Elusive, invisible, mysterious: these words can all apply to the lynx, Scotland’s missing native cat. Ironically, exactly the same adjectives can apply to stories and folklore about this animal! The lynx hung on until around 1,500 years ago in northern England – and possibly even longer in Scotland – until it was driven to extinction. But there are no traditional Scottish lynx stories to be found. Was the lynx ever a prominent player in the folklore of Britain? We will probably never know for certain, but it would be surprising if such a striking and charismatic animal was completely ignored by early story-tellers. There are just a few tantalising hints of evidence.
Experts have aged lynx bones to establish when these magnificent cats were still roaming the forests of Britain. The lynx sleuths also drew upon Pais Dinogad, a lullaby written in Cumbric, which is an ancient language related to Welsh. The song tells of a man’s hunting prowess and lists the animals he caught. For years scholars had debated the translation of the word, llewn, which clearly refers to a wild animal. It eventually became apparent that it actually meant lynx. Language can offer valuable clues to historical puzzles, and llewn is derived from the same origin as Lugh, who was a Celtic solar deity. The connection between these names could be in the quality of light that shines from this cat’s eyes.
We can only speculate as to which of the lynx’s characteristics would have fascinated humans in Scotland, perhaps getting hints from the stories of other cultures and at other times. Both the wolf and the bear have been held in high regard in pre-agricultural societies, and attributes such as the wolf’s hunting skill and the bear’s strength were admired. Maybe the lynx’s extraordinary power and agility were held in high regard; after all, a lynx can leap up to seven metres (twenty-three feet) in one bound! And perhaps their incredible stealth and their ability to vanish into the forest would have inspired hunters to invoke the same powers before a hunt. These kinds of beliefs were held by the Native American Mohave, who said that to dream of a lynx and a cougar would bring great hunting skill. The lynx’s close relative, the bobcat, played a significant role in American mythology, again highlighting the possibility that the lynx could have had a strong cultural presence in Britain, in spite of being physically elusive.
Certainly the lynx’s powerful vision was and is a much-admired trait and the term ‘lynx-eyed’ is used to describe someone with keen eyesight. If you look to the night sky in winter you might spot a constellation called the Lynx just between Ursa Major and Auriga. The Lynx was defined by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in the 17th Century and like many constellations, it bears no resemblance to the creature for which it was named. Hevelius chose that name because you need the eyes of a lynx to make it out! In Renaissance Italy there was a scientific society called Accademia dei Lincei, or Academy of the Lynx-Eyed. Here the lynx symbolised the penetrating eye for accuracy, detail and truth required by rigorous scientific study.
While there is a dearth of lynx stories in Scotland, an exception is Hox, a recent novel by Annemarie Allan, that tells an exciting modern tale of a Scottish boy and two lynx, and their perilous winter adventure. The lynx is still present in our culture in perhaps unexpected ways. Several companies use it as a brand name, drawing upon the mystique and glamour of this animal to promote their products. In the Harz National Park in Germany, the presence of reintroduced lynx has become a valuable boost for the tourist economy. While there is little chance of seeing one of these animals, people are attracted by the charisma of the lynx and the knowledge that they are present in the landscape.
Perhaps the lack of folklore hasn’t been such a bad thing for the lynx. After all, the wolf has a huge amount of mythology surrounding it but a lot of this has painted a false picture and has fuelled unjustified and brutal persecution. If the lynx is ever brought back to Scotland (and there is a strong case for doing so) it will have the advantage of starting with a fairly ‘clean record’ in our minds. Maybe then, over time, our own cultural and aesthetic relationships with this astonishing cat will naturally emerge in their own way.
Sources and further reading:
Allan, A. (2007) Hox. Floris Books: Edinburgh.
Bang, P. and Dahlstrom, P. (2001) Animal Tracks and Signs. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Hetherington, D. A., Lord, T. C. and Jacobi, R. M. (2005) New evidence for the occurrence of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in medieval Britain. Journal of Quaternary Science, Vol 21, 3-8.
Hetherington, D. (2006) The lynx in Britain’s past, present and future. ECOS 27 (1), 66-74.
KORA (1998) Workshop on Human Dimension in Large Carnivore Conservation http://www.lcie.org?Docs/HD/Strahn%20KORA%20Swiss%20LC%20HD.pdf
O’Connor, JJ and Robertson, EF. (2004) “The Accademia dei Lincei” (link to:http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Societies/Lincei.html) University of St Andrews. Accessed September 2009.
Sasaki, C. (2003) The Constellations: Stars and Stories. Sterling: New York.
http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobcat/ Accessed September 2009.