A river is ..

Even on the border of the most frequented paths are many things travellers have passed by unheeded or unexamined. (from Natural History of Deeside and Braemar)

I find William MacGillivray’s grave by accident in New Calton graveyard. Exploring.  It is a little out of place. A lump of red granite with faded gold lettering, an orra lump, amongst the grey neo-classicism of the Victorian Northern Athenic elite. It is illegible.


As he often was.

And of course redolent of Aberdeen, where he was born, and ultimately lived and died. And where the previous summer I had noticed a plaque marking his home there.  I recognised his name from his dominating presence in Raptor, by James McDonald Lockhart. He says he had also discovered him by accident, but hangs his book around MacGillivray’s sophomore journey from Aberdeen , via Fort William and Carlisle , to the ornithological collection of the British Museum. On foot. 800 miles or more of continuous, self absorbed quest.

I can see why . There is something Dostoyevskian about this lumbering intent figure. During much of the journey  he shuns company , and is refused lodgings due to his appearance. Over one agonising period after he crosses the Border , he is without food and shelter, as he repeatedly has the English banknote he has collected in Carlisle refused,  allegedly due to fear of forgery.

Rise with or before the sun

Walk at least five miles

Give at least half a dozen putts to a heavy stone

Make six leaps

Drink milk twice a day

Wash face, ears and feet

Preserve seven specimens of natural history ( whether in propria persona or by drawing)

Read the Chapter on Anatomy in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica

Read the Book of Job

Abstain from cursing and swearing

Above all procrastination is to be shunned

(from Journey to London, edited by R. Ralph)

I wonder about MacGillivray’s wilful eccentricity – is it mere stubbornness. He lives by a set of strict imperatives,and battles a Biblical sense of shame.

This man grew up on Harris, and maybe that explains a lot. He was raised by a grandparent , having been effectively abandoned by his father in Aberdeen, following the death of his mother. He went back to University there aged twelve, walking back and forward to the Long Island for the holiday period each year. Science, linking him to his God, was a given and a kind of extended worship. A calling.

MacGillivray was a success . He was a professor, with a large family, who introduced the idea of fieldwork to university curricula, had bird North American bird species named after him by James Audubon in gratitude for his assistance with his work and was credited as the discoverer of the hooded crow..


‘What ?!’

MacGillivray was a failure. His exquisite illustrations to his enormous and exhaustive history of British Birds were too expensive for him to afford to include, and his star fell behind other popularisers of Victorian natural history. He was not able to gain academic credit in Edinburgh, and periodically shucked off his responsibilities to go wandering back into the hills.

MacGillivray’s grave was originally illustrated by the engraving of a golden eagle – one of the most famous of his illustrations, which were collected in the Natural History Museum after his death. The metal plate has now been stolen – presumably for its value as scrap- leaving only a vague impression in the limey foundation behind it, looking something like an eviscerated pigeon.

We make stories though. McGillvray made a few of his own. In his massive bird books , he decided to insert diversions, mock dialogues and such to break up the (fairly unrelenting) flow of anatomical and habitat details of the species. He and Audubon wander through the Pentlands, puffing up each others reputations, and blasting the hell out of anything unfamiliar with feathers..


Mecistura longicaudata

The Long Tailed Mufflin

Bottle Tom. Bottle Tit. Long Tailed Mag.

Huck-Muck. Poke Pudding. Mum-Rufflin
( species heading from A History of British Birds, Indigenous and Migratory)

I am more interested whether in his journals he had a posterity in mind. Two survive ,  a Hebridean one, has  him as rather cool young doctor, waiting to find his direction, while he dallies with an number of young women, and knocks off the fauna of the Hebrides, and stuffs a bear. A few, perhaps chastening years later, he manically walks to London.

And of course he has been reinterpreted, as great. or lost , or a bit Aspy. My own wonder was if he could be  reclaimed as a founder of psychogeography. He has a particular eye sometimes . For instance in this quote

A river is nothing but a continuous series of continually renewed drops of water following each other in a groove. (from Natural History of Deeside and Braemar)

It has I think a crystal clarity ( see what I did there!) -seeing beyond the obvious to what is really there. MacGillivray would not have liked to think that rambling was his purpose, although I think it was his therapy. There is a transcendent effort to his attempts to describe his birds that I recognise. See them- see what I see, see me.

A flight of sandpipers is a beautiful sight; there they wheel around the distant point, and advance over the margin of the water; swiftly and silently they glide along now, all inclining their bodies to one side, present to view their undersurface, glistening in the sunshine; again, bending to the other side; they have changed their colour to dusky grey; a shot is fired, and they plung with an abrupt turn, curve aside, ascend with a gliding flight, and all, uttering shrill cries, fly over the stream to settle on the shore that settles out towards Barnbogle ruins. (from A History of British Birds, Indigenous and Migratory)


We might see MacGillivray as an outsider . Hurrying away from society. Split into pieces by his journeys and the different things he was at the ends of them – orphan, Calvinist, Gael, lad of Pairts, proto-scientist, Establishment figure, family man.  Occasionally needing to run to the hills with his demons (failings).


But we can also see him as making the journeys of many lower middle class Scotsmen, on foot towards improving prospects and methods of transportation, with a discomfort about the pace of change and a nostalgia for the space in which they lived, and their animal companion. And perhaps authoring himself, in a way which now invites our post-modern counter-readings.

What do we know though?

I found some of MacGillivray’s illustrations on the NHM website. The reminded me of a story about Richard Richardson a later ornithological  artist, attempting to ‘penetrate beyond the inscrutable eye’ of the nesting black-tailed godwit. Richardson’s legend is that he could somehow ‘think bird’. which means really he could predict what it might be about to do next (so they believed)*.

MacGillivray might also have aspired to this, yet most of his illustrations give back a blank stare. He lived in a world before binocs, so perhaps there is a prosaic explanation, but I like the metaphor. MacGillivray gives us back his own blank stare. We don’t know his essence , he merely reflects the light.

Or is it a reflection – if we were close enough and looking from the right direction it would be. What might we want from this character?  There is a fashion for the unsociable outcast, the oddball , the fool on the hill, which it would be easy to fit him into. But looked at closely almost any self made Victorian scientist would look gauche and autistic. I have biographies of Smith and Gould and said Hugh Miller,which talk to their uncomfortable translation from humble, determined (nay obsessive) repetition (and origin) to the sacred methods of science. Usually the transformations of activity were easier that the crossing of the class divide and the coupling of faith and truth. MacGillivray seems both intractable and prolific. His exhortations to himself are the apogee of self-discipline (or self-punishment , as we might see it now) . But it  worked – he was either a genius or a driven man. Probably both.

MacGillivray appears to have been of an irritable , highly sensitised temperament, fired with enthusiasm and ambition, yet contending, for some time at least, with poverty; ill health and a perhaps not well-founded , though not the less acutely felt, sense of neglect.. thus ceaselessly moved to accomplish yet as continually haunted by the dread of failure… This author was undoubtedly unwise in his frankness, but dipomacy is a stranger to such characters. He never hesitated to differ sharply with anyone, or to express his own views pointedly – if he scarcely disguised his contempt for triflers, blockheads, pedants, compilers and theorizers he was nevertheless a lover of nature , an original thinker, a hard student , and finally an ornithologist of large practical experience, who wrote down what he knew or believed to be true with great regard for accuracy if statement and in a very agreeable manner ( Elliot Coues)

I spent an afternoon with his pictures, or the reproductions of them in Robert Ralph‘s popularisation.  He is not an artist to omit detail , and so things are not naturalistic. He paints one of the great auks (from a skin he was given) dwarfing a rock shelf ( with a limpet for scale), but about to be breached under a wave of shaving foam type fluff , which runs unconvincingly off towards what looks like Toe Head on the west coast of Harris ( where McG grew up). Another outsize and awkward great auk bobs in the distance. (I thought we’ll never know how it moved..)

For painting I have a natural genius and in as far as I have tried this art I have succeeded well. Flower drawing however is the only branch of it in which I have made considerable progress

(from Hebridean Journal)

He is good at plants , and careful to set his specimens in naturalistic scenes – birds breach from a sycamore supporting two cushats, lichens smother the rocks below a slightly off balance looking ptarmigan. It looks like its modelling.


Some birds I think he has studied in life – wrens, linnets, pigeons- feel that ,despite the anatomical verisimilitude, they have been seen. They look like they are about to move (albeit often from unlikely starting points).

Unfortunately the golden eagle picked for his memorial would only move if it had a battery. it sits weightless on an unconcerned rabbit, string vacuously into the middle distance.


MacGillivray became a voracious cataloguer  – fish, molluscs, shells, cattle (but for some reason, perhaps a financial one, not plants). One of the linnets which were about to take off in the last paragraph hangs limply from the mouth of an ermine – the stoatie s eye glints with excitement.

Ralph’s selection of plates ends with a horseshoe bat. One bat hangs unobtrusively on a by now familiar, foraminiferous rock outcrop. Another soars off into the space of the white page, tiny toenails expanded – as near weightless as  can be.


Its a good place to end.

Mr Mcleod accompanied us as far as the mouth of the rivulet, on which we fished yesterday.At parting he gave us a true highland clasp, which spoke to my sentient faculty of a heart warm with tenderness. Excepting the grasp of Jessy Simpson, last year, I never felt a more endearing one. As to his character I dare not meddle with it… Fare-thee-well, my dear friend. May the blast of Misfortune fall lightly on thy frame ! (from Hebridean Journal)

* this is from here






At Scotlands navel


Loch Ossian from the Road to the Isles which wanders off through the distant v to the Fort, or if you were to turn round, over the hill towards Perth

This might be the Zone. I had imagined the Zone to be a post industrial edgeland full of dripping and feral animals, like in Stalker, but that is obviously too literal. The Zone is the place where you get what you wish for. ( I imagine that it is also the place you keep remembering).


I got off the train where the cast of Trainspotting did (twice now). The Corrour Highland Estate has no particular interest in revisiting Renton’s soliloquy it seems. Tommy brought them to make them proud to be Scottish..

Its shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched , miserable , servile, pathetic trach that was ever shat into civilisation.. Its  a shite state of affairs to be in , Tommy, and ALL the fresh air  in the world wont make any fucking difference..

I had planned to come just after the doomsday election (which turned out not to be so bad after all), to decide it it was still shite being Scottish. or less shite being Scottish than British.


Instead I wandered into a community of seekers. A gnarled fell walker, a Gothic heroine in exile, a Dutch girl in search of encounter, a German woman looking for solitude,  some actual trainspotters, and me. We orbited our strange wooden abode (the hostel is a converted boathouse where Edwardian toffs, en route to dethroning the Monarch of the Glen with a twelve bore, waited for the steam yacht to ferry them down the loch) provided walk-ons in each others quests, and then left again.


Parmelioid lichen swarming over a boulder – I d really like this to be Parmelia omphaloides, but I m not really sure

I was leaving when the film crew arrived. The fell walker had already made a hasty exit. The warden had spruced herself up to be interviewed in the mists by the lochside. I pointed out the faux romanticism ,and she  jauntily offered to pop back to her hut for her cloak and raven. The girls seemed paralysed by the headlights of fame, or the language barrier. The crew said they were from the Chamber of Commerce (what!). I agreed to be interviewed on the bench outside, until they asked me to say ‘My Highland capital is.. WILDLIFE’ .

( ‘Its obviously not, its Inverness’ ,I thought).

I pointed out a diver had just crossed my path, and made my excuses. You need to be true to yourself.


When I was looking down at the myriad of bog pools from the ridge of Sgurr Ghaibre I decided my wish was to find a diver. As I write I realize some of you may imagine I sought a frogman or Tom Daly lookalike rather than a long-necked goose-like bird. To draw a diver , draw a goose, and then rub out a concave section on each side of its neck , and place these shavings gently on its back. There is an adventure story by Arthur Ransome ( Swallows and Amazons) which I read, along with everything else in the children’s section of my local library. Great Northern. It has maps, and quests, and secrets, and enmity and a loons nest in the Hebrides. This year I met a Russian exile whose dearest wish is to see a Great Northern. They have a following, then.IMG_20170614_141343330_HDR


But I am in the wrong place for Great Northern’s (which does seem to be largely where people look for them). I hope for a throated diver, red or black, RTD or BTD. In winter these float around lone-ly in our estuaries . In the summer they move inland and north to glimmering lakes and tarns of the sodden Highlands, and seek out secluded pools with little, low-slung islands for nest sites , protected to a degree from egg thieves , and offering scope to nursery paddling for flightless fledglings. And, yes reader, you have to find them amongst the vastness.

It took me three days. My search methods of preference are random. Wander, do something else, keep the possibility in mind. You have a reason to be there at least , and a dream, of an oversized bird on a flatly reflective pool.


The fleeing diver passed in the direction of the bog around Corrour Station , which I d spotted from the train across Rannoch Moor.

Rannoch Moor is hardly a thing, except as an  absence of mountains. Not a meall or a carn for twenty square miles. But slopes, knolls, nobbles, drumlins, eskers, moraines, bogs , mires, pools and straggly conifers in rows. A one point the water stopped flowing west, and started flowing east – around the time the German kid opposite waved his socks out into the passage again, and then it changed back again. So it traverses the spine of Scotland, and from the bog at Corrour water can flow north, east, west or south, and reach the sea near Fort William, Dundee or Inveraray.


Bog is tortuous to cross . Like the Zone you rarely go forward in a straight line. I wobble from hummock to hummock, retaining equilibrium, practicing Zen like patience to be at one with the elasticity of the surface of the mire. What will come, will come. Move as the bog allows. I fall in anyway.


It rained and it stopped , and rained and stopped , the hills acting as the stage lighting and scenery team as I traced round the shorelines like those I used to copy  from maps of the North west coastline. I found a tiny beach of silver sand abandoned on the rim of peat, and a couple of vulgar mallards. The game was a bogey , and I let my dream go and wrote my slogan on the sand.


And yet here in the middle of Scotland on the last tiny pool, there, was a diver ,floating motionless, in silhouette against the grey lit water. I did drop to my knees  – partly pilgrim, partly stalker, partly because i was wearing waterproof trousers already, and I may have cried with joy.


And this is where a film would end  with a voiceover from the clouds –




Its the edit. Its a wrap.

But , now,  life doesn’t do that . The diver wasn’t going anywhere . It was alone, waiting or resting, and I was left to consider -what do you do now with your dream?

After a few minutes I felt an impulse to make it fly, like a toy for me, to watch it flap silently, arduously over its world, until it passed out of reach. And to have that ending. I didn’t- although you don’t know this for sure..

The only other option was a painstaking retreat across the moor, around erratic boulder, peat hag, another boulder, sphagnum pool, outflow streams, another boulder, heather tussock. Looking back from the top of each mound to see if.. Until it disappeared, although really I did. After all I had a train to catch in a few hours.


At the station the Estate has created a bistro hotel with a cafe that serves a decent latte. I left my boots and waterproofs in the waiting hut on the platform and joined the lingerers inside where I could have had a locally slaughtered deer burger for 14 ( served on a brioche bun with beetroot chips and slaw).

And still , close by , but also an enormous distance away, at the navel of Scotland, on the great moor there is a still pool , and on that pool there floats a blackthroated diver.


Dwarf cornel, lower slopes of Beinn Dearg. My first ever.


Postscript –

Two months later in search of traces of Donnchadh Ban, who has a walk on part in the next part of my trip,   I go to a book launch for Literature of the Gaelic Landscape by John Murray. This contains a description of a precursor to the praise poems of the Gaelic landscape called the Song of the Owl ( Oran na Comhachaig) in which the poet , Domnhall mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dan (Donald MacKinlay of the Verses) meets an owl on the way home from a party, which he persuades to tell him her the story of their homeland ( owls as well as being wise,and talkative were also believed to reach a great age). Anyway that homeland is basically the area that you can see in the photo at the top of the post, the owl meeting having taken place at Fearsaig on Loch Treig which is over to the right in the picture. It does seem a lot of journeys run through this space..

Winter Birds of the Apocalypse, Number 2 – The Bohemian Waxwing


The Bohemian Waxwing

Named for their exotic appearance, but not so known in Bohemia, where loucheness is blamed on the gypsies instead, this poshed-up monicker replaced their previous colloquial name of the Devil Bird.

Medieval folk witnessing dramatic occasional appearances of flocks of two types of unusual birds into their manor felt it natural to regard their appearances as omens. Since one type had beaks which made the sign of the cross and the other a gaudy, debauched appearance it was obvious which was going to get the bad press..

Waxwings arrive in flocks as the light fades in late autumn. They clump in the upper branches of bare small trees, where in winter sun, their plumage can seem almost fluorescent. Eye stripes , gloss-painted wing bars and an exaggerated quiff complete the satanic(or new romantic, depending on your era) appeal.

Waxwings have taken to frequenting supermarket car parks during the Winter Shopping Festival. Crowding into weedy ornamental sallows they offer an ongoing commentary on events, like clockwork Jeff Koons installations, or brightly painted cousins of the singing crows in Dumbo.

Either way the devil -birds seem to observing something..

And waiting.

Winter Birds of the Apocalypse No4 – The Pintail

The pintail is a long tailed duck, but not THE long-tailed duck.

No, it is one of the many medievally-named ducks discriminated originally as menu items for potlatch feasting Tudors. While their enemies and vassals starved at their doors,  large-bellied despots bought loyalty with annual meals of prodigious meatiness,  largely sourced from the watery places that fringed their feudal domains. While the swan, the goose, the pike, the roach, the gadwall, the shoveller, the widgeon, the pigeon, the dace and the plaice may have had the fecundity to survive the appetite of the British ruling classes, the pintail did not and discretely declined.

It now appears seldom, singly, or in pairs, on the fringes of garrulous displays of wildfowl.

At the show-grounds of the Wildfowl Trust ancestors of the Tudors feed the ducks their own prodigious potlatches. The birds display themselves shamelessly by floodlight- human appetites for spectacle, and,perhaps, penance , are simultaneously met.

At the edges of the feast are ghostly pintail, the narrow white stripe on their facial plumage – indicating perhaps a trace of archetypal trauma- their streamlined svelte shapes pointing contrast at the gross, tubby ducks belching around them,  as they seek, among the detritus of food pellets and breadcrumbs, the last few freshwater shrimps choking amongst the algal blooms.

Winter Birds of the Apocalypse No.1 – The Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan are the only bird commonly known by their Gaelic name. And with a classical Greek spelling for it, more common vernacular transcriptions having failed the early ornithologists’ need for affectation.

‘Tarmachan’  is Gaelic for croaker, and these birds truly lack affectation.

In the strange cosmologies into which we young ecologists were inducted there were niches ( ‘nitch’ as my professor insisted , presumably to distinguish the term from the classically affected statue space it had metaphorically escaped from). These were ecological spaces – Into each niche evolution would squeeze  out something unique to fit .

The ptarmigans niche, then, would be the last bird to survive before the Big Chill on Snowball Earth.

At the moment thousands of these birds cling to the upper slopes of the Cairngorm plateau, cowering under rocks on top of mountains, using their lee for protection. When the wind drops they fly uphill to the exposed ridges to harvest the few dry shoots that have been scoured out by the wind-blast.

At other times, and in other places,  they dig down under the snow and stay until daylight returns. This may be for some weeks in Svalbard, where they tough out the winter in a state of torpor.

Their biggest predator is frost, which can seal them into their snowholes if it freezes a cap on the top.

They have splayed feather-covered toes, which act as insulated snowshoes, as, neck withdrawn for extra insulation , they sidle across the frozen lands like refugees from South Park.

They will outlast us without needing to ask why.