The Island of Rum on the west coast of Scotland held a spell over me from the very first time I saw it. We entered Loch Scresort on the Arkaig and blew the horn for the Rhouma, a small ferry boat to meet us in the bay.
I would spend a year on and off working on the film titled Red Deer of Rum, a similar idea to the Ythan film but with researchers studying deer. I gazed up at the mountains towering over us. Rum seemed to have its own micro-climate with the top of Askival obscured with a brooding leaden cloud as if mulling over a dark past.
Ian the Rhouma ferryman helped with the boxes essential supplies and the camera equipment. The pier was dilapidated and basic with no roll on roll off capability. The only communication with the outside world was a dodgy shared line from a telephone box that hadn't been decimalised standing near the pier. It felt very remote.
The Landrover trip from Kinloch to the study area at Kilmory in the north took a bone-jarring thirty minutes but it was worth it just to see the spectacular Cuillins of Skye.
Athletes aside, most people never find themselves in a situation where they are physically and mentally stretched to breaking point. There are adventure training schools that are absolutely excellent at revealing hidden depths people don't realise they have. I'd never done the course but there are times when I wish I had.
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten... rest. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten...walk."
I was heading back to the bothy carrying my camera equipment, of course. There was a ferocious gale blowing from the west hitting me full in the face and I was literally pacing myself.
"…one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten…"
Every step was an effort and I counted each one, longing for the tenth as I walked and dreading the tenth as I waited to get my breath back. I was on a plateau of open moorland returning from Shanhnan insir, a spectacular bay to the East of Kilmory where the remnants of crofts testified to the cruel clearances of the 19th century.
The light was going down and the head wind drove horizontal rain stinging my eyes. It was early November and the peak of the Red Deer rut had passed leaving many deep stag wallowing pools worth avoiding, but hard to see. I was absolutely exhausted.
The path was getting less obvious but I had to try and stay on it. My physical and mental stamina was running low when I reached the end of the plateau and dropping down into Kilmory glen, I sat down in the long wet grass out of the wind completely done but relieved. I looked across the glen to the bothy on the far side where tiny white wisps of smoke from the chimney were whipped away by the wind but blocking my path right on the track, was a stag with a large group of hinds called a harem.
I toyed with the idea of pushing this group away but I couldn't do it, in any case I could have been charged by the twelve pointer. I sat there soaked to the skin for about five minutes hoping they would move but they were enjoying the lee of the wind as I was.
I stood up with my load that had turned into lumps of molten lead and made a tortuous detour off the path slowly circumventing them. Eventually I arrived at the bottom of the glen, crossed the stream then climbed up to the bothy utterly spent but at the same time strangely elated. Rum's weather had thrown everything at me, testing my physical and mental toughness and I won.
I wearily laid my rucksack down inside one of a line of small wooden cabins that consisted of a bed and a desk, unpacked my camera equipment and walked to the bothy. I was greeted by cooking smells and heat from the Rayburn stove as I entered. It was full of students sitting round a large wooden dining table.
In the heat of debate between them and Dr Tim Clutton-Brock on the costs and benefits of being a Red Deer hind, my arrival went unnoticed. At any rate I didn't know anybody well enough to share my energy sapping experience with. The Cambridge University project had been going for a number of years yielding valuable data about generations of animals. That night was my introduction into the science of animal behaviour and it was fascinating.
"How does reciprocal altruism square with the selfish gene," said Tim looking around the room for an answer.
Dr Richard Dawkins had just published a groundbreaking book on evolution called the Selfish Gene. Evolutionary stable strategies, memetics, group selection, most of it was way over my head. They argued all through the meal until I gave up listening and went to bed.
Fiona Guinness spent a large part of her life dedicated to studying deer on Rum. During calving she was very concerned about disturbance from people landing on a sensitive part of the coastline and put up a sign asking them not to land and picnic near there. One day she was washing dishes in the sink next to an open window when there was a tap on the glass, she looked up to see Queen Elizabeth who had walked all the way from this bay. She had come from the Royal Yacht Britannia and was anxious not to disturb the deer and would it be alright for her to have a picnic there?
Fiona, Tim Clutton-Brock, Steve Albon and Marion Hall and many others discovered some amazing deer behaviour. Hinds can delay sperm implantation depending on their well-being, they can also choose the moment to give birth. There was a pregnant hind due to calve in a large enclosure near Kinloch on the West of the island.
Myself and Marion, who was working on her PhD, waited for hours with no luck so we backed off. The hind was used to Marion so I decided to give her a radio mic and left her sitting quietly on her own. Within minutes she was whispering that the hind had started so I raced over just in time to film the birth. Even though it was still morning we had a celebratory drink.
The group had data proving red deer hinds who are pregnant and in poor condition produce females and when they emerge from winter in good condition, they often produce males. This is not a mother choosing the sex of her offspring, this is a mother who is not going to waste her time investing her limited resources by producing a below standard runt of a male.
In other words it's quite feasible that raising a female in below average condition will eventually produce some offspring, but raising a below average male might not produce any at all. It would be interesting to speculate on family dominance and whether territories can then be inherited by being passed down from father to son or from mother to daughter.
Can dynasties be formed, kingdoms created, title deeds passed down the line declaring ownership? It's unlikely I know but there must be some advantage in being the product of a dominant father and mother.
My foundations for understanding animal behaviour came about through listening to many conversations in the bothy. This would be a necessary requirement if I was going to be able to predict what animals would do in specific circumstances in order to film them. A clear example of this would be later in the Serengeti when I was trying to film baboon predation on young Thomson gazelles.
I had worked out that Tommy calves had two strategies for defence. Up to a certain age hiding was the correct thing to do because they couldn't outrun a predator. Then when they got older, flight was the best strategy. So the trick was to find a young Tommy at an age where they were caught between both and we did.
We backed off in the Landcruiser and waited for the baboons who were not far away. A young researcher that I had been given for the trip saw some cheetah cubs through his binoculars playing under a tree and insisted that we went to film them. When we returned you've guessed it, Tommy had gone and all that was left was its uneatable remains.
Back on Rum I witnessed some amazing scenes, stags fighting with antlers locked and standing on their hind legs boxing when the antlers had fallen off. Deer being chased into the surf by warble flies that lay eggs on the coat.
When deer lick it they ingest the eggs that form a larvae inside that eventually burrow their way out. Chewing seaweed on the tide line with the majestic Cuillins of Skye behind was an iconic image that will always stay with me. Flocks of golden Plovers landing nearby with their plaintiff cry, Cuckoos constantly calling, otters playing in the Kelp, it was wonderful.
I decided to stay on for a couple of days to see the New Year in the island and after a great Hogmanay ceilidh I woke early on new years day. There wasn't a sole about so I made a pack lunch and headed for the hills. I started climbing Barkeval, one of the lower peaks on the Rum Cuillins. There had been a hard frost over night making the normally soft spring grass firm and walking without my equipment was a joy.
Ever since I remember I have loved being alone in wild places. Even near cities they can be found. In my case it was Aberdeen's cliffs and coastal walks. There is something very special and precious in experiencing a wilderness alone, not many people do. There are no distractions or need to reply to comments, no small talk or necessity to voice approval of the view, my concentration was entirely on what was around me and the elements.
Near the summit of Barkeval, I reached an outcrop of rock and sat down. I can only get close to explaining the feeling as being almost a spiritual experience but not in a religious sense. I breathed in and tried simply to stop thinking about anything, just clear my mind when a huge Golden Eagle silently gliding across and landed on a ledge about thirty metres downhill. I sat absolutely still. It looked around and then turned and saw me. It opened its massive wings and left without a sound. I closed my eyes, retaining the image of this wonderful, iconic bird in my mind until it too disappeared, it was pure magic.
On the last day back at the bothy I caught a mouse in my hands and the plan was to release it outside but it bit me before I got a chance. There is apparently a correct way to handle mice I learned afterwards.
It would necessitate a visit to Belford Hospital in Fort William. As the filming was finally over I left Rum for the last time its spell over me appeared to be broken. This wonderful, magical, mysterious island adventure was over and as I write this and look back over the years I realise now that it held on to a part of me and that indefinable part, is there still. The island inspired a romantic novel I would eventually write called The Spirit of Askival.