Tumbling in the sky, ‘gronking’ noisily, the raven is one of the most distinctive and charismatic birds in Scotland.
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’.
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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_ta33bMB70