The majestic birds are not an imperial symbol, but are as synonymous with Scotland as whisky and tartan, writes Fiona McCade
Napoleon understood the need for a good national symbol. When choosing a creature to represent his new empire, he rejected the traditional Gallic cockerel without a second glance. “Too weak,” he sniffed, and rightly so. He wasn’t going to be fobbed off with squawky farm animals; he had his eye on something much bigger, brighter and more imposing. He wanted the golden eagle and, being Napoleon, he got it.
Now, we’re wondering if we want it, too. This week, the slow-but-steady process began to name the golden eagle as Scotland’s official national bird.
A public vote last year proved that it is by far our favourite bit of fauna. Now the Scottish Parliament’s public petitions committee has taken evidence from various parties, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and will soon be inviting views from bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage, before deciding whether or not the idea will fly.
The committee recently followed a similar procedure to approve the Scots pine as our national tree, but not everybody is happy about the golden eagle becoming our public representative.
Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw thinks the golden eagle is an unwelcome reminder of imperial might. He would prefer we adopt the “tenacious” robin, because: “The golden eagle is the symbol of an empire that once invaded large parts of Scotland, and more recently of another empire that tried to.
“In the lifetime of many people in this country, it was the last thing their relatives saw as they were marched to their deaths. It has been a symbol of imperial power of which Scotland is emphatically not, never has been, and hopefully never will be.”
Frankly, I’m struggling to reconcile my understanding of history with that of Mr Carlaw, but I think he means that the Romans – who had eagles on their standards – invaded parts of Scotland, and that Nazi Germany was known to wave the odd eagle about; but should that mean that we throw the baby out with the bathwater?
There’s a reason why powerful nations have always been attracted to eagles, and that’s because eagles are powerful. Just for the record, the eagle used by the Nazis – never as widespread a symbol as the swastika, but that also wasn’t originally theirs – was stolen from the coat of arms of the Prussian royal family, and it was a white-tailed eagle. This is now the official bird of Germany, and if that country is happy to adopt it after all it has been through, I really don’t think we should have a problem with a completely different kind of eagle.
Understandably, the golden eagle is a popular totem animal. For example, it’s the emblem of Kazakhstan and also adorns the coat of arms of Mexico but really, when you think of Kazakhstan and Mexico, do you immediately think of golden eagles? Me neither. On the other hand, they are as synonymous with Scotland as whisky and tartan. Quite simply, we belong together.
Another thing to remember is the fact that golden eagles have recently been reintroduced into Ireland – entirely thanks to Scotland donating chicks to start the project. Ireland doesn’t yet have a national bird, so why shouldn’t it choose the golden eagles it is now so proud of? If we don’t stop squabbling and get this on to the statute books, our neighbours might take the initiative, and then won’t we look silly?
I like symbols. I think they can be a useful and potent way of building a stronger national identity and I love the idea that whenever anyone sees a golden eagle soaring overhead, they’ll recognise it not only as a beautiful and awe-inspiring creature, but also as an image that forever invokes Scotland. What’s the matter Mr Carlaw, do you think we’re getting ideas above our station?
Maybe this is imperialist of me, but I’m fed up of Scotland being considered “small”; as if we should only ever be represented by wee things, when we punch above our weight in so many areas – and always have done.
Our choice of bird is going to stay with us a long time and we have to get it right. I suppose I wouldn’t mind the capercaillie; it’s distinctive, impressive and, in order to survive, it probably needs the sort of profile-boost an accolade like this will inevitably bring. But the robin, however “tenacious”, simply does not make the grade.
First of all, it’s already the unofficial bird of the United Kingdom – which, by the way, wasn’t averse to a bit of empire building – and we need something specifically Scots. Also, it’s a Christmas bird, and we’re all about Hogmanay. Last but not least, it’s way too cute and little. It’s a nippy sweetie, and I’ve had enough of those.
Just for once, I think we should aim high; as high as possible. We deserve an unashamedly huge, breathtakingly magnificent creature to remind the world of us.
In the golden eagle we have a rare and glorious bird of our very own, native to our land. Let’s not waste too much time debating whether or not it suits us. For millennia, people have been inspired by its grandeur and majesty. In themselves, these attributes have nothing to do with specific earthly empires, but the enduring popularity of these qualities, and the bird that embodies them, clearly shows us that they will always inspire and resonate with mankind.
Besides, I’m reluctant to tar all empires with the same brush. Some were pretty good, and I’d say Napoleon’s was better than most. He certainly knew a good symbol when he saw one and he bagged it. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t hold on to it for very long, not least because of the hundreds of Scottish soldiers who caused him such problems at Waterloo.
For two centuries now, the golden eagle has been up for grabs, so what are we waiting for? Come on, let’s have the pride and self-belief to claim what’s ours. If it was good enough for Napoleon, it’s good enough for us.