by Jeannie Swales
Perhaps not the greatest example of taxidermy – that kinky neck leaves something to be desired – but this mute swan is still a magnificent specimen.
She’s a female, or pen – the male, or cob, has a much larger knob on the striking orange-and-black bill.
The mute swan is often seen as a symbol of romantic love – perhaps because it generally mates for life (although a ‘widowed’ bird will be pragmatic enough to seek another mate). Courting swans will also often face each other, their bills almost touching, and their exquisitely curved necks form a classic heart shape.
The name mute swan is something of a misnomer, by the way: it does make sounds, often hissing or snorting, but is usually less vocal than other swans, such as Whoopers or Bewick’s, hence the name. It does make the most extraordinary sound when flying, though, those spectacular white wings creating a unique, rhythmic whirring which, it’s believed, can be heard up to two kilometres away.
Once regarded as a delicious addition to a banquet, swans are now a protected species. In the 12th century, the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans, and still retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water.
However, the Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames, and its surrounding tributaries, hence the annual ceremony in July of Swan Upping – a census of the swan population on stretches of the river in
Middlesex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.
In a fabulous example of British eccentricity, the Queen’s Swan Marker, dressed in scarlet, the Royal Swan Uppers and the Swan Uppers of the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies use traditional Thames skiffs to row up-river.
There’s a cry of “All up!” when a brood of cygnets is spotted: they are then caught, weighed and measured, health-checked and ringed before being released.
On passing Windsor Castle, the rowers stand to attention in their boat with oars raised and salute “Her Majesty The Queen, Seigneur of the Swans”. The current exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery, Worn to be Wild, features gorgeous costumes made by theatrical costumier Kate Plumtree. Each piece combines Kate’s observations of British wild birds and mammals with the evolution of period dress. From a medieval deer to a contemporary hedgehog, each has been carefully designed and constructed by observing the movement, character, habitat and style of the relevant creature.
One of the star exhibits is an elegant 18th-century style dress based on the mute swan. See it at the Gallery until March 20. For more information, please visit www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.org.uk, or contact the Gallery on (01723) 374753.