The Women of Operation Osprey: Part 1

In preparing the exhibition to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of Operation Osprey, one of the most rewarding things has been uncovering the stories of the women involved. Women were in camp from the very beginning but their voices are, more or less, absent in the archive and accounts of the early days.

The first thing I read to get acquainted with the story of Operation Osprey was the 1971 account of the return of the Osprey to the UK by Philip Brown.  Two names emerged immediately as important: Betty Garden, a camp stalwart, and Isabella MacDonald, to whom the book is so charmingly dedicated.

“Miss MacDonald was a remarkable lady who foster-mothered scores of lucky children, yet still found the time to welcome so many of us who watched over the ospreys, with apparently inexhaustible kindness and a quiet encouragement that gave many of us renewed faith, strength and enthusiasm when the fates were against us”

I was intrigued, especially by Isabella as, despite this dedication, she doesn’t appear within the pages of the book apart from a passing mention. Isabella was the crofter of Inchdryne who gave Operation Osprey Base camp its home in 1959, hosting them until the mid 1980s, and her hospitality is a central part of the story.

My partner in crime in researching the stories for the exhibition, Alice Shaell, who kindly gave a great deal of her professional time in a voluntary capacity, found some correspondence relating to the constant battle to persuade Miss MacDonald to accept some payment for her hospitality.  The letters show how much respect and affection those at Operation Osprey held her in, and how grateful they were of the kindness she showed towards them.

Miss Macdonald letter

Alice and I went to visit Isabella’s niece, who now crofts the land at Inchdryne, and was still a teenager when George Waterston set up Operation Osprey. Marina Dennis is an impressive woman, having a lifetime in crofting, journalism and public service behind her, including twelve years as a Commissioner at the Crofters Commission. Still an active crofter, and young for her age, she writes a column for the local paper and is still involved in an advisory capacity in a myriad of things. Marina welcomed us into her warm, spacious bungalow and we sat by large windows looking over her croft, towards Abernethy Forest.

Marina told us that this land had been crofted by her family since they were cleared from the Braes of Castle Grant in 1809. What is now a patchwork of fields set within birch woodland and Caledonian pine was, back then, a boggy forest where Marina’s forebears would have had to clear the land, build a house, and start to create a new life for themselves.

We started by referring to her aunt as Isabel, as she is named in Brown’s book, and were immediately corrected.  “She was Bella. Everyone knew her as Bella” said Marina.  Isabella [pronounced Eye-sa-bella] had been a common name in the area, there was an Isa, an Isabella and she was Bella.  Marina took down a photo of her Aunt from the wall to show us. Bella, white hair swept back into in a black beret and wearing a navy dungarees was sitting on a grey Fergie tractor. A boy of around 15 sits on the plough behind.  Marina explained to us that was Billy, one of Bella’s foster children.

isobel-macdonald-col-tractor.jpg

Miss MacDonald fostered around 40 children over the years, most of which came from Edinburgh and Glasgow. “She always took boys, as she thought girls were too much of a handful” said Marina; and, as the mother of two teenage girls, I nodded vigorously in agreement.  Almost all of the children stayed with Bella until they had finished their schooling and many stayed on in the area, including Billy.

She went on to tell us about how her aunt and George had hit it off as soon as they met, “The osprey nest that first year was on the common grazings” she said waving her hand towards the wet grassland dotted with trees a few hundred metres behind her home. The team had set up watches in a rough hessian tent on the common grazings in 1958. The account of the nest-raid from the logbook inventively describes the ground as, “a bog that was very boggy”.

“George was very good with local people” said Marina, “he really understood indigenous communities, and people round here liked him.  It was the same on Fair Isle” she added. George had set up Fair Isle Bird Observatory after the war, a decade before he started Operation Osprey.

When George was looking for a spot for Operation Osprey base-camp Bella offered a site not far  from her house at Inchdryne “It really was the spark between George and Bella that ignited Operation Osprey” said Marina. George had asked whether she could host base-camp and she said yes. “It was Highland hospitality, she didn’t do it for payment or any gain. It’s just how Highlanders are.”  And it seems from all the accounts of Bella from the archive that this hospitality was far more than offering a place to pitch camp, park caravans, and the all-important water supply; it was hospitality in the fullest sense of the word, offering volunteers and staff at Operation Osprey a kindness and open-hearted welcome that came from her extraordinary generosity of spirit.

When we left, Marina directed us to the spot Bella had allowed Operation Osprey to use for all those years.  In that quiet glade among the pines I imagined the bustle of base camp; caravans, canvas tents, phone lines and George’s famous Dormobile, and I thought of Bella MacDonald’s immeasurable contribution to the project and what a truly remarkable woman she must have been.

 

 

60 Years of Operation Osprey

Why would I be packing my car on a Sunday evening with a glass display cabinet bought from the Salvation Army shop for £25 packed with 4 large slabs of foam and 2 second hand pale pink textured curtains? And why have I crammed every nook and cranny of the car with junk shop finds? Inside a 1940s leather suitcase, belted into the passenger seat, is an expanding jewellery box lined with crimson velvet, six books on birds from the 1950s, four metres of curtain wire and a battered stove-top kettle.  An aluminium bucket jammed behind the driver’s seat holds a tea set of four flowery cups and saucers, and a rolled poster print of a pale green canvas frame tent in a pine wood clearing, a young man is lying on the ground by the tent looking up at the sky.

osprey basecamp from slide at SWSRO

This last item gives a clue as to what all these items have in common. The pine wood is at Loch Garten in Speyside, and the tent is part of the camp set up in 1958 to protect the Ospreys that returned to Scotland to breed following their extinction.  This year is the 60th Anniversary of their successful breeding season in 1959 and the assorted items of bric-a-brac in my car are going to become part of an exhibition at Loch Garten to celebrate this very special occasion.

 

The temporary exhibition will reflect the original camp that early Operation Osprey volunteers would have experienced; the caravans and the canvas tents, the eternal stewpot and the discomfort of the forward hide.    A document from 1959 shows that the camp had 3 kettles, two tin openers, four cups and saucers, but only two spoons, three forks and two knives.  Somewhere among the stash of goodies in my car is a full set of cutlery as listed in the stores inventory, found by sorting through trays and buckets of silverware and utensils in one of Glasgow’s fabulous treasure troves of junk and vintage.

stores list 1959 jpeg

We want to celebrate the Operation Osprey heroes from the early days, and also those of today, with this exhibition. The main hero is, of course George Waterston, who conceived, and led Operation Osprey (and, according to the stores list, lent the project 4 egg-cups, 4 dish cloths and a billycan outfit). However, all the way through Operation Osprey, to the present day, the RSPB, has relied on dedicated volunteers, supporters and of course our members to keep the show on the road.  The debt of gratitude that Operation Osprey owes to these ordinary and extraordinary people is represented in this document found in the archive. Along with this note, to Isabella MacDonald, who hosted Operation Osprey Basecamp and its many wardens, volunteers and cook-caterers from 1959, was a sheaf of correspondence discussing rent, with Operation osprey suggesting she raise the rent and she refusing.

Miss Macdonald letter

The exhibition will be in place from the start of May, and will showcase some of the original documents from the early days to give a candid and contemporaneous insight into the very early days of Operation Osprey.

forward hide from SWSRO slides

Fun Projects: artists and architecture  

Every now and again work is just amazing. And this week was one of those times – quite a few projects are coming to fruition and things are generally getting exciting.
This morning I was meeting with some Strathclyde Product design students at RSPB Scotland’s reserve at Lochwinnoch. They’ve been working for their forth year project on a structure for a new viewpoint which was created during some recent habitat works. It was so exciting to see how their designs have progressed from our first discussions. 

 The priorities for the designs are that it is an interactive space for families to use, but could also be used to quietly view wildlife and also could be a sheltered meeting point for walks and for school groups.
They had some great ideas that will work really well. Love the rope screens to look through and the modular slottable screens. And the living willow wall.



My budget is somewhat frugal for the construction work so the idea is that some of our talented Lochwinnoch volunteers put the structure together so the students are thinking carefully about design and materials. We also have a lot of larch trees to come down on our Wood of Cree reserve in Dumfries and Galloway which will do really well for the in-the-round posts to hold the interchangeable screens. We’ll look at whether we can also use it for the timber for the structure too. 

Then, this afternoon, I received some photos from the reserve manger at Loch Lomond. Oyster Eco are refurbishing a trailer we were given by SNH, an exhibition trailer rather like those they’d try and recruit you to the army in on Buchannan street. It was a bit of a catch actually. And I’m pretty pleased I bagsied it for Loch Lomond before anyone else did.  

It’s going to be clad in timber and set in the new car park at the reserve. There will be a wee kitchen inside where volunteers and visitors can get a cup of coffee, and there will be interpretation about the reserve. However bagsying the trailer, getting it to the reserve and generally waving my arms about what we’d like it to be for is pretty much all I’ve done. (Apart from a bit of input on the interpretation for inside). But when I got sent the pictures I felt very proud. It feels like my baby despite me not putting in much of the work. Perhaps it’s what being a Dad feels like.

 

Then we’ve got a team of four Strathclyde architecture students working on another project at Loch Lomond. A look out point a very short walk from the new car park where people can sit and contemplate, picnic or play. And it will be the start of the new pathway we’re planning around the bluebell wood. It is nearing the end of the design stage and it will be built and in place by May to complement the wee visitor facility. Again, most of the actual work, apart from having the initial conversation and getting them involved, and giving them my ample opinion, has been done by Paula and the reserve team.

 

Then there are the artists in residence about to start at our Mersehead  reserve near Dumfries.

 I have two PhD students from the Scottish graduate school of the arts and humanities taking part in a funded internship project as part of their PhDs and will spend a month living in the volunteer accommodation at the reserve.  My colleague Fiona will also have an artist in residence  working between Glasgow and our Inversnaid reserve, a spectacular piece of western Atlantic woodland and mountain along the eastern shores of Loch Lomond 

At Meresehead we have Roseanne Watt, a poet and filmmaker with a special  interest in cultural history and peoples stories. Her PhD is based in Shetland , where she is from.
Catherine Weir is a digital artist especially interested in stars and unnatural light and landscapes. Studying for a PhD at Glasgow School of Art.
And in Inversnaid we have Luca Nascutti , a sound artist.  He has who created electronic sound prices incorporating natural sounds which he performs in specific places with dancers.

 

This project started as a conversation around a giant fire of pallets on a beach in Canna (see blog about the trip) where I had gone to see Hanna Tuulikki’s work ‘away with the birds’. It turned out most of the people there were artists themselves and that’s where I made contact with Dee Heddon, who was involved in the graduate programme at SGSAH. And yet again, I may have made the first contact, but again it was Fiona who did the work to set up the project.
I took ‘my’ artists to Mersehead for a recee in December. The weather was stunning and the reserve enchanting. I am ridiculously excited about what will come out of these collaborations, despite a certain level of rather dyed-in-the-wood scepticism from some of my colleagues.    

We had a meeting at the end of last week about what will emerge from the artist in residence programme and how to distribute and promote it. A germ of an idea formed. A pod with audio visual equipment to immerse you in another world, that we could transport from city center location to out of town shopping mall to leisure centre, inviting people in to view and to hear the artworks produces at our reserves, to bring the essence of RSPB nature reserves to people, where they are in our cities and to inspire them to visit or to pique their interest in finding out more.
So where will I get this pod from, that will need to go on the back of a small trailer, or fold down into something we can put in the back of  a van?

 

Well, in the absence of SNH getting rid of any more trailers, in the near future, I think I’m going to need to call, very nicely, on Strathclyde university again to lend me some of their very fine students for a project next year.

 

Dates for the diary: 

Loch Lomond Reserve visitor gateway open from mid April 2016

Sound Artwork performance by Luca Nascutti, Inversnaid,  September 2016

Exhibition by Cathrine Weir and Rosanne Watt, Mersehead October 2016

Day 3 – Going home

We packed up in a hurry, there were moths from the trap to be Identified, the thermal imaging equipment to be taken down from the hill, and our bags and bags of kit to be transported down to the pier.  We didn’t pour away the water we hadn’t used. Just in case we didn’t get picked up – the supply of freshwater is a shallow sink-sized reservoir half way up the hill, on a seepage line. And it’s a favourite haunt of the gulls who have adorned it with  poo and feathers. 

 

  

The weather had changed to perfect blue skies and gentle winds and we headed out to survey the nests on the bird cliffs.

As we circled the island the cliffs rose up covered with gannets. Birds were everywhere. Gannets hanging like saltires in the air twisted briefly and then dropped from the blue sky, hitting the surface of the sea like an torpedo. We saw an immature one, a dark cross folding to an arrow and then a line and I wondered what it feels like to dive out of the sky at 100 Kmph for the very first time.  

  

Small stacks beneath were crowded with guillemots, stock upright with white tummies and chocolate backs, like miniature penguins on an iceberg. Then suddenly they launched into the water all at once towards the boat rowing their wings like a frantic oarsman in an attempt to take off.  When a couple realized that they wouldn’t make it before the boat passed them, they dived suddenly into the smooth oily water.

All to soon it was all over and we were heading back to Girvan, and real work: computers, meeting rooms, and hundreds of emails. 

 

 

 

 

 

  Bye Ailsa.  See you next year. I hope.

 

Ailsa Craig – Morning Day 2

I’m perched on an angular boulder at the base of a scree slope, binoculars raised, scanning the cliffs above for a peregrine nest.  My shoulders are tensed uncomfortably and there’s a crick in my neck. The air is full of gannets and the cries of gulls.

 

I was just thinking that a deck chair would give me the optimum angle for this kind of work, when the female peregrine launches from the cliff-face into the clouds of soaring gannets beating short sharp wings and calling furiously.  

 

  

Round and round she flies until she nearly alights on the cliff, wheels round once more and settles on the highest tip of rock to survey us suspiciously.

 

The clouds surrounding the steep summit mean we cant climb the rock to survey the colony of gulls at the peak and so, this morning, we have walked along the shoreline – past gull chicks, heads thrust into clumps of ragwort or under rocks, furry bottoms peaking out, and piles of boulders containing hissing, snake-headed young shags.

 

 

From where we sit, under the gannet colony, the rock rises precipitously from sharp grey boulders. On every ledge a shining white gannet sits and, up at the cliff’s rim, hundreds of birds balancing on the wind sway, black wingtips almost touching each other, and the rock.

 

They hang on invisible wires gently swaying while we are buffeted by the fierce winds and struggle to keep our balance on the boulders.  Every now and again one dives down past us, heading out to sea and is gone.