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Saturday, 26 July 2014

Highland Gentleman: Seton Gordon


During a fieldwork trip to the Isle of Skye during the summer of 1948 Calum Maclean accompanied his Swedish colleague Åke Campbell as they explored the material culture and old buildings in the northern part of the isle. Maclean later recollected their meeting with Seton Gordon who had taken up resident in Kilmuir and was by then one of the leading Scottish naturalists:

Dia Máirt, 13 Meitheamh 1948 [NFC 1299, 261–63]
Bhí sé a’ báisteach ar maidin indiu. Tar éis bricfeasta, chuadhas suas chuig teach a bhí i n-aice leis an dteach ósta agus d’ fhiafraigheas de fhear an tighe a mbíadh cead againn na sgiobóil agus an stábla aige a sgrúdú. Bhí sé sásta go leór cead a thabhairt dúinn. Chaitheamar cupla uair a chluig annsin agus fuair Åke Campbell rudaí a bhí suimeamhail go maith. Tar éis dinnéara, chuadhamar amach a’ cuartú shean-tighthe. Níor éirigh ró-mhaith linn chor ar bith agus chuaidh Åke Campbell ar ais chuig an teach ósta agus leanas do’n gcuartú. Chuadhas chuig teach eile annsin i nDùn Tuilm agus d’ iarras cead ar fhear an tighe breathú ar na stáblaí. Fuaireas sin agus thugas Åke Campbell ar ais liom. Bhí an sean-teach a bhí ag an bhfear seo i n-aice leis an teach nua slinne ach thuigeamar nach raibh sé ró-shásta maid a leigean isteach ann. I n-a dhiaidh sin thug sé an-chabhair dúinn. Bhí cuinneóg agus airm oibre aige agus sgrúdaigh Åke Campbell iad. Tar éis dinneara, bhí roinnt sgríbhneóireachta le déanamh againn. Chaitheamar cupla uair a’ chluig ar an obair sin. Casadh as sgríbhneór, Seton Gordon, orainn anocht agus dubhairt sé linn go raibh cupla sean-teach i gCill mo Luag agus daoine i n-a gcómhnuidhe ionnta. Bhí duine amháin ann, Murchadh MacMhathain, agus chomhairligh sé dhúinn a dhul chuige. Shocruigheamar sin a dhéanamh amáireach.

And the translation goes something like the following:

Tuesday, 13 July 1948 [NFC 1299, 261–63]
There was a downpour this morning. After breakfast, I went up to the house next to the hotel and asked the man of the house if we could get permission to examine the barn and the stables. He was happy enough to give us permission. We spent a couple of hours there and Åke Campbell thought things had gone well. After lunch, we went out to see an old house. Things didn’t out so well for us and Åke Campbell went back to the hotel and continued measuring. We then went to another house in Duntuilm and we asked permission from the house owner to visit the stables. We got that and I took Åke Campbell back with me. The man who owned the old house had a new house beside it and we could see that he wasn’t too happy to let us in. But after that he gave us tremendous help. He got a milking pale and agricultural implements which Åke Campbell examined. After dinner, we had a bit of writing to do. We spent a couple of hours at that work. We met Seton Gordon, the writer, tonight and he said to us that there were a couple of old houses in Cill Mo Luag with folk still living in them. There was one man, Murdo Matheson, and he advised us to go and see him. It was arranged to do that tomorrow.

Not far from his former home in Kilmuir, Isle of Skye, a memorial shaped as a bench commemorates a prolific author of books about the Scottish Highlands and Islands, especially travelogues with a particularly interest in natural history. The plaque inscription reads: “In the memory of Seton Gordon, CBE, writer and naturalist whose twenty-seven books on the Highlands and Islands led many people to appreciate their beauty. His love of the Hebrides influenced his coming to Skye where he lived for more than fifty years among the people of this area.”


Perhaps no other twentieth-century author than the long-lived Seton Gordon (1886–1977) can be given so much credit for bringing the vast area of the Highlands and Islands to the reading public’s attention. His deft touch as an expert naturalist and photographer, as well as a folklorist, gives his books not only an immediacy but also an interpretative depth not found in similar works.
            Born in Aboyne, Deeside, Seton Paul Gordon came from a wealthy family. His father, William Gordon (1839–1924), was from old Aberdeenshire stock. He was town clerk of the City of Aberdeen, a position to which he was appointed in 1875.  He was also a Justice of the Peace and a member of the General Council of the University of Aberdeen. By contrast, his mother, Mary Ella Paul came of Hertfordshire stock, and was described as rather shy and quiet with a streak for intellectual pursuits and she became known as ‘The Queen’s Poetess’ such was Queen Victoria’s liking for her poetry.
In a letter of 1934 addressed to him, and penned by someone who knew his mother, Nan Yorke-Mitchell wrote that she recalled him as a ‘young lad with a penchant for wandering in hills and dales and hobnobbing with birds and beasts.’ By an early age Gordon had caught the bug which was to have a profound effect on his chosen career. As a youth he would wonder around the countryside and be delighted with exploring every available nook and cranny. Wider access was made available when he received a bicycle as a present.
            The Grampian mountains had been a distant prospect but as soon as Gordon reached his teenage years he then became more familiar with them. From boyhood, Morvern Hill, near Aboyne, was a favourite haunt where he took to roughing it in bothies (where he took his pipes) and made lasting friendships with the old breed of stalkers who were often very knowledgeable local historians and more often than not pipers. He was to have a life-long association for the area and he became familiar with the natural habitats of birds and beasts alike as he roamed around an almost unspoiled wilderness. He befriended a great deal of the local gamekeepers such as the McDonalds who stayed at Bynack Lodge. Gordon had a great respect for them as he picked up their knowledge and craftskills.
            Perhaps a typical journal entry for the 24th of September 1905, should suffice in order to give a flavour of one journey that he took:

Cycled (& walked!) from Kingussie to Braemar. Left Kingussie 6.30. Frosty then…Lost the path at the watershed, & had to carry our cycles through a bog. Met 2 men who put us right.  Heavy rain from the watershed till Geldie Lodge. Then fine till Braemar. There had scarcely been any rain!  The Williams met us in the car & took us down. Max: temp for Sat: & to-day. 56º

            After being more or less privately tutored at home, along with a short stint at a private school in Rugby, Gordon took a summer course in zoology at the University of Aberdeen before entering Exeter College, Oxford, to study the natural sciences. After some trepidation with regard to his finals having spent too much time playing golf, Gordon attained his degree in natural sciences and diplomas in rural economy and forestry. Gordon also had the opportunity to hobnob with all kinds of students and he became unlikely friends of the Russian aristocrat Felix Youssoupoff (sometimes Yussopov) and also Edward, Prince of Wales. Gordon would later accompany the Oxford University Expedition to Spitsbergen, Norway, as a photographer in 1921.
Having received his first camera at the age of seventeen, he soon became an accomplished amateur photographer and, in 1907, at only twenty-one years of age, Gordon published his first book Of Loch and Mountain, illustrated with ninety of his own photographs. By this time he was also well-established freelance writer and would cover the Braemar Gathering for The Times and The Morning Post


            After a ball at the Vincent’s Club at Oxford University in 1913, Gordon met his future wife (Evelyne) Audrey Pease (1893–1959). They were a good match for one another and went on to have a son and two daughters. They both came to the love the Isle of Skye more and more and decided to settle there. Seton produced a flow of books and articles and their joint research resulted in two memorable books, Days with the Golden Eagle and The Golden Eagle, King of Birds. Their photographs are still regarded as classics.
Gordon remained an inveterate wearer of the kilt and was seldom seen without his trademark deerstalker hat. He also retained an ardent love of the great outdoors, especially the Cairngorms, Skye and the Hebrides. He observed, ‘After the war we visited much of the Highlands and Hebrides, staying with crofters, camping on the islands, some of them uninhabited, living the hard way, thus getting to know the crofters and their outlook on the world.’
In total, Gordon published twenty-seven books (as well as three which he co-authored) between 1908 and 1971. His output may be divided more or less between those about the Scottish Highlands and those about birds. As previously mentioned, two books in particular Days With the Golden Eagle (1927) and King of Birds (1955) helped to popularise this magnificent creature, and ensured its continued survival in Scotland.
Gordon and his wife initially moved from Aboyne to Aviemore, and later to the Isle of Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula, where they would remains for the next fifty years. For many, his classic writings about the Scottish Highlands were achieved with two publications Highways and Byways in the West Highlands (1935) and its successor, Highways and Byways in the Central Highlands (1949), both of which remain in print. Both books set out a rich tapestry comprising the vast Highland landscape against their natural history and the lives and folklore of the folk who lived there.
As a lad of parts Gordon’s curiosity seemed to be boundless especially when it came to the natural world – geology, botany, trees, birds and animals – and also the Highland landscape held a deep fascination for him and the folk who lived there. Gordon would view a typical Highland landscape and seek to unlock its mysteries through observation and also through language. Although never to be a fluent Gaelic speaker, did not stop him from soliciting the expertise of others who would explain to him the meaning of place-names.
Piping was also to be lifelong hobby and he was one of the pioneers who gave birth to the Glenfinnan Games and regularly took on the duty of judging at competitions. Despite his partial deafness which deteriorated in his late twenties, Gordon still kept on with his piping and other duties.
After the death of his first wife, he later married a family friend Elizabeth Maud and they divided their time between Skye, Kintail, and Biddleston Manor, Northhamptonshire, where Seton Gordon died in March 1977. In accordance with his wishes, as with his late wife, his ashes were scattered on Braeriach in his beloved Cairngorms.

References:
Raymond Eagle, Seton Gordon: The Life and Times of a Highland Gentleman (Moffat: Lochar, 1991)
Rennie McOwan, ‘Man of the Hills’, The Scots Magazine, vol. 157, no. 5 (Nov., 2002), pp. 473–78
NFC 1299 [Calum Maclean’s diary]

Images:
Seton Gordon looking into the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms
Memorial bench to Seton Gordon, Kilmuir, Isle of Skye
Seton Gordon

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