The Blackbird Diaries: A Year With Nature
Saraband, November 2017
The boat set out, silky water reflecting the evening light and the land-shadows as we slipped past Ulva’s layer-cake geology and rounded into the Sea of the Hebrides. Then the remote and unlikely big house and cottages of smaller Gometra swung into view – only visible from the seaward side – there’s remote for you. The boat pushed on. A layer of light cloud had developed and the sea began to swell into broad troughs and smooth hills. Seabirds rafting on the water dropped from view, reappearing moments later as the boat rode the next mounded wave. Clouds thickened, the sun tantalised, brightening the water and vanishing again.
We motored towards the Treshnish Isles, each with its own distinctive silhouette. Bac Mòr – the Dutchman’s Cap – humpbacked, brimmed with a rim of low rock: Lunga, named from the Norse for ‘Longship Island’. Fladda, and coming closer, the ruins of buildings clearer – notched crenulations, a gable wall in the shape of an upturned hull.
‘That’s the ruins of a chapel,’ the skipper said, pointing. ‘They reckon it was built around the time of Columba, and the other building was a barracks – built by the English at the time of Bonny Prince Charlie. Crazy eh?’
I could only agree.
Conor shouted, ‘Porpoise!’ and looking east we caught the rising forms of a female, a calf close to her side. They rolled symmetrically through the water. The skipper cut the engine and, with the sea quietly sloshing against the sides of the boat, we saw the porpoise surface again, then once more. Lacking the brio of dolphins, porpoise invariably take to the water’s underworld once encountered close to. Guillemots and occasional puffins floated past us, unperturbed.
We rounded Staffa on the seaward side, then Conor and Emily – who perhaps has the best job in the world: she is the National Trust for Scotland warden for Staffa – began to count the sea birds nesting on the island’s ledges: black guillemots, all smooth and dark, a snow-patch of white on the wing, and northern fulmar, once almost extinct, found only on St Kilda, and now doing well on Staffa, Mingulay, Fair Isle and Unst.
The swell roughened. The sea slapped against the cliffs and roared and boomed into MacKinnon’s Cave. On skirts of rock underneath Staffa’s basalt columns, cormorants watched the waves. Wings held out to dry, they stood, wraith-like sentinels at the exact place where the waves divided and washed back down into the sea, the birds’ black webbed feet unwetted. Waves ran up the rocky foreland, smashing against vertical cliffs, milky and boiling white. The place took on a troubling atmosphere. Fingal’s Cave was unrecognisable from the times I’d been there before. Last time, on a day of heat, of flat calm and Aegean blue, I’d taken my turn to walk the basalt pathway into Fingal’s interior, and someone offered to take my photo. In that picture, I was standing just there, where the sea was now crashing in.
A scratchy recording of Fingal’s Cave began to play over the tanoy.
‘You can’t come here and not play the music,’ the skipper said, and laughed; Mendelssohn would have been turning… A minute later, his face shifted, focussing. The boat came around to the small jetty.
‘I don’t think we can get in just now – the tide’s too high. Maybe come back in an hour, eh? We’ll go further out and see if we can catch sight of your whales and dolphins,’ he said to Conor, then turned the boat away, and she nosed out into white waves.
Out beyond Staffa, and further into the Sea of the Hebrides. Just the boat and us, the seabirds, and another distant glimpse of porpoise, rotating through the water toward the horizon. The boat engine, deep and running.
Something shifted. The clouds began to break, becoming all smoke and mirrors as the sun burst through. We turned back towards the small piston of the island, a plug of rock rising and lowering as the boat rode the rolling waves on the great machine of the sea.
By now the tide had lowered and the jetty was almost free of the wash, and the boat pulled alongside and was tied in. The engine cut, there was just the sound of the sea sloshing over the bottom of the jetty, sometimes further in. Having dodged the waves, we scrambled up steep, rock-cut steps and carried on over island turf.
I walked between remnants of rig and furrow. Puffins whirred in and out, over the island and the water, like little animatronic toys. At the edge of their burrows, chests pushed outwards and backs straight like nineteenth-century naval officers, they regarded us with their bright eyes, and we crouched close by, enrapt by puffin magic. Out on the water, the puffins were silent, but on land they uttered a series of soft, guttural growls, like the distant revving of a racing-car.
Emma said, ‘They feel more secure when there are people about. The lesser black-backed gulls and the bonxies won’t try to take them with us here.’ A single pair of ‘bonxies’, the piratical great skua, had bred on Staffa for the first time that year.
Most of the puffins were out on the water surface, rafting in groups. Emma asked if anyone wanted to join in the counting. ‘I wouldn’t know how to begin,’ I said, but the man next to me had already raised his binoculars. ‘Break them down into smaller groups,’ he said, beginning to count.
‘If you see puffins standing on the water beating their wings, that’s a sign they’re getting ready to come back in. They signal to others like this and wait for group action before setting off – safety in numbers,’ Emma said.
We saw it then, individual birds amongst the three hundred or so the man had counted standing on the water, beating their wings and, eventually, lifting off. The puffins made repeated sorties, flying past their nest sites, coming in close, and swerving away around the rim of Staffa’s cliffs and out to sea again. One of them landed close to my feet and hurried into a burrow. I peered in after him, through the grass-framed entrance, and there he was peering back at me, two eyes straddling his white face and the characteristic striped beak.
‘Might well be two of them in there,’ Emma said, ‘the hen’s likely sitting on eggs just now.’
I walked on. At the highest point of the island, Conor and Vivvi had set up a telescope looking out over the sea. Clouds had formed again, sealing the sun in. The sea and sky became silky grey. Towards Mull, a thin line of vapour formed, obscuring the joining of land and sea. To the south, the outline of the abbey marked the island of Iona. We talked in low voices, telling each other how beautiful it all was. We didn’t see whales or dolphins, but the sun broke through again, opening a seam of gold in the clouds. The light cast a spell on little Bac Mòr and poured an island of light onto the horizon.
At eleven o’clock we came back to the land. It was night, and yet it was not. We set off, and at the highest point where the twisting road crosses the shoulder of the hill before dropping down away again towards Loch na Keal, there above the summit of Ben More: the risen moon. And what a moon! It was a swollen moon, wearing a cloth of deep orange that glowed against the pthalo sky, it was so close to the land, and so vast, that all our notions of what the moon should look like were confounded. A faint, glowing copper pathway lit the sky above it, as if the moon were travelling along a road of its own making – a path above to light the way, a path below to leave a trace of evidence behind.
All talk of the sea and the cetaceans we’d seen and might have seen fell away. We were held in awe, in the moon’s lucent grasp. There was talk of how we could climb to the mountain summit in this extraordinary moon’s light. We traced every crag and corrie, every shadowed gully and each quietly glittering bank of scree. That full moon, the closest to that summer’s longest day, rode the sky in silent brilliance.
‘Imagine,’ someone said, ‘being up there, now.’
Karen Llloyd is a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry based in South Cumbria. She contributes to The Guardian Country Diary and is a features writer for BBC Countryfile magazine. In 2016 and 2017 she was commissioned to write about place for The Royal Geographic Society, including an essay on the approach of the anniversary of Storm Desmond. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and magazines including Caught by the River, The Clearing, The Island Review, The Great Outdoors and Scotland Outdoors.
Her first book, The Gathering Tide; A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay, contains writing on land, landscape and memory and was published by Saraband in January 2016. It was included in The Observer’s top books of 2016, and won Eric Robson’s Striding Edge Productions Prize for Place and was runner up at The Lakeland Book of the Year Awards 2016.