Seton Gordon

The famous naturalist Seton Gordon was born in Aberdeenshire, and lived much of his life in Scotland — in Aboyne, Aviemore and latterly Duntulm in Skye. He was of private means and moved in aristocratic circles, however, one of his major strengths was that he was just as at home with gamekeepers, gillies and crofters as he was with Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Dame Flora Macleod and Edward Duke of Windsor.

Two of the common threads that wove through his wide and varied circle of friends were natural history and piping. Although Seton’s hearing began to deteriorate during his twenties, he was an accomplished piper and his tall, kilted, figure could be found judging at Highland Games and Piping Competitions throughout his life.

Combining his photographic skills with a love of natural history, and a poetic, literary flair, his privileged background enabled him to devote his life to lecturing and writing about the landscapes, wildlife, history and traditions of the Highlands and Islands. By his own choice, however, it was often an uncomfortable existence and he was never happier than trudging through snowstorms on the high tops.

Seton Gordon looking into the Lairig Ghru from Braeriach

Seton Gordon looking into the Lairig Ghru from Braeriach

He had been given his first half-plate camera at 17 and, like most of his possessions, it remained in service for many decades. A year later he took his first photo of a golden eagle eyrie in the Cairngorms and it was this species in particular that was to bring him world renown. Working with his wife, Audrey, he made 167 hours of observation, from a cramped and remote hide in the forest and with the ground breaking photographs produced ‘Days with the Golden Eagle’, published in 1927 and nearly thirty years later, he wrote his monograph ‘The Golden Eagle – King of Birds’.

Gordon in 1925 after hours of observation. The study of these chicks who he called Cain and Abel, formed the basis of 'Days with the Golden Eagle'.  You can see the flies hovering around the chicks and prey remains in the eyrie'

‘This wonderful photo of golden eagle was one of several photographed by Seton Gordon in 1925 after hours of observation. The study of these chicks who he called Cain and Abel, formed the basis of ‘Days with the Golden Eagle’. You can see the flies hovering around the chicks and prey remains in the eyrie’

Seton’s first book was ‘Birds of the Loch and Mountain’ which contained 90 of his photographs and was published in 1907 just before he went up to Oxford to study natural sciences. Many more books were to follow – twenty six in all – without exception to popular acclaim. He also wrote countless notes and articles in magazines and newspapers, nearly always about the Highlands and Islands, eloquently conveying as much about the myths and folklore as about wildlife. When war was declared in 1914, his poor hearing precluded him from active service, so he was sent to the Hebrides as a naval patrol officer. In 1915 he married a kindred spirit in Audrey with whom he had three children.

Seton was a prolific author

Seton was a prolific author

Despite his prodigious output as a lecturer, writer and journalist, Seton Gordon took time to encourage others. Adam Watson was only 9 when he first wrote to Seton, yet he took the time to respond to the youngster’s enthusiasm. “It is a fine thing for you to have a love of the hills because on the hills you find yourself near grand and beautiful things and as you grow older you will love them more and more” and they remained close friends thereafter.

Years later, Desmond Nethersole-Thompson wrote to Seton enclosing a copy of The Cairngorms, a book he had written with Adam Watson in 1974. ‘You inspired Adam and myself, when we were both schoolboys and gave us the wish to walk the hills and always try to discover’

Seton as photographed by Adam Watson

Seton Gordon on Carn an Tuirc, 7 August 1976 as photographed by Adam Watson


Adam took one of the last photos of Seton Gordon, aged 90. The ‘grand old man of nature’ was still standing proud, if slightly stooped, in the middle of his beloved Cairngorms, leaning on his cromag (walking stick) and still wearing his familiar but now moth-eaten and heavily patched kilt. Seton died six months later, in March 1977.

J Morton Boyd considered how ‘Seton lived in wonderment of nature, and responded to the lives of animals and people with a remarkable sympathy and sensitivity. He wrote with a mysticism which was part real and part imagination, in a simple way which endeared him to both laird and crofter.’

All in all, Seton amply demonstrated two vital skills of the naturalist; keen observation and careful recording, but he also had time to enthuse and encourage others, irrespective of their ages or backgrounds.

It is somehow fitting that for a man with such a clear love of Scotland’s natural heritage one of his former homes – at Achantoul, Aviemore – is now an SNH office. He lived there from 1921 to 1931, and it was where he planned many trips and wrote his well-received The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland.

Seton Gordon (1886 – 1977)


Notes: This biography was commissioned as part of the Highland Naturalists Project – SNH’s contribution to the 2007 Year of Highland Culture. Highland Naturalists was an exhibition which celebrated the work of people from all walks of life who had contributed much to our understanding of Scotland’s natural world.


Images: The colour image of Seton is courtesy of and copyright of Adam Watson. The image of Seton’s books is copyright of Pete Moore and the remaining images are copyright of The Seton Gordon Literary Estate.



Posted in The Highland Naturalists | Tagged , , , , ,

Doing our bit

March 2014 saw the launch of Climate Week, which was Britain’s biggest climate change campaign to date. Inspiring action to create a sustainable future, Climate Week showcased practical solutions to help people live and work more sustainably.

Scottish Natural Heritage has taken a number of steps at many of our own offices to tackle climate change by using renewable energy sources. We see using the right type of renewables at the right location as an important contribution to achieving our Low Carbon Vision.

Our Isle of May National Nature Reserve is not on the electricity grid, so any fuel to make electricity or provide heat has to be brought to the island. This is costly and not very efficient, so to reduce our carbon emissions we have added some new solar panels. Now the seal researchers and volunteers who stay on the island can have reliable, green electricity for lights and laptops.

The harbour on the Isle of May

The harbour on the Isle of May


The Isle of May solar panels are just one of more than 20 renewable energy systems at SNH offices. Our Battleby, Inverness, Golspie, Newton Stewart, Cairnsmore of Fleet NNR and Dingwall offices all use solar panels to save in the region of 55 tonnes of CO2.
The installation of electricity-generating wind turbines at our Noss, Forvie and St Cyrus NNR visitor centres have helped deliver low-carbon solutions whilst a hydro system (below) at our Rum visitor centre has had a similarly positive impact.

Hydro dam, Coire Dubh,  Isle of Rum.

Hydro dam, Coire Dubh, Isle of Rum.

We are using biomass heating systems (burning wood pellets) at our offices in Aviemore, Inverness, Aberdeen and Kinlochewe; and ground-source heat pumps operate at our St Cyrus, Cairnsmore of Fleet and Battleby offices.

St Cyrus National Nature Reserve

St Cyrus National Nature Reserve

Recently we completed work on a micro-hydroelectric system at the off-grid Creag Meagaidh NNR office, replacing diesel and gas with free electricity from the local river. As a very sensitive site, making this particular system work here is extremely satisfying and it will bring excellent savings in public funds as well as carbon emissions.

Further information:

You can learn more about how SNH is helping nature to adapt here:

You can also read about how we restored Blawhorn Moss (a lowland raised bog in West Lothian); helping it adapt to a warming climate, and future-proofing the many benefits it brings us @

Image of Hydro dam, Coire Dubh, Isle of Rum, courtesy of George Logan, other images (C) Lorne Gill / SNH.

Posted in National Nature Reserves | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Valuing John Muir and nature

Ron McCraw, is an Access and Recreation Manager with Scottish Natural Heritage. He is also an advocate of the value of John Muir’s legacy. As he explains below we stand on the cusp of an exceptional opportunity to celebrate and take stock of Muir’s work and see how his views apply to our modern day lifestyles.

John Muir, an inspirational figure

John Muir, an inspirational figure

A new John Muir Way opens in Scotland on 21 April this year, running from Helensburgh to Dunbar, and aiming to encourage more people to enjoy nature the outdoors. There is also a John Muir Festival (17-26 April) and a John Muir Conference in May. This will all add to the good work of the John Muir Trust in protecting Scotland’s wilderness areas and engaging people practically through John Muir Awards. Hopefully this will lead to a greater awareness in Scotland of Muir and his achievements.

But what did he really stand for?

There’s growing talk about the relevance of John Muir (1838 – 1914) to our lives today. John Muir’s legacy and philosophy are detailed in Passion for Nature (2008), Donald Worster’s excellent biography. His huge political and practical environmental achievements are well acknowledged, particularly his influence in creating the US National Parks system. However, the closing paragraphs question the extent to which Muir’s values in nature have penetrated today’s society. For him and other environmental philosophers, nature had a value in its own right, providing a strong spiritual dimension to their lives, as it also did for Robert Burns and William Wordsworth. Worster asks,

“Can contact with nature inspire people to a higher ethic, a higher decency? Or is the human race by and large incapable of reverence, restraint, generosity or vision? Have we truly learned to respect a nature that we did not create, a world independent of us, or do we see only the hand of mankind wherever we look?”

Enjoying the John Muir Way

Enjoying the John Muir Way

Arguably, John Muir’s commentaries on the money driven US society of the late 1800′s are relevant today. As in the US in his day, a huge proportion of the Scottish population are not connected to nature. However, there is lots of good work being done by public bodies and the voluntary sector: making the outdoors more accessible, promoting it better and improving the understanding of habitats and species. But, what is the sum of all this activity in influencing people’s values?

Perhaps a fundamental question is what society values nature for. Is it as a natural asset – the way it underpins tourism and the economy? Is it for the wild places and green networks which enhance our quality of life, or should there be more emphasis on people valuing nature for its own sake? Muir believed in the power of nature as an essential place of retreat from busy lifestyles, through which people could restore and maintain their health and well-being. He believed in equality with living things and questioned the emphasis on economic growth and consumerism at the expense of nature and spiritual values founded on it. But Muir was no Luddite – as a scientist, fruit grower and businessman, he understood the practicalities of living.

The Kelpies, a highlight of the John Muir Festival

The Kelpies; will be a  stunning highlight of the John Muir Festival

So, should John Muir’s philosophy be brought alive to play a more contemporary role in Scotland today? How do we encourage more people to value nature it for its own sake? John Muir was a great communicator, making connections with and influencing people. What key messages are needed now to connect with more people?

I’ll finish with one of my favourite John Muir quotes about nature. As relevant today as it was when he wrote it – When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.


Further information:

For the John Muir Festival visit

For the John Muir Conference see

For more information on the John Muir Way please see

For the John Muir facebook page go to


Image of the Kelpies courtesy of The Helix, Falkirk.  Image of John Muir courtesy of Sierra Club USA, image of walker (c) Becky Duncan/SNH.


The John Muir Way

The John Muir Festival is just around the corner




Posted in John Muir, Projects | Tagged , , ,

Species of the month


Tumbling in the sky, ‘gronking’ noisily, the raven is one of the most distinctive and charismatic birds in Scotland.

The raven is our largest member of the crow family

The raven is our largest member of the crow family

Few birds however, provoke such a range of contradictory emotions as the raven. On the one hand this is a bird steeped in mythology, admired for its hardiness, and the highlight of many a day’s hillwalking. On the other hand that mythology sometimes paints the raven as a bird of doom, even evil, and today the raven is still viewed in some quarters as a troublesome scavenger.

Written, oral and artistic history reveals that man and raven have lived side by side for centuries. Going back to the Old Testament the raven was named as the bird that Noah first sent out from the ark. In Norse legend Vikings used the raven as a symbol on their banners, and the bird’s habit of feasting on battle aftermath earned it a reputation as a symbol of death. The old Scots poem ‘The Twa Corbies’ is said to reveal two ravens discussing a dead knight. By the mid-1800s, however, the famous author Charles Dickens kept two pet ravens.

The raven is the largest member of the crow family and one of the earliest nesters in Britain. It is also a bird that can live for many years. Although historically not exclusively a bird of the uplands, that is where you are most likely to see them today (unless of course you take a trip to the Tower of London, where incidentally their absence – legend has it – would foretell the fall of the kingdom, although with clipped wings they are unlikely to be absent any time soon).

Their guttural calls and the sight of their tumbling aerial antics are well known. Economy of action could sum up their feeding habits and they have very catholic feeding tastes. Thus, whilst they are adept at taking carrion on our hills, in recent years they have adapted well to the opportunities offered by some landfill sites. But for some sheep farmers their attentions can be extremely unwelcome during the spring lambing season, when they can harass and prey on vulnerable lambs.

There are about 2,500 – 6,000 breeding pairs of raven in Scotland – far fewer than hooded crows or carrion crows. The raven is one of the few members of the crow family not included on any of the General Licences issued annually. Farmers suffering serious agricultural damage may, however, apply to SNH individually for licences to control the bird. It wasn’t always so and the Duchess of Sutherland recorded some 936 killed on her estate between 1831 and 1834.

In England the former steel town known as Corby (and occasionally ‘little Scotland’) has a raven as its town emblem, but alas the name derives from an old Danish farm rather than any bird. By coincidence the word ‘corbie’ in Old Scots means raven or crow. In Gaelic the words ‘an Fhithich or ‘nam Fitheach’ indicate ‘of the ravens’. There are numerous examples of its use, such as Allt an Fhithich near Loch Eil, Caisteal an Fhithich in Waternish on Skye and Creag an Fhithich near Loch Tummel in Perthshire (to name but three).

Sir Robert Walpole, often regarded as the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, wrote under the pseudonym of ‘Robert the raven’, whilst the Gaelic poet ‘Ossian’ appears to mention ravens in a mythical sense in his work, and there is a saying in Gaelic about ‘the knowledge of the raven’. Closer to the present day Gavin Maxwell ended his ‘Ring of Bright Water’ trilogy with the title ‘Raven seek thy Brother’, and the species features prominently in George R. R. Martin’s popular fantasy novel series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’.

The raven can be an extremely clever bird

The raven can be an extremely clever bird

Finally it is hard to ignore the perception that the raven is a clever bird. There is good evidence of the species engaging in social interaction and using complex and varied vocalisations, as well as displaying problem-solving abilities.

So love them or loathe them, few could deny that the gloss-black raven is one of our most intriguing birds.


Want to find out more?
For a summary of how the Vikings viewed the Raven see -

For a particularly Scottish take on the raven in mythology see

For information on the ravens at the Tower of London see

and finally, for some fun. Ravens and crows are known to have a ‘playful’ element to some of their behaviour. Watch crows in Russia apparently enjoying playing in the snow in this videoclip


Posted in Species of the month | Tagged , , , , , , ,

The remarkable Martin Martin

A few years ago Scottish Natural Heritage mounted an exhibition called Highland Naturalists which celebrated the work of people from all walks of life who had contributed much to our understanding of Scotland’s natural world.  Most made their mark in living memory, but Martin Martin made his contribution back in the 17th century with his ground-breaking A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland.  

Dun, St Kilda.

Dun, St Kilda.

Martin Martin wasn’t a ‘scientist’, but because he wrote such accurate accounts of what he saw we know things about wildlife in the distant past that we wouldn’t know otherwise.   And that approach still applies today; being a good observer and an accurate recorder is every bit as important as being an ‘expert’.   This following website will tell you how your observations can be shared and saved so that others can benefit from them:

In 1696, Martin Martin travelled throughout the Hebrides and in 1697 reached St Kilda in an open boat. Today we have GPS, but he had to resort to following gannets to find the islands. In his notes he said:  “Our crew extremely fatigued and discouraged without sight of land for sixteen hours … discovered tribes of Fowls of St Kilda flying, holding their course southerly of us. We put in under the hollow of an extraordinary high rock… which was all covered with a prodigious number of Solan Geese (this is an old name for a gannet) hatching in their nests”.

A photogravure illustration from Norman Heathcote's 'Boating in St Kilda'

A photogravure illustration from Norman Heathcote’s ‘Boating in St Kilda’

To our everlasting benefit, he recorded the lives and environment of the islanders and the wildlife he encountered. Martin’s description of the great auk is unique. The bird was described to him, first hand, by people who knew the birds’ habits well. These observations, a few collected eggs, and the odd skeleton are all that remain of a bird, like the Dodo, now long extinct.

Martin Martin's map of St Kilda

Martin Martin’s map of St Kilda

Details for Martin’s life are a little sketchy. He is known to have studied at both Edinburgh University and Leiden University and he died in London in 1718. His book is said to have influenced Johnson and Boswell in their famous tour of Scotland in 1773.

An Lag, St Kilda.

An Lag, St Kilda.

A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland set out to do many things and boasted that it was a study “… containing a full account of their situation, extent, soils, product, harbours, bays, tides, anchoring places, and fisheries.” It did this and much more besides.

Of Lewis Martin noted  “There is one sort of Whale remarkable for its greatness, which the fishermen distinguish from all others by the name of the Gallan Whale; because they never see it but at the promontory of that name. I was told by the natives, that about 15 years ago, this great Whale overturned a fishing-boat, and devoured three of the crew; the fourth man was saved by another boat which happened to be near, and saw this accident. There are many Whales of different sizes, that frequent the Herring-Bays on the East side.”

Stac an Armin, Stac Lee and Boreray, St Kilda.   (c) Lorne Gill/SNH

Stac an Armin, Stac Lee and Boreray, St Kilda.

When visiting Boreray Martin was made aware of the corncrake and had this to say :  “The corncrake bird is about the bigness of a pigeon, having a longer neck, and being of a brown colour, but blacker in harvest than in Summer. The natives say it lives by the water, and under the ice in Winter and Spring.”  Of course Martin was reporting the facts as presented to him, we don’t know if he believed that the corncrake lived under the ice , but we know that the locals told him they thought it did. As a good recorder Martin jotted down all of the observations that came his way.

Such has been the value of Martin’s work that a major three-day event to mark the tercentenary of the publication of Martin Martin’s book on the Western Isles was held in 2003.  Today, thanks to the National Library of Scotland’s digitisation policy we can all enjoy reading about Martin Martin’s remarkable journey and his observations of bygone culture and nature.

Further reading: You can read Martin Martin’s book in full via the National Library for Scotland website at

For further information on the great auk please see

We would be interested to hear if any readers are aware of to what species the Gallen Whale refers to (email:

All colour images in this article (c) Lorne Gill / SNH.

Posted in National Nature Reserves, The Highland Naturalists | Tagged , , , , , ,

Sensing Landscape: Mountain Culture

Rachel Mimiec, our National Scenic Areas Artist in Residence, provides a March update as she settles down to work in the studio.

I am back in Glasgow working in my studio having completed my final site visit. This marks the end of the field research phase of my residency in the Ben Nevis/Glencoe National Scenic Area (NSA).

On my last visits I have continued to walk and meet people, inviting them to share their passion and connections with the landscape.  Emma Pearce, a member of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team and The Outward Bound Trust, Fran Lochart, Alison Austin, and Sarah Lewis form the John Muir Trust, Scott McCombie and Lindsay McKerral from The National Trust for Scotland and Noel Williams from Lochaber Geopark, all brought new thoughts to my research and I thank them for giving me their time and sharing their enthusiasm.

Alison Austin of the John Muir Trust drawing a diagram in the snow of Ben Nevis to explain the mountain’s unique geology

Alison Austin of the John Muir Trust drawing a diagram in the snow of Ben Nevis to explain the mountain’s unique geology

I also attended the annual Mountain Festival in Fort William. The festival was a place of sharing and celebrating the mountains, the landscape and the people who walk, run, climb, bike, kayak, ski, snowboard and dream in the hills. To say it was extreme is probably an understatement, but it was fascinating to hear people share their passion and understanding on what they do and why they do it.

I am beginning to think that it is not dissimilar from an art practice, where the need to make or engage creatively with the world is what drives us to understand and connect with the other, while also helping us to understand ourselves.

While doing some online research I also discovered the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection (SMHC).

Archive box of the Davie Glen collection at  the SMHC

Archive box of the Davie Glen collection at the SMHC

The SMHC is a unique assortment of mountain memorabilia from Scotland and around the world, run and housed by Mick Tighe.  It is a fantastic collection of all things that are related to being in the mountains and there is a comprehensive website where I found paintings done by Davie Glen of the local area.

Davie Glen watercolours showing Glencoe Village and a landscape

Davie Glen watercolours showing Glencoe Village and a landscape

Davie Glen watercolours showing Glencoe Village and a landscape

Davie was a local character and well-known diddler (mouth musician) and I was delighted to be able to visit Mick and see the collection in person. Dave Glen, climber, cyclist, story-teller, poet, painter, musician … seems to epitomise mountain culture.

Posted in Rachel Mimiec - NSA Artist in Residence | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Rat’s life

Rum National Nature Reserve is internationally important for breeding Manx shearwaters.  It is reckoned that around 23% of the world’s population of this remarkable seabird breed on this Hebridean island.

Sean Carlisle is currently working on Rum as part of a three-year studentship looking at rat ecology and the results of his research will help inform management of the local rat population at the Manx shearwater colony.  Recently he tagged a female rat on the island to test tracking technology and determine if it is possible that rats move between the mountain shearwater colony and the village at sea level.  We sat down with Sean and asked him to explain more about this fascinating project.

Norway rat

Norway rat (Image courtesy AHVLA archive)

 Sean what does the project hope to find out ?

“The GPS tagging project hopes to help understand the movement patterns and home range sizes of Norway rats (perhaps better known as brown rats) on the Isle of Rum.  The idea is that by tracking rats we can decide how far they travel day to day, and if they move between other populations of rats found on the island. The work is part of a Magnus Magnusson SNH/SEPA PhD Studentship looking at the ecology of Norway rats on Rum. The work is supervised by Anglia Ruskin University and the National Wildlife Management Centre, which is part of the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency.”

Is it possible that rats might travel from the village to the shearwater burrows and thereby endanger the seabird population?

“One of the key questions for Manx shearwater conservation on Rum is whether the rats are moving to the shearwater colonies seasonally, that’s to say over summer when the birds are on land, or whether the rats even stay near the colonies all year round. It is certainly possible that rats could move up to the hills over summer, but probably unlikely, however no-one really knows, which is why this GPS tagging is very exciting.”

Manx shearwater ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

Manx shearwater          ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

Generally do rats range quite far in their hunt for food?

“On average an adult male Norway rat has a home range size of about 500m, twice as much as an adult female. Most of the Norway rat research has however been done on mainland populations; we may find that in an island setting such as Rum, home ranges of Norway rats are different. Norway rats will also occasionally have dispersal events; a rat that usually has a home range size of 500m may travel up to 2km to a new area. We hope to find this out using the GPS tracker also.”

How is the data being picked up?

“The tricky part of the method is that the tagged rats must be recaptured in order to download the movement data. Attached to the rat with the GPS tag is a directional radio (VHF) beacon. This beacon sends out a pulse every 1-2 seconds, which means we can track the rat using an antenna and receiver, then set up traps around its last known location to trap the tagged rat and retrieve the location data. It sounds tricky but our recapture rates of rats on Rum have been pretty high so far.”

The stunning island of Rum

The stunning island of Rum    (c) John MacPherson / SNH

What does the data look like and how do you plot the rats’ movements?

“The data is stored on-board the GPS tag and then decoded, once retrieved, via the internet. This creates several types of location files, for the technically minded these are either  KMZ, NMEA, or CSV files. These can then be opened using preferred mapping software (as long as the file type is compatible with the software); the default is Google earth. The outcome is a lovely map of your study site covered in a series of rat location points.”

Has this kind of work been done before and informed any subsequent actions?

“As far as we know no-one has used GPS tags on rats in this context before; GPS tags have however been used to study the ecology of a several different species of mammals and birds including Manx shearwaters, badgers, and wild boar. Generally speaking this type of technology is great for studying anything from foraging behaviour to migration patterns.”

Is there a link to this story and the removal of rats from Canna and Ailsa Craig?

“Understanding the ecology of an invasive non-native species such as the Norway rat is crucial to resolving a lot of the conservation problems we face globally. Norway rats are considered one of the biggest global pests and as such various islands have — in the interests of local conservation — carried out rat eradication programmes.

“Island wildlife in particular appears to be susceptible to the effects of introduced species. In 2004 for example, the Isle of Canna, a neighbouring island to Rum, eradicated Norway rats due to a concern that the Manx shearwater numbers on the island were extremely low at least partly because of Norway rat predation. In Lundy the shearwater population grew after rat eradication in 2005. This apparent success story has been replicated on islands throughout the world, however despite the generally negative effect of rats on seabird productivity, rats and seabirds do sometimes appear to co-exist and an example of this is known on New Island, Falklands.

“A lot is still unknown about the factors that contribute to the effect of rats on seabirds which is why understanding the ecology of the rats is so important.”

Posted in Birds, National Nature Reserves, Projects | Tagged , , , , ,