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Wilson’s Ornithology and Burds in Scots

A Review on the Times Literary Supplement, March 13th

Name four eminent Scots who emigrated to America in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and found fame. Andrew Carnegie, of course. Alexander Graham Bell and John Muir are two others. For a fourth, we propose Alexander Wilson, the ornithologist, poet and artist who left Paisley for Philadelphia in 1794 and never returned.

Wilson’s renown as a portrait painter of birds does not match that of John James Audubon, but his studies were made with skill and love for his subjects. Now Hamish MacDonald has brought together a selection in an attractive book published by Scotland Street Press in Edinburgh. The poems are in Scots and the birds are American, many of them unrecognizable to the average Pentlands or Chilterns birder.

A bridge between Wilson’s native and adopted lands is the crossbill. One of its subspecies is the chunky Scottish crossbill, which is said to be the only endemic bird species in Britain (found nowhere else in the world). It resembles the American crossbill, seen here on the left. Next to our rusty friend is the white-winged crossbill and, perched below, the white-crowned bunting.

As an accompanying poem, Mr MacDonald offers three crossbill stanzas, all beginning with a variation on the line “The crossbill is a brawlike bird”. Other Scots objects of praise in Wilson’s Ornithology & Burds in Scots include the corbie (crow), the brongie (cormorant), peewhit (lapwing) and the mavis (song thrush). It is available from Scotland Street at £9.99.

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