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The inheritors of the grubby trade in performing animals

Blog - Is It Scotland?

A sporadic blog about Scotland and tourism that isn't grumpy all the time.  Promise.

The inheritors of the grubby trade in performing animals

Gilbert Summers

 Does this peregrine go with my jacket?

Barn owl, Highland Perthshire
Barn owl, Highland Perthshire

Here’s a faraway glimpse of a barn owl. When I saw it in the half-light of a winter afternoon in this Perthshire glen I thought for a fraction of a second I was looking at a snowy owl. No, just a barn owl – but equally inspiring. That weird specialism, all that hovering in the silent dark, just glimpsed occasionally in the car headlights on some lonely road. Unless you persevere, it isn’t that often you encounter them when there is enough light for even a distant photo.

Yes, it’s a tiny dot in a big landscape. On the picture below I bet you can hardly make it out, low down but dead centre, where the old bracken meets the pasture. More importantly though, it's also a real symbol of wild Scotland for some people.

For others, of course, it’s just another cast member in the show. I mean those unsettling birds of prey shows that still exist here in Scotland – the real inheritors of the old and grubby trade of performing animals. If this is your thing, there are plenty of opportunities, from game fairs to visitor attractions, via a range of countryside events on the annual calendar, where you can view magnificent raptors. Except that all their aloofness, mystery and wildness have gone. They are reduced to sad scraps of feather and bone, sometimes perched on little blocks, or fretting on the over-large gauntlet of some wax-jacketed individual as he struts around the stand. Want to strike a pose? Get a peregrine falcon as an accessory. Or even a barn owl. All that leather and those jingly bells that go with the image, to be honest, give me the creeps.

Highland Perthshire
Highland Perthshire

A long time ago, I worked at Edinburgh Zoo; but even then, public opinion had turned against the chimps’ tea-party. And elephant and camel rides had also been quietly dropped many years before. These days, every local authority (I think) in Scotland has banned circuses with performing animals, yet are happy to see this particular form of animal exploitation on their patch.

Try as I might, I just can’t see the difference between the falcon on the glove and the organ-grinder’s monkey. Both have had their natural dignity removed for the benefit of their owner. Not many organ-grinders these days, but the birds of prey show hangs on – maybe because of its links to falconry and this tradition’s own associations with wealth and rank. And in modern tourism terms, these captive birds and their flying displays are often categorised under ‘wildlife events’ in a breathtaking display of mis-representation. They’re not wildlife. They’re captive performing animals, for goodness sake.

Famous falconers from history include – as you would expect – plenty of Scottish royalty. Apparently, Mary Queen of Scots flew a merlin from her window while she was held captive, like her falcon. Her grandfather, King James IV, paid £1000 for a pair of Scottish gyrfalcons. (Wonder if that was Scots pounds, worth less than the English equivalent in those days, but still a reminder of the seedy side of the trade.) More recently, another famous falconer was Herman Goering, in charge of Germany’s wartime Luftwaffe, and a chap especially noted for strutting round in fancy uniforms. On the subject of warfare, TH White’s The Goshawk is an extraordinary portrait of a battle of wills between trainer and falcon, written as the war-clouds loomed.

Sorry to be so gloomy! By way of cheering us all up: if you’re travelling in Scotland and find yourself on the A96, perhaps en route for Inverness, then look out for the Forestry Commission’s Peregrine Wildwatch Centre, near the town of Huntly. The birds are the stars – but this time they are in the wild – and not a poncy decoration, dependent, cowed, hooded and blinded, that advertises the personality inadequacy of their owner. There are several other places in Scotland where you can enjoy birds of prey behaving naturally on camera. Or you could just walk the wild places and keep your eyes open. But birds of prey shows? Do the birds a favour and give them a miss.