Obituary: Mike Tomkies, nature writer who immersed himself in the wildest of terrain

Nature writer Mike Tomkies. Picture: contributed
Nature writer Mike Tomkies. Picture: contributed
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Mike Tomkies, wildlife writer and campaigner, former guardsman and freelance journalist. Born West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire, 25 May, 1928. Died Henfield, West Sussex, 6 October, 2016, aged 88.

Mike Tomkies was a warrior for nature. For the last 50 of his 88 years he championed nature’s cause through an uncompromising series of books set in some of the wildest terrain of Canada and Spain, but most memorably, in the West Highlands of Scotland which he loved fiercely, and where he lived in extremes of isolation.

Mike Tomkies was a warrior for nature. For the last 50 of his 88 years he championed nature’s cause through an uncompromising series of books set in some of the wildest terrain of Canada and Spain, but most memorably, in the West Highlands of Scotland which he loved fiercely, and where he lived in extremes of isolation.

He returned in later life to Henfield in West Sussex, the landscape of much of his childhood and youth, and where his love of nature was born and nourished. It was there he died after collapsing at a small nature reserve which was in his care. He had been suffering from prostate cancer and pneumonia, but his bond with the natural world was unbreakable to the last.

In his best-known book, A Last Wild Place, he had written: “Great natural beauty is a powerful creative force for thought . . . In the old still silences, intuition, perception and all the spiritual qualities that distinguish man, that make him able to see himself and the universe in perspective, are enhanced.”

The book chronicles a year in the mountains and woods around his home on Loch Shiel. It was an isolated cottage whose only access was on foot or by boat. Its name was Gaskan, but, characteristically, he changed it to Wildernesse, for in his books he often renamed the features of the landscape and creatures wild and domestic. So there is a Guardian Mountain, a Heron Island, the Killer Trek; and that sense of theatricality extended to the names he gave to the creatures he admired most, the golden eagles. Of one of these, a huge dark female, he wrote: “I felt as might a mountain hare, rabbit or grouse on first catching sight of her – here was the veritable shadow, the dark angel of death . . . She was moving like some ethereal goddess of the aerial chase, and in that brief moment I thought of a good name for her – Atalanta, after the fleet mythological Greek goddess of the Calydonian Hunt, who, as is also true in the eagle world, could outdistance and more than had the measure of any male of her species!”

The detail of his observations in that singularly demanding landscape and the sheer physical slog his fieldwork entailed are ingrained in the minds of every reader. He was never the most lyrical of nature writers, but he had an unfailing narrative sense, and a talent for immersing his readers deep into his own world; he made them care about the creatures whose company he kept.

Our paths first crossed in 1982 when I was a feature writer on the Edinburgh Evening News and he was promoting his book, Golden Eagle Years. I was writing a lot of wildlife and environment-based journalism, and from that moment until we lost touch more than 20 years later, he took great interest in my work and encouraged me relentlessly.

Mike Tomkies was first of all a soldier in the Coldstream Guards, serving in the Middle East and then (incongruously to anyone who came to know him in his Wildernesse years) at Buckingham Palace. He became a newspaper journalist, firstly in and around London, then in Paris and Madrid, and then in Hollywood where he wrote about and sometimes befriended a whole galaxy of movie stars. His first two books were about Robert Mitchum and John Wayne.

He briefly dated Ava Gardner, he claimed to have saved Elvis Presley’s life by stopping him from falling off a fairground carousel, he went motor cycling with Steve McQueen, and he knew Sophia Loren, Doris Day, Claudia Cardinale and many others. He fondly recalled a conversation he once had with Brigitte Bardot about loneliness.

But it was the English actress Alexandra Bastedo who won his heart. When they eventually parted after a filming contract forbade her to marry for three years, he went off to the Canadian west to write a novel, and the experience would change his life forever.

The novel was written but never saw the light of day. Instead, his head was turned by wilderness. He built himself a log cabin, and became entranced by the bears, bald eagles and whales of Canada’s western seaboard. The book he wrote about that, Alone in the Wilderness, gave nature a new disciple, and a new and persuasive voice.

A chance find on a Canadian rubbish dump re-shaped his destiny and its landscape. It was a battered copy of Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water. He was so taken with it that he moved back to Britain with the idea of meeting Maxwell and working with him, only to discover when he got here that Maxwell had died the previous year.

He looked for his own Camusfearna, and found something like it on Eilean Shona, a tidal island on the Sunart coast. His time there was the basis of Between Earth and Paradise, but by the time he had written that and Golden Eagle Years, he had gone in search of wilder surroundings and found them at Gaskan, and it was there that he wrote the books that cemented his reputation, from A Last Wild Place in 1984 to Last Wild Years in 1992.

When he finally left there, it was to find a new base in the Scottish Borders, but something irretrievable was lost, and it was probably true to say that a drinking habit as uncompromising as so many other traits of his life had begun to take its toll. His writing career went quiet and he made wildlife videos and TV films. But in 2001 he met Caithness-based publisher Keith Whittles and since then new editions of his out-of-print works, and two volumes of autobiography revived his fortunes. What proved to be his final wildlife book, Running Wild, was published in 2014 when he was 86.

JIM CRUMLEY