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Sketches of the Wild Sports & Natural History of the Highlands
Chapter XXIII

Findhorn River — Bridge of Dulsie — Beauty of Scenery — Falls of River — Old Salmon-fisher —Anglers — Heronry — Distant View — Sudden Rise of River  — Mouth of River.

Nothing can exceed the beauty of the river and the surrounding scenery when it suddenly leaves the open and barren ground and plunges at once into the wild and extensive woods of Dunearn and Fairness. The woods at Dunearn are particularly picturesque, in consequence of the fir-trees (at least those near the river) having been left rather farther apart than is usual, and no tree adds more to the beauty of scenery than the Scotch fir, when it has room to spread out into its natural shape. The purple heather, too, in these woods forms a rich and soft groundwork to the picture. What spot in the world can excel in beauty the landscape comprising the old Bridge of Dulsie. spanning with its lofty arch the deep black pool, shut in by grey and fantastic rocks, surmounted with the greenest of grass swards with clumps of the ancient weeping-birches with their gnarled and twisted stems, backed again by the dark pine-trees? The river here forms a succession of very black and deep pools, connected with each other by foaming and whirling falls and currents up which in the fine pure evenings you may see the salmon making curious leaps. I shall never forget the impression this scenery made on me when I first saw it. The bridge of the Dulsie, the dark-coloured river, and the lovely woodlands, as I viewed them while stretched on the short greensward above the rocks, formed a picture which will never be effaced from my memory. I cannot conceive a more striking coup d'oeil, nor one more worthy of the pencil of an artist. On these rocks are small flocks of long-horned, half-wild goats, whose appearance, with their shaggy hair and long venerable beards, adds much to the wildness of the scene.

The blackcock and the roebuck now succeed the grouse and red-deer. The former is frequently to be seen either sitting on the trunk of a fallen birch-tree or feeding on the juniper-berries, while the beautiful roebuck (the most perfect in its symmetry of all deer) is seen either grazing on some grassy spot at the water's edge, or wading through a shallow part of the river, looking round when half way through as timid and coy as a bathing nymph. When disturbed by the appearance of a passer by, he bounds lightly and easily up the steep bank of the river, and after standing on the summit for a moment or two to make out the extent of the danger, plunges into the dark solitudes of the forest.

On the left side of the river, as it proceeds towards the sea, is a succession of most beautiful banks and heights, fringed with the elegant fern and crowned with juniper, which grows to a very great size, twisting its branches and fantastic roots in the quaintest forms and shapes imaginable over the surface of the rocks. The lovely weeping-birch is everywhere, and about Coulmony are groves of magnificent beech and other forest-trees. On the opposite side are the wooded hills and heights of Relugas, a spot combining every description of beauty. The Findhorn here receives the tributary waters of the Dure, a burn, or rather river, not much inferior in size and beauty to the main river. Hemmed in by the same kind of birch-grown banks and precipitous rocks, every angle of the Findhorn river presents a new view and new beauty, and at last one cannot restrain the exclamation of " Surely there is no other river in the world so beautiful!" At Logie the view of the course of the river, and the distance seen far up the glen till it is gradually lost in a succession of purple mountains, is worth a halt of some time to enjoy. The steep banks opposite Logie, clothed with every variety of wood, are lovely, and give a new variety to the scene as we enter on the forests of Darnaway and Altyre. The wood-pigeon coos and breeds in every nook and corner of the woods, and towards evening the groves seem alive with the song of blackbirds and thrushes, varied now by the crow of the cock pheasant, as he suns himself in all his glittering beauty on the dry and sheltered banks of the river.

Still, for many miles is the river shut in by extensive woods and overhung by splendid fir, larch, and other trees, while the nearly perpendicular rocks are clothed with the birch and the ladylike bird-cherry, the holly and bright-berried mountain-ash growing out of every niche and cleft, and clinging by their serpent-like roots to the bare face of the rock; while in the dark damp recesses of the stone grow several most lovely varieties of pale-green ferns and other plants. In the more sunny places you meet with the wild strawberry and purple fox-glove, the latter shooting up in graceful pyramids of flower. Between Logie and Sluie are some of the highest rocks on the river, and from several hundred feet above it you can look straight down into the deep pools and foaming eddies below you. At a particular gorge, where the river rushes through a passage of very few feet in width, you will invariably see an old salmon-fisher perched on a point of rock, with his eye intent on the rushing cataract below him, and armed with a staff of some sixteen feet in length ending in a sharp hook, with which he strikes the salmon as they stop for a moment to rest in some eddy of the boiling torrent before taking their final leap up the fall. Watch for a few moments, and you will see the old man make a peculiar plunge and jerk with his long clip into the rushing water, and then hoisting it into the air he displays a struggling salmon impaled on the end of the staff, glancing like a piece of silver as it endeavours to escape. Perhaps it tumbles off the hook, and dropping into the water, floats wounded away, to fall a prey to the otter or fox in some shallow below. If, however, the fish is securely hooked, there ensues a struggle between it and the old man, who, by a twist of his stick, turns himself and the fish towards the dry rock, and having shaken the salmon off the hook, and despatched it with a blow from a short cudgel which he keeps for the purpose, covers it carefully up with wet grass, and lowering the peak of his cap over his eyes, resumes his somewhat ticklish seat on the rock to wait for the next fish. On some days, when the water is of the right height, and the fish are numerous and inclined to run up the river, the old man catches a considerable number; though the capture of every fish is only attained by a struggle of life and death between man and salmon, for the least slip wound send the former into the river, whence he could never come out alive. I never see him catch one without feeling fully convinced that he will follow the example of his predecessor in the place, who was washed away one fine day from the rock, and not found for some days, when his body was taken out of the river several miles below. In these pools (every one of which has a name) you will see some sportsman angling, not like the sans-culotte shepherd's boy at Coigna-fern, with his hazel wand and line made by himself, but here you have a well-equipped and well-accoutred follower of the gentle craft in waterproof overalls, and armed with London rod and Dublin fly, tempting the salmon from their element with a bright but indefinable mixture of feathers, pigs'-wool, and gold thread; while his attendant, stretched at his ease, wonders at the labour his master undertakes, and watches quietly the salmon as he rises from some dark abyss of the water, poises himself for a moment steadily opposite the glittering hook, makes a dash rapid as thought at it, and then swims slowly back to his ambuscade in the depth of the water, not aware, till he feels the jerk of the line, that he is carrying with him, not a painted dragon-fly, but a carefully prepared and strong weapon of death, which he will only get quit of with his life. The nets are at work too, sweeping a deep and quiet pool, but seldom with much success, owing to the inequalities of the bottom of the river. Making a wide turn here, the river passes by an object of great interest, the Findhorn heronry, a collection of these birds quite unique in their way. They have taken possession of a number of old trees growing on the Darna-way side of the river, and here, year after year, they repair their old nests and bring up their young, not frightened away by the frequenters of a walk which passes immediately under their nests. Numbers of the old birds may be seen sitting motionless on the dead branches, or perched on the very topmost twig of a larch or birch-tree.

Sometimes the peregrine, on his way to Sluie, passes quickly through the midst of the community, while a constant chattering is kept up by the numberless jackdaws who breed in holes of the rock on the Altyre side, and keep flying in and out from far below the spot where you are standing. Far as you can see, and indeed still farther, are stretched the forests of Darnaway and Altyre. Following the river, or rather keeping the top of the bank above it, a new and most striking view meets your eye. Looking down the course of the water, you suddenly see beyond the woodland a wide extent of corn-land, interspersed with groves of timber and houses; beyond this the golden line of the sandhills of Culbin, dividing the plains of Morayshire from the Moray Firth, while beyond the line of the blue sea-water are the splendid and lofty rocks on each side of the entrance of the bay of Cromarty, backed by a succession of various-shaped peaks of the Sutherland and Caithness, the Ross-shire and the Inverness-shire mountains. Opposite you is the massive and square mountain of Ben Nevis : to the west, on a clear day, you can see far into the peaked and sugar-loaf shaped mountains of Strath Glass and Glen Strathfarrar, cutting the horizon with their curious outlines. The inland mountains of Sutherland on a clear day are also visible, and Ben Morven, in Caithness, in its solitary grandeur always forms a conspicuous object; while the Moray Firth gradually widening till it joins the German Ocean, and dotted here and there with the white sails of the passing ships, completes the scene. It is worth all the trouble of a voyage from London to see this view alone. Far and wide may you travel without finding such another combination of all that is lovely and grand in landscape scenery — wood and water, mountain and cultivated ground, all in their most beautiful forms, combine together to render it pre-eminent. The river has a wider and more open current as you leave the woods, and is little confined by cliff and rock. Many a destructive inroad has it made into the fertile plain below, carrying off sheep and cattle, corn and timber, to be deposited on the sandbanks near Findhorn harbour. Calm and peaceful as it looks when at its ordinary height, the angler, on a bright summer's evening, is sometimes startled by a sound like the rushing of a coming wind, yet wind there is none, and he continues his sport. Presently he is surprised to see the water near which he has been standing suddenly sweep against his feet; he looks up the stream and sees the river coming down in a perpendicular wall of water, or like a wave of the sea, with a roaring noise, and carrying with it trees with their branches and roots entire, large lumps of unbroken bank, and every kind of mountain debris. Some mountain storm of rain has suddenly filled its bed. Sometimes on the occasion of these rapid speats I have had to gather up my tackle and run for my life, which was in no small risk till I gained some bank or rock above the height of the flood. When this rush of water comes down between the rocks, where the river has not room to spread, the danger is doubly great, owing to the irresistible force acquired by the pent-up water. The flood, when occasioned by a summer storm, soon subsides, and the next day no trace is left of it excepting the dark coffee-coloured hue of the water. Passing the lime-quarries of Copthall, the river flows through a fertile country and under a beautiful suspension bridge, which was built after the great floods of 1829, when it was found that a bridge on no other construction would be large enough to admit of the floating masses of timber and the immense body of water during heavy floods. The net-fishing is in active operation from this point down to the sea, and the number of salmon and grilse sometimes caught is astonishing. Instead of rock and cliff, the river is banked in by heaps of shingle, which are constantly changing their shape and size. There seems to be a constant succession of stones swept down by the river : what in one season is a deep pool, is, after the winter floods, a bank of shingle. An endless supply seems to be washed off the mountains and rocks through which the river passes, and these stones, by the time they have been rolled down to the lower part of the river, are as rounded and water-worn in their appearance as the shingle on the seashore.

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