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Scott, Sir Peter

Category: Explorer or adventurer

 

Sir Peter Markham Scott CH CBE DSC FRS FZS (14 September 1909 – 29 August 1989) was a British ornithologist, conservationist, painter, ice skater, naval officer, dinghy sailor, adventurer and sportsman. 

Scott was born in London, the only child of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and sculptor Kathleen Bruce.   

He represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland at sailing in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal in the O-Jolle dinghy class.  He was also the President of the International Yacht Racing Union.

Scott took up gliding in 1956 and became a British champion in 1963. He was chairman of the British Gliding Association (BGA) for two years from 1968.

During the Second World War, Scott served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. As a Sub-Lieutenant, during the evacuation of the 51st Highland Division he was the British Naval officer sent ashore at Saint-Valery-en-Caux in the early hours of 11 June 1940 to evacuate the wounded. On 8 July 1941, it was announced that Scott had been mentioned in dispatches "for good services in rescuing survivors from a burning Vessel" while serving on HMS Broke. On 2 October 1942, it was announced that he had been further mentioned in dispatches "for gallantry, daring and skill in the combined attack on Dieppe".
On 1 June 1943, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) "for skill and gallantry in action with enemy light forces".  Scott also designed the Western Approaches ship camouflage scheme, all ships in the Western Approaches (the North Atlantic) were painted in Scott's camouflage scheme and so effective was it that several British ships including his own ship HMS Broke collided with each other.

The Snow Goose by Sir Peter Scott (1946), a portrait
of the artist's first wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Scott married the novelist  in 1942 and had a
daughter, Nicola, born a year later.
Howard left Scott in 1946 and they were divorced
in 1951

He was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 1942 King's Birthday Honours. He was promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1953 Coronation Honours.

Scott was one of the founders of the World Wide Fund for Nature (formerly called the World Wildlife Fund), and designed its panda logo. His pioneering work in conservation also contributed greatly to the shift in policy of the International Whaling Commission and signing of the Antarctic Treaty, the latter inspired by his visit to his father's base on Ross Island in Antarctica. 
Scott also founded the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (November 1946).  He received the WWF Gold Medal and the J. Paul Getty Prize for his work. 
Scott was also a long-time Vice-President of the British Naturalists' Association, whose Peter Scott Memorial Award was instituted after his death, to commemorate his achievements. 

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on 27 February 1973 for his contribution to the conservation of wild animals. And in the 1987 Queen's Birthday Honours, he was appointed to the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) "for services to conservation".

Scott's daughters Dafila (right) and Nicola at Slimbridge

Early Life

Scott was named after Sir Clements Markham, mentor of Scott's polar expeditions, and his godfather was J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan.  His life as a child was full and exciting, thanks largely to his mother. 

The Eye of the Wind – Sir Peter Scott

Never having known my father I was brought up without any sense of loss. My mother could never have tolerated any kind of continuing tragedy. She was one of the gayest people I have ever known. Financially our future had been secured to a modest extent by funds contributed soon after the news of the disaster became known. Thus we could continue to live in the house in London in which my parents had lived ever since their wedding, and also to have the little cottage at Sandwich for holidays.  Furthermore my mother was a professional sculptor who had studied her art in Paris and been a pupil of Rodin. She was immensely energetic and in my early childhood she was already well known, especially for her vigorous portraits. ….; her small statuettes, often including delightful babies, were exhibited regularly at the Academy and at the Salon in Paris; but in particular the distinguished men of the times came to her studio, and many of them became her lifelong friends.


Snow geese in flight

Scott then describes the fact that the Prime Minister used to come for tea, the Chancellor of the Exchequer might come to lunch and he came into contact with W B Yeats and Galsworthy.  And in this way, he learned to be at ease with men of influence.

Much of Scott’s early interests and influences were determined by the immensely positive influence of his mother.  Talented herself and independent, she defied all convention and as such probably taught Peter to question everything as well. 

At the time Peter Scott was a child, being left handed was frowned on and children were often forced to write right handed when they were quite obviously left handed.  But here we have an example of the open-mindedness of his Mum:

 

The Eye of the Wind – Sir Peter Scott

I must have been quite young when my mother found herself sitting one night at a dinner next to Lord Baden-Powell, the Chief Scout. He was ambidextrous and showed her the advantages of being able to write and draw with both hands.

It would be nice, she thought, if her son too was ambidextrous; so from then onwards she started taking the pencil out of my right hand when I was drawing and putting it into my left.

This might have achieved what she intended had she not slightly overdone it, so that I have been left-handed ever since.

That is the story she used to tell, although privately I think I might have been left-handed anyway.


Wigeon in flight at sunset

And

The Eye of the Wind – Sir Peter Scott

A few days before he died in his tent in the Antarctic on 29th March, 1912, …. my father wrote to my mother:  "Make the boy interested in Natural History. It is better than games. They encourage it at some schools . ."


And she did.  Scott had an absolute menagerie of pets in his childhood and spent a large proportion of his time observing wildlife in forest, field and on the shore.  Even after he was sent to Oundle School and Trinity College, Cambridge, he continued this preoccupation with Nature.

 Pink-footed geese in Holkham Fresh Marsh

The Eye of the Wind – Sir Peter Scott

In the autumn of 1927 I went up to Trinity College to read Natural Sciences, Zoology, Botany, Physiology, and later Geology.  The Master of the college at that time was J. J. Thompson, the famous physicist. I remember having tea with him at the Lodge early in my first term … [I shared] rooms with Humphrey Trevelyan…. I have often wondered how Humphrey stuck it out for the whole academic year, for without question I must have been a tiresome room-mate. For a start there was the aviary which occupied half my bedroom, extended onto the roof and incorporated the sitting-room window.


As time went on it was clear even then that he found no pleasure in the sort of zoology taught in those days, which required dissection of dead animals and worse.  In the university of his day one found out about animals by killing them and pulling them apart, dissection, not by studying them in the wild.  More and more Scott failed to turn up at his lectures until he had a rethink :

 

The Eye of the Wind – Sir Peter Scott

As my academic career in Natural Science held no great promise I decided to change horses in midstream, and to complete my time at Cambridge by studying 'History of Art and Architecture'. At the same time my primary objective in life changed. Instead of a scientist I would be an artist.
I have never regretted this great and momentous decision, for at one sweep my whole outlook on life was changed and enlarged.
I saw it as the missing half which had suddenly come up into balance. Perhaps I was going to be complete after all. In order to take a degree in the new subject I stayed a fourth year at Cambridge, and worked a good deal harder than I had done in my first three.


Once he left university he then embarked on a life as an artist, living and painting in a lighthouse near the Wash.

The Eye of the Wind – Sir Peter Scott

As 1930 draws to a close-a momentous year in my life-I must pause to take stock of the major influences. Painting was now to be my profession. Natural History was deeply embedded in my system.  A zoological training was part of my background. Wildfowling was my obsession.


So now we need to turn to wildfowling.

Of wildfowling and conservation

Scott had no obvious ‘spiritual’ leanings.  In his autobiography the word religion is never mentioned and the word spiritual comes up only a few times.  But he does use the word magic a great deal.  He was an adventurer very much like his father but wanting to go his own way and follow his own path.  He was as determined and as brave as his father as his war record shows. 

Brents at high water

And he was a young man of his times.  One of his hobbies was wildfowling and yet another stalking which means one shoots wild birds and stalks and shoots deer.  This seems totally at odds with his later genuine interest in conservation, but this is what makes him of interest to the site.  He was a poacher turned gamekeeper.  And what made him turn was not some dramatic spiritual event, or some horrendous experience in the war [although this was not totally without effect], it was the drip drip drip of his conscience

We are apt to consider conscience as just something that is there.  But conscience is not us, it cannot be, for ‘we’ [the ego] may desire to do something perhaps totally ‘wrong’ in that it hurts something – our planet, the creatures on it or our fellow beings.   But conscience – that other self, says ‘no’, so insistently and repeatedly that eventually we get the message.  And Peter got the message.

Red breasted geese flying over a ploughed field

But there is also something very intriguing about how he got the message.  At the time he pursued these blood sports, there was  no such thing as conservation, no concept that wildlife might become endangered, no sense that shooting birds or any animal for ‘pleasure’ or ‘sport’ might be wrong.  There were also no cameras capable of capturing the beauty of wildlife or the surroundings in which they could be found, as an alternative to those who desperately want to ‘capture’ the thing they admire.  

The UK, in Peter’s youth, was portioned out amongst the wealthy into areas for shooting, hunting and fishing.  The idea of going in a punt into the wetlands of the Wash, or walking the hills of Skye, or walking by a trout stream, just for the sheer joy of doing it, was unheard of.  If one went, one did so with a purpose – and the purpose was to kill something.  The poor poached and killed for food, the rich hunted for ‘pleasure’, but both killed.

The Eye of the Wind – Sir Peter Scott

With the exception of certain wisdom buried in folk lore, the moral obligations of conservation are a comparatively new conception to civilised man. To me they were still new a long time after I became a keen wildfowler. ..my parents were not interested in shooting-indeed, they were opposed to it.


And Peter Scott killed quite a lot of things – geese, ducks, deer, …. But in the process he experienced nature, its glory, its beauty and the sheer magnificence of the creation in a way he would have been unable to do any other way.

Dafila Scott [Peter's daughter] - Bewicks

The Eye of the Wind – Sir Peter Scott

It was out on the salting here that I shot my first goose when the moon was just turning from gold to silver on February 6th, 1928.  There had been a great flight of mallards that night.
For half an hour they had whispered overhead, high above the salting, and now the geese were beginning to move, out at the edge of the tide. In little parties they were starting in across the marsh to find good grazing or to pass on over the sea-wall into the black potato fields. 
I could follow them by their calling as they circled and passed wide of me.
Then, from almost behind, I heard the low intimate talking of another bunch, heading, it seemed, straight for where I sat. Almost at once the black line of them appeared, a dozen geese full low and passing close behind me. I swung round and fired …. I heard a thud on the soft muddy turf. I ran to the spot, and there he was stone-dead on the salting-my very first goose.
If anyone asked me, and they frequently did, how I could equate the killing with my evident love of the living birds, my answer was given without hesitation.  They were man’s traditional quarry…. When I was 18, the argument ended.  Today I find that it goes a good deal further and its conclusions are rather different, but we are dealing with the year 1928……………
But there comes a time for some men when their first reaction even to the traditional quarry is no longer to kill. (Thoreau writes of leaving the gun and the fishing pole behind the door).  They reach a certain stage, or age, some sooner, some later, when the old phrase which is supposed to epitomise the English country gentleman, "It's a lovely morning; let's go out and kill something," is no longer funny but obscene.
Whether this has to do with the agony of the two great wars, or whether it arises from new ideas about humanity and suffering, I do not know. Nor do I know if this outlook is more common than it was, though I suspect it may be.
After many years of wildfowling the first inklings of this changing attitude came to me on a marsh where, one early spring day in 1932, David Haig Thomas and I had shot twenty-three Greylag geese. Among them were two wounded ones, and as soon as we had picked them up we hoped that they might not die. The birds which a few moments before we had been trying to kill, we were now trying to keep alive. Here was something of the awful paradox which faces a man in war, who is called upon to kill his fellow men.
"Do you mean," the Eskimos had said to David in Greenland, when he described the First World war to them, "Do you mean people were trying to kill people they'd never even met?”.
The two geese survived and we kept them for many years.  Having got this far it began to seem strange that we should ever have taken delight in killing geese at all.


Photography has probably been one of the greatest conservation inventions we have ever made.  Man is a hunter by instinct, he gets a thrill from the chase, a thrill from the sighting and a thrill from the ‘capture’ – the ‘killing’. 
But through photography all this can be reproduced without any harm being done to the ‘quarry’. 
It is absolutely unforgivable in today’s day and age that killing for pleasure still exists.  Management of stocks, killing for food, maybe all have their place if humanely achieved [though some would even argue against that], but killing for pleasure? 
Killing for pleasure is not a sport.  
Thou shalt not kill.

The Tirrukural, - Book 1 Not Hurting Others

The pure in heart will never hurt others
What good is that sense which does not feel and prevent
All creatures' woes as its own?

Do not do to others what you know
Has hurt yourself.

It is best to refrain from wilfully hurting
Anything, anytime, anyway.

Why does one hurt others
Knowing what it is to be hurt?

The hurt you cause in the forenoon self-propelled
Will overtake you in the afternoon.

Hurt comes to the hurtful; hence it is
That those don't hurt who do not want to be hurt.

 
Slimbridge

In 1946, Peter founded the organisation with which he was ever afterwards closely associated, the Severn Wildfowl Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) with its headquarters at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, where he saved the nene or Hawaiian goose, from extinction in the 1950s, through a captive breeding programme. In the years that followed, he led ornithological expeditions worldwide, and became a television personality, popularising the study of wildfowl and wetlands.

Peter and Philippa Scott [his second wife] filming Look at Scott House

His BBC natural history series, Look, ran from 1955 to 1981 and made him a household name. It included the first BBC natural history film to be shown in colour, The Private Life of the Kingfisher (1968), which he narrated. He wrote and illustrated several books on the subject, and in the 1950s, he also appeared regularly on BBC radio's Children's Hour, in the series, "Nature Parliament".

As a member of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, he helped create the Red Data books, the group's lists of endangered species.

He died of a heart attack on 29 August 1989 in Bristol, two weeks before his 80th birthday.

The Eye of the Wind – Sir Peter Scott

I AM without question the luckiest, and I believe the happiest man I know. As this is to be a story about me, I must make this plain at the outset: I am basically a happy person. I have gone through life supposing myself also to be quite simple. This may in itself be an over-simplification or perhaps I am just too lazy to enter into any lengthy introspection. My story tells what has happened to me rather than what I am or have been. It looks outwards rather than in, with an eye for events and adventure.  An autobiographer would be unnaturally lacking in vanity if he did not hope that his reader would entertain some sympathy for him by the time his story was told. Inevitably I hope that my story may lead to the ultimate conclusion that I am not a bad fellow really.

 In 1951, Scott married his assistant, Philippa Talbot-Ponsonby, while on an expedition to Iceland in search of the breeding grounds of the pink-footed goose. A daughter, Dafila, was born later in the same year (dafila is the old scientific name for a pintail). She, too, became an artist, painting birds. A son, Falcon, was born in 1954. Falcon Scott has worked part of the year giving lectures on educational cruises for Quark Expeditions.

Observations

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