Neil Cook was a painter and decorator who finally followed his heart to the wilds of Scotland’s glorious Cairngorms to become a countryside ranger.
His beat eventually covered 50,000 acres, including the Queen’s Balmoral Estate where he was head ranger and naturalist, and which afforded him unrivalled opportunities to develop his skills as an artist, photographer and falconer.
Always interested in the great outdoors, he was born and raised in Forfar where, as a boy, he played on Balmashanner Hill where its First World War war memorial offers views over the Vale of Strathmore and the Braes of Angus.
One of triplets, but the only one to survive into adulthood, his parents James and Margaret had received £3, from what was known as the King’s Bounty, to help with the cost of a multiple birth.
Educated at Forfar East School and then Forfar Academy, he developed a passion for the outdoors and avian life, the latter thanks to a neighbour, who kept canaries and finches in his garden which the youngster used to draw and paint.
He and his neighbour also trapped finches which were cross-bred with canaries and goldfinches – a shared interest that led to Cook keeping birds of prey, including kestrels, buzzards and eagle owls, throughout his life.
As a youngster he was a talented artist, which prompted his mother’s suggestion that he would be perfect as a painter and decorator when he left school. Although he enjoyed the job to some extent it was not, for him, a particularly satisfying line of work. He then went on to work nightshift at National Cash Registers in Dundee but the pull of the outdoors proved irresistible.
When he spotted a ranger course mentioned in a newspaper he decided that was where his future lay – outside in the natural environment, working with wildlife.
By this time he was married to Charlotte, with whom he tied the knot in Laurencekirk in 1967. She fully supported his change of direction and he left his job, completed the course and relocated his family to Glen Doll when he secured his first, temporary, position.
The couple had two young daughters who were raised in the rural surroundings of the rugged Highland glens, initially at Glen Doll and then soon afterwards at a new home at Linn of Muick when he obtained a permanent post on the Balmoral Estate, beginning work there in December 1973.
It was an idyllic setting for all: his wife never looked back and his two girls enjoyed the outdoor lifestyle, cycling, camping, learning about the natural world and playing with the children of neighbours, artist Howard Butterworth and his wife Hilary. On several midsummer nights their father took his daughters to the top of Lochnagar where they enjoyed the shortest night of the year on the peak said to be Prince Charles’s favourite mountain.
For Cook, a man passionate about the wilds and about preserving wildlife, it was the perfect vocation, the sort of job he had always wanted.
He was involved in the Loch Muick visitor centre, which he developed and took a great pride in, and which today draws about 50,000 visitors a year. During this time he also developed an interest in photography, which complemented his interest in art.
He painted in oils, mostly local wildlife and landscapes, and sold a number of his works, some of which were available through the shop at Balmoral. He was fortunate to have his favourite subjects on his doorstep and, according to his daughters, knew every blade of grass, flower, tree, bird and animal on his patch. He won various medals in international photographic competitions and judged the natural history section of the Photographic Society of America and Federation Internationale de L’Art Photographique-approved exhibitions.
Other interests included taxidermy, making greetings cards featuring his own images – he had thousands of slides – and keeping a variety of animals: dogs, cats, birds and weasels rescued as babies. A keen falconer, he kept birds of prey for flying and breeding and was also interested in the monitoring and conservation of raptors. He gave countless talks on nature and the area he watched over, took guided tours at Glen Muick and contributed to local groups including Deeside Camera Club and Upper Deeside Art Society.
Instantly recognisable in his green Suzuki, he was constantly weighed down with binoculars and camera, always ready to capture a moment, whether it was a rare bird or a simply the light on the landscape.
Hard-working, down-to-earth and never fazed by the appearance of members of the Royal Family, he received the gold Royal Victorian Medal in the Queen’s birthday honours in 2001. That same year he was widowed by the death of his beloved Charlotte but went on to immerse himself in a busy retirement, swimming every morning, socialising with friends and family and continuing to live his life to the full – a life that was celebrated at a packed memorial service on the Balmoral Estate.
He is survived by his daughters, Denise and Michelle.