A few years ago SNH mounted an exhibition called The Highland Naturalists which celebrated the work of people from all walks of life who had contributed much to our understanding of Scotland’s natural world.
Most were not full-time scientists, but all shared an interest in wildlife, were patient observers and detailed recorders of what they saw. One of the undoubted stars of The Highland Naturalists was Shetland’s Bobby Tulloch.
Bobby Tulloch was born in 1929 in North Aywick, on the island of Yell, Shetland. The great outdoors and a love of nature were part and parcel of his boyhood, but by the age of 14 was leaving school to learn to become a baker. Although he used this skill in his National Service years his burgeoning personality and sheer love of nature were his real strengths.
He had been raised in a crofting household and was thus a man of many parts and counted skills in music, art and natural history amongst this talents. He later added photography and writing to his wide skill-set and these talents allied to a marvellous sense of humour made him an unforgettable and extremely popular man.
In 1964 George Waterston offered Bobby a job as the RSPB’s representative in the Shetland Isles, despite Bobby having no format background in this field, and Bobby seized what was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
So much so that in 1967 he almost became a national celebrity after finding a snowy owl nest with eggs on Fetlar. It was under his watchful eye, that the first ever breeding pair in Britain reared chicks and continued to breed for the next nine years. Less well documented was the aborted effort that Bobby and the noted Shetland photographer Dennis Coutts made to photograph the Snowy Owl using a pantomime horse costume as a hide.
Dennis was responsible for one of the great photo captions of the time when he snapped Bobby along with a particularly whiskery seal and captioned the image with some humour.
Bobby sat on the initial Sullom Voe oil-terminal advisory group and developed an exciting side-line lecturing on the cruise ship market. His writing skills were honed over time and in 1988 he won the annual Shetland literary prize with his popularly received Bobby Tulloch’s Shetland. His illustrations had always been widely acclaimed, now he had demonstrated the narrative skills to match.
The eighties saw Bobby at his naturalist peak, and he helped the BBC film a superb documentary on Otters (The Track of the Wild Otter) on his native Yell. By this stage Bobby was the authority on Shetland birds, otters and seals and he made a significant contribution to our understanding of the wildlife on the Shetland Isles.
His slideshows enthused audiences all over the country and he liked nothing better than showing visitors his native Shetland and its wildlife. Tales of his quirky sense of fun were legend. Having worked as a baker in Hong Kong during his national service he delighted in ordering Chinese food from his nearest take-away … in Cantonese.
Bobby was awarded an MBE in 1994 for his considerable services to wildlife and conservation. Other tributes included a memorable tune written in his honour, by fellow accordionist and friend, Freeland Barbour, entitled – The Ornithologist. The people of Shetland were particularly proud of Bobby, placing a beautiful memorial stone in his memory at Old Haa, Burravoe, Yell.
NOTES: This material was originally pulled together by SNH as part of the Highland Naturalists project; our contribution to the Highland 2007, The Year of Highland Culture.
Images : Portrait of Bobby Tulloch from the ‘Bobby Tulloch Collection’ courtesy Mary Ellen Odie. Bobby and Dennis Coutts as pantomime horse – Bobby Tulloch collection. Bobby with Bearded seal – Dennis Coutts, Memorial unveiling courtesy Wendy Dickson, Migrations cover from Highland Naturalists.
Music: You can listen to The Ornithologist by Freeland Barbour on YouTube at
Further reading: There is a website devoted to the life and work of Bobby Tulloch, which contains many fine images and details on Shetland’s wildlife. Find out more at http://www.bobbytulloch.com/