Avian abductions - fact or fiction?

I have heard lots of rumours lately of eagles having been spotted in Orkney. How exciting! The sea-eagle, or erne as eagles are also called, has been a rare sight for a century now. In William Groundwater’s book Birds and Mammals of Orkney, we can read that the erne was widespread in the British Isles up until the mid-nineteenth century. But its alleged habit of carrying off lambs and hens made it unpopular, so people hunted it and stole its eggs. According to William Groundwater’s book, a Kirkwall Act from 1626 even says that all sheep owners in the parish should pay a reward to anyone who has successfully killed an eagle or robbed its eggs. The last pair of ernes to have bred in Orkney was observed in Hoy in 1873. Shetland has a similar story. According to Bobby Tulloch’s A Guide to Shetland’s Breeding Birds, “the last pair of ernes to nest in Shetland had their eyrie at the Neaps of Graveland (Yell) in 1910. The eggs were robbed by a clergyman from England.” The erne was similarly persecuted all over Britain, and the last British nest was in Skye in 1916, according to William Groundwater. Since 1968 there have been attempts to reintroduce sea-eagles to Scotland from Norway. These were not successful at first, but the government along with the RSPB kept trying, and the erne has now been successfully re-introduced in some parts of Scotland. A suggestion to re-introduce ernes to England, however, was put on hold this week.

In Norway, however, I have often observed sea-eagles, for at my parents’ croft on the island of Stamnesøya we have an eagle family for neighbours. They nest high up on the dark cliffs, and we see them circling in the air, looking for fish in the sea far, far below. Down at the Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall we have not seen as much as a feather, though. However, all this talk about eagles got me interested in some of the stories that are told about these majestic, but somewhat frightening birds. One of these stories I heard from my friend Neil Leask, who is a great collector of tales and folk memories. He, in turn, had heard it from his great aunt Jeannie Nicolson from Hoy, who was born in 1900. This is the story in her words:

“It was in Orphir, in the harvest time, and they had a bairn lying rolled in a shawl in a stook of sheaves. And they thought it was safe in the time they were working. And then they noticed this eagle had come over and picked it up in the shawl and carried it right across Scapa Flow and right over to Hoy, to the Bring. And he had gaen up in the Bring wae it, and laid it in his nest. And I don’t ken if he had haen young ones or what, but he had left it lying and had gaen away! And the men gaed over and they got it safe and they got doon the Bring again. They had an awful job! Yes, climbing up and it was still rolled in the shawl. And the bairn wasnae really hurt wae it. It was fine! He had never touched it! They got doon safely and got doon wae it and got home. And it was none the worse. Back to Orphir then.”

This story may go back to c.1825 or perhaps even earlier, as, according to Neil, his great aunt’s grandmother had heard it from her mother. And who knows who she had heard it from.

A similar story from Norway is of newer date. From the 5th of June 1932, at 4 pm, to be precise. It happened on the little island of Leka, where a 3-year-old girl named Svanhild and her family were visiting on the occasion of a christening. After dinner, her parents had gone to have a rest, while Svanhild was playing outside. Suddenly, somebody noticed that the little girl was missing. She was nowhere to be seen. A search-party went out for her, and as the evening progressed, the whole island heard the news, and 200 people joined in the search. Her handkerchief and her shoe were found, but no sign of the girl. People noticed, though, that some eagles were behaving strangely, but they thought it was because 200 people were shouting and searching. The eagle nest was high up on a mountain called Hagafjellet. In the end, three men decided that they would climb up and check the nest. And there Svanhild was found, high up on a mountain ledge below the nest, sleeping and unhurt. Svanhild Hartvigsen is still alive today, but has no recollection of what happened. Since 1932, there has been much speculation over whether she was really lifted there by an eagle, or if she had climbed up by herself. The believers say that it is impossible for a 3-year-old to walk that far and climb that high, while the sceptics say that an eagle can’t possibly lift the weight of a 3-year-old child. The doubt over whether the story is true did not, however, stop Leka island council in 1989 from choosing an eagle’s claw and wing as their coat of arms! The story remains popular; it has been turned into a book and a film, and is now an important part of the island’s identity.

Another eagle story from Norway is that of Skjeggedalsfuglen. This story is said to have happened in 1847, in the little community of Skjeggedal, where a baby boy was lying wrapped in a blanket while his parents were busy with the harvest. Two little girls were looking after the baby, when his parents suddenly heard them screaming in fear. A great eagle had swooped down and grabbed the baby! Before the parents could do anything, the eagle was high up in the sky. A big search party from Skjeggedal and the neighbouring parishes went out to look for the boy. In this story, however, the child was never found. But the story has a strange twist. The baby’s mother was pregnant again when this happened, and a few months later, when she was nearly due, her husband suddenly spotted the eagle. He had his rifle with him and shot it, and it fell to the ground. Still alive, but wounded, the eagle was taken into the house, where his wife was. The sight gave her such a shock that when her baby was born, he had the look of a bird. As a grown-up, he had next to no chin, and a big, beaky nose. His name was Daniel Skjeggedal, but local people called him Skjeggedalsfuglen - the bird of Skjeggedal. He had two talents, and that was rowing and singing, so he used to row tourists on the loch Ringedalsvatnet and sing to them. He died in 1907.

There is also a story from Unst, Shetland, which is meant to have happened in 1680, recorded in the Shetland Folk Book, volume IV. The baby girl in this story was Mary Anderson from North Unst. She was lifted up “from the gorstie of a rig” and taken to the eagle’s eyrie in Fetlar, at a place called The Sail. When the rescue party arrived, a young boy called Robert Nicolson volunteered to climb down to the nest. When he got there, he saw that two large baby eagles were sitting at either side of Mary with their beaks tucked in her shawl – all three of them fast asleep! When he had climbed safely back with her, one of the men said teasingly to him: ”Du’ll mebby get her fur dee wife yet!” And many years later, that is what happened. There are still folk in Fetlar who are descended from them.

There are several pubs in England called The Eagle and Child. One of them is in Oxford, where the writers group called The Inklings, which included J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, used to meet. An eagle story from England is that of Sir Thomas Lathom, who needed a male heir to his estate. While he and his wife were out walking in Tarlescough Woods, they heard a baby crying. They found a baby boy in beautiful clothes in the grass below an eagle’s nest. They took the baby home and brought him up as their own, naming him Oskatel. The skeptic’s version of this story is that Sir Thomas had a secret lover, and that the boy was really his and hers. Placing him below the eagle’s nest was a clever plan of Sir Thomas’s, which allowed him to introduce the baby to his wife without the fear of jealousy against his lover.

Whether or not you want to believe in these stories, is up to you. One who clearly didn’t believe was Henry Saxby, who wrote the following story in his book The Birds of Shetland (1874): “As an instance of how such tales are fostered and spread abroad, I may mention that a friend of my own once pointed out to me what he doubtless believed to be an eagle sailing ashore with outspread wings upon the back of a halibut; my humble suggestion that the bird was a cormorant standing drying its wings upon a nearly submerged skerry was, I fear, received with contempt, and I afterwards heard my friend bring forward the above proof of the theory to some ornithological guests. While upon the subject of aquiline tradition, it may be added that every eagle’s nest in Orkney and Shetland is pointed out as the nest to which the world-renowned baby was carried in days of yore.” On the Internet, I have seen accounts of the same story from as far afield as France, Mexico and the USA. So it might not just be birds that migrate, but legends too.

I hope the sea-eagles can get properly established in Orkney and Shetland again. In 1836, the naturalist William McGillivray recorded sea-eagles nesting in Hoy at the White Breast, Hammers and the Old Man of Hoy, and also in South Ronaldsay and Costa Head. If the eagle population grows again, we’ll just have to look after our babies – or fit them with eagle alarms or something – while we enjoy the sight of these beautiful birds. In the meantime, we can go and hear more about William McGillivray and his discoveries in the third of our “Nordic Seminars” at Orkney College on Thursday the 24th of June at 7.30.


Mimir's Well 17th June 2010