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THE BEAVER Historically in Scotland

Originally published in the Transactions of the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club, Vol III, 1883 to 1888. p. 196-200.

Dr Aitken read the following paper:-

I 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."

In 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."

That 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.

Other 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.

In 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."

It 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.

From 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.

From 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 the people.

In 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.

Mr Mackenzie says "I find a sad confusion in Armstrong's Dictionary between the otter and the beaver. This otherwise excellent work gives:

  • beaver - dobhran, dobhar-chu, biast-dubh, and madadh doran.
  • Otters - dobhran a doran, biast-dubh, dobhar chu, madadh-doun; which names, being interpreted, are water-animal, water-dog, black beast, and brown dog.

Now, 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.

"The 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.' '"

If, 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.