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Naturalists & Doctors: Successful Shetland Combination

by Alastair Hamilton -

If you’re a medical professional with an interest in wildlife, a move to Shetland would be entirely in keeping with a longstanding island tradition.

The combination of these interests in the islands goes back centuries. The foundations lie in the Edmondston family, the first of whom, Andrew Edmondston or Edmestoun (1559-1632), was a minister.

Andrew’s great-great-great grandson was Dr Laurence Edmondston (1740-1814), who trained as a surgeon in Edinburgh; but it was in the next generation that the family’s association with both medicine and natural history really began. His marriage to Mally Sanderson produced eight children.

Their first son, Arthur Edmondston (1775-1841), also trained as a surgeon but his interests were extraordinarily wide-ranging, engaging in campaigns and discussion on all manner of topics and publishing A View of the Ancient and Present State of Shetland (1809), a major contribution to knowledge of the islands. In the extract below, he writes lyrically about what we call the 'simmer dim', the twilight around midsummer when the sun sinks just below the northern horizon.

Arthur was a colourful character: despite, in 1818, being made the Senior Baillie or Chief Magistrate, he fell foul of the law and became embroiled in many legal disputes. At one point, he was sued for libel by the Procurator Fiscal. However, for present purposes, the important point is that his interests extended to natural history. He added around 20 birds to the list of Shetland species and wrote scientific papers about them. He also planted many trees, particularly at Helendale in Lerwick.

Thomas Edmondston (1779-1858) was the next brother to display an interest in nature, though he was a landowner – inheriting the Buness estate in the northernmost island of Unst – and trader in fish and chromite, rather than a doctor. He followed scientific developments and welcomed a string of academic visitors, including the geologist, Samuel Hibbert, and a French physics professor, Jean Baptiste Biot, who came to Shetland to measure the curvature of the Earth.

But it was in the interest and aptitude of Thomas’ younger brother, Laurence, that the doctor-naturalist theme emerges strongly. Laurence (1795-1879) was 14 years younger than Thomas and looked to him for guidance and support in many matters; Thomas was in due course to build a house for him, at Halligarth in Unst, and supported him financially. Laurence built on Thomas’ knowledge of wildlife and began to study birds, recognising that the Iceland and Glaucous Gull were different species and proving that immature birds, such as young razorbills, were just that, and not a different species altogether, as was popularly believed at that time.

Studying medicine in Edinburgh, the young Laurence also immersed himself in geology, zoology and botany and met several famous naturalists and scientists of the day, including the American bird artist, John James Audobon, and Charles Darwin, with whom there was later to be correspondence about the evolution of species; the Shetland wren, for example, is a recognised sub-species. He published many papers and took took steps to protect the threatened population of Great Skuas (Bonxies) on what is now the National Nature Reserve at Hermaness, for which he won the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society.

the young Laurence...met several famous naturalists and scientists of the day, including the American bird artist, John James Audobon, and Charles Darwin

In order to provide cover for a wider range of bird species, Laurence created a walled tree plantation adjacent to the house at Halligarth and it remains the northernmost tree plantation in the British Isles. According to a description written by two of his children, Biot and Jessie, the grounds and garden were something of a menagerie, populated by all kinds of animals and birds including an otter, two seals and, among many other birds, a Snowy Owl. There are plans to restore the house, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, which also owns several other areas of land in Unst and its southern neighbour, Yell. As well as telling the remarkable family story, it’s envisaged as a hub for natural history in Unst and, more widely, Shetland.

For the eight (of ten) children of Laurence and his wife, Eliza McBrair, who survived into adulthood, It must have been an extraordinary place in which to grow up. As well as their exposure to Laurence’s endeavours, they continued to benefit from encounters with the remarkable visitors who came to Unst, ranging from an early member of the Pre-Raphaelites to a nephew of Napoleon.

It was no surprise that one of the children, Tom, chose to pursue natural history. He was an extraordinarily gifted boy; mastering the alphabet before he was two, he was reading well by the time he was four. He studied botany from the age of nine and at the age of 11, identified a plant (the Shetland mouse-ear, also known as Edmondston’s chickweed), that grows only on two sites in Unst, one of them the Keen of Hamar.

Like his father, grandfather and uncle, Tom began to study medicine at Edinburgh, but switched to a course in natural history at Aberdeen. He became a professor at Glasgow at the age of 19, but had hardly begun work there when he was invited to join a British expedition to the Pacific, including the Galapagos. Tragically, he was to lose his life on the coast of Ecuador when a gun was accidentally discharged.

But that wasn’t the end of the family’s commitment to medicine and natural history; it continued into the following two generations. Jessie Edmondston, a younger sister of Tom, married a doctor, Henry Saxby, and the couple lived in Unst from 1860 until 1871, when, because of Henry’s failing health, they moved first to Edinburgh and then to Argyll. Henry had begun work on a survey of Shetland’s birds and, after he died in 1874, it was published later that year as The Birds of Shetland, the result of collaboration between Jessie, her brother-in-law Stephen Saxby and the Duke of Argyll.

As the extract below indicates, the ornithologists of the time frequently shot – and in this case, captured – birds so that they could be studied.

Jessie, left alone with her five young sons, was to forge a career as an Edinburgh-based writer, producing hundreds of articles and many books. She also became active in liberal and feminist campaigns before eventually moving back to live in Unst until her death in 1940.

The last link in this remarkably long chain of Edmondston and Saxby doctor-naturalists was forged by Dr Thomas Edmondston Saxby (1869-1952), one of Jessie and Henry’s sons. He had been living in London, but moved north with his wife to become the doctor in Unst. Thomas’ interest was birds and he was to publish scientific papers and add new records to his father’s book. He was also a meteorologist, keeping records for the Meteorological Office. For his medical work in the service of Swedish fishermen, he received one of that country’s greatest honours, Knight First Class of the Royal Order of Vasa; he was also awarded the OBE.

The story of the Edmondstons and Saxbys is a remarkable one and this blog can do no more than touch on it. For a much fuller, richly-detailed and beautifully-written account, I strongly recommend the history of the families, Victorians 60° North, by J Laughton Johnson and published by the Shetland Times Ltd in 2007. It is a wonderful read. The other principal source for this article is The Home of a Naturalist (1889), written by Biot Edmondston and Jessie Saxby, which offers a loving and colourful account of their father’s vocation.

It is a wonderful read.

The link between medicine and natural history has endured. For example, Dr D Malcolm, a general practitioner who worked, prior to his retirement, in the village of Scalloway, compiled Shetland’s Wild Flowers – A Photographic Guide (published by The Shetland Times, Lerwick). Dr Brian Marshall MBE, who served as doctor for 38 years in Whalsay, has made many contributions to Shetland ornithology.

NHS Shetland is keen to recruit staff in many disciplines and, if you’ve an interest in any aspect of natural history, the islands are as compelling now as they have been for previous generations. For birders, the list of rarities is a magnet, but there is a wealth of opportunities for those interested in studying botany or our sea creatures: otters, whales, porpoises and, if you go diving, a rich fauna in the kelp forest.

The opportunity is here to develop your professional career while pursuing your interest and enhancing our understanding of the islands’ environment. Our monthly newsletter highlights vacancies available with NHS Shetland; you can view the current openings here. If you're interested in a GP post, they'll be interested to hear from you, even when no specific post is advertised.

If you make the move north, you'll be following in some remarkable footsteps!

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