THE first intimation came on the spot where Dundee once stopped and nature began. The message was transmitted amid the beating of wings of geese and the swoops of skylarks. “It was something I breathed in,’’ says Jim Crumley.

The epiphany came in the gloriously mundane. “It was a field of turnips. A friend taught me how to look at it. It was a brilliant, 10-minute lecture. Some of the mystery unravelled. It was about seeing with a painter’s eye .’’

The scenes are separated by decades. They form part of a link that is welded to the landscape of Scotland.

Crumley, now 70, is Scotland’s best nature writer. Contrary arguments to this assertion dissolve like the very snow off a Scottish dyke in the face of the evidence presented by a body of work that has stretched languorously but with some purpose over the past three decades. His latest, The Nature of Winter, is the second of a tetralogy of the seasons. Crumley is so consistently good one can pick from any of a couple of dozen of his works and be guided expertly to the wild.

But it is, perhaps, best to start at the beginning. “I was about three or four. We lived in the last street in town then. Fields on one side, hills in front of us. Skylarks, curlews, barn owls … It was something I breathed in,’’ says Crumley of his Dundee childhood.

“The earliest memory I have is of geese coming right over the roof. That was the first squad from Invergowrie Bay and there were more, more all flying over the house.”

It remains a special place, even though the landscape has largely changed. “When I go back there now, it is one place where I have this really solid connection. It was my playground but it was more than that. My parents are both buried there, three of my grandparents are buried there.”

It is where, too, an uncle gently inducted him in the ways of nature, buying him books and pointing towards the great outdoors.

Crumley left school as soon as he reasonably could, embarking on a newspaper career that saw him edit at the Dundee Courier, Scottish Daily Express, Glasgow Herald and the Edinburgh Evening News. He was also editor of the Stirling Observer and an award-winning feature writer at the Edinburgh Evening News.

In tandem, however, he was nurturing a love of nature, increasingly finding a need to write about it regularly.

The first inspiration was Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water. “I was 18 or 19 and had borrowed it from the library,” he says. “I read it twice before I had to take it back.”

“I knew then that was what I wanted to do: I wanted to look at landscape and write it down. Wildlife and landscape are indivisible. Wildlife thrives where habitat thrives.”

The process from journalist to full-time author took two decades. “I was always looking at ways to find the right kind of voice to articulate what was going on inside me and to articulate my relationship with landscape,” he says.

“So when my first book was published I left work the same day. That was a bit of a jump off a cliff.”

Indeed, it brings to mind that moment a chick balances precariously on the edge of a nest, somehow driven to fly but not quite understanding how or why.

Crumley says: “It was quite a force. It was like some kind of river pushing me on. I was absolutely determined that if I was going to do this I was going to do it properly.”

He adds, smiling: “I was very soon completely broke. But I got by.”

The sentiment three decades on is one of gratitude. He has not only survived but prospered in the wild. “I suppose I was sustained by nature itself,” he says. He was also helped by friends, particularly George Garson, the retired head of murals and stained glass at Glasgow School of Art.

“He taught me ways of seeing better,” says Crumley simply. But how does one accomplish that? “It was in the Pentlands, one of George’s favourite places,” says Crumley. “We were walking past a field of turnips. He asked me what I saw then gave me a 10-minute lecture. It is about almost trying to look inside the landscape. It is about the way light and shadow interact.

“It is about being more perceptive about what is going on in the shadow instead of looking at the illuminated bits. It is about learning about the middle distance which is where most wildlife is.”

Garson also told him that nature should be his material. “Use it, he said. And I did,” says Crumley.

“Scotland should be a powerhouse of nature,” he says. “The potential is limited only by our imagination and the way we use land. The amount of the country which is subservient to driven grouse moor and deer forest is grotesque. The issue of land has been mishandled. It is unforgivable.”

He points out that the industry of land is governed by rules set in the Victorian era and adds: “There is no indication that this kind of abuse of land is any nearer to discovering an enlightenment in regards to change. It is not going to happen without some serious legislation.”

He believes solutions include compulsory land acquisition, the creation of national parks, and increased community ownership.

If nothing is changed, what are we in danger of losing?

“The lot,” says Crumley.

He believes the single greatest benefit to the Scottish natural landscape would be to introduce the wolf. “The capacity of wolves to manipulate an ecosystem is quite remarkable,” he says. “We need a top predator. We are crap at it.”

And what would be his advice to those who seek to make their first steps into nature?

“Try to spend time alone in nature,” he says. “It can terrify people but even walk half a mile on the floor of a glen. Try also to sit down and let nature come to you. It’s not difficult. The best insights come when there is no destination, no ambition.” And, perhaps, a field of turnips.



Favourite place: West coast of Mull. There have been so many favourites moments there, particularly the first time I saw any aerial contact between sea eagles and golden eagles.

Favourite music: Jazz, and I am playing quite a bit of guitar at the moment. My favourite noise is Stan Getz.

Favourite book: My favourite writer is George Mackay Brown. I just read Winter Tales for the first time in a few years and was mesmerised by it. I have met him twice. The first time I was sitting there like someone who had met Roy of the Rovers.

Favourite animal: Has to be the wolf. They are to the greater benefit of nature and aesthetically they are such beautiful beasts.