Hand me a petrel: Robert Atkinson’s Island-Going

Atkinson 1We’re in the Outer Hebrides in the 1930s in this Really Like This Book podcasts scripts catch-up, on a mad quixotic journey in the roughest of conditions to locate, observe and tag an obscure little bird called Leach’s fork-tailed petrel. Island-Going by Robert Atkinson is a classic of nature writing, of social history, and of the insanity of the obsessive scientist. I like to know about the practical arrangements behind scientific expeditions, and this one is particularly wacko. Atkinson was an Oxford undergraduate in 1935, or possibly a postgraduate, it isn’t very clear. He and his friend John Ainslie wanted to locate and record Leach’s fork-tailed petrel, in remote and unrecorded birding territory. They were drawn to the Outer Hebrides, mainly because of its relative ease of access from southern England, but also because, as the introduction to the Canongate edition of Island-Going says, very few people were even looking at the outer Scottish islands in the 1930s. Britain was very England-centred at that time, and Scotland was just a holiday destination. These chaps chose to study and pursue Leach’s fork-tailed petrel because it did have known locations, places that it had been spotted at in the past, and these were ludicrously remote even in a Hebridean context. The Flannan Isles, North Rona and St Kilda are practically off the map, so this was clearly a zestful challenge for two young Englishmen on their summer vacation.

The first trip was taken by travelling up to Cape Wrath, the most northerly westernmost point in Scotland, and taking a fishing boat to Handa Island. They observed birds, got familiar with the parenting habits of fulmars, watched the porpoises and peregrines, and every few days caught the fishing boat back to the mainland for a wash, decent food, and a replenishment of supplies. Camping on the island in the very rudimentary old cottage used by stranded sailors and the lambing crews was primitive, but primitiveness does not seem to bother Atkinson. The worse the conditions, the happier and more interested is his writing. There is no way I would want to recreate his experiences counting birdlife and sealife, but it is riveting reading.

Atkinson 2In their second year, the boys – and they really were boys, only 19 and 21 – tried something more advanced, by going to the island of Rona and to the Shiants, which you can read about in Adam Nicolson’s Sea-Room. Atkinson got permission from Nicolson’s grandfather, the then owner, to land on the Shiants to observe the birds, but to get there they had to make a risky trip by boat, and to get the boat they first had to transport all their stuff – in seven packing cases – up from Oxford by car. This car was rather fragile in its construction, and didn’t really have much life left, but it did get their gear up to the far north-west coast for shipment over rough seas to their first destination, North Rona. The trip by drifter over to the island exposed the weak spot in their operating methods, since poor John Ainslie was a martyr to seasickness, and had to suffer so much of this in repeated approaches to the islands in rough weather, that he gave up going on the expeditions. They landed, they made a camp, they found prehistoric settlements, and at last, in the night, they could hear the peeping of Leach’s fork-tailed petrel as it flitted to and fro nocturnally. You couldn’t imagine a more difficult and elusive bird to observe. It was unknown where they came from, where they went when they’d stopped zooming around in the night on Rona for these few weeks in the year, and why they came there to breed. Hence, of course, the interest in observing them.

The birdlife is not the only interest in this delightful and really rather mad account of interwar ornithology. Atkinson is acutely aware of the life of the islands as well, through the history of the buildings: from tiny early Christian monks’ cells to nineteenth-century lambing pens and the bins of the seaweed-gathering industry. The history of the communities on the edges of the Scottish west coast were then just as unrecorded as the lives of its birds. When historians don’t speak or understand Gaelic, huge areas of history will disappear without anyone knowing. Interspersed between their own adventures, Atkinson is very keen to collect together the older notes of other travellers and scholars, making Island-Going a repository for all the information about one particular small island. The human history then becomes important again.

Atkinson 3But the birds are really the focus, because there are so many of them. Hundreds of thousands of individuals roost and breed on the islands that Atkinson inspected, and he became familiar with entire populations. Not with single birds, because they were perpetually off and about, but with the habits of a species. The greater black-backed gull will prey on puffins, and turn them inside out while pecking out their meat. Fulmars squirt oil at anything and everything when they’re feeling unnerved, for protection as well as an alarm. The four kinds of petrels that spend a tiny part of their lives on land all lead a rather risky lifestyle, laying only one egg a year, and have no sense of which is their own chick when it comes to feeding time. Subsequently one chick might starve to death because its parents forget which one is their own, and feed another baby instead.

The boys also integrated with the human work on the islands, pulling the focus of the book back from horrible bits of bird corpse and broken eggshell. The annual sheep gathering on Rona wakes them up one morning, so they spend the day helping to round up sheep with fishermen and shepherds. They moved to the Shiants mainly because the opportunity arose when a friendly boat was going over there anyway. Its relative luxury of an intact cottage for sleeping in, and foliage that grew more than an inch high above the ground, made the Shiants seem paradisical compared to the rigours of Rona, stripped bare by Atlantic weather, but then they discovered the rats. The Shiants do have a rat problem, which will eat anything not nailed down or locked away. The boys struggled on, competing with the rats for their own food supply, to become perturbed when there was no sign of their return lift on the horizon. They did some rudimentary fishing to stay alive, and were rescued four days late, because their fisherman had just forgotten to come and fetch them. This was apparently rather funny, in hindsight.

The trip to the Flannan Isles brought the boys greater comfort: accommodation in a lighthouse, with lobster teas to catch. Sheep were pastured there, so they went in with the sheep boat, and stayed with the lighthouse-keepers for a few days. This takes the narrative away from ornithology to late industrial practices, with intense interest in the maintenance of the light. When not watching the thousands of resident puffins, the boys played golf on a five-hole course laid out for the entertainment of the keepers.

Atkinson's photo of Finlay McQueen outside his house on St Kilda (School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh)
Atkinson’s photo of Finlay McQueen outside his house on St Kilda (School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh)

In 1938 Atkinson’s expedition was to North Uist, St Kilda, and the Monach Isles, to get away from mainland Scotland as much as was humanly possible without actually going to Iceland. The Uists had red-necked phalaropes to watch, the Monachs had rabbits and lobsters, and also hosted a game of beach cricket between the incoming scientists and the locals, who were learning the game for the first time. On St Kilda, Atkinson was hoping to photograph the St Kilda wren, and maybe the St Kilda house mouse, of which only twelve had ever been seen. He managed to land in good weather, and was given the empty manse for his house, one of a string of stone-built cottages on St Kilda’s only street, all deserted by then except in the summer months. Three of the islanders were in summer residence, come back from their exile on the mainland to keep an eye on the island during its brief tourist season, and to sell postcards (but never on a Sunday). Snipe rootled around in the grass outside Atkinson’s front door, and the village was alive with all the St Kilda wrens he could want. There were also other bird stories to explore. The St Kildans used to catch and process fulmars for food and trade: their body oil used for train engines and lamps, and their feathers stuffed mattresses for First World War soldiers. Finlay McQueen showed Atkinson how to catch puffins by a long pole with a loop at the end. The St Kilda chapters are ghost-ridden, because this was the most famous of the Hebridean islands to be evacuated and abandoned, incapable any longer of sustaining life.

Atkinson’s last expedition before the war was an attempt on Ultima Thule, which means the ends of the earth, his facetious name for Sula Sgeir, a gannetry in the middle of the Atlantic. More vast quantities of birds, more primitive conditions, more astounding natural beauty, and more remnants of human habitation dating from when living was expected to be brutal and hard. This whole book is a record of survival, if not of the birds, then of the people who scratched a living from the earth in the middle of the sea. You’d never want to go and do it yourself, but it is a terrific record of its last survival.


Adam Nicolson’s Sea-Room

Nicolson 1Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is N, and today’s author is a Nicolson, Adam Nicolson, son of Nigel Nicolson, who was the son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West (about whose novel No Signposts In The Sea I blogged about recently). Some time in the 1930s Vita saw an sale advertisement for the Shiant Islands (pronounced ‘shant’), a group of three islands and a chain of rocks off north-west Scotland. She sent the advertisement to her son Nigel, who had just inherited some money from his grandmother. Nigel Nicolson bought the islands, from the author Compton Mackenzie, as it happened, and gave them to his son Adam when he was 21. Adam Nicolson did the same for his son Tom in 2005, but during the 1990s, waiting for Tom to attain his heritage, Adam Nicolson wrote Sea-Room about the Shiants.

Map of the Shiants from Northern Light Charters, who will sail you there

The Shiant Islands are in the broad waterway called the Minch, which is between the mainland of north-west Scotland and the islands of the Outer Hebrides: Lewis, Harris and North Uist, and north of Skye. The three islands of the Shiants are Eilean Garbh (Rough Island) and Eilean an Tighe (House Island), which are connected by a strip of shingle, and Eilean Mhuire (Mary’s Island), which faces them across the bay. The string of rocks heading west from Rough Island to Harris is called the Galtas, and is a serious danger to shipping, in good and bad weather. There is a 2-room house still standing on House Island, but until around 300 years ago around 20 to 40 people lived and worked self-sustainably on these islands. They could do more than subsistence farming, but the balance between supporting a family, and being in danger of starvation, was easily tipped by bad weather or an accidental death on the rocks. No-one lives on the islands now, but you can visit any time you like, as long as you check with the Nicolson family that you won’t disturb the lambing, and that the house is available.

I bought this book in Paris when I was doing some research at the Bibliothèque Nationale, because I needed something non-work-related to read while I ate dinner in a restaurant on my own. I went to Shakespeare & Company, the celebrated English / American bookshop in a prime tourist-infested position on the Left Bank, but had a hard time finding anything there. Sea-Room was the only book in all that rambling historic bookshop that appealed to me (at that time, much of their stock was duplicate copies placed on different shelves: not so much a bookshop as a stage set for selfies with props. I understand that things are different now). So I began this book about the archaeology and natural history of wet and windy Scottish islands, while looking out between mouthfuls and paragraphs at tourists clogging up the view of Notre Dame. It was a good read then, and was an even better read when I revisited it for this podcast.

Nicolson 2I miss the sea, having grown up beside it, and because I don’t live near it now. I have always liked Scottish islands, because they’re remote, on the edge of things, and separate from the noise and crowding of Europe. They are also where one of the many strands of my family tree comes from: my surname comes from the Macdonalds of Skye. But when it comes down to the reality of Scottish islands, I‘m not so romantic. These are hard-core all-weather islands on the edge of the world. You need to accept rough seas, wet winds and total self-reliance to live there, even for a week, and so I don’t think I will ever visit the Shiants, not being into camping, or small boats among rocks. I nearly did it once, on a family holiday in Torridon when I was due a birthday treat. I was all set to clamp myself into a life-jacket for a rocketing bounce across the waves for four hours for a half-hour visit, but thankfully the weather was too bad for the boat that summer day.

Reading about the islands is far more comfortable, and gives a pleasing feeling of authenticity. Sea-Room is a good-sized read, an excellent choice for a long plane journey. Using the islands as a case history, it patches together the long history of life in the Hebrides where Gaelic culture and the new-fangled Presbyterianism of the seventeenth century were a support in the hard times that were normal times. Adam Nicolson’s narrative is very personal, and is full of the men and women of present-day Lewis who are his extended family of friends, and without whom he could never have learned about the islands.

Nicolson 3The Shiants are a mass of contrasts. They are apparently bare and isolated and empty, a group of rocks sticking out of a cold sea in treacherous currents, yet they are the richest sheep-grazing grounds in the northern Hebrides. People often die there, but the islands are crammed with lively natural inhabitants, and host the biggest puffin colony in the UK. The number of birds there is astonishing: Sea-Room is also a pretty good birder’s book. If you want rock formations, there are a couple of chapters telling how Adam invited geologists to come and examine the stones, and work out why the dolerite crumbles so easily, and why the basalt columns look like a miniature Giant’s Causeway. The Christian prehistory of the islands was worked out when the archaeologists found a stone carved with a cross, and this linked up to the tradition and place-name evidence that the Shiants were once a hermitage for a monk of St Columba.

Sea-Room does have a linear narrative: we are told roughly how life unfolded on the Shiants from prehistory to the present day. While each chapter focuses on a particular aspect: the sheep, the previous inhabitants, the birds, the geology, and so on, a great deal of everything else is crammed in there too. Chapter 6 begins with a drawing – all the chapters start with a photograph or a drawing  – of an archaeological find, a thick twist of wire. But it’s not just any wire, it’s a Bronze Age torc, made of gold, and it was dredged up among the Galtas while two Lewismen were out fishing for scallops. So the chapter begins with a description of that day when the fishermen were out, how the fishing was not so good at the time, what dredging for shellfish normally brings up, how the wire appeared among the rubbish and stray stones, and how it stayed forgotten in the toolbox or the wheelhouse for a year, until one of the fisherman saw something like it on a television programme, and took it along with him to Glasgow when he went there to attend a wedding.

Nicolson 4Once an archaeologist saw the wire, she spotted immediately that it was a Bronze Age torc, and we read how this is now known to be the most northerly example of this kind of ornament, and the only one found in Scotland. We then hear about how Scottish museum politics and the struggle for the right to display the torc, and how the fishermen who found it received enough money to pay off their debts from their notoriously high-risk profession. We also hear how the finding of the torc brought about the book, and Adam Nicolson’s determination to find out as much as he could about the lumps of rock he’d loved all his life, so he could hand them on to his son with new knowledge gained. He brought in another archaeologist, and spent weeks with him looking at settlement patterns, land use, evidence of habitation, evidence of invasion and obliteration, the quality of the soil for farming or for grazing, and where the people were buried, and what kind of people they were. They linked up all these new ideas with the known places and names, that linked the Shiants to Bronze Age culture all over Scotland.

Then we go back to the torc: how did it get there? We hear about how radioactive waste at the bottom of the seas off western Britain can be used to track a northerly subterranean current, and start looking at prehistoric Irish trading routes. This brings us on to shipwrecks in all periods of history, and where the worst wrecks happened off the Shiants. A nineteenth-century wreck introduces us to the Campbells, the last family to live on the Shiants. Going back to the torc again, we hear about the idea of ritual offerings, about the role of precious metal in expressing personal glory. We also hear about how climate change at the end of the Bronze Age would have reduced the land available for farming, and increased the pressure on survival, and how offerings to the gods and to places of ritual importance would have increased. This brings us to the cultural understanding of how giving a gift puts the recipient in your debt, and how giving a gift to the world, or to the sea, especially a very fine and immensely valuable gift, might have been a way to guarantee better weather and better fishing. We go back to the place where the torc was found, and watch the water moving in the wickedly complex currents between the rocks, and also look down at the swept world beneath.

So you see, Sea-Room is written in an apparently scattergun way, but it is all linked together. There is a suggestion of a passion for romance. Adam Nicolson would very much like to make a fully connected interpretation of the historical connections and possible links with the very far past and scraps from what has been recorded of Scottish history over 1000 years ago. He longs for a connecting story, and has a tendency to conflate ‘might’, ‘could’ and other words meaning ‘maybe’ and ‘possible’, into definites, certainties and assumptions. But he doesn’t do it as much or as badly as some, and he is scrupulous in saying when the experts don’t agree with his hopeful interpretations.

He is an excellent writer of tension: he’ll start a gripping anecdote, and then spend a page making sure you know the history, the precedents, the habits of the puffin, or the relevance of rounding up sheep clockwise, before you get to the end of the story. There are many tragic and unhappy episodes in the story of the Shiants, and we feel sure that Nicolson has built into the narrative anything relevant to the islands’ story. In the end, we have read an intense and composite account of the islands’ life lived out in centuries and in sheep, where the sea is the roadway and knowing how to sail your boat is life and death. We understand better how birds view the Shiants, as a clumsy and dirty but necessary summer feeding and breeding station, which they visit only for four or five months in the year. Puffins spend the winter at sea, when they lose the colour on their beaks. For them, the Shiants are less preferable than the Atlantic Ocean in winter: that tells you how wild and rough these islands can get. By using the Shiants as a lens through which to view history, we get a better sense of how this remote part of Scotland connected with the rest of mainland Britain, and with European civilisation, and with the earth’s natural processes.

But Sea-Room not a heavy read: don’t think that it’s a mass of facts and no fun. There are lots of family stories and jokes from Adam’s friends. There are many, many personal accounts of things he did when younger, and what it was like sailing his new boat to the Shaints for the first time himself. It’s a great book for involving the reader, for making you want to go and see it all for yourself.