The Great Scot
An interview with one of Scotland’s tops falconers about Scottish tradition, the wonderful world of birds of prey, and the one thing every tourist should take home.
Steven Brazendale is the consummate Scotsman. Dressed in a flat cap, tweed jacket, and green tie, he looks the part of Scotland’s model citizen. And sealing the deal of his very proud citizenship (as if there could be any doubt) is the Saker falcon perched majestically atop his gloved fist — one of 11 birds the falconer introduces to Exclusive Resorts guests at the Pittormie Castle near St. Andrews.
Indeed, Brazendale is a rare bird himself: A wildlife authority and conservationist, a ranger and expert angler, a falconer by trade, and a pure Scotsman by blood, he goes by the very appropriate moniker “The Scottish Countryman,” and he specializes in sharing with his clients what he calls “Scottishness.” That includes everything from fly-fishing in the West Highlands to wilderness walks through the Hebrides, and, most especially, close-up experiences with his falcons, owls, and hawks.
After an afternoon with Brazendale and his feathered friends at Pittormie Castle, we sat down with the great falconer to find out more about the time-honored Scottish tradition of falconry and all that is special about his native country.
Tell us about the history of falconry in Scotland.
We don’t know the exact date that it started — certainly before written history — but it was originally used as a way to catch protein. Essentially, it was a poor man’s way to put food on the table. But in the 1500s, during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, it became the noble and fashionable thing to do. Your rank even depended on the kind of bird you could fly. The king had an eagle, the queen had a falcon, and the servants had kestrels.
What's a day in the life of a falconer like?
The day starts at 7 a.m. when all the birds are taken out of their overnight mews. I weigh them every day because birds of prey are like athletes: there is a certain weight at which they perform best. We don’t want them to be too light because they won’t have the energy to fly, and we don’t want them to be too well-fed because they are motivated by appetite.
During my private sessions at Pittormie Castle, I’ll demonstrate how fast and far Arabia, my Saker falcon, can fly, using a lure [a long rope with meat attached to one end]. Guests can also fly Murray, my Harris hawk, and hold on their fist one or two of my eagles or owls. It’s a very hands-on experience.
How fast can Arabia, the Saker Falcon fly?
She can fly up to 200 mile per hour. Falcons have unbelievable eyesight — they can see movement from two miles away, and they have a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane that protects their eyes from wind and dust when they are flying at high speeds. They also have a tooth in their upper mandible that can crack bone because they consume all of their prey — bones and all.
Do you have a close bond with your birds?
Yes, especially the owls. When owls are babies, they are rather like kittens, getting into everything! When they are really young — 10 to 15 days — I will feed them with a pair of forceps, to mimic what their mum would do. So they start to think of me as their parent. When they imprint on you like this, they aren’t just happy to see you; they are running across the room to get to you! With the hawks and falcons, it’s more of a food relationship, with the exception of Murray, my Harris hawk. I have a connection with him that I’ve not had with any other Harris hawk. There’s something about him!
What are you doing when you're not flying or taking care of your birds?
When it’s not about business, it’s very much about family. My wife and I like to visit the Isle of May, and I love to go fly-fishing with my older son in the West Highlands. During the summer, our favorite time is the Scottish Game Fair. It’s a big fair where you’ll find vendors of some of the best produce and local gin and, of course, game. You can’t get more Scottish than that!
Any favorite restaurants?
In St. Andrews, Balgove Larder Farm Shop is particularly good, especially for its meats and fresh produce. In Crail, we have an old-fashioned grocer called Greens that is filled with wonderful local produce. We’re really lucky here in Fife. The organic fruits and vegetables, the venison and the meats, the fresh lobster and white fish from the coast — it’s all on our doorstep.
What’s One Souvenir Every Visitor Should Take Home?
Tweed! [Pointing to his vest.] We’ve got some great tweed makers here. Harris tweed from the Hebrides is the best.
Photos courtesy of Jackie Caradonio.