A couple of weeks have passed since I had an afternoon with Colin Scott of Border Taxidermy, but the mind still boggles at the breadth of information shared over a few hours. I took Colin the mysterious greyhen found dead near Gatehouse of Fleet and he showed me how to skin and prepare it for mounting in his studio near Hawick. I had tried my hand at taxidermy a few times before with very moderate results, but as we worked away together, I gathered all kinds of tips. The most satisfying moment was after we had washed the skin and then blew it dry with hairdryer – seeing the wet, sticky feathers spring into life was really encouraging, and the skin was beautifully presented by the time I left. This was in stark contrast to my previous experiences of skinning which have usually resulted in a sticky mess of feathers and gore, and I found that I was actually looking forward to the mounting stage.
Colin’s work is fantastic – his roe heads in particular are astonishingly life-like, and I could have spent days poring through racks of equipment and tools stacked up to the ceilings of his workshop. It came as a revelation to me to see that there is (quite literally) more than one way to skin and mount a cat, and I was very impressed with Colin’s ability to make almost anything he needs. He showed me forms that he had cast from a rubber resin and compared them with others made from foam and wood wool, and I was amazed to hear how many different ways there are to mould and model mammal ears. Exposure to American taxidermy had made me think that it’s all about the kit – if you’re working on a stag, you just need to buy all the “stag” pieces and assemble them. With the exception of eyes, Colin seems to make everything he needs from raw materials, and so the final end product is all the more staggering.
I’m not totally sure where my relationship with taxidermy goes from here. I appreciate it far more than I did before because I now have an understanding of how complex and demanding it is. There is real skill in the work and it is very impressive to see it done well, but I wonder if I have the true grit and patience to sustain high levels of concentration for extended periods. Some of the tasks are very laborious and picky, and I worry that I’m too antsy and easily distracted.
When I was working in South Africa, every animal shot was skinned and whisked off to the taxidermist within minutes. All kinds of hunters came from across the world to shoot their beasts over a matter of days, and in their rushed schedule, they only really spent a few minutes in the company of kudu or gemsbok. Several months later, they received their “trophy” (I hate that word) in a shipping crate and hung it straight on the wall. They had next to no relationship with the animal or even the species they had killed – it was just a macho decoration. This confused me and made me think that taxidermy was just a form of bragging.
By comparison, I have been collecting skulls, feathers, spent eggshells and skins for decades. I’m inherently curious about nature, and I have a stack of bizarre curiosities in my office and throughout my house. Having a go at taxidermy feels like an extension of this, and I am particularly engrossed by working with British wildlife. Having now skinned three black grouse and a snipe, I’ve learnt things about their basic anatomy that I would never have picked up in years of passive observation. This links to my belief that shooting is part of a deeper and more profound engagement with wildlife than would ever be possible from watching alone.
I’ve often heard taxidermy criticised by people who say that no matter how good the work, the end product is still not as nice as it was when it was alive. I agree – I’d always rather see a living animal, but if it’s possible to preserve something of its beauty after death, I’m happy with the logic. A bit more practice might help me develop the skills I need to do some taxidermy of my own, and I’m enjoying the challenge presented by the next stage of dealing with the greyhen’s skin. Watch this space…