Dick Balharry has an insatiable curiosity about our nation’s wildlife, environment and culture. That quenchless thirst has, in turn, inspired so many others to begin to appreciate their surroundings.
It is a lifetime’s journey that has taken him from a tiny village in Angus to some of the remotest parts of the highlands, the rich farmlands of Aberdeenshire and even the great National Parks of North America, Canada, Azerbaijan and New Zealand.
Even now, at the age of 72, there is little time to enjoy retirement at his family home in Newtonmore in the Highlands. No pipe and slippers for him. Instead, he is busy helping implement a biodiversity action plan for one of the major Inverness-shire estates.
But it could have all been so very different. With a menagerie of more than 40 animals by the time he was 12 at his home in Muirhead, Angus, his parents and teachers became concerned, especially when he began taking them to school.
He made himself a bike with money earned at the berries and cycled with a pal to see the Braemar Gathering, over the old Devil’s Elbow, before the brake cable snapped on the way back, sending him over the handlebars.
A year later he cycled 100 miles a day to camp on Skye, saw his tent washed away on the first night and ended up sleeping in a sheep fank. But, it was still a life-changing journey.
Dick explained: “What I saw in those hills in Skye and Wester Ross was an image that I still carry today. I thought, ‘This is country that has a magical feeling and I want to be part of it,’ but I had no idea at that time how I wanted to do it”.
Others, however, decided the young Balharry would be an engineer, which went against everything he wanted, but he still managed to maintain his interest in wildlife while attending Dundee Technical College.
He did well there and was rewarded with a job at a major engineering works in the city. That lasted precisely 20 minutes; he walked out in complete dismay at his new industrial surroundings, then said to himself: “What am I going to do now?”.
A copy of the Oban Times in a nearby newsagent brought the answer in the form of an advert for a gamekeeper on the Ballimore estate at Tighnabruaich in Argyll, which seemed far enough away to escape the concern of his parents.
But that new career brought another shock to the system of a man dedicated to caring for animals as he was introduced to poisons and traps of all shapes and sizes, snares, rifles and guns.
Dick admitted: “To kill wild creatures I needed reasons and those advanced seldom satisfied me. So rather than kill them, I would try to tame them”.
The head keeper was John Bird, a patient man who ignored the raised eyebrows over his rookie keeper having a pet fox and a talking raven called Rory. Dick eventually moved on when the bird started to criticise his boss.
He moved to Glen Lyon in Perthshire under head stalker/keeper Archie Macdonald, a man who opened his eyes on how to be at one with nature.
“He had an uncanny understanding of all that moved in his area. He really honed my senses in a way no-one else could have – the art of seeing, hearing and feeling.”
National Service intervened and Dick went into the RAF, travelling around Europe and Germany, where he played semi-professional football as a promising right half. Another career as a professional footballer beckoned, but a bad break to his left arm in his last RAF match before demob put paid to that.
Instead, he returned to Glen Lyon to help Archie before joining the Red Deer Commission as a stalker, based in Inverness, and travelling to most of Scotland’s deer range.
Dick said: “It was incredible, but gradually the activity of counting and killing deer and marking calves emphasised not only an inner love for wildlife but also a curosity that still exists today. I know if I go up the hill tomorrow I will find something that will be new to me and I will want to know how it functions and why it is here”.
He added: “The more experienced and the older I get , the more I realise just how little I know. We are just scratching at the surface – tomorrow I will learn something new and it is inspiring, rewarding and it is never ending”.
Another move came via the cover story in the Scottish Field magazine in 1959, which was about Beinn Eighe, Britain’s first national nature reserve in Wester Ross, and how warden Jimmy Polson was leaving.
Dick applied for the job and was interviewed in Belgrade Square, London, by a panel of eminent scientists where he recalls being asked by one sage if he could milk a cow.
“I indicated I could and was delighted when I was informed I was the new warden.”
Just married to Adeline, a secretary at Dundee Royal Infirmary, the couple moved north and quickly settled into their new life, which Dick described as “a brilliant and life enhancing experience”.
With his boss, the Nature Conservancy’s northwest regional officer John Morton Boyd, based in Edinburgh, Dick was left largely to his own devices. He found himself working with leading scientists and ecologists such as Derek Ratcliffe, Jim Lockie, Heather Saltzen and Donald McVean on field studies ranging from Pine Martens to Golden Eagles.
His work with Derek Ratcliffe and Jim Lockie on Golden Eagles was instrumental in the banning of DDT in sheep dips.
“Ever since then I have seen the eagle as the best living barometer for the quality of wild land in Scotland. Where the eagle lives, survives and thrives, then that for me is wild land, rather than any academic, hatched up concoction.”
In 1969 he had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to North America and see the great wilderness areas, including the National Parks in Canada and the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Monument Valley and Mesa Verde. This opened his eyes to the possibilities that could be achieved in the highlands of Scotland.
In 1974 Dick moved east, after the Countryside Commission set out plans to make the Cairngorms into a national park and his superiors wanted him in the area to help guide that development.
He moved to Newtonmore, covering Speyside, Orkney, Shetland, then in 1978 the head office for the North-East was moved to Aberdeen and the Balharry family lived in Annfield Mill at Alford. Being more attuned to the mountains of the west and central Scotland, he was not too enamoured at the move, but soon changed his mind once he got there.
Dick confessed: “That transformed my opinion of the whole of Aberdeenshire; being much richer in soils the wildlife was much, much more abundant than in the west highlands. It was so different and it showed just how ignorant I was of the situation”.
The change also allowed him to harness the power of television to spread the wildlife message to a wider audience. He had first contributed to a BBC Horizon programme in 1966, followed by a documentary for the BBC World About Us, called Eagle Country in 1974. The move to Aberdeen saw him become a regular face on Grampian Television.
Dick said: “I was more and more convinced that we really wanted to get the message that our work was as much for people as it was for wildlife. The importance of Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage demanded the best medium possible – television”.
Spurred on by his TV success, he became an unlikely impressario at His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen in 1985, bringing together the worlds of entertainment, the oil industry (through Shell), and conservation for the show I Am to raise money for charity and to celebrate Scotland’s heritage.
Stars such as David Bellamy, Bill McCue, Tom Weir and Evelyn Glennie took part with Selina Scott as the compere and Dick ended up raising £3000 for Save the Children.
“Working in the east was a revelation for me. I was even flying out to the rigs and working with oil companies, which I had never expected to be doing. Visits to Orkney and the seabird cities of Shetland was a reminder of previous adventures on St Kilda and North Rona.”
He moved back to his beloved Newtonmore in 1991 as area manager for Scottish Natural Heritage. He was awarded a Master’s degree from Aberdeen University in 1995 and received an MBE in 1996, both for services to nature conservation, and retired a year later.
He has hardly slowed down since.
“It has been my fortune to have had a career in something I love and much of what I do now is a thank you for that privilege.”
His first chairmanship was for the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust, based in Tobermory. He also chaired the John Muir Trust for six years and went on to chair the first Access Forum for the Cairngorms National Park.
The park has become a focal point for some of his energies and he explained: “I think it is doing a really good job in terms of the economic and social side of it, but I think the environmental issues remain behind these other two.
“It is progressing, but how I wish that people like Adam Watson (an outspoken critic of the park) could be more consulted and involved in it. No-one knows the Cairngorms in the way that he does. I know the Cairngorms pretty well, but not in the terms of Adam’s knowledge and expertise.We must ensure the park embraces its total responsibility for the environmental future of this internationally respected area.”
The thorny issue of the park’s boundaries has also concerned him. For him, quite simply, there should be no boundaries in the outdoors.
“Why don’t we have the same policies as we have in a national park across the highlands of Scotland, so that the appreciation of the natural and cultural heritage is integrated into the economy and social system that benefits both people and the land.
“We need greater integration of land use objectives regarding both state and privately-owned properties. I still think there is a huge opportunity there in preference to fragmentation of effort and resources.
“No matter what national park is designated, boundary lines are drawn; yet on the ground these are invisible and are the ecological differences apparent?”
Despite all his interests, he still finds time, somehow, to sit on the board of the National Trust for Scotland where he is the interim chair while the former speaker of the Scottish Parliament, George Reid, carries out a governance review of the whole organisation.
Nine years on the North board of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency have also helped focus his concerns over our nation’s natural resources.
He explained: “It is our natural resources that have helped sustain us over many centuries. Scotland has a veritable treasure of historic and natural wonders that bestow incalculable benefits to all who live in and visit this incredible country.
“We need to address our future energy needs, mitigating the adverse impacts of climate change with our social and econmic needs.”
But his love of our countryside and its cultural heritage is still his major concern: “That’s the thing that has always been important to me – to understand that what I do and still do is for people.
“Where else can an individual find a better quality of life than here?”
Bob Dow is a former Aberdeen Bureau chief of the Daily Record and is now a media consultant.Tweet
This is an article from the June 2010 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.