From an early age, George was interested in natural history. Even as a young man he watched the birds around him, studying their habits, their pose when in flight or at rest on a branch: recognising their songs and cries and becoming familiar with their patterns of migration. At first, he must have known the common names for each bird and flower that he saw. He was a great reader and, with his brother William, he built up a library of books on natural history. From them he learned the Latin names for the birds. By the 1880s, he was able to prepare a list of 131 birds that had been seen around Fyvie. He sent this list to a well-known Scottish naturalist, J A Harvie Brown, who was an editor of the Scottish Naturalist journal. George contributed notes about his observations to this journal for about 25 years. Other naturalists valued his information and quoted it in their own articles or books, often decades later. One such book was owned by Harvie Brown and he made handwritten notes and comments in the margins of this book, which forms part of the archive of all of his notes and diaries. Opposite those entries where George is the source of the author’s information Harvie Brown has written: ‘George Sim of Gourdas — a good ornithologist’; ‘he is a good ornithologist as well as a good observer’; ‘Geo. Sim, Gourdas, Fyvie is truthful’. In a note in his diary, Harvie Brown speaks of George and William as ‘excellent ornithologists’. Significant recognition of their abilities.
George was a naturalist in the days before fast, colour photography which could be used to record sightings of birds, eggs, butterflies and insects. To share what had been seen with others and retain it for further study, it was necessary to capture, preserve and display the actual objects. Thus naturalists captured or shot birds for preservation, collected examples of birds’ eggs and filled display cases with butterflies and insects. George’s collections formed a major part of the Gourdas ‘museum’ in an upper room of the Gourdas farmhouse. Here the brothers kept their collections not only of natural history specimens but also of antiquarian objects such as pistols, swords, stone axes, flint arrow heads and ancient coins. When the lease of the farm ended in 1903, the collection had to be split up and sold. As a friend wrote: ‘It is much regretted that this collection was not kept intact and preserved in Fyvie as a memorial of the man and his talent’.
Extract from Harvie Brown archive © National Museums Scotland.