Born: Eastbourne, Sussex, January 1922

Died: Strathyre, Stirlingshire, December 16, 2022, aged 100

Bridget MacCaskill was surely the last of a pre-war generation of Scottish-based naturalist-writers which included Frank Fraser Darling, Tom Weir, Gavin Maxwell, David Stephen and Mike Tomkies. It seems to me to be worth noting that she was also the only woman in that distinguished company.

Bridget lived a life of two halves. It was neatly bisected by a visit to St Kilda in the late 1960s on a National Trust for Scotland work party. There, she met Don MacCaskill, a forester with the Forestry Commission, and an accomplished naturalist and wildlife photographer. Life for both of them was transformed within that single serendipitous week. In the words of her daughter, Leonie, Bridget had finally sensed “fulfilment of her aspirations for her life”.

She had been born into a comfortable family life. Her father taught at a choir school and music was a huge part of her upbringing, so much so that she harboured hopes of a life as a professional musician. That ambition was decisively frustrated by the outbreak of the Second World War and she joined the Wrens. Immediately after the war she married her first husband, then found that her hopes of staying on in the Wrens were dashed because of a law that legislated against married women in their ranks.

Having moved to Perth and raised a family of three to school age, Bridget was “determined to shake her life up” and plotted a third course – she would teach, despite having no experience and no qualifications. So for ten years she taught English and geography at both Kilgraston and Ochtertyre in Perthshire.

And then she went to St Kilda, met Don, the attraction was mutual and all-embracing and they were together for life.

“She had this will to make something of her life and just went for it,” said her daughter. “She was charismatic, very good-looking, eager to engage, and Don couldn’t believe his luck.”

They married in 1970 and settled in Strathyre. Don was chief forester of Strathyre Forest and as passionate about wildlife as he was about trees. Bridget embraced his world, they started to explore wild places together, and just as she had once decided she would teach, now she decided she would write. Don was already contributing articles and photographs to the Scots Magazine among others, but Bridget decided she could write better, and they settled into a remarkable working rhythm that published first articles then books under the joint byline of Don and Bridget MacCaskill. Don’s photography blossomed, won awards.

Their first book, Wild Endeavour, was published in 1976, and Scotland’s literature of the land had a new voice. After Don retired in 1985, their fieldwork together took on a new dimension and they embarked on what would become a 15-year study of otters on the Morvern peninsula.

There was a new assurance to Bridget’s writing in the subsequent book, On the Swirl of the Tide (1992), and it said “Bridget MacCaskill, illustrated with photographs by Don MacCaskill” on the cover. Its strength was that it was underpinned by constant reworking of the same landscape circumstances that permitted her to get to know the otters as individuals. In particular, there is a passage of four pages in which more and more otters start to head to the same place from different directions until she and Don are watching the boisterous interaction of a tribe of seven.

“Then the great game resumed…It was follow-my-leader, catch-me-if-you-can, pounce, got you, roll over, kick, break away, and start all over again. It was a great romp, tumbling over the glistening seaweed, sure-footed over bare dry rock, scurrying through the secret heather tunnels at the top of the point, squeaking at the tops of their voices. Seven otters all together at the same moment – a dominant dog, his two bitches, a sub-adult cub and three young ones! Two humble otter watchers nearby almost wept with the joy of it and knew they were never likely to see exactly the same again…This had been something special.”

Their otter work became a television film presented by Julian Pettifer (who became a lifelong friend) in his Nature Watch series. It was shown across the ITV channels and then again on Channel 4.

Bridget and Don lavished time on three creatures in particular – otters, golden eagles (a ten-year “Eagle Watch” project at a troubled eyrie near their home) and foxes. Foxes coursed through their lives. They were forever rescuing or being handed cubs that had been left when their parents had been killed, they were particularly accomplished foster parents and healers of injuries. The foxes were released back into the wild whenever possible, but one or two became pets. The Blood is Wild (1995) is a no-punches-pulled account of their relationships with foxes.

When Bridget put together a book of Don’s photographs after his death in 2000 – titled The Wind in My Face (2004) – Julian Pettifer quoted Konrad Lorenz in his introduction.

“You have to love your object of study. You cannot be a good naturalist if you do not love your subject and delight in investigating it. It is an absolutely unaffected, irrational pleasure.”

On that basis alone, Bridget MacCaskill qualifies as a very good naturalist.

There is a lot of Don in the first book, Wild Endeavour. When Don wrote a short memoir, Listen To The Trees (1999) the year before he died, there was a lot of Bridget in it.

Bridget had been nurturing one more ambition and it involved otters. In her own words: “For a long time I have had in mind to attempt a more intimate account of the animal which would appeal to all lovers of wildlife…It would be written in the form of a story by an unobserved observer!”

The result was A Private Sort of Life (2002). Her inscription in my signed copy says “Best wishes for success in all your Wild Endeavours”.

I had met them in the late 1970s when I had written something about plantation forestry in this newspaper. Don invited me to Strathyre Forest to show me round. From then on we were friends and I thought of them as indivisible. But when I read A Private Sort of Life I thought, “ Ah, there you are Bridget.”

Bridget MacCaskill is survived by her sons Colin and Sandy and her daughter Leonie, and grandchildren Fenella, Guy, Alice, Calum and Rory.

Jim Crumley