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Darwin Correspondence Project

From James Lamont   [23 February 1860]1

to breed more and more to the color that afforded them most protection.

I may mention with deference that I do not think you have made the most of (Page 49) the similarity between our British red grouse and the Norwegian species: I have shot many thousands of British grouse and many hundreds of Norwegian Ripas, and may therefore be permitted to express my opinion viz. that not the smallest doubt exists on my mind as to their being merely “strongly marked varieties” of the same species—the difference in plumage being caused by the necessity for the British grouse to assimilate his plumage to the color of brown heath, whereas the Norwegian Dal-ripa must more resemble grey rocks, birch-bushes (and snow in the winter) in order to protect his life from the numerous hawks, gulls, and ravens frequenting that country: these birds exactly resemble one-another in their size, their voice, their flight, and their general habits: and I have a few times killed a British grouse so white as exactly to resemble an accidentaly rather dark Dal-Ripa.

I suppose no one will pretend that there is any specific difference between the British ptarmigan and the “fjëld-ripa” or hill-ptarmigan of Norway? or between the Blackcocks of either country? Only, because the “fjëld-ripa” frequents the high, grey, rocky mountains as does the Scottish Ptarmigan; and the Blackcocks of both countries inhabit the wooded valleys—there is no necessity for any alteration of plumage in them.

I entertain no doubt that if a number of Dal-Ripas were taken over and liberated on a well-preserved Scottish moor, they would in the course of a few generations come to resemble the indigenous red grouse, or vice versa.

I may mention a curious instance of the hereditary propensities of birds which is notorious in this district of Argyleshire: it is well-known that for ages the grouse on the extensive moors of Ayrshire and Renfrewshire have always been very “wild’—far more so than on this side of the Firth of Clyde: now some 20 years ago a neighbour of mine, thinking to improve the breed, introduced a few brace of Lowland grouse into this district, and in a very few years a marked increase of wildness took place among the grouse for many miles around, and throughout the district of Cowal I fancy they are now as wild as in the Lowland Counties, whereas in Cantyre on the opposite shore of Loch-Fyne they are still comparatively tame.

Your remarks about an ”over-stock of “game” causing epidemics2 will be fully borne out by any observant game-preserver or any intelligent gamekeeper.

I have no doubt that the grouse-disease so prevalent in Scotland for 13 or 14 years back was caused by nothing else than high preservation (aided by 2 or 3 wonderfully favorable breeding seasons consecutively) having got up a stock of grouse which the soil was unable to supply with a sufficiency of something essential to their existence: I have always suspected that this something was insects: it clearly was not for want of heather as has been nonsensically written, because in 1846–47 when it commenced there was heather enough to have kept all the grouse in Cowal on this estate, and yet they were dying in hundreds. It may be worthy of observation that during that winter of ”46–”47 the grouse in this district first commenced the practice of coming down to the stubble-fields and low grounds as if in quest of something wh. they could not find in sufficient quantities on the hills: they have ever since more or less continued that habit, but previous to ’46 it was unknown in this district.

Your illustration of the Magpie (Page 212) as showing the hereditary tendency of birds to become tame or wild, is a very happy one, as no bird is so much persecuted in Britain, whereas in Norway the people have a superstition that it is “unlucky” to touch them and they are consequently so audaciously tame as to sit on the houses.

It is a common remark all over Britain that “game is becoming much wilder’: this seems to me very easy of explanation when we consider that formerly the greatest danger to game-birds was from hawks and their greatest security from them lay in cowering as much as possible, but now from the gradual extermination of hawks &c and from the frequency of shooters and goodness of guns, their principal danger is from the latter, and they are no doubt gradually finding out from generation to generation that their best mode of security is to fly off whenever they see a man.

I have passed the last two summers in hunting in Spitzbergen and the great ice-fields lying around it:3 I shot 100 Reindeer there, and I am almost certain that many of these Deer had never seen a human being in their lives before, because there were some so ridiculously tame as to come up—even to windward—to look

CD annotations

1.1 to breed … protection.] crossed ink
2.1 I may] ‘Mr James Lamont of Knockdow Argylshire’ added ink
2.2 I have shot] cross added brown crayon
3.1 I suppose … vice versa. 4.3] crossed ink
5.1 I may] ‘James Lamont Esqre of Knockdow Argylshire.— | (shows what a cross will do.—’ added ink
5.1 I may … wildness 5.6] ‘Bears on crossing keeping Birds uniform.’ added pencil
5.5 a few brace] double underl ink; ‘C.D’ added ink
6.1 Your remarks … in hundreds. 7.8] crossed ink
7.8 It may be] ‘Ch X’4 added brown crayon
7.11 they have … district. 7.12] cross added brown crayon
8.1 Your illustration … houses. 8.4] ‘So in Normandy.’ added pencil
8.3 superstition … houses. 8.4] cross added brown crayon
10.1 I have … to look 10.4] crossed ink
Top of first page: ‘Ch IV’5 brown crayon; ‘Feb. 23—1860’ ink


The identity of the correspondent and the date are given by CD’s annotations on the letter. The letter was at some stage divided into two and presumably stored in two different portfolios of notes (see CD’s annotations and nn. 4 and 5, below).
Origin, p. 70.
Lamont related his observations on Spitzbergen at a meeting of the Geological Society of London on 28 March 1860 (Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 16 (1860): 428–44). A note by CD discussing the paper is in DAR 205.2: 189.
The annotation refers to chapter 10 of Natural selection, on the ‘Mental powers and instincts of animals’.
The annotation refers to chapter 4 of Natural selection, on ‘Variation under nature’.


Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.


Believes the British and Norwegian species of red grouse are merely strongly marked varieties of the same species.

Writes of the effect of importing a few brace of a wilder breed of grouse into Argyleshire and of their change in territory since 1846.

His explanation of game becoming "wilder": he thinks it is due to a difference in their enemies – man replacing hawks leads to flight replacing cowering.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Lamont
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 47: 150–1
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2710,” accessed on 16 May 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8