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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1979 - April
SOME NOTES ON THE HISTORY OF THE RABBIT IN THE NORTH
The history of the rabbit's introduction to Northern Scotland is bedevilled by corroborative accounts from two independent but reliable sources. The first, Edward Burt, was an Agent attached to General Wade's staff at Inverness during the late 1720s. While describing the mountain hare in its white winter coat, he writes, "As white Rabbits are common in England, .... you may think, perhaps, we have been deceived; but that cannot be, for there is not a Rabbit in all the Country;.....".
Dr. John Mackenzie, the second source, gives the following amusing account of the introduction of rabbits to Conon about 1790. "My father alas, sent for rabbits to England. In due time they arrived, having finished every turnip with which they had started and seemingly none the worse of their travels - the darling lovely little pets. Our minds were distracted wondering how best we could protect them from the nasty, greedy foxes. We carried the hamper to some sandy banks in Dugarry, and, as the rabbits might be weary if left to dig holes for themselves, busy hands and spades soon built up twenty or thirty foot refuges of turf, like six-inch square drains, at the end of which, if they pleased, they might in due time dig holes for themselves. To our great joy, the dear little innocents every morning showed plenty of new holes dug, so that they were soon safe from their enemies. In a very short time we found troops of little bunnies trotting about, so that one or two were shot as samples of such a wise investment in game. This took place over seventy years ago, and from this colony the whole north is now swarming with the pests. And yet I have never heard of anyone, planter, farmer, or gardener, who has suggested a monument to my father for conferring such a benefit on the Highlands."
These two statements taken together, one showing that before 1730 rabbits were not present, and the second describing in detail their arrival in the 1790s, would seem to be conclusive. Indeed some books on the natural history of the Highlands point out as a curious fact that " .... the men who marched to join Charles Edward at Glenfinnan had never seen a rabbit, but it is likely that some of them knew the wolf". The truth is not so simple for there are records of rabbits north of Conon before 1790.
Historically the rabbit is an ancient species, being mentioned in the Bible as an unclean meat, "And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean to you". Rabbits do not actually chew the cud but they do re-swallow their droppings, to take the maximum amount of nourishment from the food. The Biblical quotation also uses the correct name for an adult rabbit, the coney, and by this name they are known over most of Europe. In Spanish it is conejo, in German kaninchen, in Latin cuniculus, in Welsh cwningen, in Gaelic coinean and in Old English conying or coney. It is not surprising that all early references use coney or some variation of it when referring to the rabbit.
It is generally accepted that rabbits were introduced to Britain at the Norman Conquest. At first they were carefully contained in specially built warrens and used as a source of meat and fur. The few animals which escaped were quickly taken by poachers or other predators. Rabbits cannot thrive in wet land and although they can swim they will not usually cross even small streams. In the days before agricultural improvements, when undrained land was the norm, rabbits did not spread far from their original warrens and the wild population was effectively controlled by natural predators.
The earliest historical warren in Scotland was on the Isle of May, in the Firth of Forth. Here, in medieval times the revenue of the Priory depended on the sale of skins. This useful resource was exploited until the warrens were destroyed by an English raiding party in the first half of the sixteenth century. Warrens were established on the West coast, particularly in Ayrshire where the district of Cunningham may derive its name from the coneys. The small inshore islets of the west coast provided ready made containment and grazing. Dean Munro, describing the Western Isles in 1549, mentions the following islands, not all of them now recognisable by name:-
"Flada, ane little iyle full of cunings. . . ."
"Caray, guid for quhite fishes, abundance of cunnings. . . . "
". . . . narrest to the Graytis iyle ther a verey pretty little sandy ile, callit in the Erish, Leid Ellan Nagenin, which in English is the Conings ile."
"Inche Kenzie . . . . full of cunings about the shores of it. . . ."
"Nagoyneyne. Fornent Loche Ashe lyes ane iyle, callit in Erishe Ellan Nagoyneyne, that is to say Cunings ile, full of woode and cunnings . . . ."
"Sigrain-Moir-Nagoinein. Besides this Pabay layes the ile which the Erishmen calleth Sigrain-moir-Nagoinein, that is to say the Cuninges ile, quherein ther are manay cuninges . . . ."
Helped by man, rabbits continued to spread northwards and by 1633, John Smith on a visit to Shetland could write, "There were also other creatures for food, as conies and fowl". By 1684 Sibbald could talk of ". . . . well-stocked warrens on Orkney, Burra and Sanda." Martin Martin (circa 1695) confirms this by recording "The isles of Orkney in general are fruitful in corn and cattle, and abound with a store of rabbits."
Along the north coast of Scotland historical remains are few. Rabbit Island at the mouth of the Kyle of Tongue must belong to this period, but before 1654 Rabbit Island was called Ylen Gald, Ellen Gild or Ealan-a-ghail.
"In 1640 Master James Innes was served heir to his father William Innes of Sandsyde in the lands and town of Rhae of new erected into a burgh or barony, the lands of Sandsyde, Dathow, Borlum, Mylntoun of Rae with the mills and rabbit warrens . . . ."
A description of Brims in 1726 states that there were "two chapells and aboundance of rabbits". A record which is almost contemporary with Burt's assertion that there was not a rabbit in all the Country.
Bishop Forbes in the diary of his visit in 1762 wrote, "Much of the Road through Sutherland is sandy and benty, so you pass over ground where there is plenty of Rabbets".
The encroachment of the rabbit along the east coast of Scotland is poorly documented and it is not until the coming of Statistical Accounts and the Board of Agriculture reports (about 1790 and 1800) that the rabbit population in Aberdeenshire is said, not very reliably, to be "not more than a hundred".
According to a traditional tale the wild rabbits of Morayshire are descended from some which escaped from a ship anchored off the coast. Unfortunately no date is attached to the story. It seems clear however that the rabbit's progress was slower on the east coast, perhaps because it had richer farming land and there was no need for the landowners to encourage warrens. Without the help of man, the large east-flowing rivers proved insurmountable to the wild rabbit, which at this time was a coastal animal disliking the high hills and the undrained interior.
These facts explain why Burt saw no rabbits on his travels which were inland along the line of Wade's roads from Blair Atholl to Inverness, Inverness to Lochaber and Easter Roes. The coastal area around Inverness and Easter Ross had not yet been invaded by rabbits which were however approaching from the east and the north, along the coastline. Dr. Mackenzie is wrong only in his assumption that his rabbits were the progenitors of all the rabbits in the North. As we have seen, there were a number of local rabbit communities before his time, extending as far as Shetland. These communities would remain isolated until agricultural improvements increased the area of suitable land.
In some districts the rabbit was a late introduction. It was taken to Gairloch as late as 1850 to improve the range of game for sportsmen. On Foula the first rabbits were released by a boy in the 1870s.
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