Per­se­cu­tion gets my goat

The Oban Times - - NOSTALGIA - IAIN THORN­BER iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

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.

Pho­to­graphs: Iain Thorn­ber

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.

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