By Fred Silver

When Acair, the Stornoway publishers, brought out their book William MacGillivray, A Hebridean Naturalist’s Journal 1817-18, edited by Dr Robert Ralph, in 1996, it was revolutionary. 

Why?  After all, it was already more than 175 years old by then.  Yet it was one of several recently published works to show how, despite the Islands being, as the saying goes, ‘full of history’ so much of it had been forgotten.

Two centuries after the young man who was to become a pioneer ornithologist of great international significance wrote this journal about a year in south Harris, Acair have republished it in a new edition, with an introduction by the newly established writer James Macdonald Lockhart whose own life and work, including the book Raptor, have been inspired by the Hebrides and by William MacGillivray.

James Macdonald Lockhart’s great-grandfather, Seton Gordon, was a renowned ornithologist, who studied and photographed golden eagles in the Highlands. But Raptor flies in another direction – toward William MacGillivray. James Macdonald Lockhart discovered the overlooked ornithological legend during long days of research in Oxford’s Alexander Library of Ornithology.  “There was something about his voice I really warmed to.  I felt kinship with him.”  At the beginning of Raptor, readers encounter MacGillivray in 1819, aged 23, resembling the poet John Clare: complaining he has “no peace of mind” and about to embark on a walk from Aberdeen to London.

William MacGillivray, A Hebridean Naturalist’s Journal 1817-18, contains vivid insights into the nature of life at the time in Northton, Harris and surrounding area. And the need for food gained through hunting deer as well as the pursuit of science. 

Travelling was basic...on foot.  Tuesday October 14, 1817 finds MacGillivray on a walk across central Lewis and Harris towards Northton (which he writes as North Town) Crossing the pass towards Tarbert, he writes: “Between this and Tarbert, the road, or rather rout (sic) for there is scarcely any appearance of a footpath, lay over hills and heaths, rivers and bogs...the sun had set before I reached Tarbert and night fell long before I attained the summit of Benluskentir (sic)”.  Nightfall was not going to stop him, however.  “In course I made but slow progress upon the hill and it was after twelve [midnight] that I found myself seated upon a chair in my bedroom in North Town.”

Two days later he is on the Isle of Ensay, playing the role of doctor, for which he had some training. A woman who had recently given birth is ill...“senseless, motionless, speechless.”  The treatment involves two attempts at “bleeding”, a form of treatment which was known in Ancient Greece more than 2300 years earlier.  Her condition was ostensibly improved by the ‘letting’ of a total of around 20 ounces of blood.  Modern science sees this outcome as a coincidence or good fortune! 

Being a diary, William MacGillivray, A Hebridean Naturalist’s Journal 1817-18, is inevitably episodic and therefore so perfect for dipping into...and every time you open a page, you will open another window on the past.

Published by Acair, the book is priced at £15 and has 211 pages, including eight colour pages of William MacGillivray‘s animal paintings and related images.