The books of John Lister-Kaye

My four favourite nature books by the British naturalist John Lister-Kaye

Sir John Lister-Kaye is a British naturalist, conservationist and author. He lives with his wife and family among the mountains of the Scottish Highlands, where he runs the Aigas Field Centre. This was the first Field Studies Centre for the Highlands and Islands. It has a key educational goal; over 100,000 children have enjoyed learning about nature there. He has written ten books; here I review what I think are his four best – so far (in July his new book comes out).

Song of the Rolling Earth (2003)

The back-cover blurb: Conservationist and naturalist John Lister-Kaye, founder of the Aigas Field Centre, writes about his life in the glens, the wildlife that surrounds him and the primeval magical exchange that takes place between man and nature once so central to ancient civilisations. He describes finding the ruined nineteenth-century estate that is to become Aigas, taking it over and turning it into a going concern as an Educational Centre, and his own personal motivation, following the Torrey Canyon oil spillage and natural disasters in the 1960s, to become a conservationist. Interspersed within the narrative detail are engaging and enlightening descriptions of flora and fauna.

My review: I’ve never been to the Aigas Field Centre (unfortunately), which the author established in 1977 and which is the focus of this book. But thanks to Lister-Kaye’s excellent book, I feel I know it and the surrounding area almost as well as I do my own garden and local patch of countryside.

His powers of observation are phenomenal and his way with words when he describes his experiences are exceptional. His description of the Uroceros wood wasp laying her eggs in a log is a prime example. “She is a power tool in chitin … straining like every schoolboy who has tried to force his compass points into the desktop”. I feel I am there, crouching down with the author (and like him I have to stand up and stretch my sore legs!).

That’s the magic of Lister-Kaye: he’s not just telling you about his intimate experiences; he’s sharing them with you. Read this and you’ll find yourself hearing the wild songs of the rolling earth yourself, without a doubt.

Nature’s Child (2004)

The back-cover blurb: This is John Lister-Kaye’s account of bringing up his daughter to appreciate the nature around her so beloved to himself. It is also a moving meditation on that world, and on their relationship, as he shows her how caterpillars metamorphose into moths; how beavers build dams in Norway; how half a million sea birds migrate to Shetland once a year to breed; how white rhinos behave in the wilds of Swaziland; how baby polar bears are raised on an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

My review: I came to this book shortly after reading the author’s “Song of the Rolling Earth”, doubting if the author could maintain such superbly high standards. I was not disappointed. Wonderful, exhilarating, charming, humorous, profound, challenging … and that just describes the first chapter! Lister-Kaye has a unique way of observing and describing nature; it’s as if I am right alongside him on his journeys. It’s a book to read and re-read.

At The Water’s Edge (2010)

The back-cover blurb: For the last thirty years John Lister-Kaye has taken the same circular walk from his home deep in a Scottish glen up to a small hill loch. Each day brings a new observation or an unexpected encounter – a fragile spider’s web, an osprey struggling to lift a trout from the water or a woodcock exquisitely camouflaged on her nest – and every day, on his return home, he records his thoughts in a journal. Drawing on this lifetime of close observation, At The Water’s Edge encourages us to look again at the nature around us, to discover its wildness for ourselves and to respect and protect it.

My review: Six years after his last book, John Lister-Kaye is back with more of the magical and insightful observations that characterised his last two wonderful books. And what observations! A kestrel seizing a slow worm only to end up with a tail in its talons as the slow worm jettisoned its tail and escaped, falling to the floor. A goshawk chasing a wood pigeon and knocking itself out on a fence post. Getting up close and personal with a magnificent red deer stag after meticulously stalking it. The thrill of watching a wildcat. Every chapter is a treasure; every sentence perfectly crafted.

But don’t for one instant think the book is full of romanticised musings. Lister-Kaye is very much a 21st century conservationist. He comes down heavily on our society which is “drunk with energy lust,” with “chemical-dependent agricultural systems which expend ten calories of energy to grow and transport to the markets a single calorie of food.” He wonders whether “mankind has lost its way because we are out of touch with the biorhythms that controlled our lives long ago.” In other words, it’s a book to enjoy but also a book to shake you up.

Gods of the Morning (2015)

The back-cover blurb: From his home deep in a Scottish glen, John Lister-Kaye has watched and come to understand intimately the movements and habits of the animals, and in particular the birds, that inhabit the wild and magnificent Highlands. Drawing on a lifetime of observation, Gods of the Morning is his wise and affectionate celebration of the British countryside and the birds that come and go through the year. It is also a lyrical reminder of the relationship we have lost with the seasons and a call to look afresh at the natural world around us.

My review: From childhood tales of his pet rook Squawky to the attempts of pine martens to penetrate his hen coop. From the delights of stumbling across a willow warbler’s nest to the danger of getting lost on the mountains in a freak snow blizzard. John Lister-Kaye once again demonstrates his superb skills of identifying and then describing the natural world.

I don’t know how he does it, but I always feel as if I am right there alongside him, watching awestruck as millions of spiders “balloon” on gossamer threads, or sitting just five feet away from a nesting raven.

Interspersed with his stories are his considerable concerns about the changing climate, habitat destruction, and loss of biodiversity. Yet it ends with optimism, as he introduces his little grandson to birdwatching. If you are as yet unacquainted with Lister-Kaye’s books, then Gods of the Morning is an excellent starting point.

John Lister-Kaye


      • Hah!…I should’ve clarified. Short version – through an intense 7 month project I was on (taking a Scottish youth group to Africa for 3 months) I learned something of Scottish naturalists through environmentalists that were involved, particular John Muir. Not heard of this guy that I remembered.

        Liked by 1 person

        • ..and of course living in Scotland, Scottish authors and artists tend to be forefronted…despite our globalisation culture lookd different depending on where you’re standing…

          Liked by 1 person

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