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Bobby Tulloch's Shetland

Bobby Tulloch's book Shetland: An Islander, His Islands and Their Wildlife, first published in 1988, unfortunately, is no longer in print. Yet it's finding new life as an audiobook, offering a fresh opportunity to explore Shetland through the lens of its renowned naturalist.


Narrated by his niece, Caroline Keith, Tulloch's words resound with warmth and affection, as he invites you to explore the natural history of Shetland. The book merits renewed attention, particularly in our era marked by significant environmental challenges.


Storytelling is deeply ingrained in Shetland's culture, a tradition that has made Shetlanders some of the best story-tellers. This tradition stems from the archipelago's isolated situation where stories invariably revolved around land and sea exploits, central to the livelihoods of Shetlanders prior to the rise of North Sea oil and gas.


Into this culture was born Shetland naturalist Bobby Tulloch in 1929, in Aywick on the island of Yell – the second largest island in the Shetland archipelago. His upbringing was defined by a reliance on the land and sea for sustenance and recreation, a lifestyle stripped of modern conveniences such as motorised transport and television. There were no local bird or natural history clubs either. Yet, within him flickered an early passion for birds, which he nurtured despite the interruptions of World War II and, what he considered to be, the inconvenience of school!


Tulloch's fascination with the natural world burgeoned into a defining love, parachuting him into the limelight in 1967 when he discovered the UK's first recorded breeding pair of Snowy Owls on Fetlar. His notoriety was sustained by his infectious story-telling and warm and hospitable character, and there are plenty of stories to tell of Bobby Tulloch, the man. It is tempting to regale some here, but since I was never fortunate enough to meet him, I think that is a pleasure best left to others. There is an excellent volume edited by Jonathan Wills – Bobby The Bird Man – that comprises a wonderful set of reminiscences from those who knew him.



Tulloch’s book, Shetland: An Islander, His Islands and Their Wildlife is an unaffected story of Shetland’s wildlife which is interwoven with the rapid evolution of island life, particularly in the era of North Sea oil and gas and other technological developments. It's a story told by a fine and sensitive intelligence, mindful of the reality that human beings are as much a part of the natural world as the other creatures with which we define and share it.


In his introduction to the book, the former MP for Orkney and Shetland, Lord Jo Grimond, remarks that Tulloch possessed a humility that bureaucratised conservationists sometimes lack; he attributed this to the fact that Tulloch had no degree or diploma, but was a fine student of nature – ready to admit when he mistakenly assumed someone without his level of knowledge to be wrong when describing something highly unlikely that they claimed to have seen. The tale of a Water Rail taking bread from the hand – which Tulloch initially disbelieved – is one such example. Today, there is far greater cultural pressure for certification of one kind or another if one is to be taken seriously within conservation settings. It makes Tulloch’s approach – one that is disinclined to sanctimony and devoid of arrogance – a refreshing one, in spite of it being nearly 40 years since the book was written. He freely admits to enjoying the occasional dish of Curlew, Mallard and wild Rock Dove when times were tough during the war years, and cautions against forms of romanticism that lead disillusioned city folk to seek a new life on a remote island croft, because they think self-sufficiency is an ideal for natural ways of living. He does not know of anyone who experienced the near enforced self-sufficiency of the war years who would willingly go back to it.


Tulloch's writing is unconsciously apolitical; it is all of a piece with his well-known aversion to political wrangling and expresses a purity in his love of the natural world. For some, this might seem unpalatable – a love of the natural world is obviously a political interest, they may say. With all that is wrong ecologically, and with continuing anthropogenic pressures on the natural world that will result in further harm, to claim to love the natural world whilst remaining apolitical is just to wash one’s hands of responsibility and merely indicates one’s professed love to be inauthentic. This belief is understandable, but it is false – in its purest form, a love of the natural world is detached from politics.


Political activity, particularly nowadays, is highly vulnerable to becoming antagonistic. Such activity frequently raises hackles and polarises attitudes into good and evil, right and wrong, and accounts for much of the unhelpful cynicism about the (often wholly worthy) motives of those concerned with environmental matters. Antagonism builds barriers; it risks obscuring from view what it can mean to genuinely love the natural world, by replacing it with the idea (or some variant of it) that love of the environment is about campaigning and winning arguments. Antagonistic environmentalism can put people off and, in some cases, makes needless enemies of them, as opposed to inviting them to cherish and wonder at the natural world (something that cannot be achieved overnight). When love is authentic, protection of the beloved comes naturally and is independent of any instrumental benefit – one cannot be argued into love. It is no accident that programmes made by Sir David Attenborough and books such as Brydon Thomason’s Wild Shetland Through The Seasons are far more successful in nurturing interest in the natural world than political arguments and campaigning.


Bobby Tulloch invites you to love the natural world and it is through this invitation – what one might also call an expression of love – that our understanding can be transformed and we can be brought to see the natural world as something precious; something upon which harm can be inflicted in ways that run far deeper than the material harm we consider bad because of its negative consequences. This kind of harm can be thought of as moral harm. If we only considered the natural world as valuable because of its instrumental benefits, claims of moral damage would not make much sense; neither would claims of love that are independent of any utilitarian benefit. That they do make sense is testament to the love that Bobby Tulloch encourages you to find. The risk in our current times is that understanding of the natural world becomes unified with adversarial arguments and political campaigning; such unification will not yield the kind of love that individuates the natural world as something precious regardless of anything else.


It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that true understanding only resides in the realm of the sciences because of all of its remarkable achievements. This assumption is evident in some of the more popular natural history writing and presenting and is often expressed by writing in ways that possess exaggerated degrees of literary flourish or theatre – the thought being that this makes complex scientific ideas more digestible for the layperson. Such attempts frequently ring hollow. On the other hand, there is also the tendency to anthropomorphism and other forms of romanticism in response to what some authors believe to be an overly scientistic approach – seeing such an approach as, somehow, unjust to the natural world. But behind each approach is the sincere and creditable motive to persuade others that the natural world is worth valuing; that said, sincerity is not always sufficient for truthfulness (as distinct from truth). For example, someone who sincerely believes that true understanding is solely the preserve of science might decide, in a eulogy to his friend, that the best way to make it would be to read out a list of true statements about him at the funeral. This would almost certainly come across as cold and callous and certainly not truthfully express who his friend was. On the flip side, a eulogy that wallows in sentimentality and romanticism about a life would similarly fail to truthfully express who the person was. Bobby Tulloch does not fall into either trap. It would have been easy for him to have anthropomorphised or become sentimental about the crows he kept as a boy, or the injured otter he nursed back to health, just as it would have been easy for him to remove the characters of such animals and the birds in his writing, based on the assumption that real understanding is answerable to true statements. Instead, he shows that understanding can be achieved by acknowledging and getting to know the many different characters of the natural world.


Tulloch's love of the natural world was also sometimes reflected in his musical output, often inspired by Shetland's landscapes. I hope my arrangements of two of his tunes performed by the Nova String Quartet – “One Hundred Shetland Islands” and “Island Lullaby” (the latter co-written with his sister Mary Ellen) – have done them justice, even if they are not in the traditional Shetland style.


This audiobook is now commercially available throughout the UK via mail order.


Follow the Bobby Tulloch’s Shetland Audiobook Facebook page for more details.


All images in this blog post © Bobby Tulloch



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