Dotterels and Gomerels

Dotterel singing in a mountain morning

Often it was no more than a flash of brown as I trudged across a high plateau in the Scottish mountains. But in a brown landscape a flash of that colour is dramatic, demanding attention. When I looked carefully after a while I would find a small bird whose breast was even browner than the moorland in which it was nesting. Well, actually, the nesting bird, incubating the eggs, or guarding the chicks, was the almost invisible male, while the bird I had noticed was the food- gathering female whose colouring is much brighter.

This bird is the dotterel, a small wading bird which winters in the Atlas mountains in Africa and migrates northwwards in April/ May to breed in Scotland and Norway. It likes the high moors of the Scottish mountains where it is almost invisible and has little competition. Perhaps because it is seldom endangered it is very tame and will allow a human being to approach it without alarm. This behaviour earned it its English name, which means a stupid person, and its official classification Charadrius Morinellus, which means a stupid ravine dweller. Human beings reckoned they were easy to hunt, and although their taste is not highly rated, they have been commonly hunted in Europe. In Scotland, on the whole, they have not been much hunted since the energy required to find them would exceed the energy gained in eating them.

Male dotterel with chicks

Instead they have been the quiet companions of hill-walkers, especially of those who are never in so much of a hurry to get to the top that they will turn aside for any matter of interest. The simple whistle of the female dotterel has become for me a welcome invitation to pause and look and perhaps, disgracefully, share a few raisins from my food bag. The last bird count in Scotland found that its numbers are declining alarmingly, probably due to global warming. These are birds which have chosen marginal landscapes which used to be covered in snow much of the year. Now they are often free of snow on winter. It’s not clear what difference these changes make to dotterel, or to their diet of insects, snails, and worms., but it is clear that these birds, along with the ptarmigan, who need the sub-arctic conditions which used to be found reliably on the high mountains of Scotland, will have to move north to find the conditions they like. Their decreasing appearance on our mountains is a sad indication  that global warming is a fact.

When President Trump comes on a state visit to Britain, and perhaps sneaks north to visit his golf course in Aberdeen, I hope I can persuade him to meet me on the Moine Mhor, a vast moorland plateau that is the high ground between the River Feshie and the infant River Dee. Perhaps given his bulk he will have to forego the exhilirating walk, and ascend to the plateau in a helicopter. There I would hope to introduce him to one of the few dotterel still nesting there, maybe one of the beautiful females with the chestnut breast. I would hope that he might be moved by this modest, friendly creature which for over a  million years or so, has trusted its human brothers and sisters not to harm her. I would explain to the President her role as a proof of global warming.

It is perhaps daft of me to hope that this almost trivial issue will affect the President when the rising of the sea level with the complete  inundation of parts of The USA has not, but you have to use what you’ve got. If he does refuse to understand what we are doing to the dotterel and the whole planet, then he will deserve the application of another word that means “stupid”, the Scots word “gomerel” which is itself endangered as a live element in our vocabulary. Certainly I used it as a child without any sense that it was exotic. Derived from old Scots “goam” to be vacant or aimless, it means “very, perhaps willfully, stupid; an idiot.” Obviously human beings who cannot pay any attention to their own environment deserve a name that means thicko, numptie, knuckle nuts, pinhead, plonker, dork, nutter and bampot, and other epithets too rude to grace the screens of this blog.

female dotterel

The wisdom tradition of the Bible, as in Job 38, liked to show the wisdom the creator by describing the marvellous creatures God had made; and encouraged buman beings not to be gomerels as in Proverbs 8:

Is not wisdom calling?

“I am calling to you, all people;

my words are addressed tomall humanity.

Simpletons, learn how to behave!

Fools, come to your senses!”

If the  BIble had been written in Scotland it would have dotterels in it – and gomerels.


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