The Eagle's Last Stronghold

An exhibition opens at the Shetland Museum and Archives next week highlighting the story of the white-tailed ‘sea’ eagle in Shetland. Shetland was home to some of the last white-tailed sea eagles in Britain before they were hunted to extinction. The exhibition will open on 22nd June and will be a key part of the upcoming Shetland Nature Festival.

Albino Sea Eagle (Shetland), George Lodge, 1915

The White-tailed eagle is Britain’s largest bird of prey, they and can live for over 20 years and pair for life. White-tailed eagles prey on carrion, rabbits, fish and birds but have also been known to take lambs and hens. Dr. Ian Tait, Curator at Shetland Museum and Archives said, “It was for this reason that humans became the eagle’s deadly enemy. People climbed cliffs to raid the eggs, and guns and poison were used in an attempt to control this majestic raptor. Laws to protect the birds began in the late nineteenth century and Reverend Ernest Sorby was fined the equivalent of £1,500 today’s money for killing a bird in 1904 in Yell.”

Known as an ‘Ern’ in Shetland, the eagle is shrouded in folklore, myth and legend. ‘Ern’ is apparent in a number of local place-names such as ‘Ern Stack’ (Eagle Rock) and ‘Earnahoull’ (Eagle hill), places where eagles are known to have frequented. Legend tells of an eagle stealing the infant Mary Anderson in Unst and flying to Fetlar with her in 1693. Local lad Robert Nicolson is said to have climbed the cliffs and recovered the child whom he later married.

Dr. Tait continued, “The last White-tailed eagle in Britain was shot in Northmavine in 1918 and a painting of that eagle is a highlight of our exhibition. It is the first time this painting has been on display in Shetland and was painted by artist and conservationist George Lodge in 1914.”

In 1968 attempts were made by the Fair Isle bird observatory to re-introduce the eagle. Although the experiment did not work in Shetland, it paved the way for successful reintroductions in the Hebrides and they have now spread north as far as Orkney. The exhibition runs from 22nd June to 22nd September and is sponsored by the Shetland Bird Club. As part of Shetland Nature Festival Dr. Tait will be delivering a talk about the exhibition entitled ‘Shetland’s guilt in a national extinction’. The talk will take place on Monday 8th July at 7:30pm at the Museum and Archives and can be booked here. For more information see www.shetlandamenity.org/shetland-nature-festival.

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