CHARLES WILLIAM GEORGE ST JOHN1 TO JOHN HANCOCK [1 May 1851]
St John discusses a pair of Peregrine Falcons he has shot in Moray, Scotland. He has sent the skins to Hancock for his bird collection. He also mentions a possible sighting of a Gryfalcon and the Great Exhibition in London. The letter is illustrated with two ink sketches and contains a collection of seven feathers, wrapped in a folded paper marked “feathers from Back of Throat”.
1851 [Hancock’s hand]
Chas. St. John Esq [Hancock’s hand]
Elgin [Hancock’s hand]
My dear Hancock
I am very glad that the birds reached you — in good condition. Is not the male a beauty. The Female is rather dark coloured, but a fine bird.2 I cannot suggest an attitude or grouping which you could not improve on — But I hope some day to see them amongst your [p.2] collection. They will be interesting to you, knowing where they were killed. Those fine bold rocks looking over the sea — with the lovely green little nook, covered with primroses and blue hyacinths — and the birds flying straight out to sea, when disturbed, till they looked like specks, and then suddenly appearing and alighting [p.3] on the rocks – something of that sort, as to grouping. I have a fancy that a Peregrine shd not be the apex of the group, i.e. that the rock should come up nearly as high as the bird[‘]s head. When [p.4] I think of Peregrines wild, I remember them oftener as sitting on a projection oftener than on the summit of a cliff. I have often seen a Peregrine sitting on a lump of stone in a plain, or near a loch. But when on a Cliff never on the summit[.] –
The female not having [p.5] a handsome breast might suit your proposed attitude of rather leaning against a rock. Could you make a group including eggs also. I never saw a Peregrine with any nest only the slightest hollow scraped in the ground. I have an anecdote to tell you.
I gave a fine female Peregrine some years ago to a Friend. This [p.6] year she laid 12 eggs — and then died. The eggs are mostly full coloured, But some of them lightish. Look at the enclosed feathers, some 6 weeks ago I exclaimed “by Jove, there goes an Iceland Falcon”2 — Harry saw it also. On 10th April a Hawk was killed in Rossshire and these Feathers sent to me — to ask what bird it was, [p.7] as they had not the least idea. I of course instantly pronounced it the Iceland Falcon –I also offered any moderate price for the bird of its skin — intending to send it to you[.] — But I fear that the master of the Keeper who shot it collects birds. Pray give me your verdict res: it — I have still a chance of the skin. — I think they told me the legs [p.8] are blue — But have mislaid the letter. Cumming4 has been with me for a week and starts for London today — You will see him. I am afraid that I cannot afford the journey this year. I hope you will come down to refresh yourself after London.
yrs. C. S. [signature]
Kind regards from all — I am curious to know what you think of the Exhibition5 as a whole, and a national undertaking — whether good, or bad –
If you see any good illustrated Paper, descriptive of the Exhibition, send me a copy — What does Mr. Hewitson think of the eggs you got here.
1. Charles William George St. John (1809–1856), English naturalist and sportsman.
St John married Ann Gibson, the daughter of a rich banker in Newcastle; this may have been how Hancock made his acquaintance. He lived in the Highlands of Scotland in order to fulfill his passion for mountain sport. At the time of the letter he was living at “The College” near Elgin in Scotland.
He wrote a number of books: Short Sketches of the Wild Sports and Natural History of the Highlands (London, 1846, 2nd ed. 1848, 3rd ed. 1861); Tour in Sutherland (1849, 2nd ed., with recollections by Captain H. St. John, 1884); Notes of Natural History and Sport in Morayshire, with Memoir by C. Innes (1863, 2nd ed. 1884).
2. In Charles St. John’s book Natural History and Sport in Moray. Edinburgh. 2nd Ed. 1882 p.94 he gives an account of the two birds he shot.
“April 22 (1851). – Drove down to the sea-coast to-day, and after certain trouble, manoeuvring, and stalking, I shot a pair of peregrines – male and female. I shot the female passing over me dead as a stone, in the clouds. The male was sitting afterwards halfway up the rocks, and I stalked him from the top. I had determined to succeed, but I should not have shot the birds for any other reason than to oblige Mr. Hancock, and see them live again as stuffed by him. ”
Although at this time, Peregrines were hunted as vermin by gamekeepers St John recorded that they were abundant, regularly breeding in the district (p.121).
Hancock presented his collection of stuffed birds to the Natural History Society in 1883. They were later recorded in detail by the Curator, Richard Howse in his ‘Index-catalogue of the birds in the Hancock Collection.’
The Peregrines formed Case 37 of the collection:-
“Case 37. Mature Female. Shot by Charles St. John, Esq., at Gordonstown, Moray, April 22nd, 1851.
Mature Male. Shot on the same day and place as the female by Charles St. John, Esq.”
(Howse. R. “Index-catalogue of the birds in the Hancock collection, presented by deed of gift, 1 Nov., 1883, to the Trustees of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne by John Hancock.” Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne. Vol. XIII, 1900. p.284.)
3. ‘Iceland Falcon’ – The Gyrfalcon or Gerfalcon (Falco rusticolus).
St John records only ever seeing two Gyrfalcons in the Highlands, the first at Loch Spynie and the other “I saw a year afterwards near Elgin; and a fortnight after the time that I saw her, one was killed in Ross-shire, in all probability the same.” (Charles St John, History and Sport in Moray. 1882 p.58)
4. Sir Alexander Penrose Gordon-Cumming of Altyre (1816-1866) preferred to be known at Gordon Cumming. Lived on the Altyre Estate near Forres, Inverness near to St John at Elgin.
5. The Great Exhibition, Hyde Park, London. Hancock exhibited his taxidermy work there in 1851.