The highway may not be dark or desert, but it’s a highway all the same. And it runs from east to west, from the Tay estuary to Mull. These are the grounds that we travel with Jim Crumley, glasses trained not on the skies but on the trees and the rocky outcrops and on the ground. He might even have a seven iron to hand as well as his binoculars.
With a score of books to his name already, and that’s just the ones on nature, it’s no surprise to find that Crumley has it down to a practised art, and imparts his knowledge of what he sees, or doesn’t see, in the manner of a conversation with an old pal. He’s a fine guide through the hills and glens.
The Eagle’s Way takes us through the best part of a century, from Seton Gordon’s 1927 work, Days with the Golden Eagle, (it’s on my list) to modern times. When Gordon’s seminal work was published the white-tailed eagle had been banished from these same hills and glens, purged to extinction. Today it is back.
Crumley takes us back a bit further, back 5,000 years. In those days there were 2,550 sea eagles, and 650 golden eagles. When Columba came to Iona the predominance had shifted, with 800-1,400 of the former surpassed by 1,000-1,500 of the latter. By Seton Gordon’s 1920s we were down to 100-200 golden eagles only. Today though numbers are recovering, with getting on for 500 golden eagles and a tenth of that in reintroduced white-tailed eagles.
The sea eagle was brought back in 1975, reintroduced on Rum. The latest programme sees Norwegian white-tailed eagles released in the east. And Jim Crumley has been tracking the highway as the colonies expand, and meet.
Loch Tay sits on that highway, land-locked, midway between the estuary of the Tay and the cliffs of Mull’s west coast. And that is where the eagles are roosting, golden and white-tailed together.
We learn of the habitat on the seventh fairway at St Fillans, and we watch eagles from watershed up in the hills, as well as from the cottage garden. He takes us to the isles, to Mull and to Skye, and across to Glenelg. Oh can you imagine if those white-tailed eagles in the narrows today were around when Maxwell’s otters were playing at their ring?
But more than that we learn of the nature of the beast; the sea eagle walking the beach, unperturbed by human intrusion, and watch as the wings unfold and power rises. We plummet and stoop and rise again, wings folded, on power alone, and drift in reverse, coupling and playing. It is the shadow on the ground that belies the size of the collapsing parachute of wings aloft.
And what I take most from these lessons is the certainty that the bird I saw on that last monumental trip to Mull was a white-tailed eagle, not a golden eagle as I then assumed. I saw not the white tail, for it was on the ground, amongst the ferns, and big Mark ensured we hurtled past, time only to glance back. I remember that beak, the calm as a watcher surveys his lands, unconcerned by an intruding car-load of humans. It was at the most 20 yards away, probably less.
Having hugely enjoyed Jim Crumley’s narrative I’ll be on the watch for these lords of the skies in places where I’d never have thought of taking my eyes off the ground before; and I reckon I’ll be able to tell one tribe from another, even without a clear sighting, such is the teaching in Crumley’s narrative.