Magazine article The Spectator

'Gods of the Morning: A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year', by John Lister-Kaye - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Gods of the Morning: A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year', by John Lister-Kaye - Review

Article excerpt

Gods of the Morning: A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year John Lister-Kaye

Canongate, pp.304, £14.99, ISBN: 9781782114154

Sir John Lister-Kaye has adopted a very familiar format in his new book of wildlife encounters. Essentially he charts a single 12-month cycle in the life of the Scottish Highlands near his home at the Aigas Field Centre, just to the west of Inverness. The author has lived in the region since the 1960s, when he was lured north out of a business career to take up work with the famous naturalist Gavin Maxwell.

In the intervening half-century he has acquired a deep knowledge of wildlife, and many of his observations are skilfully woven into the fabric of his 12-month narrative, so that we end up with a lifetime's rich experience for the price of one year's diary. For all his ability to capture the specialities of the region -- the pine martens raiding his hen house or acquiring essential vitamins through their curious treetop harvest of rowan berries, or ravens nesting in Arctic blizzards, or the whooper swans and the wild winter geese migrating south from Iceland -- it is his intimacy with what might be called his more mundane neighbours that I found most compelling.

A tour de force of forensic observation and imaginative reconstruction is a passage in which he follows the musky prints left by a hunting fox one snow-covered morning. The maker of those tracks has long gone to earth, but Lister-Kaye, drawing on an entire career of other fox sightings and fox thoughts, re-imagines the living creature, its movements, its pauses and its hunting strategies, from the marks left behind. By the end he makes the reader feel as if they witnessed the whole moonlit drama themselves.

Another ploy of the author is to start with some casual observation and use it as an unlikely scaffold on which to build a political or philosophical essay. The most striking is his withering attack upon the depredations inflicted on Highland predators -- the eagles, peregrines, harriers and wild cats -- by gamekeepers and their employers. Lister-Kaye reminds us that as recently as 2004 people have been convicted of killing short-eared owls near his home. Even today there is a strong lobby for permission to resume the slaughter of buzzards because they conflict with pheasant-rearing operations. …

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