The People of Gibraltar
1909 – W.W. Cole Verner – The Unclimbable Fence

Leonard Howard Irby and the Reverend John White
Mr. Edward Hunt and the Duke of Connaught

William Willoughby Cole Verner could perhaps best be described as a Renaissance Man - soldier, writer, naturalist,  inventor, Professor of Topology, and very much a climber and an amateur ornithologist - he was a good friend of Leonard Howard Irby ( see LINK )


Sir William Willoughby Cole Verner in the garden of the Mount      ( May 1903 - Sarah Angelina Acland  ( see LINK ) - Courtesy of the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford - Colour composite by Giles Hudson )

He was also a keen cave explorer and is remembered for bringing the prehistoric paintings of the Cueva de la Pileta in Malaga to international attention - as well as discovering Devil's Tower Cave in Gibraltar.


Devil's Tower Cave, a Mousterian rock-shelter marked with a cross on the photograph, the Devil's Tower itself just to the right of it. ( Early 20th century - Beanland, Malin, Gibraltar ) ( see LINK

 Perhaps less admirable from a modern perspective - Verner was also a compulsive egg collector - as he himself acknowledges. 
But I must explicitly disclaim any pretensions to merely being a bird-watcher, one who never molests a nest. I have robbed many nests, possibly those of more species than most people in proportion to the countries I have visited. But I have found most of them myself and taken nearly all of them with my own hands.
More to the point he was stationed in Gibraltar with the Rifle Brigade during the late 19th century, subsequently retiring to Algeciras where he wrote his autobiographical My life Among the Wild Birds of Spain. It was published in 1909. Although obviously a book about birds there is nevertheless much in it that reveals the kind of freedom available to just about any resourceful British officer of the day who happened to be stationed in Gibraltar. 

 Before reading on it is also probably worthwhile remembering that in the late 19th century there were no railways or other facilities for travelling between Gibraltar and the nearby Spanish towns. Even the road from Algeciras to Tarifa had not yet been constructed. It meant that every expedition from the Rock was necessarily limited to whatever distance could be covered by riding out on horseback between the hours of the firing of the morning and the evening gun.

I have mostly omitted Cole Verner's non-Gibraltarian activities, but it should be borne in mind that he spent most of his free time on Spanish expeditions which depended on how fast his horse could carry him so as to leave time for whatever he wanted to do - which was mostly climbing inaccessibly nesting sites and stealing eggs.

All the pictures are from the book unless otherwise stated.
A Traitorous GoatherdThere is little enough to be done at Gibraltar during the summer months, and when nests failed I used to devote my energies to scrambling about the cliffs, with an eye to marking down some possible nesting-place for the succeeding year. Of course such constant practice was invaluable. Several of these climbs had their risks. I can recall one up by the back of the Rock to Middle Hill Battery as it was then styled. My motive that time was not entirely birds nesting.  
I had read how during the siege of 1706 a traitorous goatherd ( see LINK ) had conducted a party of 500 intrepid Spaniards under a certain Colonel Figueroa up this cliff, and how they were attacked by the British soldiers at Middle Hill and shot down, the survivors (?) being thrown over the cliff, a fall of 1000 ft. or so. (There were no "hand-uppers" apparently in those days.) I became possessed with a desire to see for myself what sort of a path the gallant attackers had taken, but from what I then saw I am convinced that, subsequent to the regrettable incident, the cliff must have been scarped and rendered more difficult.
Wrong perhaps in calling the goatherd a traitor, but correct in surmising that the British had scarped the cliff face to avoid a repeat performance.
The Osprey Nest These beautiful birds are still fairly common in the Straits of Gibraltar. A pair have nested at the back of the Rock from time immemorial and were duly noted by the Rev. John White in a letter to his famous brother of Selborne in 1776. I first saw their nest there in 1S74, and have since then watched the old birds on innumerable occasions.


"From time to time some thoughtless gunner has shot one of
these beautiful birds. I know of five instances in the last thirty-
three years"
I spent one whole summer at "The Cottage," the summer residence of the Governor of Gibraltar. Watching the Ospreys both at their nests and when fishing in front of my windows formed not the least interesting of my duties as A.D.C.

The bird flying closed to the cliffs show the position of one of the Osprey nests 
. . . . I had long cast covetous eyes on the Osprey's nest at the back of the Rock. It was in a bad situation and inaccessible save with a rope. Accordingly one day, in defiance of all Garrison Orders prohibiting the molestation of wild birds on the Rock, and accompanied by a naval officer and another soldier, I proceeded to Catalan Bay. . . . After a most fatiguing struggle across the great slopes of shifting sand we reached the first serious obstacle, a low cliff.

Gibraltar from el Hacho de Gaucin  
Arrived above the Osprey's nest, we found a nasty sloping terrace of loose stones which made it dangerous for two men to lower a third . . . My companions refused to lower me over, and I am not ashamed to say I inwardly rejoiced, for it would have been perfectly foolhardy to attempt it in the circumstances.
Many years afterwards, I revisited the same spot but with proper appliances and, despite all orders to the contrary, took the eggs! That very night I chanced to be dining at the table of and among the guests was the Governor and by ill-luck the conversation turned upon the Osprey's nest on the Rock. Somebody remarked that no man could get at it and I was suddenly appealed to across the table as a known climber and expert. 
To make things worse, some of my guilty accomplices were present and eyed me anxiously. Mercifully the question put to me was whether I thought it was possible for anybody to take the Osprey's eggs? All eyes were turned on me, as with a supreme effort, begot of the perils of my position and with the thought of those two lovely eggs still unblown locked up in my dressing-case, I replied " No Sir, I feel sure that anybody who tries to take them will fail."
The Unclimbable Fence  - When in a sudden access of hysteric caution following on years of "go as you please" all the upper portion of the Rock was enclosed by a high spiked iron paling, some unimaginative official had the fatuity to style it officially "The Unclimbable Fence," and numerous Orders were drafted with respect to it in which it was thus described.
It is hard to imagine a more direct challenge to a man addicted to climbing. At this psychological moment I chanced to land at Gibraltar on leave from England. I climbed that fence, not for pleasure or for vanity, but as a matter of duty to the confraternity of birdsnesters. 
My "crime" was never taken judicial notice of, and here I was happier than the luckless private soldier, who not long since committed the same offence and according to report was charged with "Neglecting to obey Fortress Orders, in that he, at Gibraltar, on April  190 — , contrary to the Fortress Order directing all persons to abstain from doing so climbed the Unclimbable Fence."
The Cork WoodsThe cork-oak tree is unquestionably a very picturesque object, and the ravages made on it by removing the external bark every seventh year in a way add to the beauty of the vistas seen through the woods. For the trunks, bereft of the cork, are of the richest chocolate red, and the effect of the sunlight and shadow playing through the leafy canopy on the dark rugged stems, dotted here and there amid the brilliant golden blossoms and green foliage of genista and high bracken, is a joy forever. 

The Rock from the Cork Woods 
It is curious how deep and chequered are the shadows cast by these trees, and how hard it often is to discern either man or beast moving through the scrub below them. A native wearing the favourite dark brown chocolate jacket, standing leaning on his long stick, as is their habit, assimilates so perfectly with the surroundings as to make one start on suddenly becoming aware of his proximity.

The Cork woods
The Eagle OwlTo those unversed in the ways of birds, and more especially those who do not know the extraordinary persistency with which certain species frequent the same localities year after year, it may come as a surprise to learn that in 1776 just one hundred years before I first met with the Eagle Owls at Gibraltar, the Rev. John White wrote to his brother, the famous Gilbert White of Selborne, to report their presence there.

"I know of a pair which have nested on the Rock of Gibraltar for over thirty years" 
Bonelli's Eagle . . . To return to the Rock. During my stay there I made various attempts to climb up from the sandy slope above Catalan Bay to the well-known nest of Bonelli's Eagle, which has afforded an object of interest to so many visitors to the Signal Station. . .  I was unsuccessful. 

Bonelli's Eagle - "To the alien English garrison they were likewise known as Rock Eagles   
. . . In those days the Signal Station was in charge of a Serjeant of the Royal Artillery who had, since he attained that elevated position, taken a keen interest in the Eagles and their nesting and kept notes of them. With the aid of one of the powerful telescopes which formed part of his signalman's equipment I was enabled to watch the birds and thus receive my first lessons in the art of studying Eagles in their haunts.
 . .  a year later when out with the Calpe Hounds ( see LINK ) I saw one of these Eagles, not far from the same crags where I had noted the pair during thepreceding year. . . I took an early opportunity, unobserved, of leaving the hounds. For it is needless to explain that no British officer has any right to abandon the scientific pursuit of a fox in order to follow an Eagle!

Quebranta-huesos - The Bearded Vulture
From time to time we sighted Bearded Vultures high overhead . . .  Presently we saw a single bird sailing around perhaps 2,000 ft. above, carrying some long object . . . With the telescope I made this out to be the hind-limb of some large animal.
. . . the bird let the object go. I was accompanied by the late Mr. Edward Hunt, the Chief Engineer of the Algeciras-Bobadilla Railway, and we watched the object whirling down for certainly 1,500 ft. until it struck an horizontal terrace of limestone rock below us. The sharp crash it made was distinctly audible from our post, some quarter-mile distant . . .
 . . . By no other means save by a fall could these heavy bones have been thus broken open, for powerful as is the beak of the Bearded Vulture, it is not strong enough to shatter such bones.
The Duke of Connaught I had to exercise patience, for the Duke of Connaught ( see LINK ) who was then serving in the Rifle Brigade was on a visit to Gibraltar on the occasion of his honeymoon and this sadly complicated my arrangements for we had to parade on the Alameda for his inspection.
In my view, William Willoughby Cole Verner book is more interesting for what it leaves unsaid than for what actually appears on it.  Whatever contributions it might make to further an understanding of the resident population - as against the way in which officers of the Garrison spent their free time - are all negative.

The fact that the locals are never mentioned make one suppose that he thought most of them had never heard of the word 'ornithology' and that for them  bird's eggs were a type of food one made omelettes out of. He may well have been right on both counts but as was normal for most British officers of the era the locals were simply background noise.


The Rock from the south