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Digest pays erudite homage to creatures great and small

The independence debate still has far to go, but if nothing else it has concentrated the minds of many who were perhaps in danger of forgetting that in many respects, despite globalisation and urbanisation, Scotland is still a country with a distinct and separate personality.

I'm not speaking politically, socially or even culturally. The lines between us and the rest of the UK on these issues are often blurred and contradictory, and arguments about them can be used equally to bolster separatism or unionism. What can't be debated, however, are the truly distinctive features that give Scotland a unique flavour, which it will retain, come independence or not.

Fauna Scotica: Animals And People In Scotland (Birlinn, £30) is thus a book for these times, a glorious overview of the country's wildlife, the nation's natural treasure. Whether or not its genesis lay in the growing interest in defining and understanding where stands Scotland now, its arrival is timely, not least because it cries out to be wrapped and found beneath a Christmas tree.

The heritage of this book goes back to 1996, when Richard Mabey produced his magisterial Flora Britannica, a devoted and scholarly guide to the UK's plantlife. Ten years ago, Duff Hart-Davis reworked the idea in Fauna Britannica, his dictionary of Britain's wildlife. That his book was emblazoned with a mountain hare, a predominantly Scottish animal, was a matter of some pleasure and little surprise, given how many of the rarest and wildest creatures are denizens of the north. It was surely, one felt, only a matter of time before we produced our own volume.

And here it is. Jointly written by naturalist Polly Pullar and Mary Low, whose contributions include a thoughtful chapter on "creatures of the mind" such as kelpies and unicorns, it offers concise yet full accounts of the myriad animals, birds, insects and reptiles found on these isles – though in some cases only on some of them.

Pullar begins with a tribute to Shetlander Bobby Tulloch, a wildlife expert whose outlook shaped hers. Even as a young boy, his budding interest was not hard to spot. His mother found him in bed one night, clutching the decomposing remains of a puffin. As someone who as a child brought home an equally noisome gannet and stored it in my sandpit to wait till the flesh had rotted off and revealed the skeleton, I feel drawn to him. But that shortly after this I was repelled by the stench of a bloated porpoise, which I had been eyeing hungrily for my collection until I got close enough to smell it, probably explains why I never pursued a career in the wild.

Fauna Scotica is a chattily erudite encyclopedia, divided into habitats: woods, moors and bogs, mountains, the sea, and so on. Beautifully illustrated – the photo of a sea eagle under falling snow is haunting – it gives understandable prominence to those creatures, such as the golden eagle, red deer, adder, capercaillie, salmon, midge and osprey, that are emblems of this country. Few beasts, however, are overlooked, since even the humble sparrow, fieldmouse, frog and oyster are as much a part of our heritage – in my view more significantly so – as the high and low points of history, and those who've made it.

Along with the creatures' scientific names, Pullar offers their other titles – the wigeon, for instance, is also known as bald pate and pandle-whew – followed by the subject's history and habits. Serious naturalists may not find much here they don't already know, but for the majority of casual country lovers, or those who would like to know a little more, this is an engaging starting point.

From James Hogg's ruminations on the marvels of a good border collie – "Without the shepherd's dog, the whole of the open mountainous land in Scotland would not be worth a sixpence" – to the remarkable observation of one ornithologist that crows' voices alter on the approach of each new season, this is a magnificent tribute to all those other citizens of this country that make it so special. All we need now is a Flora Scotica.

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