BOBBY THE BIRDMAN
Shetland ornithologist Bobby Tulloch captured the adoration of budding naturalists across the country
Remembering Shetland’s wildlife hero, Bobby Tulloch
You have to be really passionate about wildlife to take a rotting bird to bed with you. Such was Shetlander Bobby Tulloch’s love of the natural world, that his mother found him asleep as a very small child locked in an embrace with a putrefying puffin, the fishy aroma of which pervaded the entire room. I have always found this story amusing.
Most of us have our heroes. For me there are few people who have fuelled and encouraged my own obsession with natural history more than Bobby Tulloch. The son of a crofter from Shetland’s island of Yell, he epitomised all that I love about the natural world, had a real- ist’s approach filled with passion, humour and a deep understanding of the complete fauna and flora of the islands, and a good deal further afield. I watched his television programmes, avidly read his books, devoured the extraordinary films he helped to make, in particular that of the celebrated wildlife cameraman Hugh Miles – On the Track of the Wild Otter. Sadly I narrowly missed meeting him. But his influence has been huge.
Bobby Tulloch trained to be a baker but he was multi-talented – a self-taught photographer with limited equipment, whose early photographs of the dratsie (the Shetland name for the otter) proved that they were not impossible subjects, providing you knew about field craft. He was exceedingly generous with his knowledge and did his utmost to help the eager tourists that were beginning to descend on Shetland, giving them tips and encouragement about the best places to see the creatures on their lists. Or he took them on guided walks that bore spectacular fruits. And always there was his humour – when one particularly daft tourist asked him how a seal he had seen lying high up on a skerrie had got there, Bobby replied that it was born there.
He could talk to people about wildlife and its conservation on a level where they felt totally comfortable, thus effortlessly bridging the gap between science and ignorance. He understood the importance of old lore and beliefs surrounding many of Scotland’s wild creatures. He was an exceptional boatman (though his navigation was often said to be somewhat gung ho!) and fisherman, a gifted musician and singer, played the accordion and fiddle, and had a penchant for composing hilarious songs and poems encompassing the lives of the other islanders. When a sheep entered a graveyard and devoured roses on some unfortunate soul’s grave, he re-wrote the words for the famous Cole Porter song of 1934, Don’t Fence Me In, from the ewe’s perspective, and performed it at the local ceilidh to uproarious response.
Though Bobby had no formal training, conservationist and ornithologist George Waterston, then director of the RSPB in Scotland, was quick to recognise his potential, and in 1964 Bobby was made Shetland’s first fulltime RSPB representative. It was a role in which he excelled. He was a supreme ambassador not only for the RSPB, but also for Shetland’s unique wildlife and the tourism industry it was beginning to spawn. His talks were different – not for him pie charts and graphs, numbers, lists, facts and figures. Instead, they were smattered with his unique photographs, trademark humour, sparkling twinkle and captivating personality. At a showing in the Usher Hall of Isles of the
‘He was exceedingly generous with his knowledge and did his utmost to help the eager tourists that were beginning to descend on Shetland’
Simmer Dim, made for the RSPB by wildlife film makers Liz and Tony Bomford, Bobby opened the event by saying that there were more people present – some 2,000 – than there were in the whole of Shetland. Later on a cruise ship with the same film, a friend commented that he would have had plenty of lovely ladies aboard for Bobby’s keen eye was not only on feathered birds. His humorous response was that in reality the ship had mostly elderly ladies, and the film would have been more aptly called ‘Isles of the Zimmer Dim’.
The beautiful snowy owl is a bird of the high Arctic and is usually only seen as a vagrant in Scotland. Some years there are records of single birds seen in places such as the Cairngorms or Rannoch Moor, but birding history was made in 1967 when Bobby discovered the first breeding snowy owls on Shetland’s island of Fetlar.
Once the press had been informed, the reaction was explosive, and immediately a 24-hour guard was put on the nest. Bobby and the owls were in the limelight of a nationwide stage. The Fetlar snowy owls bred for nine years, rearing a total of twenty owlets. Once, when Bobby found the male owl in a dangerously weakened state, he took him back to his house where he handfed him pieces of meat from a perch on top of the wardrobe, before taking him back recuperated to Fetlar. One of his closest friends, the Shetland photographer Dennis Coutts, dressed up with Bobby as a pantomime horse in order to try to photograph an owl. The owl flew off in a hurry, but nearby Shetland ponies with a stallion proved braver. Dennis was at the front end with his camera, whilst Bobby was at the back, where he claimed to need a syrup tin lid in his
‘ Bobby and the owls were in the limelight of a nationwide stage. The Fetlar snowy owls bred for nine years, rearing a total of twenty owlets’
trousers to protect him from the kicks.
As well as the snowy owls, Bobby’s records of the more unusual Shetland visitors included ivory and ross’ gulls, harlequin duck, hooded and bearded seals, and red-footed falcon, whilst red-necked phalarope also bred on Fetlar. During the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, a young walrus made an appearance in Mid-Yell Voe; whilst the nation was glued to its televisions, Bobby, Mike Richardson and Martin Heubeck were glued to the walrus. ‘That’s a far better sight than any royal wedding,’ commented Bobby.
Though the island of Yell is one of the remotest in the British Isles, Bobby, and his district nurse wife Betty, had a house that went like a fair. He and Betty led very separate lives, but she was of the greatest support to him, and their hospitality and generosity gave rise to musical evenings that were talked of for years. They both adored children, and they too were always included in any events at Lussetter House.
Before the massive oil boom that would alter Shetland forever, Bobby’s extraordinary skills as a naturalist led to his involvement in important wildlife surveys. It was vital to have the knowledge of exactly what was there. He was a member of the Sullom Voe Environmental Advisory Group and, despite being alongside eminent scientists, more than held his own, his lack of scientific knowledge and qualifications often proving extremely beneficial, particularly when he found many were sadly lacking in practical and field skills. He was also involved in the setting up of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory.
After leaving the RSPB he joined forces with Libby Weir-Breen in a new company, Island Holidays, travelling to far-flung destinations where his acute naturalist’s eye made him an expert on the wildlife. His huge fan base grew.
It is appropriate that finally, in a glorious book, many of those who knew and loved him well have amassed their anecdotes of the humble Shetland crofter whose life made a real difference. It is a moving compilation filled with humour and emotion.
Musician Freeland Barbour writes that ‘Bobby was the best ambassador that Shetland could have had. His illustrated talks were masterpieces of knowledge and love of life, and particularly Shetland life’.
Bill Oddie said: ‘He was one of the nicest men you could ever wish to meet. The world needs such people.’ Whilst Liz Bomford said after his premature departure: ‘if we had only known, we would have cloned him.’
I look back on the life of this extraordinary man and wonder what he would have thought about the worrying situation with the bird he loved most of all, the kittiwake that currently clings on but precariously. And the fact that the vast bait balls of sand eels he once witnessed are now seldom seen. It’s time to truly honour his memory, and ensure we campaign to protect the wildlife he knew and loved so well.
‘One of his closest friends, the Shetland photographer Dennis Coutts, dressed up with Bobby as a pantomime horse in order to try to photograph an owl’
Top: Bobby, pictured here in his trademark Shetland jumper, was never without a pair of binoculars. Left: Bobby with his three younger sisters Laureen, Mary Ellen and Joyce in 1936. Right: The first hatched owlets in Fetlar.
Main: The Fetlar snowy owl. Far left: In 1967 Bobby discovered a pair of snowy owls nesting on the island of Fetlar, in the north-east of Shetland.
Above right: Yell is the second largest island in the remote Shetland archipelago. Above left: Taken in 1967, this photograph shows Bobby and Dennis dressing in their panto-horse costume – Bobby is at the rear.