Mike Tomkies (25 May 1928 – 6 October 2016), known as The Wilderness Man, was a British author covering subjects such as natural history, biography and fiction, a naturalist and filmmaker who has inspired thousands with his brutally honest accounts of almost 40 years experience living in the wildest and most remote parts of Canada, Scotland and Spain.
He originally came to public attention as a Hollywood journalist, reporting for the London Times, where he interviewed and pulled scoops on stars including Ava Gardner (just after her divorce from Frank Sinatra); Mario Lanza, Elvis Presley, Sophia Loren, Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, Clark Gable, Dean Martin, Rock Hudson, Jayne Mansfield, Cary Grant, Paul Newman, Debbie Reynolds, Joan Collins, Peter O'Toole and Sean Connery.
Born in 1928 in West Bridgeford, Notts, Mike Tomkies grew up with his family in Whitley Bay near Newcastle, later moving south to Worthing and then Henfield near Brighton. Protected and driven by his father Vincent after losing his mother, who died during childbirth with his sister, Mike developed his fascination with nature and adventure in the English countryside that surrounded him.
He served with the Coldstream Guards in the Middle East and at Buckingham Palace, but moved on to become a successful Fleet Street journalist, later freelancing in Paris, Madrid and Rome before being assigned as a Hollywood columnist until the age of 38 when he decided to get away from it all and emigrated to the Canadian wilds.
Starting a new life in British Columbia, he set out virtually penniless in an old milk truck driving across Canada to build a log cabin on the Canadian Pacific coast where he variously worked as a logger, assistant blaster and sea salmon fisherman but spent most of his time living alone and surviving mainly off the sea. This was where he began his wildlife studies tracking grizzly bears, cougars, caribou, bald eagles and killer whales, which over three years developed into the book Alone in the Wilderness, which was snapped up by Reader's Digest and became a critically acclaimed best seller.
Running short on funds, Tomkies returned to writing in Hollywood, accompanied by Booto, a stray wild dog who had adopted him in Canada and who enjoyed the attention of stars such as Cary Grant, Omar Sharif and Peter Finch during interviews.
The two also travelled around Mexico and Belize, where Tomkies spent hours with Dean Martin on the outdoor location of 5 Card Stud, even photographing the star doing his own dangerous stunts. Tomkies was the first to test the new Tartan Athletics Track built in Mexico City for the 1968 Olympics while writing for the Daily Express and, with Booto, climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, hacked through rough tracks to the ancient ruins of Palenque, and visited the terrifying Well of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza where the ancient Mayans sacrificed young humans to assuage the rain god Chac.
Back in Hollywood, Mike was invited to the Oscar awards ceremony where, even in his old truck, he was mistaken for Warren Beatty with compere Bob Hope joking that Beatty was so confident of winnings Oscars for Bonnie and Clyde he had brought a big truck to take them all away.
He returned briefly to Canada and hired North America's greatest Red Indian guide, Clayton Mack, and they went on dangerous treks deep in grizzly country, saw 21 bears in three days and were lucky to escape with their lives.
After another year in the wilds of Canada, Tomkies bid a very sad farewell to old Booto and returned to Hollywood for more amazing experiences with major film stars. He went motorbiking in the Mojave Desert with Steve McQueen; spent days with and gained extraordinary insights into the life of the greatest box office star of all time, John Wayne; while Doris Day, 'America's sweetheart', offered him a screen test. Tomkies had several feisty meetings with Hollywood's greatest maverick and wit, Robert Mitchum, who actually 'laid a joint' on him when he asked if Mitchum was still smoking pot.
However, the wild kept calling, and eventually Tomkies returned to the UK and moved to Eilean Shona, a remote island off the west coast of Scotland. There he rebuilt a wooden crofthouse which had been used as a shelter for sheep and began observing and writing about Scottish nature including golden eagle, black throated diver, pine marten and Scottish wildcat.
The studies and writing continued at a small crofter's cottage called Gaskan on the shore of Loch Shiel, which Tomkies renamed "Wildernesse", and where he cared for a variety of injured animals, tracked and studied golden eagles over a 300-square-mile (780 km2) area for the government and was the first person to successfully breed the now critically endangered Scottish wildcat and return individuals to the wild. It was here he wrote nine books about the wildlife in the Scottish West Highlands.
Tomkies studied eagles in Canada, Scotland and Spain for 44 years in total (1967 to 2011) spending more than 3000 hours on precarious cliff ledges in his home made "invisible" hides for up to 38 hours at a time. Over his 20 years in the Highlands Tomkies revealed Scotland's rarest wildlife in his books to widespread acclaim from naturalists, conservationists, critics and even the Duke of Edinburgh;
"This book does more than describe a piece of wild country and its population of wild animals: it gives a picture of someone totally absorbed by his subject... The North west of Scotland is indeed a wild place, but to the observant eye of the author it is full of wonderful life."
"A Last Wild Place" is the most famous of his books written about Wildernesse, it has been a best seller ever since it was first published in 1984. For eight years, Tomkies' only companion was his german shepherd dog Moobli, who assisted him in his wildlife tracking. After Moobli died Tomkies spent the next four years alone, completing his studies of golden eagles and rare Scottish species. He then spent five years in mountain ranges throughout Spain making two films and writing a book about species including brown bear, lynx, wolf, wild boar, vultures and eagles working out of a crumbling old villa with no glass in the windows or running water.
A keen interest in film making also developed throughout the experiences in Scotland and Spain, beginning with mountainous slogs carrying 60 lb (27 kg) of 16mm camera equipment, all the way up to modern miniDV cameras. Tomkies recorded twelve feature-length films on wildlife with a focus on Scotland and the golden eagle. Three network TV programmes were made about his life and work in the wilds, the last of which "Wild Cathedral" was repeated seven times.
In 1988 he was recognised for his work by being elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
Latterly Mike Tomkies was based in an Elizabethan Farmstead in Henfield, England still writing his books and always observing the world that surrounded him. He appeared in the documentary film Last of the Scottish Wildcats (Coffee Films 2006) and became the patron for a new charity, the Scottish Wildcat Association in 2009, who also recognised his achievements naming him an Honorary Member of the Association for life. He continued to travel regularly into the Scottish Highlands spending his 83rd birthday filming nesting eagles in Galloway with an RSPB team, and in 2014, having said his first fictional work, "Let Ape and Tiger Die", would be his last novel, he released a new wildlife book, "Running Wild", through publishers Whittles, bringing his life experiences in the wild up to date.
He died aged 88 on 6 October 2016.
- The Big Man : the John Wayne Story, Barker (1971) ISBN 0-213-00342-2
- It Sure Beats Working: The Robert Mitchum Story, W. H. Allen (1972) ISBN 0-491-00962-3
- A World of My Own: Adventure and Personal Renewal in the Wilderness, Reader's Digest Press and Fitzhenry & Whiteside, (Toronto, 1976) ISBN 0-88902-044-2; republished as:
- My Wilderness Wildcats, Macdonald and Jane's (1977) ISBN 0-354-04223-8
- Liane: A Cat from the Wild, Macdonald and Jane's (1979) ISBN 0-354-04374-9
- Between Earth and Paradise, Heinemann (1981) ISBN 0-434-78800-7
- Golden Eagle Years, Heinemann (1982) ISBN 0-434-78801-5
- Golden Eagle Years, Jonathan Cape (1994)
- A Last Wild Place, Jonathan Cape (1984) ISBN 0-224-02219-9
- Out of the Wild, Jonathan Cape, (1985) ISBN 0-224-02317-9
- Wildcat Haven, Jonathan Cape, (1987) ISBN 0-224-02502-3
- On Wing and Wild Water, Jonathan Cape (1987) ISBN 0-224-02825-1
- Moobli, Jonathan Cape (1988), ISBN 1-85089-617-8
- In Spain's Secret Wilderness, Jonathan Cape (1989) ISBN 0-224-02716-6
- Wildcats (with illustrations by Dennis Ovenden), Whittet Books (1991) ISBN 0-905483-86-3
- Last Wild Years, Jonathan Cape (1992) ISBN 0-224-03313-1
- My Wicked First Life - Before the Wilderness, Whittles Publishing (2006) ISBN 1-904445-35-7
- Rare, Wild and Free , Whittles Publishing (2007) ISBN 1-904445-51-9
- Backwoods Mates to Hollywood Greats, Whittles Publishing (2009) ISBN 978-1-904445-83-8
- Wildcat Haven, Whittles Publishing (2009) ISBN 978-1-904445-75-3 (revised and updated)
- Let Ape and Tiger Die (a novel), Whittles Publishing (2010) ISBN TBC
- Running Wild, Whittles Publishing (2014) ISBN 978-184995-123-4
- Obituary: Mike Tomkies, nature writer who immersed himself in the wildest of terrain
- Marshall, Alasdair (29 January 1988). "Call of the Wild". Evening Times. Retrieved 11 August 2011.