Few birds have come to symbolise majesty and splendour like the eagle. The Highlands are the haunt of both the golden eagle, and the white-tailed, or sea eagle, which was re-introduced to Scotland’s west coast last century.
In Celtic mythology, the eagle is traditionally seen as one of the oldest of all creatures, surpassed only by the salmon in wisdom and age. The Eagle of Gernabwy features in the Welsh Mabinogion. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, one of Culhwch’s tasks, in order to win the hand of his beloved, is to find the missing and rather magical child called Mabon. He asks a number of animals for guidance, and eventually gets a very handy tip-off from this ancient and wise bird. In fact this eagle is so ancient that when he was young the rock he is perched on towered among the stars, but has since been weathered to the size of a fist!
Golden eagles did once occur in Wales, and to hear the cries of these usually silent birds was thought to foretell a significant event, such as the birth of a great hero. A lone eagle seen on a crag was seen as a sentry, warning of the arrival of an enemy, while a pair was a symbol of peace.
The white-tailed eagle is a truly magnificent bird. It has the enchanting Gaelic name of Iolaire suile na grein – ‘the eagle with the sunlit eye’ – and it does indeed have very striking, pale eyes. In Shetland and parts of mainland Scotland, it is still known as the Erne from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘the soarer’. The remains of a number of white-tailed eagles were found in a tomb in Orkney. Why were they placed there? We can only guess that they must have held some religious significance. Some ancient peoples in Scotland would leave their dead in the open to be scavenged by birds of prey such as eagles.
Shetland fishermen would sometimes put eagle fat on their fishing hooks to help improve their catches. It was said that when the Erne appeared, fish would rise to the surface in submission! Across Britain, eagle body parts were prized for a wide range of supposed curative properties.
This eagle features in the poetic Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in an account of the Battle of Brunanburh: “…the grey-coated eagle, white-tailed, to have his will of the corpses”. Along with ravens and wolves, it would have taken advantage of the carnage of battle.
Eagles make a dramatic appearance as powerful allies in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. At one point Gandalf is rescued from the top of Saruman’s tower by one of these giant birds, and later on the eagles help take on the Nazgul in battle, and even rescue Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom when it looks like all is lost.
It is interesting to note the importance placed on eagle feathers in various cultures. Highland clan chiefs still wear three eagle feathers in their bonnets as a symbol of their rank, while in Native American culture, eagles and their feathers still hold great significance. They were traditionally included in head-dresses, used in various ceremonies, and were also awarded to warriors for acts of bravery. Being such great soarers, it is not surprising they represented a higher perspective on life, and were believed to have a particularly close connection to the Creator.
An old Manx name for the eagle is Drein – the Druid’s bird, giving them status as king of the birds. However, a tale from the Western Highlands tells a different story. All the birds of the air held a contest for sovereignty, deciding to settle it by seeing who could fly the highest. Just when the eagle, almost predictably, declared his triumph, the tiny wren popped out from its hiding place among the eagle’s feathers and flew that bit higher and won the contest. The Druids held only the wren in greater esteem than the eagle for its shrewdness and cunning!
Sources & further reading:
Anon, Gantz, J. (translator).(1976). The Mabinogion. Penguin: London.
Buczacki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. Hamlyn: London
Carr-Gomm, P. & S. (1994). The Druid Animal Oracle. Fireside: New York.
Matthews, J & C. (1995). British and Irish Mythology. Diamond Books: London
All about… White-tailed Sea Eagles (PDF on the SNH site)