Birdwatching. It is a hobby that countless people enjoy, whether it is just observing the sparrows in your local park or trekking hundreds of miles to see a Himalayan monal.
So it is strange to think that less than 200 years ago, most people only cared about birds if they could hunt them or eat them.
The man who changed all that was John James Audubon. His book on American birds was the first bird spotters’ guide and his beautiful paintings of birds are still much admired nowadays.
The most recent exhibition at the University of Aberdeen’s library is about the friendship and working relationship between John James Audubon and local boy William MacGillivray.
MacGillivray’s lifelong interest in birds increased when he was a student at King’s College in Aberdeen.
His family lived on the Isle of Harris on the west coast, meaning that at the start of every semester he had to make the 360-mile journey back to the university.
Being a poor student, he could not afford transport and he walked – a great opportunity to observe numerous species of birds in their natural environment.
Audubon met MacGillivray when he came over to Britain to look for backing for Birds of America. Audubon had set himself the goal of painting every bird species in America. This book would turn out to have 435 plates – each a life-sized colour illustration of a different bird. The total cost of the entire book would be equivalent to buying a new car nowadays.
Rather than paying the full amount at once, would-be buyers would pay a subscription and receive five prints every month or two. After 11 years, they would have the complete work and could chose to have it bound into a massive book. Some people would even buy special furniture to display it on.
To go with the prints, Audubon published Ornithological Biography to give information about the different species. This is where MacGillivray came in. He provided the scientific information and edited Audubon’s writing. The two men worked closely together for eight years.
This exhibition is a rare opportunity to see Birds of America in real life. There are estimated to be only 120 copies left in existence.
Because the coloured illustrations are so sensitive to light, they will be turning the pages over after a few months – meaning it is worth going to the exhibition now and in a few months’ time, just so you get a chance to see both images on display.
This exhibition appealed to me because MacGillivray is one of the people I talk about on the Old Aberdeen tour. But even if you aren’t aware of MacGillivray or particularly into birds, it is still worth a gander (my only bird pun, I promise).
One thing I like about the exhibitions at the Sir Duncan Rice Library is that there is just the right amount of information – enough to whet the appetite; not so much as to bore.
Another thing I appreciate about the university’s exhibitions is that they always take a moment to look into the problematic elements – including in this case noting the fact that Audubon was a slave owner and stole from Native American graves.
There are also a few activities for kids, from the obligatory colouring in to identifying different bird species.
However, it is a small exhibition and so if you are making a special trip to Old Aberdeen for it, I’d advise having other plans as well. It took me about half an hour to do the whole thing and I was reading EVERYTHING. Check out the charming Cruikshank gardens or visit St Machar’s Cathedral. Or, of course, you could always go on one of our tours of Old Aberdeen 😉