By Thomas Querns, Victims of Slavery Support Service Client Adviser


Birds are common symbols of national and cultural identity. Some – the bald eagle, the kiwi, the gallic rooster – are synonymous with nations that have taken them as emblems; others - the ostrich, the penguin, the red-crowned crane - simply call to mind their distinctive habitats and homelands. Scotland’s national bird is the golden eagle, though we do have a more ‘famous’ one that highlights our fondness for whiskey as much as ornithology!

It is interesting, though, that we have taken a group of animals with a well-known habit of migrating across our man-made country borders as symbols of national identity. Birds are, by their nature, internationalists; along with us, they are among the few inhabitants of the planet with the means to migrate great distances when their survival is threatened. With the ecological hardship of the climate crisis looming, even those we think of as anchored to their natural homelands may well soon find themselves forced to adapt to new, unfamiliar environments.
This was certainly not lost on the Victims of Slavery Support Service clients who came on a recent trip with Migrant Help Scotland. Thanks to a generous donation from a local school, our office was able to take twenty-five clients, four interpreters and three staff members on a bird-watching trip around the RSPB’s Lochwinnich nature reserve. After an enjoyable lunch provided by Mr Vu from Partick’s Banh Mi, we explored the reserve. Guided by our knowledgeable host, Joe, we observed, discussed and reflected on the forest’s inhabitants. 


Four survivors of slavery, and Migrant Help clients, sit watching the birds from an observatory


Moments of comedy ensued. At the beginning, a new referral to the service turned up just as we were leaving, mistakenly joined the 30-strong crowd and found himself on the train to Lochwinnich – at which point we realised our headcount was high! Later, a group of clients attempted some matchmaking between two among them, which resulted in some giggles.

It was a day full of laughter, as light-hearted wisecracks were interpreted between six languages!

But it was the tranquillity, the sound of birds in the trees and client’s quiet moments of reflection, that really stuck with me.

This is the best day I have had since I left my country’, said one client.

'I have loved seeing our different cultures interacting’, said another.

Joe pointed out the birds that had recently arrived in the country; most notably the whooper swans that had flown down that week to escape the Arctic cold and the nuthatch, which did not have a population in Scotland at all until the late 80s.

As we observed some small birds building shelters, a client said: ‘they are just like us, they need to create a safe place to stay’.

It was heartening to see that, by observing the courage, ingenuity and resolve of these small birds, clients were able to recognise in themselves those same valuable qualities.