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Franks and Moss Bummers

Written by Patrick Laurie

The heron has fascinated people in Scotland for many years, and even today, a day’s fishing is given an exciting buzz by the lumbering, ghostly appearance of a startled bird, rising suddenly like laundry in a gale from the reeds.
Herons have had a great selection of regional names in Scotland although many of them are now fading into the mists of time. The ‘Grey Heron’ was called a ‘lang Sannie’ in Caithness, a ‘Tammy herl’ in Perthshire, a ‘Jemmy langlegs’ in Dumfriesshire and a ‘Jenny heron’ in Kirkcudbrightshire.  Other names based more loosely around the word heron include ‘huron’ from Roxburgh, ‘herald’ from Forfar and ‘skip hegrie’ in Shetland.  Stirlingshire seems to have provided the only common name based upon the sound of the bird, but somehow it is the most successful: ‘frank’.  The variety of different noises in a heron’s vocabulary can be unsettling because it often seems that no two birds sound alike.  Their sounds range from a sharp, piercing ‘frank!’ to a low, belching gurgle which sounds about as far removed from any natural ‘birdsong’ as it could do.  In the western highlands, a forest was named in Gaelic as the “place of evil beings” because a heronry was formed at its centre.  At night, passing travellers could hear the awful sounds but could see no explanation for them and the wood became off-limits to “all but the strongest hearts”.

A heronry is often described as being like a large rookery, but Scottish folklore holds that herons and rooks are the bitterest of enemies and many traditions tell of rooks exhaustively mobbing herons for hours at a time.  One story even goes so far as to suggest that a battle took place between rooks and herons over a preferred nesting site.  The bloody combat lasted for several days until the ground beneath the trees was “littered with the bodies of the dead and the dying”.  Ultimately, the rooks forced the herons away and claimed the trees as their own.  It is perhaps unlikely that this occurred but herons are not popular amongst other birds and occasionally they will provoke defensive anger during the nesting season.

1As we know, herons will eat almost every variety of fish which they encounter, but they also eke out their living by devouring all kinds of amphibians and small mammals.  Records exist of herons eating eider duck chicks in the Forth estuary in 1910.  Herons are traditionally known as being greedy, and a record states that the crop of one bird found dead at the river Bladnoch at Newton Stewart contained “thirty nine fine burn trouts”.  A heron was shot by a water bailiff on Loch Lomond who claimed that it contained a three pound trout – almost the same weight as the bird its self.

Eels are a popular catch for herons, and the birds are often forced to leave the river to make sure of an eel kill.  Herons will seldom eat anything that is not dead, it is not uncommon to see a disturbed bird fly away with something wriggling in its beak.  In the extreme north of Scotland, eels were once believed to be horsehairs, swollen and invigorated by running water.  As such, these mysterious creatures were thought to be immortally indigestible by herons and a popular saying referred to the idea that a heron might eat the same living eel many times over.  In Shetland and the Faeroe Islands, herons were thought to press their hind quarters against a rock after having eaten an eel to prevent the meal from slipping straight through its guts and being lost behind it.

Herons are recorded as having eaten an enormous variety of different things including moles and rats, and it is thought that individual birds can specialise their hunting to exclude all other prey species.  It is for this reason that you sometimes see single herons on rat-infested areas like middens, or wandering carefully amongst molehills on a freshly mown lawn.  In one instance, a heron was blamed for swallowing a Siamese kitten.  A reliable source explains how a heron was once seen grabbing a cockerel only to release it shortly afterwards.  In this case, the cockerel seems to have had a lucky escape as poultry feathers have been found in regurgitated heron pellets.  Several accounts exist of weasels being eaten by herons, and one tells of a fight in Killin between a stoat and a heron.  A man out fishing on the evening rise heard an appalling scuffle of squeals and peeps, he watched the showdown from behind cover.  Eventually the heron won and carried the dead stoat down to the water’s edge to dip it in water before swallowing it.  Herons ‘dip’ hairy food so as to soften it and aid with digestion, they will always eat a rat or mouse head first so as not to go against the lay of the fur.  Oddly, moles are eaten bottom-first, though the pile of their hair has no lay and it would not make any difference which way they were swallowed.

Various folk tales associate the heron with witchcraft; a good example comes from Loch na Caillach near Kinlochbervie where a witch, who was spreading sickness and death amongst the local villagers, was shot at in the grey misty light of dawn.  The man who fired the shot was later found fast asleep with a burst gun and a “fine dead heron beside him”.

Added to the heron’s ability to fly and hunt by night, the birds were suspected of various iniquities and an association with the devil.  A common belief in Angus explained that the heron was attached to the lunar cycle, when the moon was new the bird was so lethargic as to be able to be gathered up by hand.  Despite these suspicious oddities, herons were regularly eaten as a particular delicacy and were commonly served “without sauce in the second course” until the mid eighteenth century.  The omnivorous greed of the heron has never cast it in a good light, although many people have tried to make use of the heron’s hunting success.

Using a variety of different techniques to catch their prey, including swimming, and even more rarely, diving, herons are attributed with mystical abilities.  It was thought that the heron’s shins released hormones which mesmerised fish in the water; as a result fishermen often rubbed their tackle in heron shin skin.  For the same reason, a heron’s legs cut up into small segments and scattered at a favourite fishing hole was supposed to ensure success.  Even as late as the early nineteenth century, a scientific argument still raged as to whether the heron emitted a glow from its breasts as it hunted at night so as to attract unwary fish.

Herons are known to be violent in attack, if cornered or wounded they will not hesitate to stab a human.  In 1870, a farmer in Northumberland was attacked by a wounded heron which seized him by the tip of the nose and would not let go until he had strangled it to death.  The same violence is attributed to other members of the heron family.  Bitterns (or ‘moss bummers’) were once common in central and southern Scotland and were renowned for the violence of their self defence, slashing with claws and pecking at the eyes of any aggressor.

Today, herons are protected by law and their company is often enjoyed, or at least tolerated, by fisherman on Scotland’s many beats.  From rainbow-stocked Dumfriesshire reservoirs to tiny lochans on the Isle of Lewis, herons provide company for fishermen right across this land.  They may well poach fish from beneath our noses, but it is certainly with more class than cormorants, the bloat-bellied sunken guzzlers that trawl through the water indiscriminately. Scotland’s relationship with herons has changed enormously over the years, and the next time you see one, give a little thought to how those that went before you saw him.

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