The Pioneers

Chris - low Chris 2 - low Newsletter - 2

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s first newsletter, dated April 1965, doesn’t look like much on my desk, just ten pages of typeface print on yellowing, moth-eared paper bound with a couple of rusty stables. Produced just one year after the Trust was incorporated, it is the fledgling charity’s first printed communication to just 400 hundred members.

Founder Sir Charles Connell opens the document with the words “On behalf of the Interim Council of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, I would like to thank all the individuals and groups who have helped us to make a start.” Reading on feels like peering through a telescope at a tantelising snapshot in time 50 years ago. Run on a shoestring from the office of the Scottish Centre for Ornithology and Bird Protection in Edinburgh, the only staff were Sir Charles Connell and a part time secretary.

But the long list of council members is testament to the huge voluntary effort that drove the organization forward from the start. Members cited include several professors, a General, prominent landowners, a museum curator, the presenter Tom Weir and representatives from the Forestry Commission and The Nature Conservancy (to become SNH). Sir Charles Connell must have had formidable powers of persuasion to tempt such a diverse interest group around the same table and stresses in the newsletter the importance of ‘the friendliest of contacts with like minded societies, institutions and individuals.”

Most of the newsletter is dedicated to efforts to set up branches around the country. Under ‘News of the Moment,’ an ‘active and enthusiastic group of members’ in the Borders leads the way, working with local naturalists and scientists to conduct an ecological survey in the Tweed Valley. There are no reserves, although plans are obviously afoot with a comment that “The Scottish Wildlife Trust, for example, could create or help in creating Nature Reserves without any statutory basis.”
Prophetic words indeed. Within a year of that first newsletter The Trust would acquire its first three reserves:  Enterkine Wood near Ayr, Hare and Dunhog Mosses south of Selkirk and Duns Castle with its loch and mature woodland in Berwickshire. The path was now set for the Scottish Wildlife Trust to focus its main efforts on establishing and managing wildlife reserves.

But this didn’t preclude engaging with wider conservation issues of the day. The early newsletters also grapple with wider concerns such as stubble burning, pesticide use, the cruel use of gin traps to control foxes and otters and the need for tighter marine regulations following the Torrey Canyon oil spill in 1967.

Reading through these newsletters was the staring point for my detective hunt for the early pioneers of Trust who could give me a flavor of the times. After 50 years the ranks have thinned with many, including Sir Charles Connell, sadly no longer with us. But I did manage to track down two early members of staff, Christopher Mylne and Lorraine Campbell.

By the time Christopher Mylne was employed as a part-time public relations officer by the Trust in 1966 he was already well known as a Scottish naturalist, ornithologist, film-maker and lecturer. He had made his name working for seven years at the RSPB’s new film unit where he produced eight wonderful nature films for the BBC including Return of the Osprey, Swallows at the Mill and Urchin of the Hedgerow. His films were so popular at the time that he filled every seat at the Royal Festival Hall thirteen times over.

I met Chris at Fiddlers Croft on the bank of Linlithgow Loch, spying grebes though a pair of field glasses. Birds, especially migratory birds, have been his passion since he first hunted for nests as a boy at Dalhousie Castle Preparatory School. Although now physically frail his enthusiasm is undimmed and he excitedly told me of the 34 different species of birds that he had counted at the same spot on the loch last spring. His flashing smile and laugh are as infectious as they must have been all those years ago when his slide shows and lectures for the Trust were a powerful tool for recruiting new members.

Chris spent much of his time with the Trust photographing and filming the new reserves. He remembered frequently disappearing for a week or two at time into the wilds in a VW campervan packed with provisions and equipment. A one-man band he devised, scripted, filmed and edited Scottish Wildlife Trust films such as ‘A Place for Wildlife’ himself. He even took charge of the narration, although both Magnus Magnusson and David Attenborough also feature in his films. 

Chris made a seminal contribution to shaping the public’s attitude towards the countryside and wildlife at a time when film was bringing the natural world into people’s living rooms. His films for the BBC have long been overtaken by bigger budgets and the digital revolution, but they will never match the charm of his solitary encounters with wild animals, including a remarkable peek at a Leach’s Storm Petrol on St Kilda.

A favorite moment in the St Kilda footage is when Chris drops a stone from the top of the towering Conachair, Britain’s highest sea cliff, and counts 12 long seconds before it hits the sea. St Kilda, and islands in general, have always been Chris’s first love. He once wrote of the magic of an island home: “The beauty of birds, the miracle of migration, the stars at night in black winter, the joy of a workable human community; and last, but not least, the companionship of a collie dog.”

In contrast to Chris’ fieldwork most of Lorraine Campbell’s memories are of working at The Trust’s HQ at Duke Street in Edinburgh, above Sir Charles Connell’s legal office. She remembers several long flights of stairs to a single room where she hung curtains from her home and brought her own typewriter. Here she worked as Assistant Secretary to Bernard Gilchrist from 1970 to 1983. Although ‘terribly badly paid’ she really enjoyed her time there and ‘met a lot of lovely people.’

Lorraine mainly worked on Marketing and Fundraising for the Trust. She produced the newsletters, writing stories, collecting illustrations and hand cutting the pages  down to size before taking them to the printers. She also remembers a big drive for new members with trips out to the Highland Show, armed with a collection tin, information boards and boundless enthusiasm.

It was often a hard sell to an indifferent public and she remembers one man explaining to his curious daughter that the Trust was dedicated to ‘saving parrots’! She has noticed that most people are now better informed and more sympathetic towards wildlife than back in the 1960s and 1970s and is convinced that “the Scottish Wildlife Trust has played a big part in all of this.”

The April 1965 newsletter is physical proof of what early pioneers like Chris and Lorraine helped build within the space of a single lifetime. From such humble beginnings the Scottish Wildlife Trust now has 35,000 members, over 120 reserves, around 100 staff and more than a thousand volunteers. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

SWT Magazine, March 2014

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