Caught by the River

Raptor: A Journey Through Birds

Sue Brooks | 3rd March 2016

unnamed-1 Raptor: A Journey Through Birds by James Macdonald Lockhart
(4th Estate, hardback. 376 pages. Out now and available in the Caught by the River shop.)

Words: Sue Brooks

It begins with memories: of a great grandfather, the photographer and author, Seton Gordon, whose Golden Eagle books were such an influence on the young Macdonald Lockhart. They set this book gestating. In 2011, he receives an RSL award to search for all fifteen birds of prey which breed in the British Isles, following a route north to south, each bird in a different habitat. Chapter 1 – the Hen Harrier in Orkney. It seems straightforward.

On page 29, everything changes. A different man is walking south. He leaves his home in Aberdeen after a night when he dreams of stuffed birds in a museum breaking out of their cabinets. His name is William MacGillivray: the year is 1819 and he is 23.

It is a marvellous introduction. William explodes: he fizzes and burns with restless energy. He plans to cover the 838 miles from Aberdeen to London on a budget of £10, often sleeping rough, and averaging over 25 miles per day. His goal? To visit the bird collection in the Natural History Museum.

Lockhart came across MacGillivray through his research – a brief quotation leading him to “Descriptions of the Rapacious Birds of Great Britain” and an immediate sense of kinship. Attentive, accurate, warm and intimate, you cannot help but feel MacGillivray’s delight in being out there among the birds. A kinship which grows as he unravels the life of this extraordinary field naturalist. Lockhart tells the story from the three journals which have survived. William is relentlessly honest. He needs resolution and a sense of purpose. He starts each day with a vow :

Drink milk twice a day
Read the chapter on Anatomy in the Encyclopaedia Britannica
Read the Book of Job
Make six leaps
Above all, procrastination is to be shunned.

Anatomy is of the greatest importance. William dissects dead raptors because he wants to understand how the bird works. This is what, in Lockhart’s view, distinguishes his work as an ornithologist – his insistence on studying and describing every aspect, so that when he is watching a Sea Eagle for example, he looks beyond its white-fanned tail, the huge, heavy bill, into the pulse and texture of its form. Lockhart reads every piece of work he can find – MacGillivray’s writing, for me, is a WAY of seeing. He misses nothing. He uses language to get far beneath the birds and lift them into being. Just as William is being lifted into being in my imagination.

His presence is felt even in the places where he is absent. ( the chapters on the Osprey, Peregrine, Hen Harrier and Marsh Harrier.) It is one of the themes of the book – the narratives of absence I kept coming across in the wider landscape, often, unavoidably, tangled themselves with the stories of persecution, removal and extinction that mark the narrative of so many of our birds of prey. Nowhere more so than on the Morvern peninsula. Lockhart has visited many times without seeing a Sea Eagle. Impatience is getting the better of him as it often did with MacGillivray. He decides to maroon himself on the small island of Oronsay off its northern edge. It rains and he lies in his tent reading the evidence of the Napier Commission into the conditions of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands in 1884. Heartbreaking details of families evicted again and again with no compensation, to make way for sheep. Later he reads the account of the artist George Lodge’s visit in 1922 to the nest of the last resident Sea Eagle on North Roe, Shetland. She hasn’t been seen for four years. He calls her with the name Shetland fishermen used – Anyouyou. Anyouyou. There is a rumour she has been shot.

Towards the end of Lockhart’s journey when there are only three birds to be seen, William’s journey is over. Lockhart visits his grave in the New Calton cemetery in Edinburgh. He is appalled to find it has been desecrated. The brass plaque with the image of the Golden Eagle modelled from one of William’s own paintings, has been hacked away. Lockhart sends up a prayer: Anything to make him feel less absent. And in this chapter more than any other, by some strange symmetry, William MacGillivray is most palpably alive. Lockhart is in the Natural History Museum where 200 paintings have arrived on trolleys from the storeroom. He puts on his white gloves, bends over each painting with concentrated attention and makes notes. There are two pages of these notes. Not the descriptions he admired so much in William’s work which felt chiselled from hours of careful observation, but his own descriptions, chiselled from days, weeks, years of preparation for that moment, bringing him as close to William MacGillivray as anyone has ever been.

It is fitting that the bird of this chapter is the Hobby, and that James Macdonald Lockhart, even in a place as accessible as the Arne peninsula, manages to secrete his tent beneath an oak tree with the lights and music of Poole across the bay. It is dusk on the heath. He waits and the Hobby appears. Until it is too dark to see, the bird puts on a breathtaking display. Is it too fanciful to see the spirit of William MacGillivray on the wing? Not for this reader, at least. The man who exploded onto page 29 makes a cauldron, a Corryvreckan of the air. He stokes, he concertinas……he smashes through it.

I have admired Lockhart’s short pieces in the magazine Archipelago, but nothing prepared me for the sustained brilliance and intensity of his first book. It has been a journey “through” in all senses of the word – from end to end and everywhere within. Warm, intimate, full of wonder and delight in the ways the birds revealed themselves, and a passionate coming into being of his greatest mentor. When William makes his last appearance in the text, Lockhart quotes Professor Trail who spoke at the memorial ceremony in 1900: I have learned to know him through his works, and through these I have learned to revere the man and love his memory.

Hand on heart, I for one, can say the same.

Sue Brooks on Caught by the River