Book review – Raptor by James Macdonald Lockhart


This book was a disappointment.

The basic structure is a chapter by chapter account of 15 species of UK raptor, each described in a different place, stretching from Hen Harriers on Orkney in Chapter 1 to Devon Sparrowhawks in Chapter 15. Wrapped into this structure is a tale of the life, and a previous journey, of William MacGillivray (1796-1852), the Scottish ornithologist and naturalist who wrote important works and contributed much to John James Audubon’s Ornithological Biographies.  All this seemed very promising but I don’t think the author carried it off.

Starting with Hen Harrier in Orkney makes quite a lot of sense, although we get rather little of Hen Harriers in this chapter (entitled Hen Harrier).  What we do get is some pleasant description of Orkney where the sea is ‘always at your back’ (it’s always at your front too – it’s true of all islands), an account of the White-tailed Eagle bones found on South Ronaldsay and some general wildlife observations. There is the rather trite observation ‘But management of grouse moors and protection of hen harriers should not – does not need to – be incompatible’ which comes from nowhere and takes the reader nowhere. It just hangs there rather limply, although I warmed to the earlier statement that ‘A landscape devoid of hen harriers is an impoverished one’.  But we finish the chapter with White-tailed Eagle bones and I was left wondering whether that was ‘it’ for Hen Harriers in this book – after all, I had just finished the Hen Harrier chapter.

And so we journey onwards to the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland, a place I know quite well, to meet the Merlin. But here, we get introduced to what is a raptor and to MacGillivray as he sets off on a journey from Aberdeen. The Hen Harrier makes a lengthy reappearance and I left the chapter feeling a bit cheated of Merlins and not a lot better introduced to the Flows.

And so we journey on.

I enjoyed, very much, learning of MacGillivray’s life but he intruded into the author’s journey through birds, and this device just didn’t work well for me: maybe you will love it.

There are many good bits in this book, which is generally well-written. I liked many of the descriptions of the birds and some of the places, and most of the information about MacGillivray. There are some truly memorable passages: on bedbugs, the shooting of a Golden Eagle and hammer throwing in Wales. There are many, many good bits, but the book lacks, for me, a coherent structure – for a journey through birds it is all over the place and often loses its way.

This book is also very weak on the conflicts between birds of prey and people – as with the Hen Harrier, but also with the Sparrowhawk, Peregrine, Goshawk etc.  This seems a bit odd to me.

The title, Raptor, is not very helpful in telling you what this book is about, and the jacket illustration (which I don’t like at all) doesn’t help either.  There is no Introduction or Preface (or Foreword) and so the reader plunges into a book with raptor names as chapter headings without any guidance as to the journey on which one is embarking. An index might have been a good idea too.

If you are looking for an account of each of our raptor species then you should stick with A Sparrowhawk’s Lament by David Cobham, and if you crave a book of species accounts that get deep into the species , the places they live and the people they live with or who study them, then Michael McCarthy’s Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo is the place to go.  If you are prepared to go on a mystery tour of a ramble with the author, and trust him to take you to some nice places, then you may like this book more than I did.


Raptor: a journey through birds by James Macdonald Lockhart is published by Harper Collins.


Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.



8 Replies to “Book review – Raptor by James Macdonald Lockhart”


    Thanks, Mark. Mark cocker comes to the same conclusion:

    ‘That he does not engage with all this “stuff’’ means that his book, though it certainly contains beautiful writing and great promise, is a task only half completed.’

    Agreed, Mark. We need more Chris Packhams and Mark Averys to get above the parapet.
    At least this book might lead onto other ones such as:

    1. Murray – I read Mark’s review after writing my own (I try hard to avoid others’ reviews if I am reviewing a book) and was relieved to see some similarities. I think the structural issues are probably more important though – not everyone has to write about the ‘issues’ although it is a bit odd this book sidesteps them so much, but the book has to have a trajectory.

      1. Mark: I hope didn’t think I was implying that you had.
        I found Cocker’s review by chance while looking up Lockhart.
        Cocker plugs H is for Hawk but I think he misses a trick by not using his platform to mention Inglorious.
        My plug and contribution are miniscule but the more people who cross link on blogs the better?

        1. murray – no such implication was taken. I was just saying that I came across Mark’s review (in a similar way to you) but that it was after I had written this one.

    1. Adrian – thanks. Books are a bit like wines – different people like different ones (but some are badly produced).

    2. Thanks for the link to your blog and notes on Raptor.
      Nice pics of Bullfinches on your feeder. I wonder if they are singing yet.
      Bullfiches very quiet in West Sussex so far this year. Not even calling.

  2. I was recently lent this book by a friend visiting Orkney for the first time. Whilst perhaps less scientifically-rooted and (-routed) than other examples in the genre, I felt that the intertwining of the project to see all the British raptors with the life of MacGillivray was important in raising awareness of the birds and the man. The current issues surrounding raptors are probably a poisoned chalice for a book which also looks at the life of a man whose research would’ve involved the deaths of his subjects (as was the ‘accepted’ method of the time). On a happier note, I was able to share some of Orkney’s wonderful nature (including Hen harriers) with my generous friend.

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