Biogeographies of a hollow eyed harrier

Extract from a forthcoming publication, Merle Patchett, Kate Foster and Hayden Lorimer: “Biogeographies of a hollow-eyed harrier” for publication in “The Afterlives of Animals: a Museum Menagerie”, edited by Samuel JJM Alberti, University of Virginia Press.


This paper charts a Hen Harrier specimen’s historical and contemporary ‘biogeographies’ through life, death and afterlife. The study-skin, a taxidermist’s workshop and a museum collection provide the author’s with various routes to investigate lives lived, things being done, and what is left behind. We rework some contexts of the hen harrier specimen as ‘vexed dioramas’ – using ‘field’, ‘workshop’ and ‘collection’ as the pivots from which a series of excursions and returns will be made. While multifaceted accounts of partial, dispersed and overlooked remains may disappoint some – ‘biogeographies’, which tolerate untidy endings and complexity, can also offer points of re-connection. In this case they offer ways to look at the present through the past; to make use of a skydancer plucked from the sky by Sport, turned inside out and set in rigid repose for Science. A bird whose afterlife persists, displaced and out of time.

Extract from body of text:

In rifle sight our female Hen Harrier in undulating flight would have appeared to violently abandon herself mid-air only to hurtle like a dead-weight earthward, destined, in her case, to land with a thud. Reay Forest, the Harrier’s location of death, was bought by the Duke of Westminster in 1921 from the Duke of Sutherland. The Duke of Sutherland had sold the land because it was no longer earning its keep from sheep farming, the activity the land was originally ‘cleared’ for. At a time when the highlands were being systematically turned into a blue-blooded leisure park, the Duke of Westminster would have recognised the potential of turning the estate into a ‘deer forest’; not a forest at all but an area of enclosed moorland where deer and grouse could be ‘managed’ and where southern ‘gentlefolk’ would pay up to £100 a day for the privilege to shoot them. The killing of birds of prey like a Hen Harrier and other named ‘predators’ made up much of the everyday work of a sporting estate and Estate owners offered premiums for the destruction of such forms of ‘vermin’. A thread of oral history, in the form of conversations with Willie Elliot, the son of the head-keeper of the Westminster Estates in the 1920’s and a retired salmon ghillie himself, enables us to offer a partial reconstruction of the events surrounding the Harrier’s death.

According to Elliot the bird that now belongs to the Hunterian collection was an ‘adventurer’ from the Outer Hebrides who flew to the mainland looking for new territory. A welcome party of sorts would have met the Harrier, as gamekeepers were under strict orders from Estate owners to kill any potential game predators. Gamekeepers were even specially dressed to assist such assassination attempts. Estate tweeds were unique weaves designed to allow the disappearance of ghillies onto particular grounds. The story goes that ghillies were sent up on the hill in different tweeds for the estate owner to ascertain which made the best ‘camouflage cloth’. Hunter’s of Brora, who manufactured Westminster Tweed (and many others), could therefore be thought of as a livery of camouflage for ghillies. Yet, while tweeds were designed to assist invisibility when pursuing red deer and grouse, the tweeds were mainly worn to identify the people who lived and worked on the estates. As Harrison states in his history of Scottish Estate Tweeds, tweeds essentially took over where clan tartans left off as estate owners, as the newly self-appointed ‘clan chiefs’, sought to continue the tradition of having their retainers dress in the same pattern.

Elliot informed us that the Duke of Westminster kept a vault of tweed and would cut a ‘suit length’ for each visiting guest, a custom only the wealthiest estates could afford. As head-ghillie it was Elliot senior’s job to take the Duke’s guests, freshly patterned, onto the hill between the 12th of August and October the 20th, the estate’s stalking season. While the term ghillie is recognised as patronising nowadays, deriving from the Scottish Gaelic word gile which translates to ‘lad, servant’, it would have been used to describe the stalkers of the Reay Forest estate at the time of the Harrier’s demise. A good stalker was required not only to know the habits of deer intimately but also know their ‘beat’ like the back of their hand and with Reay Forest being split into 6 beats, each covering 20,000 acres, this was no easy task. Yet even if the stalker was well versed in both there was no guarantee of a kill and often ten hours on the hill would pass without a rifle being cocked. Also although the tweeds were supposedly designed to withstand the unpredictable Scottish weather the suits were in reality cumbersome when wet and could be uncomfortably hot when the sun shone. Spending long hours ‘spying’ and tramping the heather together in such conditions and at close company it was apparently clear by the end of the day whether ghillie and guest liked each other or not.

It was while on such a ‘beat’ that Elliot reckons the Hen Harrier was shot. While Reay Forest estate only catered in deer stalking and salmon fishing, and thus had no grouse to protect, the killing of raptors and other birds of prey was enacted as an unquestioned part of good game-keeping practice as they were classed as vermin. Furthermore, the killing of ‘vermin’, while viewed as a gratuitous spoilage today, offered a way for ghillies and gamekeepers, whose wages were far from handsome in the 1920’s, to make a lucrative supplementary income as premiums were offered by estate owners for their destruction. Estate workers like Elliot’s father, who even as head-keeper struggled to provide for his family on wages alone, therefore had their eyes well trained to recognise and shoot black-listed creatures as they could expect to receive up to an extra ten shillings in their pay-packet for the killing of a raptor, the skin of which they could then sell on to the taxidermist for twice as much again. This said, the killing of a Hen Harrier would have been a significant event as they were extremely rare in the area. It is for this reason that Elliot thinks his father did not despatch the bird, as such a rare kill would have been a talking point.. He surmises that a ‘Gun’ most likely killed the Harrier – ‘Gun’ being the term used to describe a gentleman guest with a shooting lease for the estate. While traditionally the ‘Gun’s’ most coveted quarry was the stag (with its impressive antlers for wall mounting), if it was a slow day on the hill the killing of a rare bird like a Harrier would have made for an interesting anecdote back at the lodge over a dram, which could then be recorded in the Gun’s game-book (a specialised ‘diary’ that recorded the number and type of game killed each day that also gave space to record any interesting events or anecdotes). Having bagged such a rare specimen the ‘Gun’ would have sent the skin to Macpherson’s Sporting Stores along with the rest of his haul so he could have a trophy made […] Yet the ‘Gun’ never reclaimed the bird, perhaps thinking its setting up too expensive or felt he had enough sporting mementos already in the form of stag heads or simply forgot about it altogether. Whichever the case, it inevitably led to the skin simply being ‘dressed’ using the loose-stuff method and entered into the firm’s year-end sale and its acquisition by the Hunterian Zoology museum who were adding to their collection in the 1920s.