11 August 2013

Fishing with a friend on Loch Kinnardochy recently we were entertained by a multitude of swifts hawking for insects and screaming low round our boat. I have often met swifts when fishing,  once one took my fly on the back-cast. It is a strange experience playing an aerial ‘fish’. Fortunately the bird was unhurt and soon released.  
Recounting this experience to my friend I told him how this large group of birds comprised the family the Apodidae - the footless ones - because the ancients believed they had no feet. Of course they have but, since they never alight, it is easy to make such a mistake. This is perpetuated in heraldry where the sign of a fourth son is a swift because he has no land on which to place his foot.
The Apodidae are a huge family akin to both nightjars and hummingbirds and comprising more than 100 species worldwide. We have only one which, with typical British insularity, we call The Swift rather than the correct Eurasian Swift. Wherever one travels, except Antarctica, there will be swifts often seen at high altitude in the Alps, Andes or Himalaya. So in Perthshire I am reminded of relatives of this huge  bird family seen over six continents.   
What these remarkable birds lack in terrestrial accomplishment they make up for in the air, feeding, sleeping and even copulating on the wing. They  are marvellous birds which, as night falls, fly higher and higher in the darkening sky to circle on updrafts and roost on the wing at nearly 10,000 feet. They come to earth only to nest. They choose a  cleft in masonry using feathers, hair and wisps of straw collected from the winds and cemented with their own saliva. Watching them at the nest site is breathtaking as they fly, at the speed their name suggests, straight into the narrow space seemingly without pause such is their mastery of flight.
Like many birds much mythology surrounds the swift. Black birds are often associated with Satan and in Scotland they are called the Devil’s Bird. The epithet black not only is descriptive but reflects the bird’s link with the ‘Powers of Darkness’. In ‘Jack-a-Dells’ the unpleasant word ‘Devil’ is replaced by the noa word ‘Dells’ in double superstition so that the dangerous name word could be avoided.  Noa is a former manner of speech, used by fisher folk especially in Orkney and Shetland, in which significant names, such as God or Devil, whose utterance might incur retribution were substituted with a simple alternative. When a lady’s dress shop of this name was opened in Aberfeldy under this name I wondered at this for, as a fisherman myself, I worried that careless reference to it might encourage the ladies of my family to indulge!
Sitting on my sitooterie, dram in hand contained in a Malcolm Appleby beaker engraved with many Jack-a-Dells, I watch them in the evening high above the house - but not for much longer, in mid August they leave us for North Africa and who can blame them after so miserable a summer? It is this early autumnal behaviour which, with other  summer visitors, brings us to the biggest mystery of them all: migration. Swifts and swallows were believed to disappear into lochs like Kinardochy, where they are so often seen, there to remain in torpor throughout the winter. Crazy perhaps, but not without a grain of truth.
In a woodcut of 1555 swallows and swifts are shown being hauled up in fishing nets from below the ice on a Scandinavian lake when, a contemporary description by the great ornithologist of the day, Olaus Magnus, tells how they may be revived by warming. Far fetched though this sounds, swifts are capable of assuming a torpid state when food is short and gentle warming does make them recover.
Birds never cease to amaze and delight me and it is fascinating to discover that some of the ancient superstitious beliefs surrounding them do have elements of veracity. Furthermore, in view of Scandinavian happenings of late, I feel I can misquote Mme Roland, a victim of the French Revolution: ‘The more I see of men the better I like...birds.’

Robin Hull


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