SNAKES have always had a bad image. In mythology, they have been symbols of evil and in films they have represented the ultimate menace, likely to be shot or pulverised as they are about to strike.
Now that many of them are protected, their future looks brighter.
I have met many snakes in my life – some with two legs, others with none. My first encounter with the slithering variety was in Glenhurich, the Glen of the Yew Trees, between Loch Sunart and Loch Shiel.
Here, as a young boy, I found a large adder curled up under a sheet of corrugated-iron while I was out walking ahead of my mother. ‘ What is this funny-looking beast?’ I recall asking her as I stroked and prodded it as she caught up with me. Luckily it must have been in a state of semi-hibernation, or had just eaten, because it did not stir. The following day, to my disappointment, it had slipped away. I have been intrigued by them ever since.
I have stalked and photographed adders on Jura while living in the awesome sea- caves between Loch Tarbert and Glengarrisdale.
Every year, in May, they make their way onto the ancient raised beaches which are such a feature of Jura’s north west coastline, to forage among the stones for seagull eggs and chicks.
In Glen Libidil, on the Laggan Deer Forest on Mull, I once found myself on a hot summer’s day, briefly sharing a pool with an adder in the burn which runs down through the glen from the Bealach More to the Firth of Lorn. We parted company, neither the worse of our meeting.
In mid April it is fascinating to lie watching the males stand up, writhing and coiling about each other in a fantastic ‘dance’. Both swaying sideways in contrary direction, then slowly coming back together, their bodies meeting and then crossing before the winner eventually makes off to mate with the female who is usually lying coiled close by.
Adders, or vipers as they are often called, used to be found throughout Argyll. Robert Buchanan, in his Hebride Isles (1882), wrote that although they swarmed on the sides of Ben Cruachan, they were never found elsewhere in Lorn - a statement disputed by fellow author Anderson Smith (1844-1906) who said they were once fairly common in Benderloch, at Achnaba, Ledaig and Lochnell.
Smith also recorded that the adders on Mull were particularly large, venomous and numerous but had been kept down by the sheep whose introduction, along with the clearance of brushwood and land drainage, had reduced their numbers. The removal of the sheep from the Laggan Deer Forest by Maclaine of Lochbuie in 1890 obviously allowed them to re- colonize as they are again plentiful except near the coastline where there are a number of wild goats – animals well-known for going out of their way to kill them.
Kintyre was reputed to be a haven for adders – perhaps it still is. A report, written in 1900 records: ‘Kintyre is fairly infested with these reptiles [adders], whose bite is poisonous, as many a farmer in that district can testify through the loss they sustain yearly by their cattle being bitten while grazing.
‘They are more numerous about Cour, on the peninsula, than in any other part of Scotland, it being a common occurrence to kill 80 or 90 of them during the season there, in April and May. Some are striped with red, and their backs are hairy, while their eyes, which are pinkish like ferrets, gleam like sparks of fire. Twenty- eight inch long ones are frequently to be met with, and Alexander Stewart, last season, shot one which measured 30 inches, as it was twinning itself round a silver birch tree. I am informed by a gentleman who was born and brought up in that locality that he himself shot some white ones, also pink- eyed, which measured 48 inches.’
As to the veracity of this report, adders do show an enormous variation in length and colour. The one characteristic mark is a zigzag stripe down the middle of the back. Albinism has not been recorded before, but melanism is not uncommon.
On average a UK adult can grow up to 31 inches, anything bigger is probably an exaggeration although Alexander Forbes, in his ‘Gaelic Names of Beasts, Birds, Fishes, Insects and Reptiles’ (1905) wrote: ‘There are three kinds of serpents or adders in the island of Skye, one spotted black and white is said to be the most venomous and is said to be from two to four feet in length, a second is spotted brown, and the third brown.’
Alexander Burn-Murdoch, who used to lease an estate in Morvern in the late 19th century, recorded that he had killed adders in Perthshire of 28 inches in length and one in Ardnamurchan of 25 inches. He also mentioned the local postman, on hearing a struggle in the heather near the road one day, found an adder holding onto the leg of a young grouse. He killed the adder but the grouse soon died.
An adult adder in Glen Libidil, Mull, eating a frog. Photo by Iain Thornber.
The Dance of the Adders. From a drawing by A Heilborn.