiel's Danish Traditions, vol. ii.) there are two lapwing-legends not less homely than the Russian and the Swedish.
When Christ, says one, was a bairn, He took a walk one day and came to an old crone who was busy baking. She said she would give Him a new cake for His trouble, if He would go and split her a little wood for the oven. Christ did as she wanted, and the old wife put aside a small bit of dough for the promised cake. When the batch was drawn from the oven, however, she saw to her surprise and chagrin that the wee bit cake was equally large with the rest, So again she broke off a small bit of dough; but again the same thing happened. Hereupon she broke out with, "That's a vast oure-muckle cake for the likes o' thee; thee's get thy cake anither time." At this injustice Christ was angered, so He said to the old crone, "I split your wood as you asked me, and you would not give me the little cake you promised. Now you in turn shall go and cleave wood, and that, too, as long as the world shall last!" And with that our Lord turned her into a vipa (a weep). "So the weep fares betwixt heaven and earth as long as the world lasts; and fare where she will she says no other words than Klyf ved! Klyf ved! (i.e., Cleave Wood! Cleave wood!).
The other Danish plover-tale given by Thiel is one of the familiar Crucifixion legends. While Christ still hung upon the Cross, three birds came flying towards Calvary, the Styrkham (the Stork), the Svalham (the Swallow), and the Pün-ham (Pee-weet). As they flew overhead each cried a cry. The stork cried, Styrk ham! Styrk ham! (i.e., Strengthen Him!), and so has this bird called ever since, and been under God's blessing and man's care. The swallow cried, Sval ham! Sval ham! (i.e., Cool or refresh Him!), and so is evermore known by that name, and likewise is loved by man and guided by God. But the weep wheeled about the Cross, shrieking derisively, Pun ham! Pün ham! (i.e., Pine Him, make Him suffer!), and so is not only accursed by men from then till now, but is under God's ban till the Last Day, after which the lapwing's wail will never be heard again.
Although Guilbnn, or Wailing Music, is, as I have said, the common Gaelic name for the Curlew, as the Whaup in the lowlands, it is also often called the Crann-toch, the long-beaked one, or Coulter-neb, as they say in Dumfries and Galloway. Of the mythical origin of the name Crann-toch (a very obvious designation, and needing no mythical legend one would think) I remember hearing a year or so ago from a boatman of Lismore a wild and romantic legend, but it is too long to quote now. Few Gaelic tales, few poems, in which are not to be heard the voices of the wind or the sea or the wailing curlew. We have perhaps no bird more wild and solitary: a Highland saying places it with the herons and wild-geese. "When a man has shot six herons, six wildgeese, and six curlews, he may call himself a sportsman."
When the Golden Plover, or Grey Plover as he is sometimes called, wheels in Spring above the fallowlands of the North the ploughman bears in his cry Plough weel! Sow weel! Harrow weel! This beautiful bird---of whom no poet has written a finer line than Burns in
is not exempt from the common tradition of uncanniness. He, too, is classed with the dreaded "Seven Whistlers": and from Cornwall to Iceland he is often vituperated as one of these, or as of the spectral pack called Gabriel's Hounds, or as of Odin's Phantom Chase. I spoke of a name I had heard in Iona and Mull for the whimbrel, but applicable also to any plover or curlew . . . the Guilchaismeachd or Wail of Warning, the Alarm Bird so to say: and this repute is held by the plover in many mining parts of England, where it is said that the miners will not descend a pit if the "Whistlers" be heard lamenting overhead. To this day there are many regions not only in our own country but abroad where the plovers are called the Wandering Jews, from an old legend that the first of the clan were the transmuted souls of those Jews who assisted at the Crucifixion. An old woman who gave me some plovers' eggs told me in all good faith that the feadag (the Gaelic name, equivalent to flute-note or mellow whistle) neither ate nor drank but fed upon the wind . . . a superstition said to have been almost universal in the Middle Ages.
As for many of us, surely they are birds of our love. The cry of the curlew on the hill, the wail of the lapwing in waste places, have not these something of the same enthralling spell, the same entrancing call---the summons to the wilderness, whether that be only to solitude, or to wild loneliness, or to the lonelier solitudes, the dim limitless wilderness of the imagination---that the wind has, at night, coming with rain through woods, or that the sea has, heard in inland hollows, or when athwart a long shore or among fallen rocks the tide rises on the breast-sweil of coming storm? They call us to the wild.