Thursday 29 November 2012

Book Week Scotland: Murmur-bird

Carmina Gadelica contains a vast amount of notes as well as the prayers, songs and poems collected from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Carmichael's notes on ornithology are particularly extensive, and for Book Week Scotland a note about the ptarmigan is quoted here:
Tarman, torman, ptarmigan, preferably 'tarmigan,' murmur-bird; from 'tarm,' or 'torm,' murmur, and 'ian,' bird. Derivatives - 'tarmach,' 'tormach,' 'tarmachan,' 'tormachan,' murmuring bird.

The tarmigan is ruddy, mottled grey in summer, changing to pure show-white in winter. It confines itself to the summits of high hills, never coming down to the glens except under severe pressure of continued snow. Like a true patriot it contests its country inch by inch against the invading enemy and, if defeated, is never discomfited.
To the uninitiated the tarmigan is indistinguisable from its habitat. In 1877 the writeer went up to examine the beach-like shingly appearance of the summit of a hill in Harris. On the top of the mountain my companion drew my attention to tarmigans among the stones before us. I could hear the murmur, but could not see the birds, nor differeniate between them and the shingle before us, till they began to move, then to run, and ultimately to fly. The atmosphere was clear, the sun was bright, and not a breath of air on the hill nor a speck of cloud in the sky, byt my companion said that a snowstorm was coming on. He insisted on immediate descent, and, incredulous, I reluctantly followed. In less than an hour the bright sun began to disappear, and the sky began to darken and blacken, and in less than another hour a raging storm of snow was on, lasting three days and three nights without intermission.

My companion said thet he knew by the pecular plaint and mode of flight of the tarmigans that a snowstorm was approaching.    

According to the RSPB website ptarmigans can been seen, all year round, on the highest mountains of the highlands of Scotland. There is an estimated 10,000 breeding pairs in the UK today and they eat shoots, leaves, leaf buds, berries and insects.   So next time you're heading off twitching remember to pack Carmina Gadelica!    

References Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica ii (Edinburgh, 1941) pp. 368.   

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]