The Sacred Texts of Last Wolf
Seton Gordon: Wanderings of a Naturalist 1921
Seton Gordon is hardly a household name anymore, but he deserves to be. He became world famous as a naturalist, folklorist and photographer in his lifetime and most of his works are still widely available and some still in print. He was born in Aboyne in Aberdeenshire in 1886 and died in 1977, coincidentally, the year I was born. This year sees the 100th anniversary of his book Wanderings of a Naturalist, and it seems timely that this becomes one of the Sacred Texts of Last Wolf.
Wanderings of a Naturalist is one of those heralded books of Scottish nature writing that I heard about and saw mentioned by others many times before I even saw a copy. I can’t remember where, or even when I got it, but it is a hardback Cassell first edition from 1921 with ’78 Illustrations from Photographs by the Author and his Wife’.
Seton Gordon’s primary interest seems to be birds. Bird life overrides this book and a lot of his work and he wrote widely on the subject. His first book, published when he was only 21, was entitled Birds of the Loch and Mountain. He wrote some 27 books throughout his life, including a book entirely dedicated to his favourite winged species, the golden eagle that almost certainly had an impact on the bird still being seen in certain parts of the country today. One of the striking things about a lot of chapters in this book is the amount of times he sees an eagle, insinuating from beyond the grave that there was a lot more of them around a hundred years ago than today. He was one of the first people to photograph eagles in their eyries.
Wanderings of a Naturalist is written through the eye of an obsessive, not just an expert. Birds may be an overriding passion; he spends countless hours and days in huts and shelters to observe various birds, but he writes about the outdoors, mountain vistas, views from island hilltops etc. with the same passion and a poetry that brings the magic of the area truly to the fore. And it is almost exclusively about Scotland. He seems to be able to name every surrounding hill and mountain within eye-sight and even names those that he should be able to see as well if the weather didn’t allow it. In the chapter on Ulva for example, he names all the islands and as well as each of the peaks on them. He is firstly a naturalist but he never ignores the country or its people and he writes equally about both. He collected stories and folklore and does not shy away from our sometimes violent history.
As all these early 20th century pioneer types seemed to be, Gordon is quite the character. He usually wandered wearing a kilt and a bunnet, or sometimes a deerstalker, no doubt cutting quite the figure wandering the moors, glens and mountains. Magnificently, he would often break out a bagpipe tune, something I find wonderful as I often sing when alone on the hills and find myself wishing for some instrumental accompaniment.
Gordon may have been Oxford educated but spent most of his life in the wilds of Scotland and when he died a memorial bench was erected on Skye in his memory. The plaque reads…
“In the memory of the late Seton Gordon, CBE, writer and naturalist whose twenty-seven books on the highlands and islands led many people to appreciate their beauty. His love of the Hebrides influenced his coming to Skye where he lived for more than fifty years among the people of this area.”
We will end with what is a fairly random section of text reproduced from Wanderings of a Naturalist.
“Landing in one of the sheltered bays-for the south wind blew strong- a short walk took me to the hill-top, where, on the cairn, the peregrine is wont to sun himself, and where on the heather and bramble plants stone-chats rear their broods, and whitethroats flit noiselessly as the busy themselves at their nest-making. Great fields of wild hyacinths covered the hillside, so that the air was heavy with their scent, and the quickly springing bracken fronds, which soon would cover the hillside in a thick canopy, could scarce be seen for the luxuriance of the bluebells and primroses that grew between them.”
This is very lyrical in its description. I have broken up the same text into lines. Read again, the same words but how poetic they are. This could be poetry:
Landing in one of the sheltered bays-
for the south wind blew strong-
a short walk took me to the hill-top,
where, on the cairn,
the peregrine is wont to sun himself,
and where on the heather and bramble plants
stone-chats rear their broods,
and whitethroats flit noiselessly as they busy themselves
at their nest-making.
Great fields of wild hyacinths covered the hillside,
so that the air was heavy with their scent,
and the quickly springing bracken fronds,
which soon would cover the hillside in a thick canopy,
could scarce be seen for the luxuriance
of the bluebells and primroses that grew between them.
Seton Gordon ladies and gentlemen. So happy 100th birthday to Wanderings of a Naturalist. Take your rightful place amongst the Sacred Texts of Last Wolf.
Currently listening to Exercises in Futility by Mgla for the zillionth time. An utterly flawless album.