‘The Life Story of the Adder’ through the Hebridean eyes of the ‘Adder King’

Roddy Maclean ‘reviews’ the remarkable 1924 publication by Lewisman Norman Morrison – in his day the foremost authority on adders.

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

There is an old legend, connected to the coming of Christianity, that the sacred soil of Iona does not support the existence of venomous reptiles. To test the veracity of the tale, Dr. Norman Morrison took an adder to the island and released it for a period. He then regathered the snake and packed it with grass from Iona, in which environment it remained, quite happily, for several weeks. The experiment, while perhaps faintly whimsical, was not an attempt by Morrison to debunk folk tales in general – indeed he himself collected, retold and published many stories from Gaelic tradition, particularly those of his native Lewis – but it was an attempt to assert the primacy of scientific thinking in answering this particular question. In the best traditions of scholarship, Norman Morrison, dubbed ‘The Adder King’, was both scientist and artist.

Norman Morrison, known locally as Tormod an t-Seòladair ‘Norman, the sailor’s son’, belonged to Shawbost in the west of the island, and was in his day the prime authority on the adder, in Scotland and beyond. Although he spent much of his adult life away from his native shores, he was so revered by his own people that he even had a Gaelic praise-poem written in his honour! A short account of his life (1869-1949) was given by an earlier NatureScot blogger in 2013 but in this blog I would like to explore his seminal work ‘The Life-Story of the Adder’ which remained for decades after its publication the definitive work on the species.

Adders ©Catriona Reid/NatureScot

Morrison recognised that humans have a great, if not irrational, fear of snakes, but maintained that much of it was because of ignorance, and he strongly defended the native disposition of his favourite reptile. In the introductory chapter to his book, published in 1924 by Alexander Gardner Ltd. of Paisley, he states that the adder ‘is a most timid, nervous creature, and will not use its fangs except in self-defence or to procure food; otherwise, it never assumes the offensive, but will glide quickly under cover from the presence of an intruder’. However, he does recognise that, like humans, their temperament varies between individuals. He maintains that the animal’s nefarious reputation, not entirely unrelated to its position within Christian iconology (he quotes Genesis 3:14 which says the serpent is ‘cursed above every beast’), and the general human hostility towards it, ensured that its future was in doubt. He writes that ‘the day may not be far distant when the adder in Scotland will be recorded as one of the extinct species: it is already on the decrease throughout the Highlands.’ Thankfully, that situation has not come to pass.

The hostility towards snakes appears to be deeply rooted in the human psyche. Morrison tells of being in the surgery of a ‘well-known medical man’ where he extracted the fangs of a live adder. The reptile was ‘then of course … quite harmless and was wriggling in my hand like an eel’. Regardless of that fact, the doctor – an agnostic in religious matters – refused point-blank to handle the fangless (and therefore harmless) reptile.

An adder’s fangs, as illustrated in ‘The Life-Story of the Adder’

Despite his gloomy prognostications about the future of the species in Scotland, Morrison reports that the adder at that time was ‘still more or less common in some of the remote districts of the Western Highlands and Islands’ (although, perhaps ironically, given Norman’s origins, it does not occur in Lewis). His description of its habits and habitats is very accurate, according to the experiences of this particular blogger and hillwalker: ‘It frequents moorlands and patches of heath [and] is also found on the edge of swampy ground, near streams and stagnant pools of water, and on mossy banks with a southern exposure. The adder is not a mountain climber, so that it is never found at a very high altitude.’ Norman also points out that the animal is shy and solitary, and that it is thus seldom seen, and he also makes an interesting comment about its hissing which he maintains is a ‘warning signal to intruders to avoid the creature’.

Morrison was a police officer in his professional life, and a co-founder of the Scottish Police Federation. He spent many years in Kintyre and was living in Campbeltown when his book was published. It is for his work on adders that he is perhaps most celebrated, being adopted as a Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and obtaining a doctorate from the Société Internationale de Philologie, Sciences et Beaux Arts in France in 1925.

‘The Life of the Adder’ is a multi-faceted book which was a pioneering work a century ago, and even includes a discussion of the possibilities of developing a cure for cancer from snake venom. Norman Morrison writes of the adder with affection but admits that it is ‘untameable’ and tells us that it refuses to eat when in captivity. On one occasion the author himself had a meal of (boiled) adder which was ‘by no means disagreeable to the palate’ and which he described as a ‘combination of fish and flesh flavour’ – although the current reader will no doubt be aware that the species is now legally protected in Scotland.

Co-existence of four different species, at least in captivity – a photo from ‘The Life of the Adder’

Norman Morrison was nothing if not innovative. In his book he addresses the question ‘is the adder susceptible to music?’ by inviting ‘a first-class violinist to discourse strains of sweet music in the presence of a captive adder’. He laid the snake on the ground near the musician and watched the attitude and movements of the reptile during the musical performance but noted that it was ‘absolutely indifferent to the … sweet melodious notes of the violin’. His conclusion was that adders ‘have no ear for music’. I shall refrain from making a comparison with the Indian cobra!

I would like to finish where I began – with the isle of Iona. Morrison addressed an entire chapter to the question of the absence of snakes in Ireland and Iona, and naturally enough repeated the folk tale that St Patrick and St Columba banished them from their respective sacred islands – although he personally debunked the ‘charming’ story. Regarding Ireland, he pointed out that Dr. Leighton, in his book on ‘British Serpents’, recorded that in October 1900, two snakes were killed in County Wicklow. They had been imported from England, but the fact that they survived on Irish soil for four years surely gave the lie to the claim that Ireland was immune for all time to any invasion of snakes.

Morrison then tells of a trip he made to Mull, adder-hunting. He crossed to Iona to see the Abbey and took a healthy female adder with him that he had captured the previous day. When on Iona, he released the snake from its cage and allowed it to crawl and wriggle in the grass and had to discourage it from making efforts to escape. It did not suffer from its time on the soil of Iona. Morrison packed it in Iona grass when back in its cage and sent it off to Edinburgh Zoo where it lived happily for two months. The author appears to perhaps have felt a pang of guilt that his experiment had practically dealt ‘a death-blow to the theory that venomous reptiles will not live on the sacred soil of Iona’ and that geology and geographical isolation were the most likely explanation for their absence from that island.

However, perhaps with a slight nod to the Gaelic traditions of his upbringing, Morrison recounts how an adder was once found to have swum across the Sound of Iona from Mull, a distance of around a mile. It died shortly after arriving on Iona, which the author attributes to ‘heart failure – the exertion and strain of the long swim [being] too much for the reptile’. Then he writes that ‘of course, dear reader, the natives of this sacred isle would no doubt allocate the cause of death of the adder to the traditional curse pronounced by St Columba, banishing reptiles for all time from Iona’. And, dear reader of 2023, this blogger will leave you to make up your own mind on the matter!

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment. In a future blog he will look at traditional Gaelic cures for snakebite as detailed by Norman Morrison in this seminal work.

NatureScot, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) and the Amphibian & Reptile Groups of the UK (ARGUK) are currently appealing to farmers, landowners and land managers to take part in the online Scottish Adder Survey to help shed more light on the distribution and conservation status of adders today. For more information see: https://www.nature.scot/farmers-and-land-managers-urged-share-adder-sightings

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