Peregrines, Wild Geese and Avocets
Chapter two - The Western Isles
On two occasions, I spent holidays at sea exploring the islands off the west of Scotland. Each of these was not only memorable for the exciting glimpses of unusual bird-life but the hard work which accompanied these, in what was essentially a working holiday. A word of explanation for these cryptic comments would not be amiss though. Adam’s father had lived in Scotland all his life and since boyhood had a passionate interest in the sea, the people of the Western Isles and the western Highlands. Except for the war – when he was a naval officer, stationed in these waters for some considerable while – he had not been a full-time professional sailor, but managed to spend an enviable amount of time at sea in these wild and beautiful waters.
At the time I am recalling, he owned two boats based at Crinan, on which he spent long periods, carrying cargo and livestock amongst the western seas. His true living came from a successful business in Edinburgh, but this was his passion. Look an’ See was a converted 35’ lifeboat which served as accommodation, while a larger, nearly open workboat, Cyclops, was the base for the work. Look an’ See could be lived in for long periods in comfort, or at least ‘comfort’ by the standards of small boats; while Cyclops was very definitely designed to do a job of work, being equipped with a hold and a derrick to help with loading and unloading. Mr Ross used to spend all his summer holidays as well as many weekends on one or the other boat but, unusually, instead of using them purely for pleasure, used to spend much of his time hauling cargoes from one place to another or rendering service to some lonely croft or house on a remote island. In this way, he enjoyed the finest cruising and helped the boats pay for themselves.
I was lucky enough to be asked to go on a couple of holidays on those boats while I was still at school. It was a wonderful experience, with plenty of hard work and good food, leading to deep dreamless sleep each night. I had a fascinating glimpse of an entirely different way of life out on the islands, as well as new habitat for birds and animals; one of unbelievable beauty, where I saw species I had never seen before, or in plumage not found elsewhere.
OBAN & MULL - July 1949
THURSDAY: Mr Ross, Adam and I arrived at Crinan in the late afternoon, where Look an’ See was lying in the canal basin. She is a trim craft about 30’ overall, with slightly raised forecastle and some shelter over the cockpit. She is fitted with a Kelvin diesel engine and was to be our home for the next few days. Mr Miller, managing director of Dickie’s Boatyard, met us with his wife and showed us aboard, where we put it all shipshape before motoring off round the loch to anchor by a large motor yacht, Foray, and her smaller sister Link.
FRIDAY: At one-o-clock in the morning, we took out the seine-net, hoping for salmon or sea-trout, and went off in the dinghy. This net was placed at one end of a mud-bank and then rowed out in a circle; the other end reaching back close to where it started. Then it is hauled back onto the bank with any catch in a bag formed out of the middle of the net. This time the catch consisted of one large salmon, several sea-trout and some flounders. Turned in at 3-00am. What a start to the holiday!
Woke at 8-00, to find us under weigh for Oban. As we went through the Crinan Sound, a small wader got up in front of the boat. in flight, it was grey and white in appearance; a Grey phalarope – a new bird for me. Soon, there were hundreds of Arctic terns, recognised by their size and all-red bills. With them, were the much larger Sandwich terns, with long wings and less-forked tails. By the Island of Sheep, off Mull, I was particularly delighted to see a solitary Black tern; although it it was a rather disappointing dirty blacky-grey bird, with a dark head. We lunched really early at Oban, as we were all starving, full of fresh sea-air. Then we spent the afternoon rowing round the bay. I left my binoculars behind, so could not tell which diver it was that I spotted some distance away, but did recognise a Black guillemot hurrying past in flight.
SATURDAY: Filthy weather, so we remined at Oban. In the morning, we went off to the neighbouring island of Kerrera, a most beautiful spot. There were hundreds of Meadow pipits flying around, most with food in their mouths, presumably for nestlings though it does seem rather late – perhaps second broods. I watched a particularly bright Yellowhammer through the glasses. It was so colourful, a light yellow head and brownish back, white outer edges to the tail feathers and a very noticeable pinky-orange rump. As we walked across, the eerie piping of Oystercatchers was all round. We watched one pair cooing at each other, while half a dozen black diving ducks came round the headland, low in the water, carrying their heads well forward. These Common scoters were continually rising up from the sea-surface and flapping their wings, before settling back once again, something often seen with Wigeon in the Spring. Further out, three Porpoises broke the surface in graceful curves. As they did so, a shoal of Herrings surfaced in front, in a flurry of foam.
SUNDAY: A gale is blowing, so we are confined to harbour; in the worst period of the storm, a Common tern flew really close while Oystercatchers pipe to each other on a nearby beach, rising to chase each other round the bay; a pleasant background to a poor afternoon. We were kept busy, regardless. There is always something to do aboard a boat, part of the endless work needed to keep everything in perfect working order.
MONDAY: The gale has died down at last, so we set sail from Oban at 6-00 in the morning. The wind had died down, but the seas were still rough and we rolled a great deal, making for a rather uncomfortable trip. Outside Lismore lighthouse, situated on Eilean Musdile at the entrance to Loch Linnhe, we came across a great many Gannets, Kittiwakes and other sea-birds diving continually into the foam-flecked sea. Amongst them was a solitary Black guillemot. There must have been a considerable shoal of fish underneath, with all this activity. Mr Ross pointed out a large, slow-flying, bulky bird, like a small goose, and told me it was a female Eider, typical of these parts.
We arrived at Tobermory, on Mull, at 10-00am. As we came out of the sound of Mull and into the open Atlantic, by Ardnamurchen Point, we watched parties of Manx shearwaters flying everywhere, just above the waves. They seemed so tiny and frail against the great rollers, but manoeuvred with complete safety, only inches above the waves. Between there and the Kyle of Lochalsh, on Skye, parties of Common guillemots, occasional Puffins, and Razorbills with their babies, were everywhere. The babies were exact but tiny replicas of their mothers, though altogether scruffier. Then, someone picked up an odd-looking bird in the binoculars, with similar mode of flight to the shearwaters but smaller by far, with a forked tail. This is the first Leach’s petrel I have ever seen, so tiny in such a large ocean. Towards the end of this stretch a Puffin flew really close, so I was able to see the amazing, intricately-coloured beak. We finally reached Portree harbour, on the Isle of Skye, at 10-00 in the evening, after seeing my very first Fulmar. Although superficially similar, it was quite different to the gulls, with its short, hooked beak and all-grey wings, without any black at the tips. Rather than actively flying, it spent its time gliding, following every change in the wind with little or no movement of the wings, an amazing bird.
TUESDAY: We woke to a fairly strong wind, working for much of the morning laying a trammel net in the harbour. The afternoon was spent very actively, laying out lobster creels in the bay with the daughters of a friend, naturally called Macdonald, in this island where so many are from that clan.
WEDNESDAY: We went out and lifted the trammel net and the lobster creels; very poor yield in both, but it was all part of the fun of being out on the sea. In the afternoon, Adam and I went off for a walk in the hills, tracing a wee burn to a waterfall. At this point we were caught in the middle of a really fierce hailstorm – hailstones about a quarter of an inch in diameter that really hurt. Heard a loud ‘Tac’ coming from a fence and spotted a Whinchat, beautiful in a subtle, subdued manner.
THURSDAY: Bade farewell to Adam and Look an’ See. What a superb holiday.
A WORKING HOLIDAY - April 1951
The second of these visits was perhaps the most memorable, although the shorter of the two. I had to work really hard for my living and came across the reality of the problems of crofting in the islands. Because of the weather, I had a most remarkable bird-watching holiday - though always in combination with that essential hard work.
SATURDAY: I was met at Edinburgh by Adam on his motorcycle and, after lunch, shot off to the west coast, arriving at Crinan in the evening. Early next morning, we set off in Cyclops with Adam and his father; a genuine American cowboy to help with driving and catching some wild cattle; a farmer and his nephew, Davy; George, a Pole; Tommy and his collie; plus the doctor – a motley but experienced crew, but all with a purpose. We landed at Coulie, one of the Isles of the Sea, about an hour and a half later.
On the way there, we spotted a number of birds before breakfast; the first being a Great northern diver in winter plumage. Soon we were passing a Common and a Bridled guillemot swimming along, side-by-side. They do bear the most remarkable resemblance to divers when there is nothing to indicate size, and they are some way off. There were numbers of Razorbills and several whirring ‘tysties’, Black guillemots, pretty little birds with red legs and black and white plumage. Puffins flew past periodically but I found many of these birds extraordinarily difficult to distinguish on the wing. The number of Oystercatchers seen in among the islands was amazing. They appear to be the only waders though.
At the island, we put up a corral and attempted to drive the five semi-wild Hereford bullocks into it. But no luck; they were wild as blazes and paid no attention to humans trying to trap them. In mid-afternoon, we moved the corral to a different part, where we thought we might be able to fool them more easily. By nine-o-clock in the evening, we had managed to lasso three of them and put them aboard the vessel, after great labour. They have been on their own for months and are really fierce and wild, charging at the slightest excuse. We arrived back at near midnight, absolutely exhausted.
That same day, before breakfast, Adam and I wandered round the harbour and found a diver right under the wall but had to run and fetch the binoculars, by which time it was swimming away from us (why we were so silly about taking binoculars I cannot believe). It was either a Great northern or a Black-throated, of that we were certain, but had to make careful notes to determine which, as it was in its anonymous winter plumage. It had a large, straight, heavy bill as well as what appeared to be a faint collar. This more or less marked it down as a Great northern, but this was then clinched by a faint whiteness over the eye.
Numbers of Red-breasted mergansers were fishing out on the loch, such beautiful birds; while, just under the jetty, we disturbed a pair of Eider that allowed a really close look before swimming off. What eminently seaworthy, sturdy and extraordinarily handsome duck they are.
SUNDAY: In the morning, Adam and I went out in the dinghy with its Seagull outboard. We tried to reach Rabbit Island but half-way there, the motor packed up. We managed to get it going again but decided to return, as it was misfiring badly. In the afternoon, we worked terribly hard laying huge anchors and heavy chains, then moving Foray out of the loch by hand and finally towing her behind Cyclops. Even then our work was not finished, for we had to get the chains heaved up short, various anchors on board and unshackled. We got back, pleasantly tired at about 8-o-clock, had a meal and on to bed. The place was stiff with Common gulls, with which I was not familiar. They are wonderfully neat, trim, clean gulls, larger than the Black-headed accompanying them, but far smaller than the pirate Herring gulls.
MONDAY: Adam and I set off for Rabbit Island again, with the now-mended outboard. This time we were more successful. As we left, a small raft of Eider were spotted off to one side. Two splendidly-dressed drakes were cooing to the four dark ducks; a noise which may be rendered as ‘aa-ooh’, soporific and so perfect for the bird. At 11-o-clock we arrived at the island and had a look at the hide Adam had left about 14 feet away from a Mallard’s nest containing 13 eggs. Sadly, in spite of all the care he had taken, it was deserted. This island is a gullery for the Common gull. They were just starting their scrapes, but no eggs had been laid yet. They are incredibly neat birds, far trimmer and shapelier than any of the other gulls and somehow cleaner-looking. They flew all round us, screaming their heads off and many settled out at sea, but when we were on the island not one would settle. We were relieved when Cyclops arrived at midday, to leave them in peace once again. We set off for the Garvellachs as soon as we were safely on board.
I made a number of notes about the birds we saw on this voyage; a Guillemot swims with its tail held high, as does a Razorbill and a Black guillemot. Puffins, and the only Bridled guillemot I came across, swim with the tail down on the water. I watched a Razorbill diving; as it does so, it gives a great push with its wings and turns belly-up as it shot under the water. A Shag passed us, swimming low in the water and I noticed the yellow eye set low in the head and the yellow line under the eye.
After lunch we landed on Coulie and searched for the cattle. We tried every means to bring the cattle near the cowboy and his rope. Eventually the two beasts took off to sea and landed at Eilean Na Clarsaich, another small rocky island off Coulie. I went ashore with Davy, Cowboy and Tommy, while three remained in Cyclops, and Adam, Willy and Gordon patrolled in the dinghy. We didn’t even get a look-in, as the beasts took to the sea innediately but, after long chases, the boats captured one each. We were pretty uncomfortable, what with driving rain and a cold wind, but it was worth it, as at last we had captured the cattle for Ian Mackenzie. As I was getting into the dinghy I slipped, while the boat rode out under a wave. The combination sent me up to my waist in water; still I was soon dry in the hot engine room. While by th island, we spotted three Atlantic seal-heads watching us inquisitively. We left at 8 and were home by 9-30, for a fine and well-earned dinner.
TUESDAY: At 8-30 we were off in Cyclops to fetch a cargo of draff from the Bunnahabhain Distillery on Islay. Draff is barley, after the fermentation process has finished, while making whisky. It is used for silage or as a direct feed for hungry cattle.
After seeing numerous ‘normal’ sea birds we entered Islay Sound at around 11-45. Our first sighting, at its very entrance, was of a pair of divers, both Great northern, but one in near winter and the other in full breeding plumage, with dark head and neck and large white spots on the back. The journey from Jura, along the Sound of Jura, and thence into the Sound of Islay, was marvellous, the water being without a ripple, like glass, without any swell. I was told this was really unusual, as the Sound is noted for its steep and troubled waves. Our next excitement was spotting a large diver perfectly reflected in the water. At first glance, it had a seemingly white back, straight bill and black throat and head, with a white base to the neck. On closer inspection, I saw the back had huge white cross-bars but still could not see the detail of the neck, except for a black patch on the throat. This stood out quite clearly and separately and confirmed the bird was a Black-throated diver in full summer plumage, a most beautiful bird indeed. Further up the Sound, opposite the Caol Ila Distillery, I watched a Kittiwake feeding. On one dive, it seemingly miscalculated, or hit an air pocket, to thump the water with a terrific bang, at a very awkward angle, with one wing hitting first, but it emerged quite happily, apparently unhurt.
Steaming up the beautiful banks and hills of Islay and Jura was quite wonderful, the tops of the Paps of Jura were obscured in a haze, but the sun lit up the screes on the steep lower slopes and everything glowed a rich ochre. The lazy nature of the scene was enhanced by the slow wing-beats of a Grey heron driving across the sands towards the rocks. In the distance, two divers spent short spells underwater, unidentifiable even through 10 X binoculars, as they were in their grey winter plumage. Then, joy of joys, a Great northern diver in full plumage popped up only twenty yards away and slowly swam past, with every detail in perfect focus. It was one of the most beautiful birds I have ever seen. The back was spangled with large silvery spots; the bill was powerful and set in a velvety black hood. Its eye has a dove’s softness, while the general sleekness of the bird impressed most. At a distance, the distinguishing point from the Black-throat is the black base of the neck in place of the seemingly white of the Black-throat. A large painting of the latter hangs in my study to this day.
We reached Bunnahabhain at quarter to two and found that everyone was away at lunch, leaving us to load it all by hand. The draff had been standing in bags for a week and, getting wet, had fermented, emitting the most peculiarly nauseating stench, which clung to our clothes with incredible persistence. A good many of the bags were rotten and, in some cases, almost too hot to touch. We loaded all this onto a lorry, then drove it down to the quay, where it was unloaded and slid down a ramp made from a thin plank backed by a ladder. After unloading, the men went off for a drink with the manager – a tumblerful each of week old whisky at no doubt considerably over-proof.
After this we left, with five or six tons of the stinking stuff aboard, bound for Ardlussa Bay on Jura. I was pleased to see one of my old friends, a Buzzard, circling over the tree-tops on one of the braes. Soon after, another pair of divers was sighted, which allowed us to pass quite close. These were Black-throats, one in summer and the other in winter plumage. Immediately after, another Great northern in full breeding plumage appeared, just as breathtakingly beautiful as the other.
Gazing at some deer on the Jura skyline, I noticed a little party of duck flying over the hills towards the Sound. Through the binoculars, the yellow brows revealed eight Wigeon drakes, perhaps unexpected at this time of year? Then another, different diver caught my eye, through its more delicate, tip-tilted bill; a Red-throated in winter plumage, the third species of British diver. In this eventful day on the Sound of Islay I had seen all three species of British diver and, with the exception of the Red-throat, in both winter and summer plumages – amazing. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the latter species should in theory be the commonest in these more southerly latitudes. Just after this, a diver flew towards us. It looked rather like a grebe in flight, having the appearance of a long, sagging bundle held up in the middle, but with trim, rapidly-beating, characteristically-pointed wings. The principal difference from a grebe when at a distance was the longish, apparently pointed tail. I couldn’t be certain, but my impression was that it was a Red-throat. At 4-20, we were just clear of the sound, on our way home. A Black-throat in full summer kit passed close by, prompting me to wonder which of Great northern and Black-throated were the most beautiful in the summer. In winter clothing, the more heavily-spotted Red-throated takes the prize. Before five minutes were up, another unidentified diver was seen in the distance. Thus, in the course of one day of amazingly favourable conditions, 12 divers were seen from the boat, as well as others from Jura. A tentative suggestion might be that one of the main swimming passages lies through the Sound of Islay and if better conditions pertained normally at this time of year, much more information on their habits might be gleaned. Two particular points from this trip were the numbers of the rare Black-throats and the lack of the supposedly commoner Red-throat. As we neared Ardlussa, a Gannet circled the boat. There, we unloaded the cargo with the winch, and handed over to the farmer who owned much of this part of Jura. We picked up twenty five oil-drums for filling in Crinan, to be brought back over in the morning. Arrived at Crinan at 9-30, very tired.
WEDNESDAY: All the drums were full by lunchtime, so Adam and I took passage in the owner’s boat, a twenty five foot Air force tender with a Perkins engine. We made the passage at seven knots, throwing up clouds of spray, for it was blowing hard. For the last part, she was opened up to twelve knots, the fastest practical speed. At fifteen knots, the stern sinks too much and is vulnerable in rough seas. We arrived at Ardlussa at 2-o-clock and were given a fine lunch with appetites well-honed by the sea air. Our hosts were extremely kind and pleasant, giving us a great deal of information about the house, Jura and its birds. They owned a fishing loch and we were rather shocked to hear that all Red-throated divers visiting that were shot to protect their fishery (in those days it was a protected species). Clearly their ancestors had engaged in the then common practice of shooting birds to confirm their identity. We were shown stuffed Choughs and a Great northern diver taken by their grandfather. A curious point was that the diver had a little white patch on the top of its head, about the size of a ha’penny.
We helped unload the drums from Cyclops, then said goodbye to our hosts. They do have the most beautiful country round them, especially the bay, with a rock island in the middle. The water is so clear and the white, sandy bottom can be seen quite clearly twenty feet down. A dinghy looks as though it is floating on nothing. We left at 3-30 and, as we passed out of the harbour, we went right through a flock of twenty five Shags in a close bunch. They all dived and re-surfaced simultaneously, perfectly co-ordinated. We arrived back at Crinan at 5-30 and finished mooring Foray by Harbour Island. We docked and left Cyclops at 7-00, before leaving for an uncomfortable four and a half hour journey in a Land Rover. After a very late supper, arrived at Adam’s house at 2-30 – shattered but very happy.
THURSDAY: We got up very late this morning but quickly decided not to waste any more time but take the motorbike out to look at the Forth estuary. We stopped opposite the Fidra lighthouse; it was crystal clear and we could see both the Isle of May and the Bass Rock, as well as the Forth Bridge, with the naked eye. From there, Adam drove the bike up a road I did not know to Aberlady Bay. We walked over the sands and immediately found two Lapwings’ nests. It was alive with these birds. There were literally dozens in the air at once and their lovely mewing echoed from all sides. Several pairs began their tumbling, twisting courtship flights as we drew near, especially that half-roll which appears so skilful. Redshanks were in the air also, doing their vibrating butterfly display, accompanied by lovely, fluting calls.
As we drew near the dhu lochans, Adam, who was a bit ahead of me, shouted that a pair of Teal had landed on the right hand one. As we drew nearer, they lifted off, still looking very small, but we soon queried the original identification. From the light scapulars and white on the tail, they connected in our mind with Shoveler, but we were unable to see too much detail. Fortunately, they circled round and we both saw the characteristic spatulate bill, green head and chestnut neck. When a pair of Shelduck flew over, we had a better comparison with their size - not so small after all.
FRIDAY: I reflected that all good things come to an end. as Adam left me at the bus in the late afternoon after an amazing visit. That morning we visited a well-know bookseller, ‘Douglas & Foulis’ and I bought a second-hand copy of ‘Wanderings and Recollections’, by J. G. Millais, a famous painter of the wildlife of the Scottish countryside and coast; the perfect souvenir of a fantastic week.
BIRDS SEEN ON THE TRIP
Arctic tern, Sterna paradisaea
Black-headed gull, Larus ridibundus
Black guillemot, Cepphus grylle
Black tern, Chilidonias niger
Black-throated diver, Gavia arctica
Bridled guillemot, Aria aalge
Common buzzard, Buteo buteo
Common guillemot, Aria aalge
Common gull, Larus canus
Common scoter, Melanitta nigra
Common tern, Sterna hirundo
Fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis
Eider, Somateria mollissima
Gannet, Morus bassanus
Great northern diver, Gavia immer
Grey phalarope, Phalaropus fulicarius
Kittiwake, Ryssa tridactyla
Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus
Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos
Manx shearwater, Puffinus puffinus
Meadow pipit, Anthus pratensis
Oystercatcher, Haematopus ostralegus
Puffin, Fratercula arctica
Razorbill, Alca torda
Red-breasted merganser, Mergus serrator
Red-throated diver, Gavia stellata
Shag, Phalacrocorax aristotelis
Teal, Anas crecca
Shelduck, Tadorna tadorna
Shoveler, Anas clypeata
Whinchat, Saxicola rubetra
Wigeon, Anas penelope
Yellowhammer, Emberiza citrinella
NEXT: Chapter 3. A Border landscape: the Scottish Borders in 1950