I am standing in a lay-by of the A9, 2 miles north of Brora. I am face to face, for the first time, with a stone that I encountered a photograph of a year earlier, in a book about the wondrous wildlife of Scotland.
Paving slabs ascend the bank to a hefty lump of granite that bears a sandblasted panel and an inscription. According to the words of this stone, I am in the place where the last wolf in Sutherland was killed, in about the year 1700 by a hunter called Polson. The stone explains that it was erected by the 7th Duke of Portland in 1924 to mark the place, which is known from an account written in William Scrope’s Art of Deer-Stalking (self-confessed manual for the sporting playground of the Highlands, 1838). At the foot of the oddly sloping paving slabs is a pool of stinking green water, a pile of dog turd and the tossed out detritus of long journeys made by truck; tin cans, crisp packets and plastic bottles, a whole apple withering in the mud.
I had planned to seek this stone out someday and here I was, sooner than I had imagined. My partner and our friend, an amateur film maker, stand beside me, taking in the words with scornful expressions. “Fuck you Polson”, someone says and the reverence is broken and we all start laughing.
Scrope’s Art of Deer-Stalking expands, with graphic description, on the story of Sutherland’s last wolf. Polson was an old hunter with much experience in tracking and killing wolves and other predatory animals. The den was unguarded when he found it, so he sent two young lads down into the wolf’s lair to destroy her cubs. The sound of their screams bought their mother racing back to their defence:
As she attempted to leap down, at one bound Polson instinctively threw himself forward and succeeded in catching a firm hold of the animal’s long and bushy tail, just as the fore-part of her body was within the narrow entrance of the cavern. He had unluckily placed his gun against a rock when aiding the boys in their descent, and could not now reach it. Without appraising the lads below of their imminent peril, the stout hunter kept a firm grip of the Wolf’s tail, which he wound round his left arm, and although the maddened brute scrambled and twisted and strove with all her might to force herself down to the rescue of her cubs, Polson was just able, with the exertion of all his strength to keep her from going forward. In the midst of this singular struggle, which passed in silence, his son within the cave, finding the light excluded from above, asked in Gaelic, “Father, what is keeping the light from us?” “If the root of the tail breaks,” replied he, “you will soon know that.” Before long, however, the man contrived to get hold of his huntingknife, and stabbed the Wolf in the most vital parts he could reach. The enraged animal now attempted to turn and face her foe, but the hole was too narrow to allow of this; and when Polson saw his danger he squeezed her forward, keeping her jammed in whilst he repeated his stabs as rapidly as he could, until the animal being mortally wounded, was easily dragged back and finished.
I wonder if that is how it went.
Since first stumbling across that photo of the Polson stone, I have been interested in the last wolf tales, riddled as they are with exaggeration; suspect stories of gargantuan wolf slayers who tear apart rabid wolves with their bare hands, great displays of machismo, strength, violence and valiant subjugation of the wild. This is the way of all those stories. As Jim Crumley remarks in his book The Last Wolf, wolf legend is a place of Goliaths.
The story has persisted for three centuries, a boastful story full of bravado intent on celebrating the virility of the hunter.
And this is the legacy of Sutherland’s last wolf.
This is how we mark the demise of an entire ecosystem.
We are becoming increasingly aware of the destructive implications of removing an animal from an ecosystem, especially a top predator. The discovery of trophic cascades demonstrates that ecosystems are principally shaped by the feeding behaviours of large herbivores and carnivores – the ‘apex consumers’– which are largely absent from today’s human-dominated ecosystems. Reintroduce the predator and trophic cascades are restored along with the balance of ecology.
My thought was to offer a memorial to the last wolf in Sutherland, a lament, a protest, a hope for the future.
So it is hardly surprising that the loss of wolves in Scotland contributed to a crippling ecological decline. Deer numbers exploded. They grazed the seedlings and the saplings down to nothing, depleted the soil through erosion and increased nitrogen and dramatically impacted the species of plants that could grow in the Highlands. They also over-browsed the trees next to rivers causing a crash in beaver numbers, destabilisation of banks and increased risk of flooding. When wolves had roamed the land they kept the deer on the move, allowing the vegetation to regenerate. Trees grew tall, a huge range of them, providing habitats for insects and songbirds and allowing beaver colonies to expand on riverbanks, which in turn created niches for otters, muskrats, fish, frogs and reptiles. The tree roots stabilised the soil, reducing erosion and movement of channels and creating a wonderful diversity of species in pools and riffles.
This is what we mourn, the wolfless generations.
Sutherland’s last wolf deserved a retelling. So, I went looking for this Polson stone (I won’t call it the last wolf stone) of bravado and undeserved acclaim. My thought was to offer an alternative version of events, a memorial to the last wolf in Sutherland, a lament, a protest, a hope for the future.
I plan to stay in this lay-by for the next three days whilst I attempt to remake the legacy of Scotland’s wolves. It is forecast to rain relentlessly but I have the boot of the X-Trail to work from or, if the weather clears up, a stack of discarded fish boxes to use as a table. My partner dragged them up off the beach earlier, not for me to use but simply because, “they shouldn’t be on the beach,” he stated, as though it was obvious. It was obvious. The A9 stretches out behind me, a blind summit overhead, over which vehicles appear with alarming rapidity. Bullfinch song comes from within the yellow gorse along with the tinkle of sheep bells, and both are frequently buried by the bellow of an HGV.
This work exists to open up a little mouth for optimism and to set in stone a small rebellion.
I am aware, whilst I work, of the irony of what I am doing. I had read about an extraordinary Yellowstone wolf named Number 14. When her wolf mate and teacher, Old Blue, died, she left her cubs and vanished into the deep snow of the North American Wilderness. She was gone for a week and no-one was able to find her, not even the Yellowstone rangers who tracked her. The experts wonder, did she travel, alone, so far and so relentlessly because she was grieving?
Number 14 died at the age of six, probably as a result of a struggle with a moose that she tried to bring down. National Park staff observed that she was attended in death by a golden eagle and a grizzly bear. She was, perhaps, mourned by her own kind in the purest way possible, honoured by nature’s recycling system, left to lay where she fell. Memorials are not for wolves like Number 14, for whom there can be no truer epitaphs or eulogy. Nature simply marked her passing in a way that honoured her astounding life.
Three days later I put down my chisel. The carving of the stone is complete. Now it dawns on me that we are about to do something illegal – not on a big scale, but perhaps an act of vandalism, damage to public property maybe? Are we about to commit an act of flytipping? Suddenly a truck swings into the lay-by, unwelcome company. Suspiciously we sip our tea and eye the driver’s elbow, which rests lazily on the open window whilst we wait for him to leave. I suspect that he might give us some agro if he witnesses us digging up the lay-by. He keeps his engine running for the full forty-five minutes that he sits there, lolling against the door. “The only possible excuse for that is that he has refrigerated goods in the back. Do you think he has refrigerated goods in the back?” I demand bad-temperedly of my companions. Finally, the truck trundles away, and the clods fly as we begin our furtive digging in the soft grass.
The guerrilla act of making and installing a stone that speaks directly into the space left by the wolves aims to challenge the last wolf stories that have persisted for centuries, remake the legacy of wolves in Scotland and mark the place for what it is – the start of the demise of the Highland ecosystem. The two stones, made almost one hundred years apart regard each other from opposite sides of the lay-by, representing the two sides of the debate. If not for public opinion and restrictive legislation, these parts of Scotland are ready, begging to receive wolves. My ‘Not the Last Wolf’ stone exists to open up a little mouth for optimism and to set in stone a small rebellion. And I hope that in my lifetime Scotland’s claim to wondrous wildlife might not be so far from the truth.
Beatrice Searle is exhibiting the video documentation of this work, made in collaboration with actionreeve media, as part of Rewind/Rewild at OmVed Gardens, London 1st-7th May 2019.
Curated by Anna Souter and Beatrice Searle. Featuring Rodrigo Arteaga, Marcus Coates, Alannah Eileen, Julia Crabtree & William Evans, Hannah Imlach, Fiona MacDonald : Feral Practice, Beatrice Searle, Anna Skladmann and Amy Stephens.
Rewilding Forum, 4th May 2019, OmVed Gardens, London
Speakers include European Nature Trust & Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Dr Jonathon Prior, Dr Darren Evans, Dominick Tyler, Dr Poppy Nichol, London National Park City, PiM Studio Architects, Dr Stephen Head, Anna Skladmann, Dr Susan Baker, Fiona MacDonald : Feral Practice, Tom Jeffreys.
Book your tickets here
Read Rewind/Rewild co-curator Anna Souter’s essay on Rewilding the Exhibition.