This new atlas, which looks at animal distribution through books and documents from the period provides startling insights – and what’s striking is quite how rich the historical information is regarding Scotland.
In fact, says Dr Raye, Highland Scotland, the Hebrides and the Northern Isles were the best-recorded parts of the whole of Britain and Ireland, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.
This, in part, was because of Robert Sibbald of Kippes, a naturalist who also helped found both the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.
“In an early experiment with crowd-sourced citizen-science,” says Dr Raye, “Robert Sibbald sent out questionnaires to educated people (especially physicians, clergy and the gentry) all around Scotland, asking them to return descriptions of their local areas and the records of the nature around them. The responses to these questionnaires allow us to go some way towards mapping the wildlife of Scotland before the industrial revolution, which I’ve taken advantage of for my Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife.”
Dr Raye, however, warns us against assuming that before industrialisation the natural world existed “in pristine, harmonious state”. The early modern period, after all, was one of climate anomaly, the Little Ice Age, regular crop failures and famines. The temperature of the North Sea was lowered “to the extent that cod and herring fisheries failed”.
It was also the case that many species – lynx, roe deer, beavers, red squirrels, cranes, capercaillies and great auks – were already declining due to hunting. Others, like brown bears, wild boar and right whales, seem to have already been extinct.
The wolf is, in Scotland, an icon of species loss, as well as a symbol of aspiration and desire for the return of an apex predator. But what is the truth about its history over the last millennium in Scotland?
Even in 1684 Robert Sibbald was describing the Scottish wolf as a once-common, now-extinct species, and, writing a century on, Thomas Pennant agreed that the last Wolf in Scotland was killed in 1680.
“It seems most likely,” writes Dr Raye, “that the seventeenth century saw the end of the wolf as an ordinary Scottish species.”
This disappearance in the Highlands came not long after the wolf’s loss in the lowlands. Previous to this barons were made responsible for hunting wolves on their land in an act of James I, and a 15th-century poem by the Gaelic poet Giolla Críost Táilliúr celebrates wolf-hunting in the lowlands.
In the 17th century, the only Scottish county where early modern naturalists recorded wolves was Sutherland in the area of Strath Nave.
The author of one of these records, Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, described three forests in Sutherland as “verie profitable for feiding of bestiall, and delectable for hunting. They are full of reid deir and roes, woulffs, foxes, wyld catts.”
“They have also a wild cat three times as big as the common cat,” wrote one traveller named Richard Pococke, in 1760, following a visit to historic Kirkcudbrightshire. “They are of a yellow-red colour, their breasts and sides white. They take fowls and lambs, & breed two at a time. I was assured that they sometimes bring forth in a large bird’s nest, to be out of the reach of dogs; and it is said they will attack a man who would attempt to take their young ones, but they often shoot … them & take the young.”
Were these animals lynx? Raye believes this description fits. Though lynx had disappeared from England at the end of the medieval period, there are sufficient mentions to suggest that they may have been still surviving in Scotland till much later. One letter even states that the best lynx skins are those from Sweden and Scotland
But the lynx, Dr Raye notes, is likely to have gone extinct not long afterwards.
Scottish wildcats are on the brink of extinction – but, earlier this year, about 20 specially bred wildcats were released into the Highlands by conservationists.
The species, often called the Scottish wildcat, was simply called the wildcat before it disappeared from both England and Wales. Its decline across Britain was rapid, beginning first in the south and midlands of England then Wales, Northern England and most of Lowland Scotland by 1990. “In seventeenth-century England and Wales,” Raye writes, “670 bounties were paid on Wildcats, but there were only four through the whole of the nineteenth century.” The initial reason for the decline, the writer notes, “seems to have been deforestation”..
The story of the wild boar is more complicated than many other species. Though it theoretically went extinct, writes Dr Raye, due to “overhunting in Britain and Ireland in the medieval period”, that does not mean it was then absent from these isles.
Even after the wild extinction of the species, wild boar were imported by the aristocracy to restock their estates for hunting. There was a fluidity between wild and domestic, with free-roaming domestic pig populations tending to become feral – as for instance one population on Orkney – and becoming more like a wild boar.
What about the last bear? The bear may have left its mark on our psyche, our place names and our cuddly toys, but it is believed to have gone in Ireland at the end of the Mesolithic period, and in most of Britain in the late Neolithic or early Bronze age. However, Dr Raye notes, “it’s possible that a small population may have survived in north Britain into the early medieval period”. By the early modern period none were found wild in Britain.
The iconic capercailie is now critically endangered. Recent research by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust showed that numbers in Scotland have nearly halved in ten years to just 380 today. But even in the early modern period, it was already in decline. “Possibly,” Dr Raye writes, this may have been “due to destruction of its habitat and the colder weather in the Little Ice Age” of the fact that at the time it was also commonly hunted.
“This most rare bird the capercalze,” wrote the naturalist John Leslie, “the commonly-called woodland horse, is frequently found in Ross-shire and also Lochaber, and even other mountain areas which do not lack pine trees. It is even smaller than the raven. It greatly appeals to the tastes of those who eat it with its very lovely flavour.”
Now long extinct globally, the great auk, was recorded on St Kilda in the early modern period by three sources.
“Archaeological remains,” Raye writes, “suggest that the Great Auk was once more common in the Isle of Man and also elsewhere especially in the Outer Hebrides, as well as in the Northern Isles, Caithness, Oronsay and the Scilly Isles and less commonly in Sutherland, as well as the Isle of May, Ailsa Craig and Cos. Antrim, Donegal, Clare and Waterford.” But by the early modern period, it was lost from those areas.
The species was most often referred to as gairfowl, and the author Martin Martin described it as “being the stateliest, as well as the Largest of all the Fowls here, and above the Size of a Solan Goose…. stands stately, his whole Body erected, his Wings short, he Flyeth not at all, lays his Egg upon the bare Rock, which, if taken away, he lays no more for that year.”
Dr Raye notes that the extinction of this species was initially driven “by unsustainable hunting, especially for food, feathers and fuel by sailors and fishers”. It was easily targeted because it could not fly. Tragically, its final extinction was probably also driven by the collection of its rare specimens for museums and private collections.
The beaver is back in Scotland – a fact that can be credited both to accidental or illegal release and reintroduction. But one question often raised, both by advocates of its return and critics, is what its history was in Scotland. It appears by the 16th century it was already in critical decline. “By the time the early modern sources were written,” Dr Raye observes, “beaver populations in Britain seem to have been nearly depleted.” Though sixteen documents from the period referred to the beaver, they were mostly detailing past populations. One of the notable records of presence, however, was around Loch Ness.
The Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife by Lee Raye is published by Pelagic publishing