Birds in a Family Tree weaves scientific and historical detail with warm remembrances of the family’s ‘Aunt Evie’ in the company of Science historian Catherine Booth and Mrs June Baxter. For more Minerva Scientifica podcasts click here.
Evelyn Baxter produced beautiful embroidery, especially crewel work using wool to create a raised pattern on linen. All sorts of traditional crafts were of great interest to her. As she travelled around Scotland with Leonora Rintoul, the two collected woven baskets from local communities, and these were later donated to the National Museums of Scotland.
Although we do not know that Evelyn Baxter had particular musical interests, we know she had an excellent ear for recognising bird calls!
Words by: C. Ethel Evans
“The Grey Geese” by Marie Dare (1902 – 1976), is a setting for voice and piano of a poem by C. Ethel Evans. It is performed by Frances M Lynch and was originally performed as part of an Edinburgh Festival Fringe show “Scottish Superwomen of Science”.
Title: On the Isle of May
Composer: FRANCES M LYNCH
For: solo voice with accompanying female chorus and sound effects
Performed by: Frances M Lynch
First performed: Aug 5th 2017, Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of the 5 star Scottish Superwomen of Science show
This short song gives a brief glimpse of the very rich lives of Baxter and her fellow ornithologist, Leonora Rintoul. With the Isle of May, where they did much of their important work, at the centre of the musical material, it branches out to explore their many interests and exploits across Scotland.
Title: A Widow Bird Sate Mourning
Music by: MARIE DARE
Words by: Percy Bysshe Shelley
Written in: 1973
For: SATB Unaccompanied Choir
Performed by: Frances M Lynch, Francis St John and Herbie Clarke
Dare was born in Fife as were the two intrepid ornithologists. This beautiful setting of Shelley’s poem could be one of those birds they wrote about after a bombardment by Zepplin on the Forth from which they noted a good many effects to the bird populations quite far from the attack. We made this recording using only 3 singers, but hopefully a choir will sing it again one day – the “good ladies” would definitely approve!
No formal education after school
Entries from the journals of Evelyn Baxter. (Credit: Archive of Scottish Ornithologists’ Club)
Tramped around most parts of Scotland studying birds with her lifelong friend and fellow ornithologist, Leonora Rintoul.
Bird recorder and journal author
Wherever they went, both women noted the birds they spotted, their prevalence and habitat, and noted the details in their handwritten journals. Evelyn Baxter carefully added the Latin name for most of the birds. These journals are now held in the archives of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club.
Evelyn Baxter’s family took an early interest in photography, and she continued to pursue this in the course of her travels.
During the 1920s, Evelyn Baxter made wireless broadcasts for schools on birds and their habitats.
Organised a section of the Women’s Land Army during both world wars.
One of Evelyn and Leonora’s walking routes on the Isle of May (Image by Catherine Booth)
- Following collaborative research and observations, she and Leonora Rintoul produced the authoritative 2 volume work: Birds of Scotland: their History, Distribution and Migration (1953).
- Much of the research for this was done by themselves, although they did include findings from many other ornithologists. One of these was Mary Du Caurroy Russell, Duchess of Bedford (1865-1937). The updated 2 volume work published by the SOC: The Birds of Scotland (2007), credits their work with extensive references
- Contributed to and published other ornithological books and many journal articles
- The two ladies made frequent visits between 1907-1933 to the Isle of May, and made meticulous records of the birdlife. These included rare migrants and wind and weather data, making their data a unique record of that region, which is still useful today for investigations into such topics as climate, conservation, reintroductions and land use.
A cliff view approaching the Isle of May – in good weather (Image by Catherine Booth)
- The Isle of May is still an important site for observing birds. Its Bird Observatory was established following Baxter and Rintoul’s observations there. It now hosts an annual Young Birders’ Training Course, to give enthusiastic young people the chance to learn and practise bird study skills.
- Adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland on the administration of the Wild Birds’ Protection Act
- In March 1936, both Evelyn Baxter and Leonora Rintoul were at a meeting of keen birdwatchers who decided to set up a club which would promote “the systematic recording and study of birds”. That club, the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC), now with a membership in the thousands, continues to flourish from modern premises in Aberlady, East Lothian.
Evelyn Baxter and Leonora Rintoul. (Image by “emmysmart” on www.ancestry.co.uk)
Did you Know?
Together, Baxter and Rintoul wrote accounts of unusual bird behaviour in particular circumstances, such as during a partial eclipse of the sun in August 1914, and during the Zeppelin raid on Edinburgh in April 1916.
Evelyn Baxter had several prominent forebears. Her great grandfather on her mother’s side was scientist and inventor, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868). He experimented in optics, and invented the kaleidoscope among other devices. He was interested in early photographic techniques, and was a good friend of Mary Somerville. Sir David Brewster’s wife was Juliet Macpherson, daughter of James Macpherson (1736-1796), poet and ‘translator’ of Ossian.
Evelyn Baxter and Mary Somerville also had common ancestors – Reverend Samuel Charters (?-1733) and his wife, who were the great grandparents of Mary Somerville, and great great great great grandparents of Evelyn Baxter.
Her great aunt, Mary Ann Baxter (1801-1884) was a philanthropist who strongly believed in the education of women, and co-founded University College, Dundee. Evelyn Baxter also had scientific female cousins – Dorothy Jackson (1892-1973) and her sister Annie Jackson (1889-1928).
Portrait of Evelyn Baxter (Image courtesy of the Scottish Ornithologists Club)
An Inspiring Woman
During her lifetime, Evelyn was an enthusiastic fundraiser for local causes, sometimes opening up her home and garden as a venue. She left a legacy for the Scottish Women’s Institutes, an Evelyn Baxter Scholarship, to encourage the preservation of traditional crafts. Notably, the scholarship was awarded to people willing to learn crafts in order to teach others – in other words, it was designed so that craft skills would be passed down to future generations.