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Mike Tomkies – An Appreciation

viewpointI WAS saddened to hear of the death of the wildlife writer and naturalist Mike Tomkies, a man who penned some of the most riveting accounts of living in the natural world alongside golden eagles, wildcats and pine martens. He was a man who more or less shunned society so that he could live as close to his wild subjects as possible.

Mike had been the Hollywood correspondent of The Times and had interviewed and befriended cinema personalities like Ava Gardner, John Wayne, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Peter O’Toole and Sean Connery but the showbiz life eventually soured and he moved to British Columbia. There, in a rubbish dump, he found a copy of Gavin Maxwell’s ‘Ring of Bright Water’, a book that was to change his life.

He built a log cabin on the Canadian Pacific coast and began his wildlife studies tracking grizzlies, cougars, caribou and bald eagles. His diary entries eventually became a best-selling book, ‘Alone in the Wilderness’ and was serialised by the Reader’s Digest but the influence of Gavin Maxwell’s book, a lyrical account of living with wild otters in a remote cottage in the Western Highlands, drew him here and the start of a long obsession with Scotland’s natural world.

I knew of Mike when he lived in a tiny cottage he called Wildernesse, on Loch Shiel. It was there that he wrote his finest books and cared for a variety of injured animals as well as being the first person to successfully breed the critically endangered Scottish wildcat.

Looking across Loch Shiel towards Mike Tomkie's cottage

Looking across Loch Shiel towards Mike Tomkie’s cottage

This was in the late seventies and early eighties, a time when I was just beginning to break into the obscure world of outdoor journalism. Mike wrote a wildlife column in a Sunday newspaper called the Sunday Standard, an early forerunner of the Sunday Herald.

Every Wednesday he would write his 650 words in his cottage, row across the loch to a remote telephone box by the roadside where he would relay the words to a copytaker in the newspaper’s office in Glasgow.

But there was a problem. Every so often the weather was so bad that he couldn’t get his boat into the water so he would miss the deadline. In an attempt to keep some continuity with the column the paper’s Features Editor, Clive Sandground, telephoned me and asked if I could fill in for Mike when he failed to get his copy to Glasgow.

As a young, struggling writer I was delighted to contribute and soon I was filing copy most weeks until Mike got in touch and asked me if I could just take it on permanently – he was finding the effort of getting copy to Glasgow too problematic.

That was my first contact with Mike Tomkies who, by this time, had influenced my own appreciation of wildlife in a deep and profound way through his books, ‘A Last Wild Place” and ‘Between Earth and Paradise’. These two books made me realize that to really observe wildlife in the raw you had to spend huge amounts of time immersing yourself in wild land, connecting with it, and treating the native wild population as equals.

I was very keen to interview Mike and we agreed to meet. I happened to mention this to a good friend of mine, the wildlife writer Jim Crumley, and discovered that Jim had also been hugely influenced by Tomkies’ work. We thought perhaps we could travel to Loch Shiel and visit Tomkies together but Mike wasn’t keen on the idea. He lived a completely solitary life and apparently couldn’t cope with two people at the one time!

I can’t quite recall the circumstances but something cropped up and I couldn’t meet Mike as planned so Jim went in my place. That was the beginning of a long and warm friendship between these two wonderful wildlife writers, two men who eventually influenced each others work and lifted the genre to a new literary level.

Mike Tomkies (from Last of the Scottish Wildcats, Coffee Films

Mike Tomkies (from Last of the Scottish Wildcats, Coffee Films

I never did meet Mike Tomkies face to face, but Jim frequently told me of his wildlife forays with him, expeditions where he learned so much about wild animal behavior, especially that of golden eagles, and how to observe birds and beasts at close quarters.

Tomkies eventually left Scotland and went to live in Spain where his father had a house, a crumbling mansion with no glass in the windows and no running water! There he made two wildlife films and wrote a book about brown bear, lynx, wolf, wild boar and vultures. It was called ‘In Spain’s Secret Wilderness.’

Travelling between Spain and Scotland Mike made a total of a dozen wildlife films, mainly about golden eagles. He was featured in three network television programmes about his life and work and in 1988 was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. In 2006 he became Patron of the Scottish Wildcat Association.

He published his last book, ‘Running Wild’, at the age of 83 and died, aged 88, at his Elizabethan farmstead home in Henfield, England.

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