The famous naturalist Seton Gordon was born in Aberdeenshire, and lived much of his life in Scotland — in Aboyne, Aviemore and latterly Duntulm in Skye. He was of private means and moved in aristocratic circles, however, one of his major strengths was that he was just as at home with gamekeepers, gillies and crofters as he was with Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Dame Flora Macleod and Edward Duke of Windsor.
Two of the common threads that wove through his wide and varied circle of friends were natural history and piping. Although Seton’s hearing began to deteriorate during his twenties, he was an accomplished piper and his tall, kilted, figure could be found judging at Highland Games and Piping Competitions throughout his life.
Combining his photographic skills with a love of natural history, and a poetic, literary flair, his privileged background enabled him to devote his life to lecturing and writing about the landscapes, wildlife, history and traditions of the Highlands and Islands. By his own choice, however, it was often an uncomfortable existence and he was never happier than trudging through snowstorms on the high tops.
He had been given his first half-plate camera at 17 and, like most of his possessions, it remained in service for many decades. A year later he took his first photo of a golden eagle eyrie in the Cairngorms and it was this species in particular that was to bring him world renown. Working with his wife, Audrey, he made 167 hours of observation, from a cramped and remote hide in the forest and with the ground breaking photographs produced ‘Days with the Golden Eagle’, published in 1927 and nearly thirty years later, he wrote his monograph ‘The Golden Eagle – King of Birds’.
Seton’s first book was ‘Birds of the Loch and Mountain’ which contained 90 of his photographs and was published in 1907 just before he went up to Oxford to study natural sciences. Many more books were to follow – twenty six in all – without exception to popular acclaim. He also wrote countless notes and articles in magazines and newspapers, nearly always about the Highlands and Islands, eloquently conveying as much about the myths and folklore as about wildlife. When war was declared in 1914, his poor hearing precluded him from active service, so he was sent to the Hebrides as a naval patrol officer. In 1915 he married a kindred spirit in Audrey with whom he had three children.
Despite his prodigious output as a lecturer, writer and journalist, Seton Gordon took time to encourage others. Adam Watson was only 9 when he first wrote to Seton, yet he took the time to respond to the youngster’s enthusiasm. “It is a fine thing for you to have a love of the hills because on the hills you find yourself near grand and beautiful things and as you grow older you will love them more and more” and they remained close friends thereafter.
Years later, Desmond Nethersole-Thompson wrote to Seton enclosing a copy of The Cairngorms, a book he had written with Adam Watson in 1974. ‘You inspired Adam and myself, when we were both schoolboys and gave us the wish to walk the hills and always try to discover’
Adam took one of the last photos of Seton Gordon, aged 90. The ‘grand old man of nature’ was still standing proud, if slightly stooped, in the middle of his beloved Cairngorms, leaning on his cromag (walking stick) and still wearing his familiar but now moth-eaten and heavily patched kilt. Seton died six months later, in March 1977.
J Morton Boyd considered how ‘Seton lived in wonderment of nature, and responded to the lives of animals and people with a remarkable sympathy and sensitivity. He wrote with a mysticism which was part real and part imagination, in a simple way which endeared him to both laird and crofter.’
All in all, Seton amply demonstrated two vital skills of the naturalist; keen observation and careful recording, but he also had time to enthuse and encourage others, irrespective of their ages or backgrounds.
It is somehow fitting that for a man with such a clear love of Scotland’s natural heritage one of his former homes – at Achantoul, Aviemore – is now an SNH office. He lived there from 1921 to 1931, and it was where he planned many trips and wrote his well-received The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland.
Seton Gordon (1886 – 1977)
Notes: This biography was commissioned as part of the Highland Naturalists Project – SNH’s contribution to the 2007 Year of Highland Culture. Highland Naturalists was an exhibition which celebrated the work of people from all walks of life who had contributed much to our understanding of Scotland’s natural world.
Images: The colour image of Seton is courtesy of and copyright of Adam Watson. The image of Seton’s books is copyright of Pete Moore and the remaining images are copyright of The Seton Gordon Literary Estate.