Wolves were once wild in Scotland, but will they ever return there?
Once an intrinsic part of the Scottish landscape, is it time wolves were finally returned to their ancestral home?
Think of them as wolf trees; the ones that remember wolves, the ones that mourn wolves, the ones that stir in me an awareness of the absence of wolves. Only trees, of all living things, hold the memory of wolves.
The oldest Scots pines, the 300–400-yearolds, and the occasional truly ancient yew, know how the brush of wolf fur feels, how the soft, deep slap of their footfall on the forest floor sounds. And perhaps they hand down the sense of wolves to the wolfless generations of young trees, so that these will be ready for the wolves’ return. For the wolves will return.
All my life, I have been a restless traveller among Scotland’s wild places and an occasional traveller to the Earth’s northern places – Alaska, Iceland, Norway. I try to live close to the land, to listen to the land – whatever deepens my connection to it. And sometimes, usually among heartland tracts of the Highlands, I have become aware of an absence – I put it down to wolves. Such a tract is the Black Wood of Rannoch, and the neighbouring Black Mount woods and mountains around Loch Tulla. Such landscapes have a way of dislocating time. There is a harder-edged wildness to them, and sometimes it reaches you like a scent,
or the sound of it is a threnody in your ears, for it laments its own incompleteness.
Rannoch Moor is an inland sea that breaks on mountain shores, but a sea of rock and heather and lochans and peat that lies at an altitude of 300m; a sea of red deer and red foxes, of all-but-extinct wildcats, of ravens and greenshanks and black-throated divers and golden eagles, of summer skylarks and winter swans, of wind-weary grass and the half-buried bones of dead trees. Once it was lightly wooded from shore to shore. The Black Wood still survives along the southern bank of the moor, an exquisite woodland of Scots pine, birch, rowan, aspen, willow and alder.
Make a long stillness for yourself there, and listen while the land recalls a stone-still morning of an old, old spring. The very last of the wolves had walked all night in a vain search for others of her own kind, encouraged by a full moon. The roundest moon was the best for hunting and travelling. The people made a story (they made so many wolf stories): the wolf howls at the moon. No. The wolf is most active under the full moon because it assists them. It howls most when it is most active, but it never howls when it hunts.
Can you see her face in the rocks? Ah, but you can’t can you? What you need is a race memory that spans centuries. But the trees have known that face all their lives. Her eyes are pale gold – small for the size of the face – and set in jet-black ovals that thicken towards their inner edges and leak a dark ‘tear’ on each side of the muzzle. Each eye is also set in a wider circle of tan and dark-grey fur that reaches up into her forehead, which is mostly black but defined below her ears with a narrow echo of the same tan. Her ears are short, erect, forward-facing and rimmed in black, and the short fur there is tan and grey and white, and black again at the centre. Her muzzle is the deepest shade of tan on top, but abruptly white and pale grey on the sides and round her mouth. Her nose is small and black. She wears a ruff of bright white rimmed with dark grey and black and tan. If you could see her as the trees see her, you would not fear her, but rather you might think her beautiful.
She was not led there, nor was she pointed there, and she had never been there before, but she knew at once that it was a wolf place. And a wolf place does not stop being a wolf place just because the land runs out of wolves. For there is no such thing as the last wolf; there is no end to the pageant of wolves.
For thousands of years – and until not so long ago as you might think – this was a land shaped almost as much by wolves as by ice. These are quiet places where a solitary traveller can still feel close to the land itself. In the far north of the world, and to this day, there is an awareness among circumpolar tribes of the need to listen
For thousands of years – and until not so long ago as you might think – this was a land shaped almost as much by wolves as ice.
to the land. If we were ever to relearn that skill and take it into old wolf heartlands like these, we would sense the restlessness in the land. We would learn that the land is ill at ease because our ‘stewardship’ has deprived nature of the essential tools it needs to perform at its utmost. The absence of wolves in a northern hemisphere country like Scotland is the most glaring manifestation of that ill-at-ease condition. Be still. Crossexamine what you see and hear and feel here. The land will tell you that it feels the absence of wolves.
So, how long have the wolves been gone from Rannoch? Certainly for more than 200 years, but perhaps not much more. It is perfectly plausible that they held out in the moor and the Black Wood for decades after they had been driven from the rest of the land by the people because… because they were wolves. Only ignorance and arrogance can presume the hand of man killed the last wolf, rather than that it died old and alone, somewhere like Rannoch.
But there are almost as many ‘last wolf’ stories in the Highlands as there are trees in the Black Wood. Worse, they still endure. The date that recurs again and again in that dangerous twilight where history meets folklore is 1743, and in the valley of the River Findhorn. The story goes that two children were killed by a large black wolf (all ‘last wolves’ are large and black) as they crossed a moor with their mother. A wolf hunt was organised, but a man called MacQueen, a giant of over 2m (all ‘last wolf’ slayers are giants), took matters into his own hands and killed it with a knife.
The story was written down – MacQueen was ‘quoted’ in direct speech – but not until the publication of a book called The Great Moray Floods of 1829. The writer was a minor aristocrat from Edinburgh called Thomas Dick Lauder, who, as it happens, was also a minor novelist obsessed, like so many of that era, by Walter Scott. MacQueen’s Lowland Scots tongue is an undisguised and breathless copy of Scott. And here is what MacQueen thinks a wolf looked like, in a novel Thomas Dick Lauder wrote called The Wolfe of Badenoch:
‘He saw an enormous black wolf making towards him, the oblique and sinister eyes of the animal flashing fire, his jaws extended and tongue rolling out... The panting and frothy jaws and long sharp tusks of the infuriated beast… The muscles of the neck of the wolf are well known to be so powerful that they enable the animal to carry off a sheep with ease…’
So, he knew nothing at all about wolves. And the fact that these demonised wolves are always huge and black is the final nail in the coffin of ‘last wolf’ stories, because there never were black wolves in Europe. When I was researching my own wolf book, The Last Wolf, it took me half an hour in a library in Inverness to demonstrate conclusively that the ultimate ‘last wolf’ story which had endured for 180 years was the fantasy of a Scott groupie.
Back in the real world, a man who does know about wolves, an American wolf biologist called Paul Errington, wrote this
in his 1967 book, Of Predation and Life: ‘Of all the native biological constituents of a northern wilderness scene, I should say that the wolves present the greatest test of human wisdom and good intentions.’
For 200-plus wolfless years, then, we have failed the test of human wisdom. Not to mention a further 500–600 years before that, since hunting kings put a price on wolves’ heads. Red deer were encouraged in order to satisfy the whims of wealthy hunting parties (resulting in the denuding of Scotland’s ancient forests) and wolves were seen to pose a threat to this key prey species of the royal hunting parks.
But now, now that we know how a wolf really behaves, now that it is shown to be a hugely beneficial presence for biodiversity in northern hemisphere countries, Scotland faces a new test of our good intentions. Tomorrow, some sweet tomorrow of our own choosing (and the decision is ours to make and the process is simple and the ecological benefits immense and permanent), we should declare Rannoch a sanctuary, and we should finally bring the wolves home.
Why Rannoch? It has the required beauty, the required grandeur, the required scale; but mostly, it is the natural choice for the practicality and the symbolism. For Rannoch was the forge that fashioned the shape and the nature of our post-ice-age land. It radiated glaciers from its vast ice cap in every direction through the central and southern Highlands, furrowing the land with glens and flooding them with lochs and sea lochs and firths. Besides, travel is in the nature of wolves, and over subsequent decades, new generations can radiate outwards from the centre in whatever directions they choose. As they radiate, they will spread a healing regime for a wounded nature.
And this showpiece will belong only to nature itself, and to the nation of Scotland, and because it is in the centre of the country, we will all be as neighbours and feel part of it. We will do what we can to restore and expand its native habitats as far as we are able, remove the alien traits of the legacy of the ‘sporting estate’, then stand back, make a respectful space, let wildlife manage wildlife, and watch and learn.
Conservation has a 21st-century buzzword: ‘rewilding’. We should be clear about one thing – despite the rhetoric of celebrity talking heads, we cannot rewild anything. Wildness is in nature’s gift, not ours. All we can do is remove from nature’s path the obstacles our species has put there, obstacles that diminish or deny wildness. Having passed that great test of our good intentions, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that in the Black Wood of Rannoch, every tree will be a wolf tree.
WANT TO COMMENT? Do you agree that wolves should be reintroduced to Rannoch Moor? Email us at wildlifelet[email protected]mediate.co.uk
From left: hunting was a popular pastime for 14thcentury aristocracy and wolves were killed to protect prey stock; the boggy Rannoch Moor covers 130km²; wolves are found throughout much of Europe.