Breeders and loafers

Nicola White




On our first morning on the island, we set off to count the nesting birds. The mist (the haar, the sea fret), which rolled in over Eynhallow while we slept, now obscures anything more than fifty feet away. The Orkney mainland has disappeared entirely, as has the island of Rousay to the north. Even my four companions, the scientists, have begun to look insubstantial.

We walk in single file along the line where the grass of the interior meets the stones of the shore. Between us, we carry a long net and pole, a ladder, a backpack with equipment for ringing and tagging, and a camera with a heavy long lens. The rocks of the Eynhallow shore are slips of sandstone. The large ones tilt when you step on them, the little ones slide away in clinking avalanches.

The sounds of seabirds fill the mist around us, piercing notes and gulping solos. Bonxies, oystercatchers, curlew, black-backed gulls and herring gulls – only visible when they swoop near. A tern hovers directly over my head, wings as elegant as arched eyebrows. Sarah, in front of me, stops and points at the ground. I stare and stare until suddenly, a symmetry jumps into focus: three dappled tern eggs laid on a scatter of identically dappled stones.

As we walk on, I place my feet carefully, scanning the ground for more eggs. The shape of a small, primitive house coheres before us. It is roofed with big stone flags, something I have seen before only on the coast of Clare. These flags are covered in pillowy masses of scurvy grass, with succulent stems and puffs of tiny white petals. And from this bower, five bright fulmar heads stare down. These are the birds we have come for. Becky begins to take photographs. Sarah opens the yellow notebook with ‘2018’ on the cover and starts to sketch their nesting positions.

The little bothy is the most nearly intact old building on the island. Nettles crowd through the open doorway and fill the small walled yard. When the last of the human population was transported off Eynhallow in 1851, following bouts of typhoid and other illnesses, the landlord took the roofs off all the other houses, ostensibly to cleanse them of disease, but ensuring that there would be no human return. In Orcadian mythology, the island was part of Hildaland, the mysterious and often invisible home of the superhuman Finn folk. The Orkney sagas relate how the island was claimed for Christianity by the means of an unchristian deception involving the pouring of three circuits of salt around its edge to claim it from the pagan and the supernatural. Entering the time of recorded history, the island was given the name Eyin-Helha, or ‘holy isle’, by the Norse, suggesting there was already a religious settlement there.

Sometime after the population was dispersed, a twelfth-century church, or possibly monastery, was discovered amidst an accretion of smaller houses and lean-tos. Its restored form is a simple nave and apse with western porch and gently pointed arches and windows, all built in drystone. Fulmars nest now in its wall cubbies and even on the earthen floor. When we arrive, we find a recently broken egg in a dark corner, a dribble of yellow puddled in one of its fragments.

There were visitors on the island when we arrived, viewing the ruins, their boat anchored in the bay. A ground-nesting bird may have been startled off its nest. When a fulmar flies and leaves its egg unguarded, other birds – gulls and bonxies – are quick to take advantage of a nourishing meal.

Fulmars are mainly cliff-nesting birds, but human structures suit them just as well: drystone walls, ancient brochs, castle ramparts. Since they arrived in 1930s, they have colonized all of Eynhallow’s ruins. The remains of small houses and enclosures are scattered over the island, and there is a small concrete shelter on the north shore built as a hide for seal hunters.

The only habitable building is the one we’re staying in, the field station. It consists of several prefabricated cabins wrapped into one house by white clapboard and corrugated iron. It is simple accommodation – water butts and pumps for washing, a small petrol generator to recharge our technology – but there are oddly aristocratic touches left in place from an earlier life as a hunting lodge: William Morris curtains at the windows and fine spongeware pottery on the dresser. A boat dropped us off in the turquoise shallows below the house with all our food and equipment. The boatman is due to return for us at the weekend, weather allowing.





Up until the twentieth century, there were only two colonies of fulmars in Britain and Ireland: one on the remote, monumental archipelago of St Kilda, west of the Hebrides, and another, later occurring, on Foula in Shetland. But then an extraordinary migration and multiplication occurred as fulmars moved south, spreading from headland to headland along the Scottish coast, then across to Northern Ireland. They now live as far south as the Channel Islands.

At the end of my street in Cromarty, the highland town where I live, Aberdeen University has a field station for studying the cetaceans and seals of the Moray Firth. They also run the seasonal fulmar study on Eynhallow. Until I talked to the director, Paul Thompson, fulmars had escaped my notice, even though Cromarty has a small population of its own, out on the headland called the North Sutor. They had been passing in the air, and I’d been oblivious. If anything, I told Paul, I thought they were some kind of gull. This drew a look of horror. Perhaps it was to remedy such ignorance that he invited me along on summer’s first trip to check on the nesting birds.

Fulmars are procellariidae, a family that includes shearwaters, petrels and albatrosses. In effect, they are the albatrosses of the northern hemisphere, though they are dramatically smaller. I had failed to notice the glossy black eyes, more benign than the pale beady stare of a gull, and the strange blue breathing tubes atop their beaks. Like albatrosses, they are extraordinary travellers. They do not flap about, but ride the wind stiff-winged, cruciform in the sky’s brightness, as though flying were just a matter of resting on air. They thrive on a stiff breeze, a storm even more so. They borrow the velocity of the wind to travel out to the middle of the Atlantic, skimming the crests of the waves or shooting down the dark valleys between them, out where there is only sea and sky and nothing else, out where you or I would die.

I assumed that marine life was evenly distributed throughout the great oceans, but this isn’t the case; it mainly thrives on the continental shelves. So what are the fulmars doing out there, so far from land? By following birds, scientists have found that the oceans contain oases of marine life – slightly shifting patches of plenty that host a whole web of biodiversity, from plankton to sharks to seabirds. One such is near the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone, where deep fault lines cross the mountainous mid-Atlantic Ridge. Some as-yet-mysterious combination of topography and ocean currents makes this a worthwhile destination for a fulmar nesting on the Orkney Islands, nearly 1,500 miles away.

A common German term for fulmar translates as ‘ice storm bird’. The name fulmar itself derives from the Norse meaning ‘foul gull’ and was first used in the Icelandic sagas. In Orkney, they are called mallie or mallimauk – meaning ‘foolish gull’. The ‘foolishness’ of fulmars apparently lies in how easy they are to capture when they’re sitting on their eggs. Several times during our trip I saw Paul gently lever up a sitting bird with one end of the net pole, so that we could see if it was incubating an egg, then allow it to sink back down. The huge chicks are slow to fledge, sitting placidly on their birth sites long after their parents have flown.

A fulmar’s only weapon is its ‘foulness’ – its unique ability to vomit a pungent oil over attackers. They vomit directionally, and repeatedly. Studying fulmars up close, catching and laying hands on them, will inevitably trigger this response. The handbook I received before our trip stressed the importance of wearing outer layers that were not precious to us, and specified that these garments should never be brought into the field station house, but hung outside in the shed. The persistence of the smell of fulmar vomit is the stuff of legend, immune to time and laundry cycles.





At the stone bothy, Paul moves forward in slow motion with the net, eyes on the nesting birds. The nearest one rears up, pulls back its wings and opens its beak, letting go a streak of bright saffron vomit that Paul manages to dodge. The bird behind it rises, flaps heavily into the air. Becky tracks it with the camera as it passes overhead, a volley of shutter clicks. Then she peers at the screen, zooms in.

‘Black over red over white,’ she says, reading off the colours of the rings on its leg.

It is a known bird, as so many in this colony are. It’s been caught several times before and doesn’t care to be caught again. Katie opens the backpack and takes out two custom-made reference books. One is an index of all the ringed birds on Eynhallow; the color sequences of the rings cross-reference to a unique number. ‘Black over red over white’ is found and noted. The other book looks like a collection of very dull postcards bound together. These are photographs of the nests from last year and the year before. The birds re-use their nest sites year after year, mostly. Sometimes they shuffle a bit to the left or right, sometimes they don’t come back for a few years.

Above many of the island’s nest sites, small numbered plaques are nailed into wall or cliff face. This was a previous generation’s attempt to systematize the scatter of birds and their preferred nooks. Some are still relevant, but many mark sites that have fallen out of favour, where ferns have taken over from the birds.

Our mission on Eynhallow is straightforward: to record the year’s nest sites, count the eggs, identify the birds that sit on them (if they’ve been ringed), and retrieve any GLS trackers attached to those rings. Scientists have been assessing the fulmar’s annual laying, hatching and fledging on Eynhallow since 1950, when George Dunnet and Robert Carrick came here. Dunnet was working on his PhD thesis. Carrick was an established ornithologist, an expert in starlings, who, as a staff major in the war, had worked in the area of ‘camouflage and deception’. Together on Eynhallow they established what is now one of the longest-running studies of individuals in a population, and therefore one of the most significant in the world.

The fulmar colony had only been breeding on the island for around twenty years when the study began, but it had already received the attentions of James Fisher, whose staggeringly complete monograph The Fulmar, published in 1952, describes the population spread of this seabird by detailing every colony on the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Fisher’s devotion has been described as ‘monomaniacal’, and his book stands as a landmark in ornithology. He concluded that the spread of the fulmar coincided with the development of the whitefish industry, and more particularly the practice of throwing ‘spoils’ overboard, providing an easy source of food.





Sarah is holding a captured fulmar in her lap, one hand circling the base of its skull to keep it from biting, the other spanning its wings and body. Oily green vomit drips from the hook of its beak onto her thigh. The colour of the vomit depends on what the bird has been eating. This bird’s legs bear the coloured rings which give us its identity number, and also a metal ring bearing a long number registered with the British Trust for Ornithology. Attached to one of the coloured rings is the prize we’re seeking: a logger attached in a previous year, a circuit board the size of a five-pence piece encased in acrylic. Paul snips the cable tie and passes it to me. I put the precious tag in a zipped pocket of the bag.

Up until recently, all we could know about the lives of the Eynhallow fulmars was what occurred on land, but since 2005 this miniature technology has allowed scientists to follow them out to sea. The loggers have a clock, a photocell, and two metal prongs that create a circuit when the logger is submerged. Taken together, the data produced by these instruments allows scientists to track the bird’s approximate position and to measure the time the bird spends rafting or feeding in the water.

Paul prepares a new logger, cushioning it with tape and threading it on to the ring while the haar blows around us like smoke from a bracken fire.


At night I lie in my bunk and listen to the otherworldly thrum of snipe conducting aerial manoeuvres somewhere over the island’s bare grassland. It is past eleven, but a weak light persists at this time of year, the simmerdim. The doors of the house are unlocked – there is no one to lock them against. I wonder what I am doing in this strange place. I don’t possess the orderliness of the research students and naturalists I’m with. There is an understanding that I might find something of interest to write about, but I need to put that from my conscious mind or my experiences on Eynhallow will be warped by false notions about what deserves attention. I need to watch the birds, not myself.

The next morning is clear and mild. It takes only five minutes to walk from the house to the other side of the island, along a central dip known as ‘the ravine’. The modest, head-high crags here are home to more fulmars, happy to roost inland if the site is right. At the far end of this central valley is Ramna Geo. In Orkney a geo is a narrow inlet, a place where the sea rushes into the cracks in the land. Along one side is a broad pavement of rock, on which sheets of seawater remain at low tide, rippling and warming in the sun. Looking down on the pavement are low cliffs, the distinct layers of sandstone providing shelves and angled nooks for dozens of nesting fulmars, white heads as soft as marshmallow in the early light. The air whirrs and a small flock of puffins skims overhead, heading out to sea.

We make our way to the cliff top and sit in sunshine while Paul walks carefully along the edge, spying out which birds are accessible from above. Like the others, I have binoculars strung around my neck and am starting to enjoy the easy access to improved vision. I’m wondering why I shouldn’t wear them always. Over on Rousay I can see the ancient Broch of Midhowe, and the cars gleaming on the hillside car park above. Among the thousands of stones that make up the broch’s curved wall I can clearly make out the heads of more fulmars. Scanning out to sea, I’m surprised to see a distinct high wave stretching across the channel, curling white at the top. It doesn’t seem to move closer, just rises in place, presumably marking a seam where two currents meet.

I lower the binoculars and notice my feet. My wellingtons are covered in yellow dust, pollen from some of the wildflowers we walked through – marsh marigold, bog cotton, cuckoo flower. At intervals, Paul comes back with a captured bird, and Sarah or Katie holds it as he removes tags or puts new ones on. Each bird is given a spray of orange dye on its head and breast that will last the few days we are here, ensuring we don’t catch the same bird twice.

‘Your turn.’ Paul is standing above me with a fulmar in his hands. I sit with my feet under me and take it across my lap, trying to span both wings and pin it against my belly with my right hand while the other hand forms a loose choke hold at the base of its skull. Under the feathers, its neck feels no thicker than a pencil. Its mauve feet, webbed and fleshy, scrabble on my nylon trousers, the only noise in the attentive silence. At last it quiets, and Paul attends to its rings.

The bird looks up and I can see my reflection in the black gloss of what the Orcadian writer Eric Linklater described as a ‘cold arctic eye’. Objectively speaking there is nothing cold about it, but it has an unknowable depth. The bird opens its beak at me, but finds it difficult to vomit with its wings held tight.

Sensing a moment’s weakness, it swivels its head and sinks the sharp tip of its beak into the web of skin between my thumb and finger. I yell, but manage to keep hold until Paul frees me. I adjust my grasp and watch a bead of blood form on my hand. Paul attaches the logger, then plucks a few feathers from its breast for DNA sampling. Last comes the fluorescent spray of dye, tickling across my fingers as well as the bird.

The business complete, I stand up to toss the bird in the air, since fulmars find it difficult to take off from flat ground. It flaps, catches the air, and glides out to sea to wash off my traces.

I lift my hands to my face and take in the smell on them, a smell completely new to me – sweet and musty, but floral also, like flowers pressed in a book for years, falling to dust. The vomit smell on my nylon trousers isn’t as bad as advertised – just a strong fish-oil reek, at least for now.

As Paul goes in search of the next subject, Sarah shows me a photograph on her phone of her hands covered in a web of red scratches. She spent the spring on Skomer island, off Pembrokeshire, studying Manx shearwaters. They are smaller than fulmars, but they nest in burrows – as puffins do – so catching them involves blindly reaching into the earth and bearing the attack of the beaks.

‘Can’t you wear gloves?’

‘You need to be able to feel for the little chicks, so no.’

I express some worry about the effect of all this handling on the fulmars.

‘They’re wild creatures,’ says Sarah. ‘They’re robust.’ I tell her how much I like the smell the fulmar has left on my hands, and she talks for a while about which birds smell best. She tells me that, on Skomer, she would always try to steal a sniff of the shearwater chicks as they were weighed, so good was the smell, but that the best-smelling bird by far is the storm petrel.

Before she can describe the storm petrel’s particular scent, Paul is back with another fulmar. We are silent as it is attended to, the grass stalks trembling around us in the cliff breeze.


When we go back to the house for lunch, Paul stays at the base of the cliffs, waiting for the birds we have disturbed to come back to their eggs. This gap between catching the birds and their return is a risky time. The white eggs are exposed on their ledges, easy targets for the skuas and black-backed gulls that abound here. There’s also the slight risk that the fulmars will not return to their eggs for some time, but will go out to the ocean to feed. A fulmar lays only one egg a season. If the egg fails or is eaten by predators, the parents will leave.

We bring back a sandwich and a coffee for Paul, and I take up his position on the rocky beach. I have a sketch of where all the birds should be on the cliff face – it looks like some obscure constellation. The rest of the team move off to other nest sites and I stay at Ramna to ward off any predators. I sit on a grassy tussock, my back to a boulder, male eiders displaying their Egyptian-looking plumage and woo-ing on the water beside me. The sunshine is bright now, the air woven with birds.

I am in a very beautiful place with a small and easy task to do. Most of my fulmars have returned now – I am awaiting the final three. I have the luxury of looking, of being still, of feeling useful while doing nothing. Around the prow of one cliff, a fulmar is circling. She’s not one I need for my constellation, she has no splash of orange on her white.

The fulmar glides the same tilted loop again and again, a perfect oval, as if she’s tethered to a point on the cliff edge. To what purpose? It’s hard not to project pleasure onto her effortless wheeling. We have systems to identify individuals, measure their breeding and feeding, but nothing that will give us a glimpse into a bird’s inner life. Up until recently, most scientists would have dismissed the very idea of a bird having an inner life. But it’s impossible to watch this bird and not to imagine an enjoyment of skill, a sense of her playing with the elements of air and land.

In addition to the fulmars sitting tight on their nests, there are many others sitting on the cliff tops, taking short flights, visiting nest sites to settle beside the ones incubating. Paul calls these the ‘loafers’. They may be too young to breed or don’t have mates. Or they are waiting to change places with their mate: fulmars share the incubation evenly between the males and females. One sits while the other goes out to sea to feed.

All the birds I’m waiting for return except one. An hour passes. Occasionally I stand and wave my arms when a gull comes too close. It could be that the missing fulmar is put off by me. I hide behind the boulder, and after a few minutes the final dot in the constellation returns.





Evenings in the house, the work continues – dinner is cleared from the big table to be replaced by laptops, spreadsheets, and little solar-powered lights. It’s a group effort to input and organize the data collected during the day. Becky labels hundreds of photographs. Katie – who has worked on the fulmar project throughout her MSc but has never visited Eynhallow or touched a fulmar until this week – checks the previous histories of the birds we’ve encountered today. Sarah is going through this new data to see which loggers may be most useful for her research on the feeding strategies of fulmars. She is investigating why some birds feed locally while others make those epic journeys out to the mid-Atlantic.

For a time I make myself moderately useful, counting feathers into small sample bags and labelling them. I soon run out of work, and turn to the small archive of laminated articles and books kept on a dresser shelf. There are obituaries of George Dunnet and Robert Carrick, who set up the original study. I’ve already been looking at three intriguing photographs of Dunnet pinned up in the back corridor of the house. The earliest is from around 1950, Dunnet’s quiff of dark curls blowing in the sea breeze as his hands grasp the back of a fulmar, the cliffs of Eynhallow blurred in the background. The next shows an older Dunnet, grey-haired, re-enacting the pose with another fulmar. But the bird is unconvincing, stiffly angled, its eyes wonky. It would appear to be stuffed, perhaps a set-up at the request of the photographer. The last photograph is in colour, date-stamped 1992. It shows Dunnet peering into a rocky cranny at a nesting bird, who shyly turns its head away. The important link between the first and last photos, Paul explained, is that it’s not only the same man in the photographs, but the same bird.

Fulmars can live for half a century, probably more. The oldest recaptured bird was fifty-one, so it is likely that their lifespan can exceed that. We tend to think of small and light creatures as short-lived, but not these. They can breed for most of their lives too, so although that annual egg is vulnerable, there are plenty of chances to reproduce over the decades.

Fulmars were never more entwined with humans than they were on St Kilda up until the early twentieth century. I turn to Fisher’s thick monograph to read more about the many uses that they were put to in that marginal economy. Fulmars weren’t just food to the St Kildans, though they were that, their meat preserved in special stone beehives, along with gannet and puffin. Their oil is rich in vitamins, and was used as balm as well as oil for lamps. Fulmar oil is similar to whale oil, a fulmar’s diet being the same as a whale’s. Their feathers were used to make quilts and also exported and swapped for rent. The bones were ground for fertilizer, and all that was left – heads, wings, feet, guts – was dried and used as fuel.

The St Kildans would take an average of ten thousand chicks a year from the cliffs and sea stacks of the islands. By August the chicks were fat, full of oil, heavier than the parents out at sea, returning only to give their offspring the occasional feed before they fledge. In this window of time, all hands on St Kilda were turned to the mass harvest of the young fulmars. The fittest men would lower themselves down the cliffs with ropes or clamber up the sea stacks to pluck the chicks from their perches. It was important to do this stealthily, so the birds would not have the chance to vomit and no oil would be wasted. With one hand holding on to the cliff, a boy would grab the bird’s head with the other and, with a flick, break its neck. He would tuck the head through his belt. When his belt was full and his hips heavy with a skirt of fulmar bodies, he would pass up the load to the women and children waiting above on the cliff tops. They ‘milked’ the precious oil into vessels made from gannet stomachs, plucked the feathers, dismembered the birds and salted the meat in waiting barrels.

A St Kildan minister, Neil McKenzie, described a harvest in the 1830s: ‘All this time there is nothing but birds, fat and feathers everywhere. Their clothes are literally soaked in oil, and everywhere inside and outside their houses nothing but feathers; often it looks as if it were snowing.’

Fisher’s book includes an extraordinarily clear photograph taken in June 1896 by one Cherry Kearton. It is probably the first close-up of a fulmar in existence. The bird sits placidly among a tumble of rocks, the inner curve of its beak giving it an amused expression. The last human residents left St Kilda in 1930. Their extensive harvesting of the fulmar never diminished the strength of the colony. It is only in recent years that its numbers have started to fall.


As well as the tiny loggers, we have several larger GPS ones, black boxes with little aerial tails, about the size of a slim matchbox from a fancy restaurant. If one can be attached to a fulmar for a season, then retrieved, it could provide more accurate information about where the bird has been and what choices it made in its hunt for food.

Attaching these trackers is no easy thing: they have to be fixed with sticky tape woven into the feathers of the upper back, secured tightly enough to travel thousands of miles, but in a way that won’t irritate the bird, causing it to pluck out the feathers that hold it.

Paul identifies the best candidates for this – known birds who have returned year after year, who have been handled before and are less likely to disappear with the expensive GPS devices. In the evening, we set out for the ravine, where such a bird awaits. Four of us lurk out of sight while Paul catches it from above, then we gather in a close circle on the grass. Sarah has the bird on her lap and has put a cloth bag over its head, to ease its stress. Paul smoothes and parts the feathers on its nape gently, as though he’s plaiting a child’s hair. The bird starts to make cooing sounds into the bag, and Sarah strokes its wings. In the quiet and the half light, this focused work, this soft weaving, feels mesmerizing and strange.

I’m sent back to the house to get a couple of dummy eggs. If the bird flies to sea now, its egg will be exposed overnight. It is safer to conceal the egg and replace it with a plaster one. The fulmar will sit on it when it returns, and then we can swap them over again.

The plaster eggs are weighty and cold, each one a palmful. I push my hands into the padded pockets of my body warmer and walk back along the darkened track beside the small valley. The eggs warm as I walk and I become aware that I am pressing them against my abdomen, just above my dormant ovaries. I, too, am an unsuccessful breeder. A loafer. Any study of human populations and reproduction would set me in one of its side columns, a branch leading nowhere.

When I get back to the ravine, the light is hovering on the edge of night. Paul has his jacket draped over the bird and is talking softly to it. He’s trying to settle it directly back on the nest. We seem to have entered a territory beyond the counting and observation – something more intimate, involving persuasion, empathy and deception. Despite his patient efforts, the fulmar flies the nest. We take the precious egg and put it in a Tupperware beaker, padded with cotton wool. We hide it near the nest site and leave a plaster egg in its place.

Fulmars don’t make nests in any real sense. Sometimes there is a scatter of dried seaweed or shells, but that seems almost accidental. This nest is just a brown scuff among tufts of bog grass. The dummy egg seems to glow in the dying light.





More eggs are failing to hatch in the colony than before. There is speculation that this might have something to do with plastic ingestion. Because they scavenge the ocean’s skin, fulmars pick up plastics along with food. Almost all northern fulmars have fragments of plastic in their stomachs now, fragments that can’t pass through their digestive tracts but sit in the stomach, slowly leaching chemicals.

Northern fulmars are being used in studies of marine plastic pollution. Anyone finding a washed-up fulmar corpse can participate in the online research by recording the volume of plastic the stomach has held. Accompanying photographs record some strange, hybrid remains, a whirl of thin bones and feather wisps enclosing a cache of fishing-net scraps, plastic shards in merry colours, and the granular remains of polystyrene packaging. It is hard to imagine how digestion could have carried on around such loads. A recent study by the Canadian Wildlife Service found phthalates – the chemicals that keep plastic flexible – in the eggs of northern fulmars in the near-pristine high Arctic. Phthalates are known to disrupt hormones and cause birth defects.

After I return from Eynhallow, I come across photographs from Ascension Island showing a scruffy-feathered fulmar chick vomiting up nurdles – those benign-looking pearls of translucent plastic that float on the sea’s surface, so like fish eggs or the diatoms that form much of the fulmar’s diet. This chick hasn’t left its nest yet, but the plastic has been brought to it from far out at sea.





One lunchtime, we spot an orange boat approaching the beach below the house. A man stands in the stern, one hand on the engine tiller, the other tucked casually in his jeans pocket. His long hair wafts behind him, making him easily recognizable to Paul. It is Owen Tierney, a musician and sound-studio owner, also an Orcadian councillor. We put away the work and turn to the rituals of tea and biscuits and the novelty of a visitor.

Owen talks of the politics of wind turbines, the money they bring in set against the impact on the eye and the land. He also talks about the progress of the various wave and tidal generation initiatives. The Orkney archipelago, with some of the strongest and fastest flowing tides in the world, is the centre of European research in this field.

After tea, Owen stands to leave, then turns back to tell us a story, a parting gift. Long ago, a ship wrecked on the coast of Papa Westray. Bodies were washed up on the beach, all drowned, except for a baby found tied to the breast of his dead mother. He had somehow survived. He was taken in by the people of the island and named Archie Angel after the name of the boat: The Archangel. And so, for several generations, there were Angels living on Papa Westray. The last of the Angels, Mary, was a strapping woman who is remembered for felling the local schoolteacher with a punch – ‘and no child was ever kept in for detention again’.

From the window, I watch Owen step into his boat and set off across the wild channel for Rousay, as casually as you might mount a bicycle.


One of the things that strikes me about Paul and the other naturalists is the way they avoid easy answers or speculation. When I ask about the falling population of fulmars, Paul throws the question back – what is the population meant to be?

Without the human introduction of a certain fishing method, there probably would not have been a boom in fulmars through the twentieth century. So, if the population falls, is it in crisis or is it returning to a ‘natural’ level? Cause and effect can be hard to unpick. Seabird populations do well one year, fall in the next. Or prosper in one location but not in another.

The human population of the Orkney Islands is growing, while the Outer Hebrides and other remote locations in Scotland are losing numbers, especially the young. While the Westminster government creates its ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, the devolved government in Edinburgh encourages people to move here, to stay. An ageing population is not a self-sustaining one. How many birds are the right number of birds? How many people can a country support?


It is my last full day on Eynhallow, and I excuse myself from the fieldwork to circumnavigate the island on my own. We have covered most of the coast in our counting, but not the western cliffs. These are proper cliffs, high ones, deemed too unsafe for students and staff to be clambering over. I promise not to take any risks, and set off at a slow pace, still watching out for the camouflaged nests of terns, gulls and oystercatchers. Just past the bothy, I realize I am being observed. A single grey seal is swimming near the shore, pacing himself with my walking. Stopping when I stop. Staring at me over his comically large nose and whiskers.

We lose sight of each other as the land rises, a brow of scrubby grassland. As I gain height, I notice miniature bones among the grass, perhaps the leg bones of rodents. There are also little jawbones from fish, teeth like white seeds, and the convex shields of bleached crab shells. They are scattered all around me, the leavings of a giant feeding ground.

I keep walking uphill until the land levels and an incredible view opens below me, down over the cliffs to the bright sea channel, and at the bottom a stretch of flat rock as big as a town square. Along its far edge, a hundred or so black shags or cormorants – I never can tell – line up, ready to dive into the foam churning beneath their toes. To my right is a scalloped line of cliff tops, blunt with grass and topped with a vast spread of sea pinks. I’ve only ever seen this flower in dotted tufts before, not this scented candyfloss carpet.

My eye lights on something nailed to an outcrop at the cliff edge: a small square sign with a number on it, and beneath it the white head and black eye of a nesting fulmar. I almost reach for my backpack to note down its location and number for the fieldwork team. Only four days in, and monitoring has become an itch. But these numbered nests are no longer part of the survey, the index is defunct here, and all these nests and birds exist unobserved.

I sit down close to the cliff edge, brightness at my feet. The sitting birds look at me, or out to sea. We are so high. I lie back on the pillowing thrift to quell my vertigo. It smells of birds – or the scent of birds and flowers has intermingled in my brain. And I realize that I feel as happy as I have ever felt, that something has lifted. The counting has stopped, and all is wide and endless.


To read the rest of Dublin Review 77, you may purchase the issue here.