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The Brown Bear

From "The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland" by James Ritchie, Cambridge at the University Press, 1920. p.112-115.

Few of us can have imagined the possibility of encountering a Brown Bear in the forest glades of Britain, yet our forerunners in the land frequently enjoyed that experience in the far-off days when:

In yon withered bracken's lair
Slumbered the wolf and shaggy bear.

At the present day in Europe the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) is mainly confined to the forests of Scandinavia, Russia, Hungary and the Pyrenees, but in former days it was a common inhabitant of Great Britain and Ireland. In Scotland where it lingered longest, it ranged over the whole land from Dumfriesshire, where many years ago a well preserved skull and a rib were found in a peat moss at Shaws, to Sutherland and Caithness. The only direct evidence of its association with man in North Britain is afforded by the discovery of a tooth in a broch at Keiss, for the canine tooth found in the bone cave near Inchnadamph in Sutherlandshire lay in a deposit lower than that containing traces of the presence of man.

Yet in Yorkshire the Neolithic cave-dwellers of Settle considered the flesh of the Bear a suitable article of food, and its presence, as late as Roman times, is indicated by bones found in refuse-heaps at Richmond in Yorkshire, at Colchester in Essex, and even so far south as London, as well as by the discovery in the Roman camp of Cilurnum or Chesters on the Tyne-Solway Wall of a tooth of a large Bear, the perforations in which hint that the slayer wore the relic as a badge of prowess.

The assumption is a fair one that if the Bear existed in England at the time of the Roman occupation it was also present in the much wilder country of Scotland, and sidelights of history support this idea. In the years after the Roman occupation of Britain, Caledonian Bears were well known in Rome, whither they were transported overseas to make sport in the ampitheatre. Malefactors bound to a cross were exposed to the attacks of these savage denizens from far-off Scotland, as Martial reminds us,

Hanging on no slim cross, Laureolus
His naked body to a Caledonian bear
Thus proffered.

That the Bear still survived in Scottish woods after the Roman legions had gone, both archaeology and tradition suggest.

"Nuda Caledonio sic pectora praebuit urso,
Non falsa pendens in cruce, Laureolus."

The canine tooth found with other refuse in the Broch of Keiss in Caithness probably belongs to a period succeeding the Roman conquest, for brochs appear to have been unknown to the historians of Rome. Yet, assuming that it is the relic of a native animal, it indicates the presence of the Bear only in a vague period ranging down to the ninth or tenth century of our era. Tradition is even less definite as to date. Leslie in 1578, speaks of the "Tor-wood" or Caledonian forest as a place.

quhair in lyke maner war sa mony wylde bares ["ursos"] that, as the alde
wryters make mentione, than being full ["repertissimam"] is now nocht ane
(even as our nychbour Inglande has nocht ane wolfe, with quhilkes afore
thay war mekle molested and invadet).

And Camden, in his Britannia (1607), says of Perthshire:

This Athole is a country friutful enough, having woody vallies, where
once the Caledonian forest (dreadful for its dark intricate windings and for
its dens of Bears, and its huge thick-maned bulls) extended itself far and near in these parts.

Almost to our own day, Gaelic tradition has carried the memory of the great Magh-Ghanhainn - the "paw-calf" a "rough dark, grisly monster, the terror of the winter's tale"; and highland legends, such as "The Brown Bear of the Green Glen" recorded by Mr J.F. Campbell, and occasional place names, such as Ruigh-na-beiste, the Monster's Brae, and Toll-nam-biast, the Hole of the Monsters, may possibly perpetuate the tradition of the last survivors of Scottish Bears.

When did the Bear disappear from amongst the animals of Scotland?

Attempts have been made to show that the Clan Forbes owes its name to the slaughter of a Bear by the chieftain, Ochonchar, the founder of the clan, whose surname, bestowed upon him for his prowess, became Forbear or Forbeiste. Pennant states that a Gordon, on account of his valour in killing a fierce Bear in 1057, was ordered by the King to carry three Bears' heads on his banner. It has even been stated that "in an ancient Gaelic poem ascribed to Ossian, the hero McDiarmid is said to have been killed by a Bear on Beinn Ghielleinn in Perthshire." But in each of these cases a wild Boar and not a Bear was the animal concerned, and the confusion has apparently arisen through the resemblance to "Bear" of the old Scots spelling and pronounciation of Boar, which was "Bare".

It is highly probable that a similar confusion of terms led Col. Thornton to state in 1804 that Lord Graham had turned out a few "wild Bears" on the island of Inchmurrin in Loch Lomond, and that the record of Inchmurrin Bears which has found its way into literature is a false one.

All that we can say, therefore, is that the Brown Bear seems to have beenpresent in Scotland after the early centuries of our era, and may have existed till the ninth or tenth. Since there were no changes in climate or food supply sufficient to account for its disappearance, the assumption is that man's interference led to its extermination.