William Macgillivray: a Hebridean Naturalist’s Journal 1817-1818

  • William Macgillivray: a Hebridean Naturalist’s Journal 1817-1818 edited by Dr Robert Ralph (Acair Ltd, Stornoway, second edition, 2017).
  • 214 pages.
  • ISBN 9780861524419. Pbk, £15.

I enjoy old writings about the Highlands and islands and was looking forward to this, but found the writing style makes it less of a good and satisfying read than I had hoped. 

Macgillivray recounts his travels by day and his adventures (often getting a bit drunk) in the evenings with various families he stayed with, so there is a lot to learn about life in the western Highlands and Hebrides 200 years ago. 

A leading naturalist who later published a mammoth History of British Birds, he had no binoculars nor identification books to speak of, and tended to go forth with a gun and a collecting box. This helped him in his development as a naturalist, but in this edition of an early journal (when he was just 21) descriptions of the birds he shot have been edited out, so the bird content is often reduced to short lists. 

The shooting (from Wrens and Linnets upwards) seems somewhat gratuitous (he recommends that ‘sportsmen’ shoot Starlings, as up to nine can be killed with one shot). It is an interesting window into a very different world. 

Written by: Rob Hume