By Ian Humberstone
I am no ornithologist. The little I know about bonxies I learned by walking on Fetlar – the greenest and least populated of Shetland’s North Isles – where countless pairs of these large, powerful predators nest in the summer months.
I have seen them swoop and soar, duck and dive. I have seen them steal the spoils of lesser birds. And I have seen them pluck the eyeballs from sheep carcasses on the beaches at low tide, ratcheting back the glutinous flesh with unmistakable satisfaction.
Their antics are too graphic for most nature documentaries. Where they do appear on screen, they are usually cast as the villains of the piece. At Hermaness in 2015, for example, the BBC filmed a group of them drowning and eating puffins. The footage resembles a snuff movie, as one by one the flappy little puffins get what's coming to them: ducked in and gobbled down.
Formally, these birds are great skuas, but you will only ever hear them called bonxies in Shetland. Jakob Jakobsen has it as ‘bunksi’, ‘bonksi’ or ‘bungsi’ in his dictionary of Shetland Norn – names he associates with an earlier word meaning ‘lump’ or ‘lumpy’. And I have been told, by someone wise enough to request anonymity, that the word is still occasionally used in its original sense to describe certain heavy-set members of the local community.
My first bout with the aerial variety of bonxie came on the approach to Hjaltadans – a prehistoric stone ring set in soggy ground south of Vord Hill. The site lies within a nature reserve and is inaccessible for much of the summer to protect nesting birds. But I had been assured it was safe to approach the stones and hoped to do so without event. I hoped in vain.
As my destination hove into view, I noticed a shadow on the ground before me. It grew swiftly and silently into the outline of a bird. Then my ear filled with squawks. King Bonxie was upon me.
This first marauder was soon joined by others. They traced furious arcs in the air around me, combing their razor-sharp talons through my hair at the nadir of each violent swoop. For a short while I kept on, spinning every few yards to flail my arms; vision obscured by flashes of wing, beak and talon; feet stumbling in the scree.
They seemed to work together. One would draw my attention to the left with a raucous flypast, as another reeled around me from the right or fell silently from the open sky above. The effect was disorientating. I soon lost my taste for adventure and retreated back the way I had come, dissatisfied and dejected.
Hjaltadans is a captivating spot, if you can reach it. The stones are said to be trows who danced too long in the moonlight and became petrified by the morning sun. A local fiddler and his wife provided the entertainment, and were turned to stone too for their trouble – their bodies became the two pillars at the centre of the ring. A trio of rings called Fiddler’s Crus is found nearby, but no one seems quite sure how it fits in with the story.
The name Hjaltadans literally means ‘halting’ (i.e. stumbling or limping) dance. This unusual style of carousing once typified the fairy folk in Shetland. The name is also that given to a traditional melody from Fetlar, which a seventeenth century resident of Culbenstoft claimed to have overheard from trows as they sang and danced by the water’s edge.
I had hoped to sing the melody at the ring, to see if it might rouse the stones from their slumber. The bonxies put paid to that idea.
The next time I went rambling in Fetlar it was up the old peat-track to Lamb Hoga – an upland ridge that rises like a nose from the island’s face. The path smudges out at the summit, but those who tramp onward are rewarded by stunning views over much of Shetland. Few appreciate the view alone, however, as the peninsula is a breeding colony for bonxies.
I was just ten minutes into my walk when it began raining beaks. But this time I was able to dispel the downpour, thanks to some useful local advice. If you cannot avoid the bonxies – and avoiding them is the best policy, especially when they are nesting – then carry a big stick with you and waggle it about above your head. They will focus their attentions on your stick, not your scalp.
While effective, in treeless Shetland the path of big stick diplomacy is not always easy to follow. So, if you find a good bonxie-stick don’t let it go cheaply, and pass it on when you are done. I left mine by the gate at Tresta Sands on my return.
Bonxies will always be outsiders. They will never find adoration from birders or the general public. They are too brutal, too deadly. Nor are they pretty birds – in fact, they eat the pretty birds and don’t much care if you have a problem with it.
Yet it is impossible not to respect them. Their only crime is having risen to the top of the food chain in efforts to raise their young. What is more, their current supremacy is in no way assured – in the nineteenth century they were hunted to near-extinction in Shetland. A warning, perhaps, that no creature wears the crown forever.
 Jakob Jakobsen, An Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland vol.I (London: David Nutt, 1928), p.87.
 John Stewart and Peter Moar, ‘When the Trows Danced’ in Shetland Folk Book vol.II, ed. E.S Reid Tait (Lerwick: Shetland Times, 1951) p.19-20.
Ian Humberstone is an English writer, musician and artist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His writing explores themes in British and Scandinavian folklore, with a focus on the relationship between ritual and the landscape. His doctoral thesis (in progress with the School of Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh) is an analysis of Shetland fishermen’s ‘haaf’ words – alternate words and phrases that were once commonly used at the fishing grounds to ensure good fortune.