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High Fliers – Scottish Review of Books
by Susan Mansfield

High Fliers

May 26, 2014 | by Susan Mansfield

It would be logical to assume that eagles represent a kind of pinnacle in nature writing. If any creature demands that a writer pulls out all the stops, especially the ones marked ‘poetic description’, ‘drama’ and ‘romance’, it would be this one. In the first two pages of The Eagle’s Way, with his lyrical description of a female golden eagle in Glen Dochart, Jim Crumley appears to have done just that. One sighs a little and wonders if this is a prelude to another 200 pages of eagle-induced grandiose prose. Mercifully not. Crumley writes in a way which is thoughtful, insightful and self-aware, and his descriptions of eagles range from poignant to downright amusing. When he does return to the same glen, and the same eagle, at the end of the book, he has more than earned a bit of lyricism. Indeed, after those opening two pages, the book settles down to the pace it sustains throughout, the pedestrian pace of the naturalist, with a destination in mind but always alert to what is happening around him. After thirty years of walking, looking and writing, Crumley is reflecting about what he does and what it means.

He is one of Scotland’s foremost nature writers and though his oeuvre of 26 books takes in mountaineering, a memoir and two novels, he is most often concerned with the wildlife of his home stamping ground, particularly the Trossachs. He has watched golden eagles in Scotland for three decades and has toyed with the idea of an eagle book for almost as long, but no story presented itself to drive the thing forward. Now it does, in the form of sea eagles on Tayside, a stone’s throw from where Crumley grew up in Dundee. After the successful re-introduction of the bird on the west coast after an absence of nearly 100 years, a project began in 2007 to introduce year-old birds from Norway to Forestry Commission land in north Fife. Crumley had a lightbulb moment when he observed four adolescent eagles in the trees above Loch Tay: three sea eagles and one golden. Something new was afoot in the eagle world which demanded his attention.

Scotland is presently home to two species of eagle, boundaries are being renegotiated. Golden eagles prefer to inhabit the wildest, loneliest places, shunning all contact with humans. Sea eagles, identified by their greater size and white tail, are much less choosy about where they live and whether they share that space with people. In the next ten to twenty years, Crumley predicts, they will outnumber golden eagles significantly. The next two decades will see a renegotiation of the relationship between eagles and people, and between eagles and eagles.

Thanks to the sea eagle, a country which has systematically hunted to death ‘all the prime movers and shakers of northern hemisphere wilderness’ has a new top predator. And we, the real top predator, can be expected not to like it. The backlash has started on the east coast – the appalled citizen who called the papers because she saw a sea eagle attack a swan, the (Crumley says exaggerated) claim that they will attack lambs, the hysteria: ‘What next? A child?’ Since it seems we are still a long way from the reintroduction of wolves, for which Crumley passionately argued in his 2010 book The Last Wolf, the eagle is ‘all the wolf nature has to work with’.

The beginning of his eagle journey is at the Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister on South Ronaldsay, excavated to reveal fragments of bones of humans and birds, mostly sea eagles, from around 3000BC. Though little is known about their lives, the Stone Age people who built this tomb clearly had a close relationship with eagles, at a time when sea eagles were much more plentiful than they are now. Holding a handful of the eagle talons at the small museum at the site, he felt an ‘electrifying summons’: ‘the relationship between man and eagle is reborn, you too are part of this’.

Seeing the four eagles above Loch Tay began another line of thinking for Crumley. The east coast eagles have been travelling west – the first of them to breed did so on Mull, having hooked up with other members of its own kind. It may have gone there seeking them, or perhaps it just travelled towards the sunset – these are Norwegian eagles after all, and Norway has no east coast to speak of. In any case, there is eagle traffic going west, from the Tay estuary to Mull, and back again. Is this, he speculates, ‘a new thoroughfare of nature stretching across the waist of the country, being built by eagles’? In The Eagle’s Way, he traces that journey – which, incidentally, takes in much of his own best loved wildlife-watching territory – looking at the landscape as an eagle might look: water courses, roosts, nesting sites.

One of the challenges of writing about eagles is that they are not easy to find or to watch. Any eagle watcher must be patient in the extreme: the fly past described in the first two pages was the result of a dawn rise, an hour’s climb and four hours of waiting for five minutes of flight. There is plenty of space, then, for reflection, and for observing the show nature puts on while the watcher waits for the eagle to appear: a fox which seems captivated by the song of a ring ouzel, a beautiful description of a newly fledged osprey learning to fish. Crumley has a fine turn of phrase which makes us alert to familiar things in new ways: oystercatcher cries which are ‘strident variations on a theme of “piss off”’, a dawn vigil ‘watching the sky’s paint dry’.

He admits that, even after many years of fieldcraft, much of his success comes down to instinct (which is surely part of that long experience) and luck (which is not). Eagles, for all their size and grandeur seem to disguise themselves effectively as rocks (this book is full of ‘rocks that don’t look quite right’ which turn into eagles). And he is refreshingly honest about the moment when the sudden eagle appearance stirs him into action, causing him to drop his binoculars and trample them into the mud. Somehow, in a book which is all about the splendour of nature, it helps to be reminded that the watcher has his feet on the ground.

The Eagle’s Way is the product of a lifetime of eagle watching. But it is also about what it is that makes it worth doing. It isn’t heavy on ornithological detail – I’m still wondering why so few golden eagle chicks survive to adulthood – it’s more about the joy of eagle encounters, an appreciation of how the air changes when a pair of wings the size of fireside rugs unfold and glide above you, or the exhilaration of watching golden eagles accomplish aerial acrobatics no other bird can match. The sea eagle, by contrast, is more ungainly, ‘a massive apology for an eagle with all the grace of an airborne tank’.

How will golden eagles be affected by the increase in sea eagle numbers? One wonders if Crumley doesn’t make too much of this question, since the answer seems to be ‘not much’. The golden eagle, though smaller, is the better flier and would seem to handle itself well in a fight over territory, if such occurred. In Norway, the two coexist amicably enough, and, as evidenced by the four youngsters above Loch Tay, the young seem to hang out together. The more difficult renegotiation is likely to be between sea eagles and human beings. In Tayside, there is a mix of support and suspicion for the sea eagles and the latter, Crumley predicts, can only grow as the eagle population grows. While giving no quarter to the objections, he does concede that, when surprised by a sea eagle out of context (on the seventh fairway at St Fillans golf course) he did find the encounter somewhat menacing. There are glances back at the bad old days when eagles were shot, trapped and poisoned by those who managed sporting estates. This is now illegal, but still happens, and will go on, Crumley says, until a landowner is jailed. Yet he is equally cynical about how wildlife lovers romanticise eagles, give names to breeding pairs and use webcams to turn them into celebrities.

On the island of Mull, eagles have become a key part of the tourism economy. While Crumley writes, with some distaste, of ‘gimme-your-money-and-I’ll-show-you-eagles’ school of eco-tourism, the campervans and tripods lined up on the eagles’ flight path, at the same time he is wise enough not to be grudging. Since he finds great consolation in observing eagles, who is he to deny that to others? Behind much of his book is a question about what happens when people meddle with nature. Crumley approves of the sea eagle reintroduction, which after all is only righting a wrong that we were responsible for in the first place, but it is nonetheless creating an artificial situation. What does it mean to introduce year-old birds to another country, where they have no mature adults to observe and learn from? And he questions the value of tagging and tracking them: ‘the only ones of our own kind that we tag are criminals’.

This is, in some ways, a highly personal book. Though it raises pertinent issues, Crumley is also engaged in something deeper and arguably more difficult: trying to say something about what it means for him to watch eagles. He conveys the feelings involved – the excitement, the joy, the wonder of the natural world at its wildest – with honesty and passion and, yes, poetry, and this feels entirely appropriate.

The Eagle’s Way

Jim Crumley

Saraband, £12.99, ISBN 1098643471, 176PP

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