A Rum do: the butterfly that never was

Previously extinct, the Large Blue butterfly has enjoyed its best summer for many years. A report in  The Guardian stirs a memory of a much earlier sighting of the rare Maculinea arion in the unlikely setting of the Hebrides, which John Lorne Campbell diligently exposed as a fraud.


Large Blue butterfly feeding on wild thyme

As told in The Man Who Gave Away His IslandJohn Lorne Campbell’s reputation as a conservationist and naturalist led him to expose another academic fraud, although this time involving butterflies rather than Gaelic songs and stories.

In 1948 John had been contacted by John Raven, a Cambridge classics don who was also a keen and knowledgeable botanist. Raven was investigating a suspicious series of remarkable findings of rare plants on the Isle of Rum by John Heslop Harrison, a professor at Newcastle University. The problem was how to get to Rum with his two companions, since the island, then owned by Lady Monica Bullough, widow of Sir George, was closed to uninvited visitors. John Campbell had a solution. He wrote to Raven:

‘If you wish to enter by the back door, this has been done, by campers who landed on the isle of Canna and then hired the boat of Mr Allan MacIsaac, crofter, to ferry them to Rum, where they remained unbeknown for several days and were ferried back again, getting the mailboat the next morning.’

The party arrived on Canna some time later and were perplexed by their brief stay. Raven’s friend Tom Creighton recalled that they were camping near the pier when ‘a boat came by and a completely unknown Canna resident threw two lobsters, ready boiled, on to the turf beside us and went off. I’ve never understood the reason for this generosity, and the lobsters were extremely good to eat.’

Later they presented themselves at Canna House, to be greeted by John. ‘Without even mentioning our names or acknowledging our visit, he said, ‘‘Oh, how nice that you could come. Now we can play a flute quartet.’’ ’

A Rum do

The musical evening did not happen, since only Creighton could play the flute and he could not master the spare instrument that John Campbell produced. But, he recorded, ‘the meeting was enjoyable, amusing and, like the laird himself, highly eccentric.’

The three men did get to Rum, but Raven’s eventual paper, throwing considerable doubt on the professor’s discoveries was suppressed. John Campbell’s interest was not primarily with the plants Heslop Harrison claimed to have found on Rum, but the three specimens of Maculinea arion, the Large Blue butterfly, which Heslop Harrison alleged he had caught there.

John was immediately sceptical; there had been no other reported sightings of such a rare butterfly in the Hebrides. He did not follow it up immediately, but never forgot it and 25 years later, when, prompted by an article in a learned journal, he tried to track down the three specimens Heslop Harrison claimed to have caught and given to friends or to Oxford University. His findings – or lack of them – convinced him it was a fraud or a hoax and he recounted the tale in an article in the Entomologist’s Record in 1975.

Large Blue butterfly image by Paul Ritchie, Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Man Who Gave Away His Island is available in Waterstones, from Birlinn and on Amazon. 

 

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