An eye of sloe with ear not low

Has there ever been a time when no stories were told? Has there ever been a people who did not care to listen? I think not.

When we were little, before we could read for ourselves, did we not gather eagerly round father or mother, friend or nurse, at the promise of a story? When we grew older, what happy hours did we not spend with our books. How the printed words made us forget the world in which we live, and carried us away to a wonderland,

“Where waters gushed and fruit trees grew
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
And honey bees had lost their stings,
And horses were born with eagles’ wings.”*

*Robert Browning.    from

Many Celtic scholars assert that the Feinn are a mythic people analagous to King Arthur and his knights. There too is dispute over whether Finn is Irish or Scottish. Since it is legend lets just say he is Celtic.

FIONN or Fingal, King of the Alba-men (or Caledonians) in the land of the great mountains, is a traditional hero in Celtic folklore.  Ossian (Finn’s son) is the narrator, and supposed author, of a cycle of poems which the Scottish poet James Macpherson claimed to have translated from ancient sources in the Scots Gaelic. He is based on Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, a character from Irish mythology. The furore over the authenticity of the poems continued into the 20th century.

Fingal was always accompanied by Bran “his famous and well-beloved hound.”It was while rescuing three children

from a giant’s castle that two puppies were found lying beside their mother, a large deerhound. Fingal’s

emissary stole the two pups, “these were the most valuable things which he saw inside.” Bran is one of the

immortal heroes of Celtic folklore; an old Celtic poem gives a description of his breed:

An eye of sloe with ear not low,

With horse’s breast, with depth of chest,

With breadth of loin and curve in groin

And nape set far behind the head-

Such were the dogs that Fingal bred.

In Ossian’s poems we find a description of Fingal’s joyous hunting:                                    

” Call,” said Fingal, ” call to the chase,

Dogs slim and choice in travelling the moo

Call Bran of the whitest chest;

Call Neart and Kiar and Lu-a;

Fillan, Ryno-he is in his grave,

My son is in the sleep of death!

Fillan and Fergus, blow the horn;

Let joy arise on hill and cairn,

Let deer start up in Cromala,

And by the lake of roes-their home.

The shrill sound rang throughout the wood;

A thousand dogs sprang over the heath;

A deer fell down to every dog:

Fell three to Bran alone;

And towards Fionn he turned the three,

To give great joy to the king.


Out of Africa

There have been many interesting owners of Scottish Deerhounds, not the least of which is Karen Blixen.

Karen Blixen using the pen name Isak Dinesen wrote a memoir of her years on a coffee plantation in Kenya- Out of Africa first published in 1937. Nominated twice for a Nobel prize in literature, her lyrical writing style will transport you to the hills of Ngong where you will feel part of this incredible woman’s life. The movie (winning 7 Oscars) of the same name starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford takes one back in time to a very different world where a spirited independent woman like Karen Blixen was not seen to be the norm. Add this book to your must read list.

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”

Karen (Baroness von Blixen- upon her marriage) began her life in Africa with two scottish deerhounds that she had received as a wedding present. In Africa I never had dogs of any other breed than the Scotch Deerhound. There is no more noble or gracious kind of dog. They must have lived for many centuries with men to understand and fall in with our life and its conditions the way they do. You will also find them in old paintings and tapestries, and they have in themselves a tendency to change, by their looks and manners, their surroundings into tapestry; they bring with them a feudal atmosphere.…The Scotch Deerhound went well with African scenery and the African Native. It may be due to the altitute, –the highland melody in all three, –for he did not look so harmonious at Sea-levl in Mombasa. It was as if the great, spare landscape, with the plains, hills and rivers, was not complete until the deerhounds were also in it. All the deerhounds were great hunters and had more nose than the greyhounds, but they hunted by sight and it was a highly wonderful thing to see two of them working together. I took them with me when I was out riding in the Game Reserve, which I was not allowed to do, and there they would spread the herds of Zebra and Wildebeest over the plain, as if it were all the stars of heaven running wild over the sky. But when I was out in the Masai Reserve shooting I never lost a wounded head of game, if I had the deerhounds with me.”

Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen in Out of Africa

Isak Dinesen from an interview in 1956 with the Paris Review

“But earlier, I learned how to tell tales. For, you see, I had the perfect audience. White people can no longer listen to a tale recited. They fidget or become drowsy. But the natives have an ear still. I told stories constantly to them, all kinds. And all kinds of nonsense. I’d say, “Once there was a man who had an elephant with two heads” . . . and at once they were eager to hear more. “Oh? Yes, but Memsahib, how did he find it, and how did he manage to feed it?” or whatever. They loved such invention. I delighted my people there by speaking in rhyme for them; they have no rhyme, you know, had never discovered it. I’d say things like “Wakamba na kula mamba” (“The Wakamba tribe eats snakes”), which in prose would have infuriated them, but which amused them mightily in rhyme. Afterwards they’d say, “Please, Memsabib, talk like rain,” so then I knew they had liked it, for rain was very precious to us there.”

Author Marcel Gutwirth in his book Laughing matter: an essay on the comic discusses the implausible but totally engaging anecdote of Isak Dinesen’s deerhound Pania’s supposed sense of humour.

Karen Blixens real out of Africa home

A Story at Dusk

Here for your enjoyment a classic tragic love story that is so descriptive, if you close your eyes, you are there. One passage is so evocative that you can feel the dogs gaze, we who love deerhounds know we are often the object of intense soul searching looks cast on us by our beloved hounds.

A Story At Dusk by Ada Cambridge 1844-1926

An evening all aglow with summer light

And autumn colour—fairest of the year.

The wheat-fields, crowned with shocks of tawny gold,

All interspersed with rough sowthistle roots,

And interlaced with white convolvulus,

Lay, flecked with purple shadows, in the sun.

The shouts of little children, gleaning there

The scattered ears and wild blue-bottle flowers—

Mixed with the corn-crake’s crying, and the song

Of lone wood birds whose mother-cares were o’er,

And with the whispering rustle of red leaves—

Scarce stirred the stillness. And the gossamer sheen                              

Was spread on upland meadows, silver bright

In low red sunshine and soft kissing wind—

Showing where angels in the night had trailed

Their garments on the turf. Tall arrow-heads,

With flag and rush and fringing grasses, dropped

Their seeds and blossoms in the sleepy pool.

The water-lily lay on her green leaf,

White, fair, and stately; while an amorous branch

Of silver willow, drooping in the stream,

Sent soft, low-babbling ripples towards her:

And oh, the woods!—erst haunted with the song

Of nightingales and tender coo of doves—

They stood all flushed and kindling ‘neath the touch

Of death—kind death!—fair, fond, reluctant death!

A dappled mass of glory!


With russet wood-fruit thick upon the ground,

‘Mid crumpled ferns and delicate blue harebells.

The orchard-apples rolled in seedy grass—

Apples of gold, and violet-velvet plums;

And all the tangled hedgerows bore a crop

Of scarlet hips, blue sloes, and blackberries,

And orange clusters of the mountain ash.

The crimson fungus and soft mosses clung

To old decaying trunks; the summer bine

Drooped, shivering, in the glossy ivy’s grasp.

By day the blue air bore upon its wings

Wide-wandering seeds, pale drifts of thistle-down;

By night the fog crept low upon the earth,

All white and cool, and calmed its feverishness.

And veiled it over with a veil of tears.

The curlew and the plover were come back

To still, bleak shores; the little summer birds

Were gone—to Persian gardens, and the groves

Of Greece and Italy, and the palmy lands.

A Norman tower, with moss and lichen clothed,

Wherein old bells, on old worm-eaten frames

And rusty wheels, had swung for centuries,

Chiming the same soft chime—the lullaby

Of cradled rooks and blinking bats and owls;

Setting the same sweet tune, from year to year,

For generations of true hearts to sing.

A wide churchyard, with grassy slopes and nooks,

And shady corners and meandering paths;

With glimpses of dim windows and grey walls

Just caught at here and there amongst the green

Of flowering shrubs and sweet lime-avenues.

An old house standing near—a parsonage-house—

With broad thatched roof and overhanging eaves,

O’er run with banksia roses,—a low house,

With ivied windows and a latticed porch,

Shut in a tiny Paradise, all sweet

With hum of bees and scent of mignonette.

We lay our lazy length upon the grass

In that same Paradise, my friend and I.

And, as we lay, we talked of college days—

Wild, racing, hunting, steeple-chasing days;

Of river reaches, fishing-grounds, and weirs,

Bats, gloves, debates, and in-humanities:

And then of boon-companions of those days,

How lost and scattered, married, changed, and dead;

Until he flung his arm across his face,

And feigned to slumber.

He was changed, my friend;

Not like the man—the leader of his set—

The favourite of the college—that I knew.

And more than time had changed him. He had been

“A little wild,” the Lady Alice said;

“A little gay, as all young men will be

At first, before they settle down to life—

While they have money, health, and no restraint,

Nor any work to do.” Ah, yes! But this

Was mystery unexplained—that he was sad

And still and thoughtful, like an aged man;

And scarcely thirty. With a winsome flash,

The old bright heart would shine out here and there;

But aye to be o’er shadowed and hushed down,

As he had hushed it now.

His dog lay near,

With long, sharp muzzle resting on his paws,

And wistful eyes, half shut,—but watching him;

A deerhound of illustrious race, all grey

And grizzled, with soft, wrinkled, velvet ears;

A gaunt, gigantic, wolfish-looking brute,

And worth his weight in gold.

“There, there,” said he,

And raised him on his elbow, “you have looked

Enough at me; now look at some one else.”

“You could not see him, surely, with your arm

Across your face?”

“No, but I felt his eyes;

They are such sharp, wise eyes—persistent eyes—

Perpetually reproachful. Look at them;

Had ever dog such eyes?”

“Oh yes,” I thought;

But, wondering, turned my talk upon his breed.

And was he of the famed Glengarry stock?

And in what season was he entered? Where,

Pray, did he pick him up?

He moved himself

At that last question, with a little writhe

Of sudden pain or restlessness; and sighed.

And then he slowly rose, pushed back the hair

From his broad brows; and, whistling softly, said,

“Come here, old dog, and we will tell him. Come.”

“On such a day, and such a time, as this,

Old Tom and I were stalking on the hills,

Near seven years ago. Bad luck was ours;

For we had searched up corrie, glen, and burn,

From earliest daybreak—wading to the waist

Peat-rift and purple heather—all in vain!

We struck a track nigh every hour, to lose

A noble quarry by ignoble chance—

The crowing of a grouse-cock, or the flight

Of startled mallards from a reedy pool,

Or subtle, hair’s breadth veering of the wind.

And now ’twas waning sunset—rosy soft

On far grey peaks, and the green valley spread

Beneath us. We had climbed a ridge, and lay

Debating in low whispers of our plans

For night and morning. Golden eagles sailed

Above our heads; the wild ducks swam about

Amid the reeds and rushes of the pools;

A lonely heron stood on one long leg

In shallow water, watching for a meal;

And there, to windward, couching in the grass

That fringed the blue edge of a sleeping loch—

Waiting for dusk to feed and drink—there lay

A herd of deer.

“And as we looked and planned,

A mountain storm of sweeping mist and rain

Came down upon us. It passed by, and left

The burnies swollen that we had to cross;

And left us barely light enough to see

The broad, black, branching antlers, clustering still

Amid the long grass in the valley.


Said Tom, ‘there is a shealing down below,

To leeward. We might bivouac there to-night,

And come again at dawn.’

“And so we crept

Adown the glen, and stumbled in the dark

Against the doorway of the keeper’s home,

And over two big deerhounds—ancestors

Of this our old companion. There was light

And warmth, a welcome and a heather bed,

At Colin’s cottage; with a meal of eggs

And fresh trout, broiled by dainty little hands,

And sweetest milk and oatcake. There were songs

And Gaelic legends, and long talk of deer—

Mixt with a sweet, low laughter, and the whir

Of spinning-wheel.

“The dogs lay at her feet—

The feet of Colin’s daughter—with their soft

Dark velvet ears pricked up for every sound

And movement that she made. Right royal brutes,

Whereon I gazed with envy.

“‘What,’ I asked,

‘Would Colin take for these?’

“‘Eh, sir,’ said he,

And shook his head, ‘I cannot sell the dogs.

They’re priceless, they, and—Jeanie’s favourites.

But there’s a litter in the shed—five pups,

As like as peas to this one. You may choose

Amongst them, sir—take any that you like.

Get us the lantern, Jeanie. You shall show

The gentleman.’

“Ah, she was fair, that girl!

Not like the other lassies—cottage folk;

For there was subtle trace of gentle blood

Through all her beauty and in all her ways.

(The mother’s race was ‘poor and proud,’ they said).

Ay, she was fair, my darling! with her shy,

Brown, innocent face and delicate-shapen limbs.

She had the tenderest mouth you ever saw,

And grey, dark eyes, and broad, straight-pencill’d brows;

Dark hair, sun-dappled with a sheeny gold;

Dark chestnut braids that knotted up the light,

As soft as satin. You could scarcely hear

Her step, or hear the rustling of her gown,

Or the soft hovering motion of her hands

At household work. She seemed to bring a spell

Of tender calm and silence where she came.

You felt her presence—and not by its stir,

But by its restfulness. She was a sight

To be remembered—standing in the straw;

A sleepy pup soft-cradled in her arms

Like any Christian baby; standing still,

The while I handled his ungainly limbs.

And Colin blustered of the sport—of hounds,

Roe ptarmigan, and trout, and ducal deer—

Ne’er lifting up that sweet, unconscious face,

To see why I was silent. Oh, I would

You could have seen her then. She was so fair,

And oh, so young!—scarce seventeen at most—

So ignorant and so young!

“Tell them, my friend—

Your flock—the restless-hearted—they who scorn

The ordered fashion fitted to our race,

And scoff at laws they may not understand—

Tell them that they are fools. They cannot mate

With other than their kind, but woe will come

In some shape—mostly shame, but always grief

And disappointment. Ah, my love! my love!

But she was different from the common sort;

A peasant, ignorant, simple, undefiled;

The child of rugged peasant-parents, taught

In all their thoughts and ways; yet with that touch

Of tender grace about her, softening all

The rougher evidence of her lowly state—

That undefined, unconscious dignity—

That delicate instinct for the reading right

The riddles of less simple minds than hers—

That sharper, finer, subtler sense of life—

That something which does not possess a name,

Which made her beauty beautiful to me—

The long-lost legacy of forgotten knights.

“I chose amongst the five fat creeping things

This rare old dog. And Jeanie promised kind

And gentle nurture for its infant days;

And promised she would keep it till I came

Another year. And so we went to rest.

And in the morning, ere the sun was up,

We left our rifles, and went out to run

The browsing red-deer with old Colin’s hounds.

Through glen and bog, through brawling mountain streams,

Grey, lichened boulders, furze, and juniper,

And purple wilderness of moor, we toiled,

Ere yet the distant snow-peak was alight.

We chased a hart to water; saw him stand

At bay, with sweeping antlers, in the burn.

His large, wild, wistful eyes despairingly

Turned to the deeper eddies; and we saw

The choking struggle and the bitter end,

And cut his gallant throat upon the grass,

And left him. Then we followed a fresh track—

A dozen tracks—and hunted till the noon;

Shot cormorants and wild cats in the cliffs,

And snipe and blackcock on the ferny hills;

And set our floating night-lines at the loch;—

And then came back to Jeanie.

“Well, you know

What follows such commencement:—how I found

The woods and corries round about her home

Fruitful of roe and red-deer; how I found

The grouse lay thickest on adjacent moors;

Discovered ptarmigan on rocky peaks,

And rare small game on birch-besprinkled hills,

O’ershadowing that rude shealing; how the pools

Were full of wild-fowl, and the loch of trout;

How vermin harboured in the underwood,

And rocks, and reedy marshes; how I found

The sport aye best in this charmed neighbourhood.

And then I e’en must wander to the door,

To leave a bird for Colin, or to ask

A lodging for some stormy night, or see

How fared my infant deerhound.

“And I saw

The creeping dawn unfolding; saw the doubt,

And faith, and longing swaying her sweet heart;

And every flow just distancing the ebb.

I saw her try to bar the golden gates

Whence love demanded egress,—calm her eyes,

And still the tender, sensitive, tell-tale lips,

And steal away to corners; saw her face

Grow graver and more wistful, day by day;

And felt the gradual strengthening of my hold.

I did not stay to think of it—to ask

What I was doing!

“In the early time,

She used to slip away to household work

When I was there, and would not talk to me;

But when I came not, she would climb the glen

In secret, and look out, with shaded brow,

Across the valley. Ay, I caught her once—

Like some young helpless doe, amongst the fern—

I caught her, and I kissed her mouth and eyes;

And with those kisses signed and sealed our fate

For evermore. Then came our happy days—

The bright, brief, shining days without a cloud!

In ferny hollows and deep, rustling woods,

That shut us in and shut out all the world—

The far, forgotten world—we met, and kissed,

And parted, silent, in the balmy dusk.

We haunted still roe-coverts, hand in hand,

And murmured, under our breath, of love and faith,

And swore great oaths for one of us to keep.

We sat for hours, with sealèd lips, and heard

The sweet wind whispering as it passed us by—

And heard our own hearts’ music in the hush.

Ah, blessed days! ah, happy, innocent days!—

I would I had them back.

“Then came the Duke,

And Lady Alice, with her worldly grace

And artificial beauty—with the gleam

Of jewels, and the dainty shine of silk,

And perfumed softness of white lace and lawn;

With all the glamour of her courtly ways,

Her talk of art and fashion, and the world

We both belonged to. Ah, she hardened me!

I lost the sweetness of the heathery moors

And hills and quiet woodlands, in that scent

Of London clubs and royal drawing-rooms;

I lost the tender chivalry of my love,

The keen sense of its sacredness, the clear

Perception of mine honour, by degrees,

Brought face to face with customs of my kind.

I was no more a “man;” nor she, my love,

A delicate lily of womanhood—ah, no!

I was the heir of an illustrious house,

And she a simple homespun cottage-girl.

“And now I stole at rarer intervals

To those dim trysting woods; and when I came

I brought my cunning worldly wisdom—talked

Of empty forms and marriages in heaven—

To stain that simple soul, God pardon me!

And she would shiver in the stillness, scared

And shocked, with her pathetic eyes—aye proof

Against the fatal, false philosophy.

But my will was the strongest, and my love

The weakest; and she knew it.

“Well, well, well,

I need not talk of that. There came the day

Of our last parting in the ferny glen—

A bitter parting, parting from my life,

Its light and peace for ever! And I turned

To balls and billiards, politics and wine;

Was wooed by Lady Alice, and half won;

And passed a feverous winter in the world.

Ah, do not frown! You do not understand.

You never knew that hopeless thirst for peace—

That gnawing hunger, gnawing at your life;

The passion, born too late! I tell you, friend,

The ruth, and love, and longing for my child,

It broke my heart at last.

“In the hot days

Of August, I went back; I went alone.

And on old garrulous Margery—relict she

Of some departed seneschal—I rained

My eager questions. ‘Had the poaching been

As ruinous and as audacious as of old?

Were the dogs well? and had she felt the heat?

And—I supposed the keeper, Colin, still

Was somewhere on the place?’

“‘Nay, sir,’ said she,

‘But he has left the neighbourhood. He ne’er

Has held his head up since he lost his child,

Poor soul, a month ago.’

“I heard—I heard!

His child—he had but one—my little one,

Whom I had meant to marry in a week!

“‘Ah, sir, she turned out badly after all,

The girl we thought a pattern for all girls.

We know not how it happened, for she named

No names. And, sir, it preyed upon her mind,

And weakened it; and she forgot us all,

And seemed as one aye walking in her sleep

She noticed no one—no one but the dog,

A young deerhound that followed her about;

Though him she hugged and kissed in a strange way

When none was by. And Colin, he was hard

Upon the girl; and when she sat so still,

And pale and passive, while he raved and stormed,

Looking beyond him, as it were, he grew

The harder and more harsh. He did not know

That she was not herself. Men are so blind!

But when he saw her floating in the loch,

The moonlight on her face, and her long hair

All tangled in the rushes; saw the hound

Whining and crying, tugging at her plaid—

Ah, sir, it was a death-stroke!’

“This was all.

This was the end of her sweet life—the end

Of all worth having of mine own! At night

I crept across the moors to find her grave,

And kiss the wet earth covering it—and found

The deerhound lying there asleep. Ay me!

It was the bitterest darkness,—nevermore

To break out into dawn and day again!

“And Lady Alice shakes her dainty head,

Lifts her arch eyebrows, smiles, and whispers, ‘Once

He was a little wild!'”

With that he laughed;

Then suddenly flung his face upon the grass,

Crying, “Leave me for a little—let me be!”

And in the dusky stillness hugged his woe,

And wept away his passion by himself.