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Issue 98 - Midge Madness

Scotland Magazine Issue 98
April 2018


Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Midge Madness

No other creature inspires such ire as the midge. James Irvine Robertson tells us of how these tiny insects have been annoying people for centuries

Highlanders, perhaps Scots in general, take a grim pride in the ferocity of the midge. In times past, people used to have their blood curdled by stories of ghosties, ghoulies and long-legeddy beasties but, as we live in a modern society that is more frightened by politicians than the supernatural, these days it seems to be the common midge that’s taken up that mantle. Indeed, this wee insect has taken on a reputation so fearsome that it has become somewhat legendary.

'I was passing a field where three men were scything hay,' wrote Archie Cameron on the island of Rum at the beginning of the 20th Century. 'It was a very hot day with brilliant sunshine, and I knew the men must be uncomfortable as they were wearing fine muslin veils as a protection against the midges. The clouds of midges were so dense that it was difficult to breathe without such protection...

What puzzled me most on that particular day was that each man seemed to be carrying a sheet of glass on his back. When I moved closer to satisfy my curiosity about this, I was amazed to find that what I had mistaken for glass was in fact the sun shining on the wings of a solid mass of midges.' If that doesn't chill your blood, nothing will.

Some say that the midge is worse nowadays than in days of yore but it used to be just one of the common tormentors, rivalled by bedbugs, fleas, ticks and lice and thus not worthy of special note. The Romans did not bother to record themselves slapping and cursing the mozzies and horseflies as they marched through barbarian bogs and forests. Nor did the English armies that roamed Scotland looking for natives to kill.

The Highlanders could sometimes find a use for them. In 1711, the Rev. John Morrison was appointed Presbyterian minister of Gairloch, but the natives were Episcopalian. Whilst travelling along the eastern shore of Loch Maree, the locals seized him, stripped him naked and left him bound to a tree. It was September: prime midge season. An account says that: 'The sufferings of poor Mr Morrison are said to have been dreadful.

Towards evening a woman of the place took pity on him and released him from his miserable position.'

By the 18th Century, intrepid southerners were venturing into the horrid mountains and bleak moors of the north and they began to notice the midge. Edmund Burt collected rents on the forfeited estates after the 1715 Rising. In 1726 he wrote Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London and commented:

'I have been sometimes vexed with a little plague... there are great swarms of little flies which the natives call malhoulakins. When a number of them settle upon the skin, they make it look as if it was dirty; there they soon bore with their little augers into the pores, and change the face from black to red. They are only troublesome (I should say intolerable) in summer, when there is a profound calm; for the least breath of wind immediately disperses them; and the only refuge from them is the house, into which I never knew them to enter.' Burt points out the salient points of midges.

They don't come indoors, they are dispersed by wind and they can be intolerable. But they do not have to be today. Assorted lotions can be bought that repel them and one can safely venture out with impunity. Indeed, there is a mildly perverse pleasure to be obtained by sharing a drink alfresco with friends on a warm summer evening in the Highlands, when the midges are out making the air shimmer between you but never biting. It's rather like swimming with sharks.

Another victim was Bonnie Prince Charlie, when he was on the run after Culloden:

'The evening being very calm and warm, we greatly suffered by mitches; to preserve him from such troublesome guests, we wrapt him head and feet in his plead, and covered him with long heather that naturally grew about a bit hollow ground we laid him. After leaving him in that posture, he uttered several heavy sighes and groands.'

At least the Prince suffered and shed some blood for Scotland at least once.

Come the 19th Century, southern visitors to the Highlands became more frequent. In 1872, Queen Victoria paid a visit to Dunrobin Castle. The weather seemed ideal for a picnic but, as she wrote: 'We stopped to take our tea and coffee but were half devoured by midges.' It's said she took up smoking to keep them at bay.

Sir John Millais went even further. In 1853, he made an expedition to the Trossachs where he painted the famous portrait of the critic John Ruskin. He also seduced Ruskin's wife, Effie Grey, and later married her. He said of that trip: 'There is one drawback to this almost perfect happiness – the midges. They bite so dreadfully that it is beyond human endurance to sit quiet, therefore many a splendid day passes without being able to work.'

Although a true Scot may not be willing to concede it, midges can be just as bad in Ireland, have been known to knaw on the limbs of walkers in the Lake District and even ravage as far south as Cornwall. They are prevalent in Scandinavia, and across Russia to China. But Scotland needs something to add spice to its natural beauty and the Highland midge proudly fills the bill.