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Wolf’s Tale - The history of the wolf in Scotland

From inter-glacial times (roughly 50,000 years ago), before the complete formation of the seas that now separate Scotland and the rest of Britain from the European continent, until the beginning or even the middle of the 18th century, wolves were part of the natural wild fauna of what is now called Scotland.

As the glaciers of the last Ice Age retreated (about 10,000 - 12,000 years ago), wolf packs followed the great herds of grazing animals pushing northwards and westwards and again colonised most parts of what was to become the British Isles. In modern Scotland wolf bones have been found, together with those of reindeer, northern lynx, brown bear and arctic fox at the Creag nan Uamh caves in Inchnadamph National Nature Reserve in Sutherland, and on Crossflat at Muirkirk in Ayrshire. At the latter site, near the upper reaches of the River Ayr, the lower jaw of a wolf was discovered along with the remains of red deer and aurochs, the giant wild ox that inhabited Scotland into Mesolithic times (approximately 5,500 - 8,000 years ago) and probably even later. From these and other remains it seems likely that the Scottish wolf, referred to in the beautiful Gaelic poem quoted above, was similar in size and form to wolves living in Europe today.

Skeletal remains of wolf that date from historic times, however, are hard to separate from those of the very large hunting dogs which were legendary in Iron Age Britain. All dogs are now considered to be descended from the wolf, and although the split between wolves and domestic dogs occurred far back in time, certainly before the Mesolithic period, dogs and wolves can interbreed and produce viable offspring to this day. The osteological differences between wolves and wolf-like dogs are mainly in the skull and teeth, and positive identification of remains of large canids from historic times as those of wolf depends on the presence of these parts.

Evidence of a different kind exists, however, in the form of a 6th century Pictish carving of a wolf discovered at Ardross in Ross and Cromarty, the original of which is on display in the Natural History Section of the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. This striking image clearly illustrates several points of difference between wolves and dogs, including the long jaw, straight back, large feet and the distinctive set of the tail. As well as being biologically accurate the carving is of great artistic merit, full of grace, stealth and power.

The written record of the wolf in Scotland is inseparable from the history of its relationship with Man. In cultures that continued to practice a hunter-gatherer way of life into recent times, the wolf was respected as a fellow-hunter and revered as a creature of powerful magical and spiritual properties. The change from a hunter-gatherer life style to farming during the Neolithic (approximately 2,000 - 5,000 years ago), though the two systems continued to operate side by side to some extent, radically altered the way in which people used the environment. It appears that it also drastically changed the relationship between wolves and humans, as destruction of wolf habitat gave rise to a displaced population of wolves, and shortage of wild prey caused them to become a serious nuisance to stock farmers.

The earliest record of this conflict between wolves and the people who lived in what is now modern Scotland comes from the 2nd century BC. According to Hector Boece, a king called Dorvadilla reigning at that time decreed:

The slayer of ane wolf to have ane ox to his reward.”

Boece goes on to remark that:

Oure elders persewit this beist with gret hatreut, for the gret murdir of beistis done be the samin “.

Boece also mentions a Scottish contemporary of Julius Caesar called Edeir as a great hunter of wolves, and Boece's translator, Bellenden, tells us that in the forests of Caledonia there were:

"Gret plente of haris, hartis, hindis, dayis, rais, wolffis, wild hors, and toadis (fox),"

He later describes the "wolffis" as being "rycht noysum to the tame bestiall in all parts of Scotland."

There are also references to wolf predation on people, and whilst these are not necessarily reliable it seems that the history of the wolf in Scotland, as in some parts of Europe, was different from that of the same animal in the New World. Living in much closer association with people, it may have lost much of its natural fear of humans and also been made unnaturally bold by its desperate situation, as an expanding human population made increased inroads into wolf habitat and decreased supplies of its natural food.

Wars, leaving numbers of blood soaked corpses littering a battlefield, may also have been responsible for some wolves becoming accustomed to consuming human flesh. The Orkneyinga Saga tells the story of the Battle of Waterfirth, fought in the 11th century between the islanders of Skye and the invading Norse. Arnor, the Earl's Skald, describes the aftermath of the battle:


There I saw the grey wolf gaping
O'er the wounded corse of many a man.

The tendency of wolves to dig up buried corpses is well documented, and it was possibly this habit that made it especially feared and hated at the height of the Christian era in Scotland and elsewhere, being perceived as a personification of the Devil, desecrating consecrated ground and devouring human souls. From Ederachillis in north west Sutherland comes a tradition that the dead had to be buried on the island of Handa to preserve them from being disinterred by wolves. The poet John Webster, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote:

Send for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o'er shady ground they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
But keep the wolf far hence that’s foe to man,
For with his nails he’ll dig them up again.

The fine mounted specimen of a wolf (which, incidentally, died a natural death) on display in the Natural History Section of the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery is realistically posed in the act of attempting to dig up a Bronze Age cist containing human remains.

Throughout the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries wolf persecution continued relentlessly. In the reign of James 1st of Scotland an Act was passed for the destruction of wolves in that kingdom. The wolf hunts were to be conducted three times a year, between St. Mark's Day (April 25th) and Lammas (August 1st) for, as the Act states, “that is the time of their quhelpes. (whelps or puppies).

In the mid 15th century Lady Margaret Lyon, described as a "stout, bold woman, a great huntress," is said to have purged Mount Caplach (part of the range running parallel to the Beauly Firth) of wolves.

A wolf hunt in the mid 16th century during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, killed 5 wolves along with 360 deer. By all accounts, however, this persecution had little effect on the general wolf population, although local populations may have been temporarily wiped out. The destruction of Scotland's great natural forest resource, not hunting, was what finally brought the wolf to the brink of extinction.

During James V's time large tracts of Scotland were covered in forests of pine, birch, oak and other tree species. According to James Edward Harting, large parts of Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Perthshire, Argyleshire, Morayshire, Nairnshire, Ardgour and Rannoch Moor were all heavily wooded at that time. These dense forests provided a refuge for wolves from which it was extremely difficult to hunt them out, and it was not until the onset of large scale felling and burning of Scotland's native woodlands that the wolf began to feel the cold wind of impending extinction.

These hills and glens and wooded wilds can tell
How many wolves and boars and deer then fell.

Campbell's lines from his "Grampians Desolate" refer to the destruction of large tracts of forest at the close of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century. According to some records many woods were burned specifically for the clearance of wolves. Heavy logging for the ship-building and other industries further reduced the once diverse and productive natural forests of Scotland until they were reduced to the handful of fragments that remain today in a few remote north western glens, on upper Deeside and in the vicinity of the Cairngorms. Hunting records show that wolves continued to be regularly hunted and killed during the 17th century, and with their refuge and natural prey resource almost gone they were unable to make good their losses.

In his History of British Mammals (1999) Derek Yaldon gives the probable date of the final extinction of the wolf in Scotland as around the end of the 17th century. However, tradition has handed down a number of stories associated with the hunting out of the last fugitive animals, and these extend this date into the middle of the 18th century. Although none can be verified, and confusion with rogue dogs cannot be ruled out, it seems not impossible that in some of the wilder stretches of country that exist to this day a wolf or two might have survived after the species as a whole was fast passing into folk memory.

"Every district," says Sobieski Stuart in his Lays of the Deer Forest; "has its ‘last wolf’.” Among these accounts is a striking tale from the east coast of Sutherland.

A man named Polson from Wester Helmsdale and two lads tracked a wolf to its den in a mountain gully in Glen Loth. The two lads squeezed through the narrow entrance while Polson kept watch outside. The story goes that as the lads were killing the cubs they found inside the den, the mother wolf appeared and dashed past Polson to go to the rescue of her young. He managed to catch her by the tail and held her back, with her body blocking the den mouth. One of the lads, his son, cried out in Gaelic,

Father, what is keeping the light from us?”
“If the root of the tail breaks,” said he, “you will soon know that.

The wolf s tail held, and Polson killed her with his hunting knife.

The wolf traditionally cited as the last in all of Scotland, however, is said to have been killed on the upper reaches of the River Findhorn, at a place between Fi-Giuthas and Pall-a-chrocain, in the year 1743.

According to this story a "black beast", thought to be a wolf, had attacked a woman and two children as they crossed the hills from Calder. The adjective "black" does not necessarily refer to the colour of the animal, as it was often used as a derogatory term in Gaelic. It seems that the beast had been displaced by a forest fire on the banks of the River Dulnain, and had travelled north to the narrow valley of the upper Findhorn. The Laird of Maclntosh arranged a "Tainchel" or gathering, to which all the hunters in the district were summoned, to attempt to drive the wolf from hiding and kill it. A well-known hunter of great reknown called MacQueen was ordered to attend, with his hunting dogs. MacQueen asked questions about the place of the alleged attack and sightings of the wolf, and promised to join the hunt.

On the day chosen Maclntosh and all the hunting men of the district gathered promptly - except for MacQueen, who was conspicuous by his absence. Time passed, and the Laird's temper grew short. At last MacQueen made a casual entrance with his dogs at heel, to be upbraided for his lateness in no uncertain terms by a scowling Maclntosh.

Ciod e a chabhag?” “What was the hurry?” came the nonchalant response.

This was greeted with general uproar and a furious outburst from the Laird. MacQueen then lifted his plaid and drew forth the bloody head of the wolf, which he tossed at the Laird's feet, saying, “Sin e dhuibh!” “There it is for you!

Duly impressed, the Laird praised MacQueen and rewarded him with a gift of the lands of Sean-achan, to grow crops to provide meal for himself and his dogs for all time to come. So died, according to tradition, the last wolf of Scotland, and the species passed into extinction.

This article was written by Janice Short, former Wolves and Humans trustee and Scottish representative, who passed away in August 2006, and is much missed.

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