Book of the Month: July – William MacGillivray

A Hebridean naturalist’s journal, 1817 – 1818
William MacGillivray

I took the journal of the Scottish naturalist William MacGillivray’s time in the south of Harris to North Uist with me, since I was going to be visiting the same area, and found it all very interesting – it’s an account of a trip originally from Aberdeen via Poolewe and Stornoway to Harris, to see different parts of Scotland, and then of a year spent with his family there, instead of returning to his studies in Aberdeen.

It’s a diary which happens to be written by a naturalist, rather than a naturalist’s account of an area – birds and plants which he happened to see that day are mixed up at random with what he had for his dinner and who came to visit and the news they brought, but it all adds up to a vivid picture of the area, which was just on the verge of a great change, with the small tenants evicted to make way for larger farms, and also describes visits to the island of Pabbay and to Uig in Lewis.

And the MacGillivray of the journal is quite an endearing character – very young, very serious, and full of plans for self-improvement. An excerpt from one plan is fairly typical:

Each day I must walk at least five miles – Give at least half a dozen puts to a heavy stone, make six leaps! Drink milk twice a day, wash my face, ears, teeth and feet, and rise with or before the sun.

… as is his admission a few entries later that ‘in regard to my resolutions of last Saturday, I have only to say that none of them has been regarded’!

And for all his solemnity, he does have a sense of humour – he can quite seriously write of having packed femoralia and pectoralia, rather than breeches and shirts, but a line or two later he is describing his hat as ‘just like those of my neighbours, without the vast umbelliform brim, which characterises the physical or Linnoan cut!’ And on another occasion the only new animal he has seen that day is ‘a Brown Bear, one of which Mr Macleod the laird has got chained in his garden’.

Towards the end the journal begins to change, with some longer descriptions which look like practice for a different kind of writing – an ‘economical account’ of the area, and a description of the local agriculture. The seeds of his most important later work, on British birds, can also be seen, in a series of description of local birds, including their habits – it was his knowledge of the habits of birds which he was most noted for in his later career, when he published a History of British Birds, among other works.


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