Caught by the River

A Hebridean Naturalist’s Journal

Sue Brooks | 6th November 2017

Sue Brooks gets to know the Scottish naturalist and ornithologist William MacGillivray through his journal, republished this year by Acair Books as A Hebridean Naturalist’s Journal 1817-1818.

I am indebted to James Macdonald Lockhart for an introduction to William MacGillivray, his invisible companion in the quest to seek out and come into the presence of fifteen birds of prey in the British Isles (Raptor, 2016). The only known portrait of MacGillivray stares out from the frontispiece: neat, soberly dressed, a man of the church you might think, serious and full of intent. Not the man I came to know through my reading as William, setting out in September 1819 aged twenty three, to walk from Aberdeen to London, eight hundred and thirty eight miles, because he MUST. He must see for himself the stuffed skins of all the birds in the Natural History Museum. He dreams about the birds flying free from their glass cages. Already he is taking shape in my imagination and I want to know more.

Here he is in his own words, in a new edition to mark the two hundreth anniversary of his first journal. It is a revelation and a delight. He is aged 21 and at a turning point: about to act on a decision to give up medical training at the University in Aberdeen and return to his childhood home on the Isle of Harris. He needs approval and financial support from his uncle, and time to devote to his passion for Natural History – the non-human world of plants, animals, rocks, soil structure and above all, birds, that has excited and enthralled him for years. Can he forge a living from it? He dreams that he can and plans a strict course of disciplined study and self-improvement over the summer, winter and spring of 1817-1818.

We never know what has prompted the decision. He hints at an escape from confusion and anxiety, a ‘morbidly irritable frame of body’, the ‘unutterable anguish’ of unrequited love, and a life that has been ‘nothing less than a series of blunders, follies and crimes’. What could have happened to a young man whose favourite reading is the Book of Job? Can he ever be happy? I want this as much as he does. ‘Love is the most generous of passions and I long to indulge it’. Will it be Marion, Helen, or Isabella perhaps?

An immense cast of characters walks through the pages. Villains such as Master Lachlan, the minister for St Kilda, who smokes, drinks, and uses snuff, and refuses to return to St Kilda although he is receiving a salary, until he is offered more satisfactory accommodation – and the odious Donald Stewart, the Factor who is scheming to take over all the tenancies on the island and clear them for sheep. And then there are heroes: the lovely Ewen and Christina MacDiarmid, the shepherd and his wife, and most of all, William himself.

The journal is his confessional and his modus operandi. He must strive to do better, pay closer attention, keep accurate records, aim for the highest standards. He sets out his resolutions:

‘A plan of conduct for the day to be drawn up each morning. In the evening reflections are to be passed upon my conduct and Grace to be said after meals. No opportunity of collecting specimens to be neglected. I must avoid disputes upon religious subjects, in fact disputes in general.’

And he lists the virtues he holds dear: ‘honesty, candour, Disinterestedness, Benevolence, Generosity, Gratitude, Punctuality, Patience, Perseverence, Good nature, humility…’

Who could disagree? And who could not be sympathetic to the appetites and indulgences, the very human failings that follow? Honesty is of the greatest importance; never more so than in the episode recorded in the last week of the journal, just before he returns to Aberdeen. He has become a regular visitor to the house of the Laird, Alexander Macleod, the owner of the MacGillivray family farm at Northton and the one person on Harris who matches William in education and range of interests. The “Set” is due: the annual review of the tenancy and decision whether it can continue or not. William and his uncle are present, and the Laird, with the villainous Factor, Donald Stewart. The Laird has already given William the assurance that the tenancy is safe, but under Stewart’s influence, he reneges on the promise. William is enraged and challenges the Laird, who backs down. William writes: ‘he had not the courage to call me a liar, and without that his honour was likely to suffer. I have happily gained a most important end and strictly adhere to the truth! So let his friendship go to the devil. I am mighty glad on’t.’

On April 29th 1818, he takes stock and gives himself a modest report: ‘I must confess I am in a fair way…and may before the end of 4 or 5 years be eminent in something’.

This is the man who regularly walked more than thirty miles in a day and sat down in the evening to list the Latin names of the plants he had seen, both in flower and not in flower. The man who published innumerable books and articles, including the monumental History of British Birds in five volumes with his own illustrations. The man sought out by John James Audubon in 1830 to work on Ornithological Biography, the scientific text for Birds of America. Their collaboration and friendship lasted for the rest of their lives and they died within a year of each other. Audubon became an American legend, copies of the 39 x 26” Birds of America reaching astronomical prices at Sotheby’s. William’s paintings are stored in the basement of the Natural History Museum.

I compared the many portraits of Audubon with the single one of William. There is an artistic swagger about Audubon, theatricality and sheer largesse. I came across a comment by a contemporary, that Audubon was ‘not one to allow strict accuracy to interfere with a good story.’ He may have been a man for his time and his country, but to my mind William is a hero for all time. Never more eminent in his honesty, unflinching morality and exquisite attention to detail, than in our own century. Let us praise him.


A Hebridean Naturalist’s Journal is out now, and available to buy here.

Sue Brooks on Caught by the River