Persecution gets my goat
Rum is the most spectacular and dramatic island of the Inner Hebrides.
Once referred to as the ‘forbidden island’, it is renowned for his natural beauty, history and wildlife.
The island has had a turbulent history. Its beginnings lie in the kitchen-middens on the floors of the many caves dotted around the coast and beneath the surface of old field-systems at the head of Loch Scresort.
For a time, Rum was dominated by Norsemen who were replaced by the Clan Donald. After the MacDonalds came a succession of other landowners, including the ignominious Macleans of Coll who, in a last act of desperation to pay off their many debtors, in 1826 summarily evicted most of the indigenous population, from which the island has never recovered.
Later, John Bullough, an enlightened millionaire from burgeoning industrial Lancashire, arrived and tried to repay what the Macleans had taken by creating stable, long-term employment and better housing conditions.
Notable among his son’s many improvements and achievements, was the building and furnishing of the magnificent, much-admired and greatly envied Kinloch Castle, which draws visitors from around the world. When the Bullough ownership came to a close, Rum was sold to the Nature Conservancy (now Scottish Natural Heritage) and a new page in its history was turned.
Of all the species inherited by SNH on Rum, there are none more iconic than the herds of wild goats that have made their home on the rocky crags and sea cliffs between Kilmory, Harris, Papadil and Dibidil. Although all goats are descended from domestic stock and are thus feral, it is possible that those on Rum come from stock brought to the island thousands of years ago by Neolithic farmers, or by later Norse invaders who are known to have carried them alive in their long ships as a source of food and clothing.
After the MacDonalds parted with Rum, their tenants were forced to leave the island and soon their goats took to the hills and became wild.
The earliest document which mentions them are reports on the Hebrides compiled by John Walker, dated 1764 and 1771, who wrote: ‘There is a great number of goats kept upon the Island and here I found an article of oeconomy [sic] generally unknown in other places. The people of Rum carefully collect the hair of their Goats and after sorting it, send it to Glasgow where it is sold from one shilling to two shillings and 6d per pound according to its fineness, and there it is manufactured into wigs, which are sent to America.’
Goats, often referred to in the history books as the poor man’s cow, were essential to the economy of the indigenous population of Rum, particularly when rents were often paid in kind. Their browsing habits meant that they were not a threat to other grazers on the island such as sheep, cattle and deer, as they were able to survive on rough vegetation. It was often lamented that when their numbers declined, scrub spread and choked the better grasses, plants and flowers.
Goats were primarily kept as a source of meat, butter, cheese, leather and, of course, milk, which was considered a cure for asthma and eczema.
When the craze for keeping large flocks of sheep was at its height during the 19th and 20th centuries, at least two of Rum’s landowners imported goats from the Island of Mull and the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. They did so to improve the blood stock and, more importantly, to increase their numbers on the cliffs to discourage the less sure-footed sheep from venturing onto them and falling to their death. As goats dislike getting their feet wet, they seldom strayed from their dry, crag-bound haunts.
From 1980 to 2007, the Rum goats were monitored by scientists from Liverpool University studying the impact of global warming. They discovered that for every 1°c increase in mean December temperature, goats will extend their range northwards by about 1° latitude. If, however, the Gulf Stream is deflected by further climate warming, as many climatologists are now suggesting, and more continental-type winters arrive bringing a drop in winter temperatures, goat distributions will contract southwards where they are able.
The ancient goats on their lonely cliff ledges know nothing of this, only of the primal urges that direct their actions. We may surf the internet, tweet, post, hurtle into space and speed through the glens on super-highways, yet when we go into the hills to watch nature and see the massive gnarled, sweeping horns silhouetted against the skyline and hear the sound of the rutting he-goats echoing along the mist-wreathed cliffs, our primeval blood is stirred and our imagination disappears down the centuries.
We remember the links which tie us to our
own Neolithic past and experience again that ‘call of the wild’ in the strongest way imaginable.
There are reports coming out of Rum of goats being killed in case they damage the habitat. Their carcasses, it is alleged, have been hidden out of sight under piles of rocks or thrown over the cliffs into the sea.
No records were kept and nor were they examined for scientific purposes. What a senseless waste of life.
Can anyone believe that after centuries of grazing by sheep, ponies, cattle and deer, plants may now be at risk?
If the goats are moving across to Loch Scresort because of climatic changes, so what? They can surely be kept out of plantations with fences.
The wild goats are the DNA of Rum. Given space and peace, they will do what they have always done and both they and humans will be the richer for it. Long may they remain.
The storm-lashed shores and cliffs of Rum are home to an ancient herd of wild goats, which are part of the island’s DNA.