Scotland’s first penguins
Scotland’s - and indeed Edinburgh’s - association with penguins dates back over 100 years. A party of penguins - thought to comprise three king penguins, one macaroni and a gentoo - arrived at Edinburgh Zoo on January 25 2014, having travelled from South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands with the Christian Salvesen whaling expedition that docked in Leith. Penguins continued to arrive with whaling ships into Edinburgh for years after, and the zoo was the first in the world to house and breed penguins.
The accidental penguin parade
The Edinburgh Zoo penguin parade is now a famous attraction, having been performed since 1951. But did you know it started entirely by accident? A zoo keeper forgot to close a gate to the penguin pool, and a number of inquisitive penguins followed the keeper around the zoo. Visitors were so taken with the impromptu parade that the zoo decided to make it a regular occurrence. Two-thirds of the zoo’s penguins go on parade on a daily basis - but only if they want to take part.
Bill Mitchell, the penguin courier
In 1957, 21-year-old Bill Mitchell - an engineering apprentice in Glasgow - saw an advert in a newspaper about an Antarctic expedition. An avid climber and hillwalker, Mitchell sent in an application to join the party. Nearly a year later, a letter arrived: he’d been successful and would be part of the crew on board the RSS Shackleton, sailing from Southampton.
Mitchell was assigned to the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey team. After a brief refuelling stop in the Uruguayan port of Montevideo, the expedition sailed on to the Falkland Islands to pick up supplies and equipment. From there, the ship headed for Antarctica, where Mitchell’s first job was at a base in the South Orkney Islands.
Then the message from Edinburgh Zoo came through.
Mitchell was asked if he could round up 100 Adelie penguins and 100 Chinstrap penguins and bring them back to Scotland.
Mitchell recalled the incident nearly 60 years later in an interview with the BBC, saying: “Edinburgh Zoo didn’t have any penguins at that time, so they applied to the expedition. The penguins relied entirely on me feeding them strips of fish. It was a lot of work.”
Mitchell returned to Scotland in 1961, with the penguins in tow. Today Edinburgh Zoo is home to rockhopper penguins, king penguins and gentoos.
Sir Nils Olav
A highly decorated king penguin, Edinburgh Zoo resident Sir Nils Olav is an honorary member of the King of Norway’s Guard, and actually inspects soldiers on visits to Scotland’s capital.
However, there have actually been three Nils Olavs including the current penguin - who holds the official title of Brigadier Sir Nils Olav III.
The connection between Norway and Scotland dates back to 1961, when the Norwegian King’s Guards visited Edinburgh’s Military Tattoo for a drill display. One member of the party, Lieutenant Nils Egelien, developed an interest in the penguin colony at Edinburgh Zoo.
When the unit returned to Edinburgh in 1972, he arranged for them to adopt a penguin. The bird was christened Nils Olav, after Egelien and King Olav V of Norway.
Initially given the rank of visekorporal (lance corporal), Nils Olav has been promoted each time the King’s Guard has returned to Edinburgh.
In 1982 he was promoted to Corporal and in 1987 became a sergeant.
When the penguin died shortly after being made a sergeant, a second king penguin - Nils Olav II - took on the role.
In 1993, he was promoted to the rank of regimental sergeant major, and was appointed in Colonel-in-Chief 12 years later in 2005.
By 2008, Nils Olav II had been knighted - unsurprisingly the first penguin to receive the honour in the Norwegian Army.
A third Nils Olav took on the role in 2008, and was promoted to Brigadier in August 2016.
Where can I find penguins in Scotland?
Currently there are penguins at Edinburgh Zoo - rockhoppers, kings and gentoos - along with a small group of Humboldt penguins at St Andrews Aquarium, and another handful at Blairdrummond Safari Park.
P-p-p...pick up a (Scottish) penguin
Penguin chocolate bars (most famous, of course, for the terrible jokes on the back of the wrapper) are actually Scottish. They were originally created by Glasgow-based biscuit manufacturer William MacDonald, and were introduced in 1932. Current owners McVitie’s bought Penguin in 1946.