The changing fortunes of Eagles in Hoy

The Sea eagles have successfully reared young in their Hoy eyrie again. The good news prompted us to hold an Eagle night at Hoy Heritage Centre. The following notes on eagles in Orkney gathered from various sources dot back and forth in time and gives us the story of the changing fortunes of eagles in Hoy. We have included references to the Golden eagle and the Sea eagle, or White-tailed eagle.

Image: Svolvær

Hoy as home

The recent incumbents are not the first to favour the ledges behind the Dwarfie Stone …..

In 1848 Robert Heddle, a son of Melsetter, and William Balfour Baikie, the African explorer, published part one of their Historia Naturalis Orcadensis.

In it they spoke of the Golden Eagle being ‘at present confined to Hoy where sometime ago they had two breeding places – The Snook, near Rackwick, and the Meadow of the Kame. Just now [in 1848] however, they are reduced to a single pair which breeds in the Hammers above the Dwarfie Stone’

As well as the Dwarfie Stone, eagles have favoured other famous spots in Hoy including the Old Man of Hoy:

From the Saturday Magazine Vol. 7, Supplement for August 1835 and unnamed author details his trip to Hoy….Before us, at an interval of a few yards, and probably detached from the coast by the action of the impetuous sea upon the soft red sand-stone, of which the rocks are here composed, appeared the noble column called the Old Man of Hoy, rising to the height of 12 or 1500 feet. Four fine eagles hovered over its summit, on which a pair build annually: and as we approached, they slowly towered aloft, barking or shrilly shrieking as they rose.

Eagle’s liking of famous Orkney sites extends to the Cathedral in Kirkwall where according to the late Victorian writer Richard Kearton they were twice seen having landed on the spire of St Magnus, and both times on Christmas day! 

(source: Richard Kearnon A Camera on St Kilda, Nature & a Camera 1897I & An Orkney Anthology Selected Works Ernest Marwick John D M Robertson1991)

Image: Chris Gomersall RSPB

They are Hoy celebrities now but they were once seen as criminals

In 1625 an Act of Bailiary was passed in Orkney stating that any person slaying an eagle was to get 8d from every household within the parish, with the exception of cottars with no sheep.

(source: Selected Works Ernest Marwick John D M Robertson1991)

In 1756 James Inkster raised a petition against the people of Orphir invoking the law, as quoted in the court papers here: 

‘That by the Countrey Act for Orkney the person who kills or destroys the rapacious or ravenous bird called the Eagle is justified to a hen out of every reek or house that smokes within the parish where such eagle is killed or destroyed.’

(Source:  Orkney Library & Archive SC11/5/35)

Rev Wallace in his 1693 Description of Orkney notes also that:

The Kings Falconer comes every year, and takes the young [falcons]..having twenty pounds sterling in salarie, and a hen or dog out of every house in the Countrey, except some houses that are priviledged.

Wallace notes that in late 17thC Orkney eagles were in plenty. However, he continues, in recent times only found in Hoy and Calf of Eday.

(Source: The Description of Orkney Rev Wallace 1693)


image: C. Hubbard From Orkney Library & Archive The eagle in the stereograph is believed to have been shot in Orkney and still on display at Museum of Natural History, Oxford.

By the 19thC they were desired again but demand for their eggs and skins brought their demise

In the 1830s Robert Dunn, a Hull taxidermist, established himself in Stromness. Styling himself ‘naturalist’, he offered convivial lodgings: ‘at reasonable rates for tourists and gentlemen collectors’ and as part of an inclusive ‘package deal’, lessons in skinning, shot and cartridges might be included. Dunn offered Golden Eagle eggs at 23 shillings and and a skin for 40 shillings. Sea eagles didn’t command such a high price, the skin of one costing just 4 shillings and 6 pence.

(Source:  Natural History of Orkney R J Berry 1985 / Birds and mammals of Orkney William Groundwater 1974)

In a letter dated 1840 it states that in the previous year there were four eagles’ nests in Hoy (two Golden eagles nests and two Sea eagle nests), and that every one was robbed. The following year the letter writer states: the Hoy men only took one egg of the Sea eagle, the Golden eagles having shifted their quarters and built their nests where they could not be got at

(Source:  Correspondence between EF Sheppard and T C Heysham quoted in A Vertebrae Fauna of the Orkney Islands T E Buckley 1891)

In 1844 Robert Dunn writes to a collector that he knows of only one pair of Golden eagles that breed in Hoy.

(Source:  A Vertebrae Fauna of the Orkney Islands T E Buckley 1891)

In the British Museum there are two Sea eagle egg clutches from Hoy, one taken in 1853 and the other in 1877. 

(Source: Birds and mammals of Orkney William Groundwater 1974)

Of the state of the Sea eagle by mid 19thC , Baikie and Heddle say: Much injury has been done by large sums being offered by strangers for their eggs, which has occasioned the destruction of many nests: and but for that the present proprietor [in Hoy] protects the birds very carefully, the species would soon be extinct in Orkney.

(Source: Historia naturalis Orcadensis W B Baikie & Robert Heddle 1884)

When Hoy came into the possession of Robert Heddle’s father in 1843 he discouraged the taking of eagle’s eggs, though evidently there were still being taken and sold.  It is said that egg collectors would pass off the Sea eagles eggs as the more valuable Golden eagle eggs.

(Source:  A Vertebrae Fauna of the Orkney Islands T E Buckley 1891

Dunn the egg and skin seller of Stromness writes later that no Golden Eagles had bred in Hoy for a number of years, and that the only recent specimen procured there was one shot in 1857, and supposed at the time to be one of the only pair that had many years previously bred near Rackwick.  

Of the Sea eagles he says: Only one pair have nested in Hoy for several years back; they are supposed to be very old birds, and unproductive. In 1865 their nest was got at, but found to be empty, and, in the following year, their nest in another part of the cliff was also reached, but found to contain one egg, and that an addled one.

(Source:  A Vertebrae Fauna of the Orkney Islands T E Buckley 1891)

Image: Klaus Lechten

Eagles as house guests

General Burrough kept a stuffed eagle at Trumland House in Rousay, but some of the gentry preferred them as ‘pets’. Could Mr Salmon’s entry in his diary for June 2nd 1831 be referring to an eagle living in captivity in Stromness: 

Went over to the island of Hoy. We were informed by a man who has taken their nests for several years past that both [the Golden and the Sea eagle] lay from two to three eggs. He had taken three eaglets from the nest of the Golden Eagle this summer, and one of them is now living at Stromness. 

(Source:  A Vertebrae Fauna of the Orkney Islands T E Buckley 1891)

A white-tailed eagle captured in Caithness, died at Duff House in February, 1862, having been kept in confinement, by the late Earl of Fife, for thirty-two years.

(Source:  The Ornithology of Shakespeare James Edmund Harting 2013)

TE Buckley in his 1891 book The Vertebrae Fauna of Orkney tells us:

‘A pair which were kept tame in Hoy once began to build a nest in their cage, but some one stupidly took the sticks away when cleaning the cage, and they never tried again. Before that time the two birds lived peaceably together, but after that they began to fight, and a few years after the hen killed the cock. This was likely at Melsetter, as a later reference has Mr Moodie-Heddle of Hoy stating that his father and grandfather used to keep a pair tame.

(Source:  A Vertebrae Fauna of the Orkney Islands T E Buckley 1891)

A fight to the near death provided more eagle trophies for gentry. A pair of Sea eagles were observed in Hoy fighting in the air, and were seen to fall dead, or nearly so, by a keeper who picked them up.  They were stuffed. It is noted that in 1888, when that account was given, the man who found them was living in Stromness.

(Source:  A Vertebrae Fauna of the Orkney Islands T E Buckley 1891)

Read about Baby-snatching eagles here.