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.

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