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The High-Flying Duchess
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High-Flying Duchess

Extracts / Ornithology

The real attractions of bird watching for Mary have been defined as ‘the charm of birds and the love of solitary places.’

“The Scottish islands and other places where she stayed offered both these in full measure. She must have seemed a strange visitor to the inhabitants of Fair Isle. At first they all clustered round, desperate to sell her the jerseys and stockings they knitted. She resolved the situation by explaining that she would not buy items from all the different individuals who approached her but instead would pay for their ‘Queen’s Nurse’. There was no doctor on the island and every time one was needed a bill of £20 was incurred. The islanders were desperately poor and the nurse invaluable to them. They responded to the gesture: when next Mary returned to the island, not one attempted to beg.

"Mary always throve on hard work and seemed to derive considerable satisfaction from the most menial duties, perhaps in reaction to the way of life expected of a duchess. She would stay in a tiny cottage, usually accompanied by a single lady’s maid.

"‘Billingham and I go shares in the housework, and I begin the day by cleaning the grate at 6.45 a.m. and go through the programme of floor-scrubbing, dusting, bedmaking, etc., before breakfast. After breakfast I clean my boots, chop firewood… and perform sundry other duties before my morning’s bird watching.’”

“Once, as she was about to leave the island, the factor’s wife came to say goodbye, and wished her ‘All God’s blessings’, but added in an undertone ‘But what’s the good of them when she’s got everything and doesn’t want ‘em!’

"Mary’s priorities in life are well illustrated by her diary entry for 8th June 1907 at Egilshay, Orkney.
‘I had an invitation to an evening party at Buckingham Palace for to-day, but walked over instead to visit the King of Birds, viz. the White-tailed Eagle at Water falls, North Roe. His Majesty was at home, and gave me a splendid view.’”


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