BEAVER Historically in Scotland
published in the Transactions of the Inverness Scientific Society
and Field Club, Vol III, 1883 to 1888. p. 196-200.
Aitken read the following paper:-
wish to direct your attention to a subject of some little antiquarian
interest, and which has not been referred to at any of the meetings
of the Society, I mean the occurrence of the beaver in Scotland.
It also seems to me that we are in the very place suitable for discussing
the question, as the months of some of the affluents of Loch-Ness
are positions in which these animals were likely to form colonies,
seeing that according to a credible authority they prefer to take
up their residence in small, clear rivers or creeks, by springs,
and sometimes on the banks of lakes. The most notable reference
to these animals is in Boethius, Fol. IX., who says, according to
a translation kindly supplied me by Dr Joass,-of Golspie, who made
the extract for me- "At Loch-Ness, which is 24 miles long and 12
broad (?) there is, on account of the extensive forests, great abundance
of wild animals, such as deer, unbroken horses, and creatures of
this kind, also martens, foumarts (as the polecat is commonly called),
beavers, and others, in great numbers, the skins of which
are purchased at a high price by outsiders as articles of luxury."
the translation of Boece, undertaken by Bellenden about 1536, which,
however, from what I have been able to ascertain in reference to
it, seems to have been carelessly done, he omits stags, goats, and
others, but sets down beavers, though it would seem to be undoubted
that the first two animals were to be found in the surrounding country,
and that there were others in Loch-Ness. His words are – "Many
wild hors, and among them are many martrikis, bevers, quhetrides
and toddis, the furring and skinnings of them are coft with great
price among uncouth merchandis." That faith in these statements
continued for long afterwards is evidenced by Sir R. Sibbald, one
of the founders of the College of Physicians', and a man learned
in Scotch antiquities, who in his Scotia Illustrata sive pro
Historioe Naturalis Scotioe, published in 1684, referring, to
the beaver, simply adds--" ' An nunc reperinture nexis,' whether
they are found I do not know." Dr Walker, also a Professor of
Natural History in the Edinburgh University simply says, "that
beavers existed in this country, but do not do so now."
these animals did at one period actually exist in this country is
proved by three kinds of evidence.
First - As to the first of these points, it may be stated that in
1788 Dr Farquharson dug up at Loch-Marlee, in Parish of Kinloch,
partially drained for marl, and lying under 5 feet to 6 feet of
moss, an imperfect skeleton of a beaver. In Middlestot's Bog on.
the estate of Kimmerghame, in the Parish of Edrom, in Berwickshire,
another imperfect skeleton was found under some 7 feet of moss.
Other skeletons, according to Wilson, were found at, Newbury and
Linton. So far, however, as my information goes at present, I have
not been able to get at the trace of any remains of this animal
being obtained within the range of the Society's observations.
Second-As to the historical evidence, the only direct support I
have been able to get at, though there may be others I am unacquainted
with, of the presence of the beaver in Scotland, is a reference
to laws passed by David I. of Scotland. This Mr Innes gives on the
authority of the Ayr MS., written, he says, in the reign of Bruce,
but as they correspond with those of the reign of Henry I., he thinks
they may have been drawn up ,when the Port of Newcastle-on-Tyne
belonged to David. In these laws the first chapter is of Peltry,
and there is the following provision "of a tyrimer of skynniss
of toddis, quhytredis, mertrikis. cattis, beveris, sable ferrettes
or swylkothyr of ilk tyrimer at ye outpassings iiijd," pointing
out that at that time the skins of the animals were subject to taxation.
indirect evidence, however, is forthcoming as to the possibility
of the beaver having been in this country at the date mentioned,
for in a Welsh document of the ninth century, in the Laws of Hyall
Ohia dealing with furs, the price of the skin of a beaver is set
down at 120d.
the Itinerary of Wales. written by Giraldus de Barri, who
came with the then Archbishop of Canterbury to stir up the Welshmen
to join the then proposed Crusade, speaking of the River Teivi,
in Cardiganshire, he mentions the beaver, and remarks-,' Amongst
the rivers generally of Cambria, and also of the Llagne, the beaver
is found. In Albania they may be found in one river only, and rarely."
would seem, however, that these animals must have diminished rapidly
even in Wales, for in Chaucer's time he speaks of a "Flanders
beaver hat," and in no part of any of the older poets have I
been able to find a reference which would make me think that, when
beavers are mentioned as articles of dress, the skins were obtained
from animals in our own country.
Third - Looking to philology, we find that this lends support to
Boece's statement, for a word for beaver is still retained in the
Gaelic language. This Dr Walker, to whom I have already referred,
used to mention that the Scotch Highlands retain by tradition a
name for the animal, and Dr Stuart, of Luss, who was the friend
of Pennant, author of the Tour Through, Scotland, and Dr
Lightfoot, who wrote the Flora Scotica, give the name as
los leathann, derived from los, the tail, and leathann, broad; or
dobhran losleathann, the broad-tailed otter ; whilst I observe
M'Alpine's Dictionary gives dobhar-chu. In the Welsh afangc
signifies a beaver, and it is also denominated Lloslydan, and it
is curious that in the district through which the Teivi runs, the
river referred to by Giraldus there are two or three waters named
Llyn yr afangc. or the beaver lakes.
the evidence, therefore, I have been able to collect in reference
to this subject, it seems undoubted that beavers inhabited this
country, and notwithstanding the depth of peat under which the beaver
remains were found in both Perth and Berwick, considering the rapidity
with which this sometimes accumulates, as in the frequently quoted
case in Ross-shire, when in 48 years a tract of fine forest gave
place to a moss in which fuel was cut, it is not impossible that
they may have lived within historical times.
the philological evidence it would also seem, since the name of
the beaver is still found in one or two rivers in the district referred
to in Wales, as if the animal was found still more recently in that
country than in Scotland, and so far as I know there is no name
in this district, except possibly one I shall presently refer to,
which could in any way be connected with it. It is also a curious
fact that in forming the long line of the Caledonian Canal, no trace
of the animal has been met with in the district in which it is supposed
to have been common, and though diligent enquiry has been made,
no tradition of it seems to be retained in the present day amongst
reference to whether it is not possible that there may be some trace
of the beaver in the place names of the district, I consulted the
Rev. Mr Mackenzie, of Kilmorack, but he could refer to none which
could in any way be connected with the existence of this rodent.
I cannot, however, forbear quoting from an interesting letter he
favoured me with in replying, to my queries, and which shows that
the most distinguished scientific man and exact observer, perhaps,
that the North has produced, Mr Hugh Miller, believed that he bad
discovered traces of the beaver in a not far distant river.
Mackenzie says – "I find a sad confusion in Armstrong's Dictionary
between the otter and the beaver. This otherwise excellent work
beaver - dobhran, dobhar-chu, biast-dubh, and madadh doran.
- dobhran a doran, biast-dubh, dobhar chu, madadh-doun; which
names, being interpreted, are water-animal, water-dog, black beast,
and brown dog.
these vocably apply to the otter and not to the beaver. Madagh is
our generic word for a dog - hence we have madadh ruadh - red dog",
i.e., for madadh-allaidb, wild dog or wolf, and madadb doun, brown
dog - or otter. You see the classification in the first three animals
will stand the test of the classification of the present day, and
though they blundered as to the otter it is only a matter of modern
discovery to determine that the otter is of the weasel family and
not a dog.
true word for the beaver is los-leathann - broad tail; Welsb, Iloslydan
- broad tail. Now, let me come to my point, Mr Hugh Miller, for
whom I cherish a most profound esteem, asked me once whether we
bad a name for the beaver in Gaelic. My knowledge at that time did
not enable me to say whether there was one or not. My object for
asking, he continued, is that I think I have discovered traces of
beaver work in the Lossie and the upper reaches of the Findhorn.
' The Lossie seems to me the beaver stream,
Los-uie. It would be interesting for your experts to examine the
Lossie, say up to Dail-loss.' '"
therefore, so accurate and careful an observer as the author of
the Old Red Sandstone found, as he believed, traces of the
beaver in the Lossie, I see no reason why it may not have existed
in this district. There could have been little difference of climatic
conditions between this county and those of Perthshire, where it
was certainly found, and there seems to me no sufficient obstacle
to its geographical distribution beyond the point at which its remains
have been discovered.