Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye

gods of the morningA Highland year…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In 1976, John Lister-Kaye bought an estate in the northern central Highlands of Scotland, and set up what is now Scotland’s premier field study centre, Aigas. Although a wide range of wildlife lives and is studied there, Lister-Kaye’s own main fascination is with the many varieties of birds that make their home there – his gods of the morning. In this book, he takes the reader through a year, showing the changes that come with each season, as different birds arrive, nest, breed and leave again. In the introduction, he talks about how he has noticed changes to nesting and breeding patterns over the years. He declares his reluctance to put the blame for these changes wholly at the door of climate change, but points to the growing unpredictability of weather patterns in recent years. His stated intention in this book is not to provide answers but rather, based on his personal observations, to pose some questions of his own.

Aigas Field Centre
Aigas Field Centre

Lister-Kaye is an established and respected nature writer and on the basis of this book it’s easy to see why. His knowledge of the natural world that surrounds him is matched by his passion for it, and his easy style and fine writing allow both to come through clearly to the reader. In truth, there isn’t much in here that adds to the debate on climate change and I wondered if perhaps nature writers currently feel they have to be seen to be talking about that, or be accused of burying their heads in the sand. In fact, the book is a fairly simple nature diary in structure, allowing Lister-Kaye to select topics that represent for him the progress of a natural year. For me, the suggestion of the climate change angle was something of a minor annoyance, since I kept waiting for it to be raised and, except for occasional references to changing migratory and breeding patterns, it really isn’t much. He makes much of the adverse impact of an early false spring followed by a big freeze in his chosen year, 2012/3, but points out himself that such anomalies have always happened.

…to do justice to nature, the nature of this mystical land of hills and glens, forests, lochs and rushing rivers, and to the confused seasons of what has proved to be a discomfiting and bizarre year, I need to start at a real transition, in late September when fidgets of swallows were gathering on telephone wires like chittering clothes-pegs; when the first tug of departure was fizzing in the blackcaps’ tiny brains; before moonlit frosts cantered rust through the bracken; before the chlorophyll finally bled from blushing leaves; even before the last osprey lifted and wheeled into its migration to Senegal or the Zambia. I need to start when the word was fresh on our lips, in the incipient, not-quite-sure-if-it’s-happened-yet autumn of 2012.

However, read purely for its description of the natural world of this fairly rugged part of the British Isles, the book is both informative and hugely enjoyable. The prose often heads towards lyrical without ever getting too overblown and, though he tells us a lot about the ‘science’ of nature, it’s done very lightly in passing, making it easy to absorb. The tone is personal, based on his own observations rather than textbook stuff, and is often interspersed with anecdotes about life in the field study centre or his own childhood. Like most naturalists, he combines a real passion for the creatures he observes with a hard-headed, non-sentimental approach, recognising that nature is indeed ‘red in tooth and claw’. But occasionally we see a bit of anger seep through at man’s behaviour towards nature, when for instance he describes the on-going poisoning of protected birds of prey, or the battery farming of thousands upon thousands of game birds, destined for slaughter by rich men (I considered saying ‘people’ but I think I’ll stick with ‘men’ in this case) who prefer to have the game fixed to ensure them a good ‘bag’.

John Lister-Kaye feeding a wildcat
John Lister-Kaye feeding a wildcat

Most of the book, though, is filled with delightfully told observations of the minutiae of life around the estate. His year runs from autumn 2012, and really gets underway in the second chapter as he shows the birds and animals preparing for winter – the red squirrels hiding their nuts, the woodmice moving indoors and making nests, the arrival of the geese, moving south from their Arctic summer. (I particularly enjoyed the bit about the geese, since my house happens to be beneath one of their migratory routes and twice a year for one or two days, the sky is dark with them passing and the noise could drown out a passing jumbo jet, except that happily no jumbo jets pass by here – it’s always one of the highlights of my own year, when I can be found standing in the garden gazing upwards in fascination at their squadron-like manoeuvres.) Also at this time of year, many birds are migrating away, and Lister-Kaye combines lovely descriptive writing with information on what triggers migrations, how they have been scientifically observed and some of the myths that have surrounded them in the past.

No sound in the world, not even the rough old music of the rooks, etches more deeply into my soul than the near-hysterical ‘wink-winking’ of pink-footed geese all crying together high overhead. It is a sound like none other. Sad, evocative, stirring and, for me, quintessentially wild, it arouses in me a yearning that seems to tug at the leash of our long separation from the natural world.

And this pattern of information and description continues as the long, harsh Highland winter rolls in with its short days, and we see the struggle for survival of those birds and animals that stay; then the welcome shortening of the nights bringing in the late spring, and moving on to the long days of summer when, this far north, darkness falls only briefly before the sun rises again.

Buzzard at Aigas Photo: rutlandjan via tripadvisor.co.uk
Buzzard at Aigas
Photo: rutlandjan via tripadvisor.co.uk

There’s almost nothing I enjoy more than reading or listening to a knowledgeable enthusiast telling of their passion, whatever it might be, and that’s what this book is. Whether telling us of the swan that couldn’t manage to take-off, or tales of his own beloved pet dogs, or of the nesting rooks he can see through the window while lying in his bath, this is a man talking about the things that bring him joy, and allowing the reader to share that joy with him. He doesn’t prettify nature but, even when its at its cruellest, he sees the glory in it. A most enjoyable trip to the Highlands with an expert guide.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.

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51 thoughts on “Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye

  1. This sounds delightful! I must say, I wouldn’t ordinarily read this sort of thing but your review has made me think that I should not over-look it so readily. I love the picture of him feeding the wildcat! It is almost humbling that he would share his passion with us all in such an eloquent way. There is a warm fuzzy feeling in my tummy! (That could just be sausages, though).

    • I hardly ever read a nature book – once a year maybe – but I don’t know why I don’t. If they’re well written, as this one is, it really does make me feel as if I’ve had a holiday without all that pesky travelling business. And it’s the passion that makes them special – you have to be pretty passionate to sit for hours (with no sausages) waiting for a single glimpse of some beastie! I loved this one, and for more exotic far-flung wildlife, I adored The Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein.

  2. It sounds as though is well written. I don’t read a lot of this, but occasionally pick something up along this lines and immerse myself in the fascinating beauty. Thank you for putting it in front of us.

  3. Oh, this does sound like a fascinating look at the natural life of that part of the world. And that in and of itself can be a terrific read, FictionFan. And since he’s knowledgeable too, so much the better – you get the ‘expert eye.’

    • Indeed! And there’s been so much progress in recent years in reintroducing or protecting some of the bird species of the Highlands, so there’s a lot of positive stuff as well as the climate change fears. I love knowledgeable people who can share without having to ‘talk down’ to their audience…

    • Yes, I love books like this for making me feel as if I’ve gone on a little trip without the inconvenience of actually doing it! And this one is so well written…

  4. Oh my goodness! You must needs take the professor there to film. (I think that’s my castle, too, the sudden.)

    I get a few geese that pass overhead here. Have you ever noticed they fly in the shape of a V? *smiles proudly* Anyway…no jumbo jets? I get a few C-130s and helicopters from time to time. (They think I’m dangerous.)

    And now don’t be sexist, FEF! *holds ears*

    • It’s rather gorgeous, isn’t it? I can imagine you there, playing something gorgeous – I’d be there too to make sure the trees didn’t bash you…

      Indeed! And they do all sorts of swirly manoeuvres, which always look to me as if they’re waiting for the next batch to catch up. I love them! No, I used to live under the flight path from Heathrow airport when I lived in London, so it’s brilliant to now live somewhere where we hardly ever see a big plane. But there’s a fairly local airfield, so we get a few small planes and the odd helicopter. (I can understand that – governments always fear warriors. *nods*)

      Haha! Just being honest! I bet the shooting parts are about 95% male or more. Mainly foreigners blasting away with no skill and no desire to actually eat the birds…

      • *laughs* And we’d thank you lots for that. You’d have to show us the “sweet spots” to film. I’m always hunting, you know, you know.

        And I love their singing. Unless, I’m sleeping. But they always seem to fly over after I’m doing sleeping, thank goodness. A local airfield! Have you visited it? They might have a Spitfire just for you. And you could go on a mission of sorts. (Especially, ones with red plumes.)

        *Laughing* Will you get me a 1911 Scorpion?

        • How disappointed would you be if I admitted I’ve never been there? You’d have to play something with a Scottish connection…

          I actually love being woken by the birds in the morning. Used to get loads of different ones here, but the seagulls moved in a few years back and lots of the smaller birds seem to have disappeared. I did think about taking flying lessons there way back, but I was too much of a wuss *ashamed face* Of course, that was your fault ‘cos you hadn’t turned me into a warrior yet.

          I most certainly shall not! I shall get you one of these though

          • Interesting you should say that. I recently listened to David Russell (he’s a Scottish classical guitarist, you know, you know) and he was playing some sort of Scottish air, I think. He’s awesome.

            Birds are great, unless they’re blue jays! I love seagulls…I think I’m a seagull. Did you really? FEF! You should have. But it is always hard to start something new, I know. You…should take it up now!

            *laughing* I would definitely play with that! I’ve always wanted one. But you’d have to get one, and then we could war.

            • I did not know! I could only find a pretty poor quality recording called Three Celtic Pieces, but now you’ve started me listening to Celtic guitarists…

              What have you got against blue jays? No, you’re a golden eagle. Briefly – but then I started a job that involved quite a lot of travelling and never got round to it. But I think that was just an excuse – really I was too scared! And would be even more scared now, I fear… *hangs head in shame*

              *laughs* That would be so much fun!

            • One of the best–ever! Here try this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZqdfFB6C6Q. I hate doing it, though, since that will put him in your recommendations. *jealous*

              Well, they have the ugliest growl. And they’re always eating the cat food and landing on my windows. *cranky face* That’s a good reason see. No, no! I’d be scared too. I kinda used to be deathly afraid of flying, believe it or not…

              It would be! *starts practicing*

            • That’s rather lovely – he really manages to bring out the harp sound, doesn’t he? *laughs* Fear not! It won’t be long before you’re back in there… *goes off to listen to Pachelbel again…* (Goodness! Why are there so many comments on it in Russian?!?)

              You should use your water pistol… I don’t mind flying in big planes, but small ones are scary – like small boats!

            • Ooh, youtube is now offering me a thing called ‘My Mix’ and you’re first (Bach/Pirates) followed by Rafa’s horrible video, and then oddly something from the Christian Worship Channel, followed by the Rocky Horror Picture Show! I don’t know what that says about me really… *laughs helplessly*

            • He sure does! Lots of beautiful sound going on there. *very relieved and a smile that’s rather bigly* (I know! What’s with that, do you suppose? I was hoping you could tell me, actually…)

              I agree! But…small boats are better!

              *laughing* Not Rafa’s video! Christian Worship Channel?! *laughs* Yeah, you wouldn’t like contemporary Christian stuff…not sure I do. It lives up to your middle name!

            • (Are you a communist spy? It seems the only possible explanation. Have you clicked on translate? Very complimentary, Legend!)

              Hmm…depends how small!

              Yeah, it’s full of stuff by some Christian band called Rush of Fools – did you recommend them to me at some point? I can’t imagine how else they’d have got on there. And Kenny G appears quite often too, and the horrid little kids duet – what have you done to me???

            • (*smiles* I did translate a few… Kinda surprised so many people like it, to be honest.)

              You know, one of the speedy ones! Cruise ships scare me.

              No, you know, I’ve never even hard of Rush of Fools…what hairdos… *laughing* Just listen to a lot of David Russell…

            • (I’m not surprised at all, at all! I wonder if you really know how great these vids are – not just the music, which is fantastic, but the ‘production values’. So professional! And you’re obviously building up a following ‘cos all your vids are getting loads of views now…)

              I’ve never been on a speed boat – I think I’d be terrified! On the other hand cruise ships wouldn’t bother me at all – I’d quite like to go on a cruise, I think. Round the Norwegian fjords.

              I wonder how they got on my list then? Baffling!

            • (Well, I look at them and see things I want to change. So, it’d be safe to say I’m never quite happy with the end result! I mean, I’m happy, but it’s not just right. Doubt it will ever be, though. FEF, I really, really appreciate that!)

              I’ve never been on one either. Oh, you would not! You’d have the best of times. Now, if I was driving, it might be scary. I would go on a cruise if it wasn’t on the open sea… (Does Poseidon Adventure mean anything to you?)

              Well, Blessings is Contemporary Christian…so that’s the possible cause, see.

            • (*smiles bigly* Well, I think that’s probably a good thing – keeps you on your toes!)

              I might get sea-sick. I once had a trip on a hovercraft across the English Channel – by halfway I wanted to die!! (I’d be fine – women and children first, remember? As a hero, you’d have to stay behind unfortunately… but think how proud of you I’d be! Worth sinking for, I’d say… *nods decidedly*)

              Aha! So it is your fault! I expected as much…

            • (Blah and huff-hum!)

              A Hover Craft?! *eyes open widely* You should have so invited me… (*laughing* I fear the women of today wouldn’t like such special treatment. Did you hear they get cranky if you open doors for them?)

              *laughing* But it’s still odd. I think I’ll put the blame back on you.

            • (*laughs and cries and laughs and cries and… cries* You mean I’m not a ‘woman of today’?! *cries more* Lend me your katana – I feel an urgent need to chop my own head off suddenly…)

              Nah, I think you’ve bribed youtube to send me subliminal mind-control messages…

            • A lady from old!!!! That’s worse!!!! I shall hobble off to the old folks home now, take out my teeth and eat gruel…

              Ooh, nearly feel into your trap and said ‘who would you send then’? Phew!

    • It is! The first time it happened I had no idea what was going on – just this amazing noise drowning everything else out. So I went out and couldn’t believe the sheer numbers of birds. Sometimes it’s bigger than others – maybe wind patterns or something. Last week was the spring one – only lasted a day this time, but it freaks the cats out. They can’t work out where the noise is coming from…

      • Poor kitties. And I’m sure they’d be attacked by the entire group if the geese landed. So maybe it’s better they’re kept in the dark. Do you have to carry an umbrella when you go outside? 😀

        • The seagulls are the ones that frighten me – some of them are bigger than the cats and they’ve been known to co-ordinate attacks if they feel their nests are being threatened. They nearly shoved the window cleaner off his ladder once… stop laughing! Poor man was traumatised!

    • It was! I only read a nature book very occasionally but I don’t know why since I usually enjoy them – especially when they’re well-written like this one.

  5. Sounds a good one. Because I feed the birds, my garden gets waves of different ones for about two hours morning and evening – unfortunately, the morning visit starts about 5 a.m. Thank Goodness Ginge is getting deaf in his old age: he used to get up and yammer at them.

    • I could never have fed them with with Soxy and Trix – it would have been more like bait than food! But I could probably get away with it with these two – they don’t show a huge amount of interest in birds, except to be a bit scared of the seagulls…

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