HE NETTED his first specimen when just 11 and was still adding to his haul more than 60 years later. Now the stunning collection of butterflies and moths captured by the renowned conservationist John Lorne Campbell is to be preserved as a unique record of insect life on the west coast of Scotland.
Campbell spent most of his adult years on the inner Hebridean island of Canna, which under his long-term ownership was turned into a nature reserve.
With a passion for studying even the smallest visitors, he amassed a collection of 283 species of butterflies and moths, which he stored in 30 wooden cabinet drawers in his home.
The collection has lain undisturbed since the death of his beloved wife Margaret in 2004 but the National Trust for Scotland, which now owns the island, has recently received a donation from a family friend to allow preservation work on the valuable collection to go ahead.
Conservators hope Campbell’s meticulously-recorded collection will help them plot how climate change affected island life over the course of his life.
Butterflies and moths are sensitive indicators of how the environment alters over long periods of time and numbers have started to decline rapidly over the past three decades. More than three-quarters of the 59 species found in the British Isles are now in decline, according to experts.
Mel Houston, the trust’s preventative conservator, said the five-year project was a first for the organisation. “We have nothing like this in our collection and it’s not the kind of thing we normally record and repair. But it is a hugely important part of the collection at Canna House, as the vast majority of the butterflies were actually collected on Canna.
“Until now, it has been more or less as John Lorne Campbell left it, in a series of cabinets and even with some items still to be mounted and labelled in cigar and chocolate boxes.
“We are going to be cleaning and restoring every specimen, carrying out repairs if necessary and also trying to find a record for each one if we can. We’re eventually planning to put the collection online, so that everyone can benefit from Dr Campbell’s 50 years of collecting and research.”
Campbell, who died in 1996 aged 89, donated his insect collection in Canna House – along with the many manuscripts, sound recordings, photographs and film footage he had collected with his wife Margaret – to the trust in 1981. However, until now there has never been any attempt to properly document and restore more than 2,000 specimens that Campbell had collected and catalogued, including some from trips to the Dordogne, Ontario, New York State, South Carolina, Florida and Jamaica.
The work on the butterfly and moth collection is being carried out by Dr Graham Rotheray, the principal curator or entomology at the National Museum of Scotland.
The painstaking work involves delicate repairs to the legs and wings of some of the specimens, as well as repinning them to protect their wings. Species include the first recorded example of the noctuid, or owlet, moth Dianthoecia caesia taken in Scotland and the red and black six-spotted burnet moth.
Rotheray said that although larger butterfly and moth collections existed, the period covered by Campbell’s collection, dating back to 1917, was what made it so special.
“The fact that one person has built up a collection over 60 years, mainly from one part of the Hebrides, and the data that he recorded, is what makes this collection stand out,” he said. “It is a treasure house of knowledge about the moths and butterflies of the Inner Hebrides and one of the significant aspects of the collection is the potential it has to help us measure and assess future environmental change.”
Brought up on Barra, where he captured his first specimen, Campbell was a lifelong wildlife enthusiast well known for carrying a butterfly net. In later years he had a “mercury vapour” trap in his garden to ensnare specimens.
Canna House, where Campbell lived from 1938, was opened to the public last year for the first time since the island was donated to the trust. Margaret, originally, from Pennsylvania, continued to live there until her death eight years ago at the age of 101.
The trust has only been able to get the conservation project under way due to an undisclosed donation from an American supporter, Jeannie Becton, whose mother was Margaret’s second cousin.
Becton said: “My interest in supporting the project is due to my relationship with Margaret. They shared a common childhood in Pennsylvania and in their later years they reconnected on Canna and reminisced together, sharing laughter and music, and always taking a look through John’s butterfly collection.
“Margaret was inspirational to our family. Her spirit was strong and admirable and her love of the Hebrides and its people was infectious. The collections that she and John assembled at Canna House are invaluable to scholars and I wanted to help Canna in this special way.”
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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