Shades of Gray nearly 40 years on

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“It all shows a great dependability by me, and remarkable tolerance by readers,” laughs Tom Gray.

The Glenrothes Gazette’s very own ‘Nature Man’ is looking back on nearly 40 years with the newspaper, to which he is the longest-serving regular contributor, or ‘corr’ as they are known in the trade, reports MIKE DELANEY.

Over that time, Tom has built up a loyal fan base and - during periods when his column has failed to appear for one reason or another - readers are not slow to make their displeasure known.

We also receive a steady stream of inquiries from same, asking for his advice on ‘sightings’ they have made of what they believe to be interesting flora and fauna in the area.

Some of them turn out to be not that interesting after all - in fact, they are common or garden plants, or animals which they have perhaps noticed for the first time because they have recently developed an interest in the subject, or got a pair of binoculars for Christmas - but he is grateful for their reports none the less on the off-chance that some genuine ‘find’ might have been made.

Raised in Bellshill, Tom developed a keen interest in nature from an early age and went onto complete a zoology degree at Glasgow University.

He subsequently spent much of the 1960s working abroad in locations as diverse as Borneo and Ghana, partly with the ministry for overseas development.

Returning from his travels to his native Lanarkshire, Tom decided to go into teaching, which is what led to him coning to Glenrothes in 1971, because “Fife had a very good reputation in education at that time.”

It was also very forward thinking and the Multi-Media Resource Centre, where he came to teach, was a pioneer in the field of what would later be called ‘environmental studies’.

“That was a totally new idea, to get away from what was then the formal syllabus in secondary schools,” he recalled.

“There was a big audio-visual element to it, with slides and other resources and also just getting out and about on walks.”

After the centre closed, Tom returned to that more formal setting of the classroom, teaching biology at schools including Glenwood High, then later worked at another environmental centre before finishing his career in the community services department at the council.

A keen observer of creatures in the wild, Tom was also a political animal himself, as as a longstanding Kirkcaldy District councillor for South Parks, where he lives.

He said: “I started with the Scottish National Party in 1977 and got four successive elections and then stood three times as an Independent and by the time I had retired at a re-organisation (when the current Fife Council came into being) I had done 19 years.

“I didn’t fall out with the SNP, but just felt that as an Independent I could make rational decisions without having to tow the party line.

“I still think that’s what local councillors should be.

“I also think that councillors are not doing it now because of moral duty, but simply because they get paid for it.

“That’s true at a national level as well, where you get people who have done a political science degree, but they have never had a real job.”

One of his lasting achievments - and an often forgotten one - is that done for Glenrothes Civic Trust, which campaigned long and hard for the civic heart for the town that eventually materialised as Rothes Halls. When he came to the town, Tom was struck by how green it was and gives considerable credit to the former Glenrothes Development Corporation for making it so.

He believes that has fostered its impressive wildlife and, over the years, reckons to have recorded over 100 bird species locally, a figure which stands comparison with some nature reserves.

But it has been a case of gains and losses along the way, particularly where his fathered friends are concerned.

“There were things like woodcocks, but people walk their dogs in the park and the bird breed on the ground and pheasants are the same - they are not about at all,” he explains.

“On the other hand, when I arrived here the swans had failed in the Town Park, because of disturbance by children, but now with people being around the park more, the swans are left in peace because people are there and witness anyone with illegal intent.

“We now have magpies invading the town and that’s a new species for it and one reason is that there are fewer greenkeepers to shoot them.”

In the insect world too, species not native to the area have come and made it their home.

“The comma butterfly and the red-tailed bumblebee didn’t exist here before,” said Tom.

One creature - or should that be possible creature - that Tom is reluctant to talk about are the big cats that some say roam the fields and forests of Fife and, sometimes. even, it is claimed, the streets of Glenrothes.

“I never got myself involved in that argument,” he said, “and all I can say is that I have never seen a big cat and I used to be out and about a lot, but never saw any evidence of them.”

Evidence of how long he has written for the ‘Gazette’ is also contradictory.

He admits that he doesn’t know exactly how long he has been contributing, estimates varying between 1972 and 1976, although he does remember how it came about.

He said: “It was while I was working at the MMRC and I was down with ‘flu, or something and had a couple of days off and I jotted down a couple of articles and submitted them to the editor.

“He published them, I went on writing them and the newspaper kept on publishing them.

“I still have a copy of the first articles on Loch Leven geese or swallows - the editor published them in the wrong order!

“I have gone through a lot of editors and probably even more reporters in that time.”

He jokes: “It’s time your company recommended me for an OBE - which I’d probably refuse.

“But I’ll keep writing the column for as long as the ‘Gazette’ keeps publishing it.”