National Nature Reserves are amongst the most inspirational places in Scotland. Fabulous for nature and great places for people, they showcase the very best of Scotland’s natural heritage. That’s why they are our theme for September.
Throughout the month we have made frequent references to Tentsmuir, that Fife coastal-gem, and its near neighbour the Isle of May. They are contrasting yet wonderful spots where wildlife and people alike can thrive.
Many years of research at Tentsmuir and the Isle of May, allied to meticulous record-keeping, has allowed us to use these sites to let us see how habitats and species fare over time.
Perhaps a less well known fact is that these reserves were the ‘cradles’ that spurred two of Scotland’s greatest female naturalists on the road to success.
Leonora Rintoul and Evelyn Baxter are names known to most naturalists in Scotland, names cemented in the hearts of Scotland’s’ ornithological community. The ‘good ladies’, as they came to be affectionately known, were early examples of citizen scientists and when they published their ground-breaking Birds of Scotland in 1953 they set a new benchmark.
Here was a book that was not only written with care and precision, but flowed off the pages with a silky-smooth grasp of the English language. Scientific observations, historical references, and anecdotes were perfectly slotted together in a work that remains, over half a century later, quite simply superbly readable.
The Scottish Ornithologists’ Club archives are riddled with references to Baxter and Rintoul. A look at the Spring 1960 issue of their monthly journal is a particularly good example. And it’s there, in a glowing tribute to Evelyn Baxter, that the ladies fruitful initial association with Tentsmuir is acknowledged.
Born in Largo in 1878 Leonora Rintoul was a year younger than Evelyn Baxter who hailed from nearby Largoward. By the time they were teenagers they had become firm friends and were visiting Tentsmuir. Here they would eventually meet Dr Eagle Clarke who would not only encourage their interest in birds, but help them move from the world of the dedicated amateur to that of the respected citizen scientist.
Inspired by Clarke, they observed how he organised his findings to build a compelling picture of the nation’s birds and they too began to keep detailed records of what they saw. When he relayed details of a trip he had made to Fair Isle he kindled a flame in their imagination that sent Baxter and Rintoul on a journey round the coast from Tentsmuir to the Isle of May. For quarter of a century the pair would visit the famous island twice a year to record the comings and goings of the bird population and much more besides.
Gradually they were producing significant contributions to natural history journals. Such was their depth of knowledge, commitment to field craft, and prolific publishing they were warmly welcomed into the hitherto largely male bastion of Scottish ornithology. This was confirmed in 1936 when both Evelyn Baxter and Leonora Rintoul were in the vanguard of bird lovers who met in Edinburgh in order to establish the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club .
Their fierce commitment and unbridled energy was widely recognised beyond the close-knit community of ornithology and in March 1951 they were both elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Only six women had previously received this accolade and never before had two female non-graduates – thus in essence self-taught scientists – been so rewarded. It was and remains a remarkable achievement.
Two years after joining this celebrated body they made their indelible mark on Scotland’s natural history writing – The Birds of Scotland. These two volumes were an instant hit. The Glasgow Herald, in a glowing book review, positively purred:
‘Miss Baxter and Miss Rintoul have the distinction of being the compilers of the first work which includes a history of every bird on the Scottish list. These two volumes should be a standard reference work for a long time to come.
The opening chapter is devoted to a description of Scotland, “from personal observations and from an ornithological standpoint,” and, the authors follow this by dealing with the many changes, both natural and artificial, which had an effect on the avifauna north of the Border. Comparing the conditions, topography, and latitudinal positions of Scotland with those of England, the authors build up a picture of the composition of the Scottish avifauna.
An excellent chapter on migration leads to the history and distribution of Scottish birds under species, and those which have colonised or recolonized Scotland in recent years have received specially detailed treatment.
A word of praise should be given to the publishers and printers, for the typography and binding are examples of fine craftsmanship, while there are excellent photographic illustrations and colour frontispieces.’
Sadly, Leonora Rintoul died in May 1953, just as the Birds of Scotland was about to be published to critical acclaim. It is a great regret that she wasn’t able to enjoy the book’s subsequent success, but given the immense effort she invested in the project we can be pretty confident that she would have had an inkling that she had created something rather special – the ‘bible’ of the Scottish bird world.
In 1955 the University of Glasgow awarded Evelyn Baxter an honorary law degree and four years later the British Ornithology Union, during its centenary celebrations, bestowed on her the considerable honour of their gold medal.
Today both Tentsmuir, and the Isle of May NNRs, remain sources of incredible inspiration to naturalists. They were established to protect nature but perhaps few at the time realised just how these remarkable sites would inspire and enthuse two incredible women to pen what is arguably, some 60 years later, the finest book on Scotland’s birds ever written.
Note : The Birds of Scotland was published in 1953. Those great sources of inspiration for Baxter and Rintoul – Tentsmuir and the Isle of May – were designated National Nature Reserves not long afterwards. Tentsmuir became an NNR in 1954 (nearby Morton Lochs having been declared an NNR in 1952) and the Isle of May followed suit in 1956.
Further reading – you can enjoy the latest Birds of Scotland Digital version online at http://www.the-soc.org.uk/birds-of-scotland/