The white-tailed sea eagle occupies a unique place in the history and prehistory of Orkney. It is the mythic bird, known as Onyo to the Orkney Norse, that fed carrion to ragged fledglings in heathery nests on the eponymous Enya’s Hill, in Rendall. It is the Pictish spirit bird from the Broch of Birsay, carved – complete with dense leg feathers extending down to the feet – on the perplexing, meticulous symbol stones. It is, most famously, the talisman bird of the Isbister chambered tomb in South Ronaldsay; the world-renowned Tomb of the Eagles.
It was with no small sense of expectation that we began to read, years ago, of the modest successes of the reintroduction programme in Mull. I don’t like melodrama, but it’s true that I have been waiting all my life to see a white-tailed eagle in my home islands.
When the moment finally arrives, at about three o clock on Saturday afternoon, it is not as I had expected. I’m driving my daughter home from her weekend job at Woodwick House, when we see an agitated mixed flock of hoodie crows, gulls, a whaup and a teeack. What are they mobbing? Well, yes, it is enormous, and flying low over my neighbour’s barn at Fursan: the bird which needs no identification.
Luk! It’s a sea eagle! I say.
Calm doon, Dad. It’s just a bird, she says.
And this is the undecorated truth: it is just a bird. Of course it is the size of a medium-sized car bonnet. But apart from the shock of its size, the creature seems relaxed, at home, unperturbed by its frantic flock of frightened followers. An ordinary bird, gaan aboot its business. Slouching a little, hounded, not too majestic, and with the broad, stubby sea-eagle tail. Covering about four metres to every wingbeat, it makes its way across the steeper fields to Moonlight, and beyond to the hill land.
So where does this leave the years of build up? It hasn’t been so much the Pictish spirit bird of the carvings. And it didn’t appear like my imagined Neolithic talisman, circling at dawn round bright sunshafts out over the North Sea, five miles east of the Isbister craigs. It turns out to be a familiar, hungry-looking bird. The kind of thing you might see crouched on your neighbour’s midden, mobbed by rooks and jackdaws, glaepan a ku’s cleanings. Less a mythic spirit of Scotland’s past than a domestic symbol of Scotland’s future.
What is it we love so much about creatures like this? Well, they connect us to other parts of Europe, reminding us that we are not at the end of any line. An orca can travel from Iceland to John O Groats, a walrus from Faroe to North Ronaldsay. A sea eagle that can soar over the Hordaland fjords can also fish in the Orkney soonds. So they remind us that we are at the centre of an interconnected northern ecological web. Our Scottish sea eagles cry out rebirth, renewal, revival. They are our triumph over the upper-class Victorian perversion for plundering nests, and shooting into oblivion anything that flew. They speak to us not of what Scotland was, but of what Scotland will be. And, for the record, I still do expect to watch a pair of magnificent Onyos soaring over Eynhallow in the dyes of the westering sun, in a not-too-distant future summer.