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JOHN MACLEOD: There’s no prettier sight on a Lewis loch than the wonderful whooper

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One of the loveliest sights of a Western Isles spring is the swan. In fact, usually in the plural, for these grand fowl, the biggest in the country and among the largest flying birds in the world, mate for life and, indeed, usually bond before they attain puberty.

The swan, accordingly, has long been emblematic of devotion, fidelity and serenity.

They are bound up in some of our oldest legends – that wistful Irish tale, the Children of Lir; in great classical music – that sobbing cello for The Swan, in Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, is the most famous air he ever wrote – and in what is probably the best-known ballet, Tchaikovsky’s 1877 Swan Lake.

Not to mention the Ugly Duckling in Hans Christian Andersen’s collated fairy tales – indelibly associated, for post-war generations, with Danny Kaye’s engaging song.

And, at a deeper level still, with literature itself, for the wing feathers of a swan were sought out through centuries for writers’ quills – and, as her man is known as a ‘cob’, a lady swan is indeed a ‘pen’. (The collective noun for swans, by the way, is ‘bevy’.)

The whopper is readily distinguished from the mute swan by its joyous honking

The whopper is readily distinguished from the mute swan by its joyous honking

We have three species in Britain, though only the mute swan, with its bright orange beak – the one you will usually spot on the local canal or the municipal boating pond – is in permanent residence.

A mute swan is not actually mute: it is just much quieter than the competition. Bewick’s swan is a smaller winter migrant to be seen, by and large, in southern and eastern England – though, pre-war, it was plentiful in the Uists.

But the swan today of the Outer Hebrides – and also to be seen, in raucous assembly, at the likes of Montrose or Loch Leven – is the whooper swan, with its yellow and black bill and readily distinguished from the mute swan by its joyous honking.

The sound of exuberant whooper swans flying onto their few favoured Lewis lochs, in sensible retreat from Icelandic winter, is one of the great harbingers of an island autumn. 

And the sight of one taking off, about this time of year and as the first daffodils bravely dance, is a glory in itself.

It’s a laboured start, head extended straight as an arrow, and then some moments literally walking on water, pat-pat-pat-pat like the monk in The Kung Fu Kid, and finally in full determined flight. You feel it as much as you hear it as, in building confidence, this magnificent creature lifts off from the water like a Sunderland flying-boat, up and away and in moments over the sea, wings thumping, spouse but moments behind, all the way home for making babies in the land of geysers, volcanoes and Sally Magnusdottir.

Swans are long-lived birds – typically, 20 years – and, in their private lives, most progressive. Dad helps to build the nest and takes his turn incubating the eggs.

That said, if he turns out to be firing blanks, and there is a failed brooding, she will divorce him; and a widowed swan fast leaves off her lamenting and finds a new cob.

Swans, believe it or not, even kiss – their joint and graceful necks, in silhouette, making the perfect shape of a heart. Small wonder that, as one journalist joshes, this ‘is not so much a bird as a national treasure – the avian equivalent of Dame Judi Dench or Sir David Attenborough’.

Given their size and beauty, swans were by medieval times birds of status, only to be kept by the nobility and bred for the table (though a full-grown swan isn’t actually very nice to eat, an adolescent cygnet is apparently quite toothsome).

But the wide belief that the King owns every swan the length of Britain is a myth, though England’s monarchs historically did have the right – much in line with the ‘sumptuary laws’ that decreed who could wear rich fabrics and vivid colours – to say who could keep swans.

Killing one, were you not of the favoured few, was decreed an act of treason; being caught with a single swan egg could win you a year in chokey.

Otherwise, the Sovereign only lays claim to some swans on the upper Thames and, with rare exceptions – flooding disrupted it between Windsor and Sudbury in 2012; and you-know-what put paid to the whole affair in 2020 – the annual ceremony of Swan Upping can be traced back to the 12th century.

In elegant livery, oarsmen of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen row the Marker of the Swans up-river in their gracious skiffs, catching swans, weighing and measuring cygnets, checking them for injuries and ringing them according to identified parentage.

A third for the Worshipful Company of Vintners, a third for the Worshipful Company of Dyers – and a third for the Sovereign. Only once, in July 2009 – as ‘Seigneur of the Swans’ – did a monarch, Elizabeth II, ever turn up.

But the event is not as ridiculous as it sounds: the Swan Uppers are conducting a rigorous census and keeping a close eye on the swans’ welfare.

And that they can be picked up and handled with such ease reminds you that, perhaps because of its size, the swan is a calm and docile bird – save when she or he is defending a nest, in which case – wings extended and on hissing tip-toe – a swan is pretty intimidating.

Folk in Harris still remember a pre-war incident when two furious swans drowned a dog in West Loch Tarbert. And, again because of its size and obviousness, the swan has often been the first alert of a serious problem.

When, in the autumn of 2021 and in a matter of days, half the swan population of Stratford-upon-Avon died by the dozens, that raised the immediate alarm of avian flu. 

And when our swan population crashed during the 1970s and 1980s, desperate investigation was made. 

The upshot was, from 1987, a ban on the lead fishing weights favoured in coarse fishing.

The poisonous metal was being ingested wholesale by swans – which have a largely vegetarian diet of pondweed and so on – and, the menace having been identified and eliminated, their numbers rapidly recovered.

But the swan is far more than a bird and, about 1915, in the horror of the trenches of the Western Front, one Donald MacDonald – Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna, a red-haired lad from North Uist – wrote what proved the greatest Gaelic song to emerge from the First World War.

With an image ‘which is both peaceful and universal’, writes Anne Lorne Gillies. ‘In two or three words he transcends the sounds and sights and smells of war to paint a picture of perfect silence, crystal beauty, feminine grace and peace.’

As, amidst the mud and rot and shellfire, MacDonald called to mind his home

…the glens full of sweet sounds –

of the lochs, the bays and the creeks,

and the white swan that dwells on their waters,

that I search for every day.

All of us, at some point of anguish, search for her still.



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