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Wild Life in the West Highlands

WHEN Caesar and his legions first invaded Britain, and for ages previous to that event, by far the greater portion of these Islands was covered with dense forest, widely extending marshes, wild and inaccessible labyrinths of wood and mountain. In these dark fastnesses roamed the shaggy Bison, the long-horned Urus, the Bear, the mighty Elk, the wild Boar and the Wolf; the Reindeer wandered over our Northern mountains, and the Beaver built its dams and houses in our streams. All these are gone; but by far the latest to linger was the wolf.

As men multiplied and cultivation increased, the forests gradually disappeared, and the wolf was driven ever back to the wilder and remoter districts; hence he lingered longest in Ireland, and in the vast forests and uninhabited country of the Scottish Highlands.

Any account of the animals formerly inhabiting this country and long extinct must, of necessity, be of the nature of a compilation, the material for which is diffuse, scattered and not accessible to everyone. The path of the student of to-day, however, has been made easier by the labours of those who have preceded him, chief among whom may be mentioned Mr. J. E. Harting, who, in his volume on Extinct British Animals, has gathered together in chronological order almost all that is to be found in history and tradition on the subject. To him I offer my grateful acknowledgment of indebtedness, as well as to Mr. J. A. Harvie-Brown for the information summarised in his well-known series of volumes on the vertebrate Fauna of Scotland. I have also had the advantage of material left by my brother, the late Edward R. Alston, some of it hitherto unpublished.

In earlier days all England was ravaged by wolves. By the Saxons the month of January was termed 'Wolf Month,' [Harting, Extinct British Animals.] the stress of winter no doubt making them bolder and more dangerous. In Wales they were so numerous, that in order to encourage their destruction King Edgar caused part of the tribute of the King of Wales to take the form of 300 wolfskins annually; and the story of Llewellyn, Prince of Wales in the time of King John, and his dog Gelert who saved the child from the wolf, is a household word to this day.

To come to Scotland, the historical notices, stories, and traditions as to wolves are so numerous that a few examples must suffice :

In 1427, in the reign of James I. of Scotland, an Act was passed for the destruction of wolves,' and there were many subsequent Acts for the same purpose. Among other things the law required: ` ilk baron sall chase and seek the quhelpes of wolves and gar slay them and sall give to the man that slays the Woolfe twa shillings.' In James II.'s time the reward is as follows: ` Whatsumever hee bee that slays ane Woolfe sall have sex pennyes.' [Harting, Extinct British Animals.] Lindsay, in Chronicles of Scotland, relates that in a hunt in 1528 in Atholl, provided for King James V. by the Earl of Atholl, ` VVoulff, fox and wild Cattis' together with ` harts and hynds ' were slain.

Again in 1563, in a hunt organised by the 4th Earl of Atholl for Queen Mary, when 2000 men were employed, 5 wolves, together with 36o deer, were among the spoils of the three days' chase.' Holinshed, in his Scotland till 1571, says that so dangerous were the wolves in the Highlands that it became necessary to erect refuges for the safety of travellers overtaken by night, which were termed ` Spittals,' hence probably ` Spittal of Glenshee' and other places similarly named.[Harting, Extinct British Animals.] Taylor, the Water Poet, travelling on foot through Scotland in 1618, says of the country traversed in going to Braemar, that for long he saw no animals but 'deer, wild horses, wolves, and such-like creatures.' Bellenden, in his translation of Hector Boece (1536), also notes `wild hors' along With the `Wolffis' in the Caledonian forests ; and says of the wolves that they were ` rycht noysum to the tame bestial in all parts of Scotland.' Sir Robert Gordon," says that the forests then were 'full of reid deer and roes, Woulffs, foxes, wyld catts, brocks, skyurells, whittrets, weasels, otters martrixes, hares and fumarts' ; and in 1621 the reward paid in that county for killing a wolf was, by Statute, £6 13s 4d.; 'Scots' no doubt. [Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland from its origin to the year 1630.]

The exact date of the extinction of the wolf in Scotland is doubtful. The great forests which had covered so much of the country had dwindled almost to the vanishing point. The cause of this is an open question, as to which opinions differ ; but it seems that, to some extent at least, forests were destroyed for the purpose of exterminating the wolves. In Stuart's Lays of the Deer Forest it is told how Oliver Cromwell caused great areas of oak and fir woods in Lochaber to be burnt for this purpose ; and the like measures were carried out in other localities.

Whether from considerable change of climate, as some think, or from whatever cause, the nature of the Caledonian forests appears to have become gradually much modified. HarvieBrown and Buckley [Fauna of the Moray Basin.] have this note from the late Lord Tweedmouth, referring to trees at Strath Glass: ` Sir Roderick Murchison's theory was that the fir had succeeded the Oak tree here, that the birch would supplant the fir, and oak would follow the birch, not in our time but in the future.' Now we find singular confirmation of this theory in the picturesque wood which fringes Loch Tulla, immediately opposite Lord Breadalbane's beautiful shooting lodge at the Black Mount. This wood is marked on the map, and known in the district to this day as the `Doire daraich' - the oak-grove; yet it consists of magnificent old twisted and gnarled Scots firs, with a little birch on the outskirts; but not a vestige of an oak, old or young, is to be seen. Whether any remains of ancient oaks have been brought to light in the course of woodcutting, quarrying and other recent excavations there, I do not know; as to this it would be interesting to learn what the experience of the Estate Authorities has been.

Pennant cites the well-known case of Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel's wolf in 1680 as 'the last'; but though possibly true for Lochaber, it was by no means the last in Scotland. In 1818, at the sale by auction of the London Museum there is an entry in the catalogue: ` Wolf-a noble animal in a large glass case. The last wolf killed in Scotland by Sir E. Cameron.'

Of traditions of `last wolves' there are many; but one or two examples will suffice. In Sutherland, about 1690-1700, old wolves and cubs were said to have been killed in three different places, Assynt, Halladale, and Glen Loth. This last story is well known. A man named Polson, and his two sons, having found a wolfs den in a cairn, the two lads crept in and found a family of cubs which they proceeded to kill, the father of the lads remaining without. To his horror he perceived the furious mother rushing homeward, attracted by the cries of the cubs. As it dashed past him into the entrance of the cave, Polson luckily succeeded in seizing it by the tail and holding it fast, thus darkening the aperture, on which one of the sons asked what was keeping out the light. ` If the tail breaks you will soon know that,' said the father, who succeeded, however, in killing the animal with repeated stabs of his dirk. So Scrope in Days of Deer-stalking. The name Polson is evidently an English form of ` MacPhail.'

A very persistent popular tradition gives as the date of the absolute last of the many 'last wolves' the year 1743;. The hero of the tale was one MacQueen of Poll-a'-Chrocain, and the locality, the Findhorn country near the Monadhliath range, then a wild and desolate district. The story is that a message was brought to MacQueen, a man of gigantic stature and noted for his courage and prowess as a hunter, that a` large black beast' had killed two children, and requiring him to join his chief, the MacIntosh of that day, with his dogs for a great hunt on the following day. In the morning all were at the gathering place, except MacQueen, whose non-appearance greatly irritated the Chief; and when at last MacQueen made his appearance he was received with impatience and remonstrance. `What is the hurry?' said MacQueen, unfolding his plaid and throwing down the newly severed head of the wolf at the MacIntosh's feet. 'There it is for you'; and the tradition further tells how he was rewarded by his Chief with the grant of the lands of Seann-achan 'for meal to his dogs.

I am indebted to the Rev. A. S. Macinnes of Glencoe for the following account of how the tradition of the `last wolf' ran among the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of that district as recently as 1908.

'The local tradition is that the last was killed by Sir Ewen (Eoghan) Cameron of Lochiel at the north end of Loch Arkaig (Arcaig). The place is called Glac-a'-Mhadaidh (Wolf's Hollow). Glen Moriston also claims the honour. In this case the honour of dispatching the lonely one is given to a woman. She had been away with food to some of her people who were cutting peats or hay, and on the way home was met by the wolf. She wound the towel in which she had carried the food round her hand and thrust the knife which she had for cutting the meat or cheese into the brute's mouth. He attacked her open-mouthed, and she thrust the knife down his throat, the towel shielding her hand from his teeth when he closed his jaws.'

The custom, so common in the Highlands, of interring the dead on islands is said, by constant tradition, to have prevailed in order that the graves should not be despoiled by the wolves. Such, for example, is the story of the graveyard in the island of Handa, and of those on Innishail on Loch Awe, and on the island of St. Munda on Loch Leven, at Glencoe. With regard to the last, the writer once asked a native if he knew why an inconvenient island on a stormy loch was chosen for that purpose, his reply was that it was 'on account of the tigers.' H e admitted, however, that the 'tiger' had never been indigenous in these parts, and that the wolf, ` Madadh-galla,'-as he called it -was doubtless meant. It was formerly the custom in Atholl to inter the dead in coffins formed of five flag-stones, for the same purpose.

`Madadh-allaidh,' wild hound, seems to be the correct Gaelic name for the wolf; in ordinary conversation usually 'Madadh-galla,' which appears to be merely a euphonic alteration. ' Faol' or ` Faol-chu,' with the same signification, is obsolete,' and 'Mac-tire,' Son of the Earth, is, of course, poetical.

The wolf has left his record in many placenames North and South. In the Lowlands those names compounded with 'wolf,' e.g. `Wolf-cleugh ' (several), `Wolf-lee,' ` Wolfhill' and many others, need no explanation. In Gaelic compound names, those ending in their English form in ` maddy' or ` vaddie ' doubtless mean `madadh,' and probably in most cases refer to the wolf; although ` Madadh ' is also used for a hound or dog. Such as Craigmaddy, Ardmaddy, Toulvaddie, Sronmhadaidh, Meall-a'-mhadaidh, - respectively the craig, the height, the hole, the nose or point, and the hill,-seem certainly to refer to the (wild dog.' Names compounded with 'cu' ('con') meaning simply 'dog,' may or may not refer to the wild animal; but there can be no doubt about ` Gleann-chon-fhiadh,' Glen of the wild dogs; and `Caolas-nan-Con,' the narrows of the dogs, on the salt-water Loch Leven, may very well refer to wolves. Achnacone (Achadh-nan-con) the field of dogs, is an example of the doubtful cases-unless, indeed, there is some tradition as to the origin of the name.

Doubtless wolves existed in Ireland also in great numbers ; and the Irish wolf-hound, which was used in their pursuit, was considered to be of such value that two of them were sent to Queen Elizabeth as a gift by an Irish Chieftain, together with two horses and two hawks ; and Sir Francis Walsingham also received in 1585 a `brace of good wolf-dogs, one black and the other white,' from Sir John Perrott, the LordDeputy of Ireland.' There is the same story there of several 'last wolves,' and the same difficulty in fixing the date of final extinction. Harting sums up thus :` So far as can now be ascertained, it appears that the wolf became extinct in England during the reign of Henry VII.; that it survived in Scotland until 1743; and that the last of these animals was killed in Ireland, according to Richardson, in or according to Sir James Emerson Tennent, subsequently to 1766.' But on Harting's own showing, these two latter dates for Ireland are extremely doubtful ; and a safer date to assume for the final extinction of the race in Ireland is 1710, when 'the last presentment for killing wolves was made in the County of Cork.'

To most of us, a reference to 'Wolves in Scotland’ naturally suggests some remote date; but, if the well-accredited tradition of MacQueen of Poll-a-Chrocain is accepted, there must be many now alive, whose parents in their youth may well have seen and spoken with the slayer of the ‘Last wolf in Scotland.’

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