Bluebells sweep to the horizon, holding back their ultramarine for the promise of warmth. The plateau is emerald now, rich spring growth low to the ground, bracken still sleeping. The prehistoric, lichen-smeared walls divide the contours of the island’s edge, terminating westward, pointing to the sea.
Gulls perch on the tilting stones and rock promontories. As I pass, a greater black-backed gull takes off with a young rabbit twisting in its beak. Two more gulls launch from the rocks and dive to snatch the prey. As they fight and scream the rabbit is dropped. It disappears into the green and its predator glides away, a dark stump still in its beak. The thwarted attackers return to the rocks, where they stand still, sulphur-eyes glaring.
The wind squalls north-west. Guano-stained Grassholm, eight miles out, glows and fades under alternating sun and cloud. Below is Bull Hole, a deep gash in the cliff.
Bull Hole is a common toponym in western areas of the British Isles, and the name was exported to the new world with the Celtic migrations. It can be found in places as far apart as Cooleemee, North Carolina, and Alice Springs in the Northern Territories of Australia. It usually applies to narrow areas of water, oxbow lakes, sink holes, river pools or small bays. None can be as dramatic as this.
Stories associated with these places tell of a dangerous resident bull that attacks and frequently kills people. The bull is finally tackled and the animal driven to the hole, where it falls into the water and is swallowed up. Some of the stories have a quasi-historical air, but perhaps relate back to a folk myth that was once prevalent on the Atlantic seaboard.
The water bull was sometimes described as fire-horned and fire-breathing, but the more interesting portrayals are of a beast smaller than a common cow, speckled brown with black eyes. It rises from the sea at night to mingle with the herd, leaving other cows sick or dead.
The men come to watch over their animals, and when the beast is spotted it is pursued. The bull is faster and more agile than men over rocks and gullies. Eventually it ends the chase by leaping over the cliffs, into the sea.
When the men peer over the edge they see the bull’s head emerge above the surface. The bull bellows, mocking them, before disappearing into the deep.
The bull possesses supernatural cunning. It is untameable, beyond the influence and reach of men, and at home in the most hostile of natural elements. The merging of physical and behavioural traits of Atlantic grey seals with those of the bull reveals the cultural anxieties of a sea people – fishermen, farmers, fowlers and seal-hunters – who were always at the mercy of the frequent storms, and who sometimes faced starvation on this exposed and stone-choked rim of land. How they attached the story to the place is not difficult to imagine. Bull Hole is a place of echoes and shadow.
The path down the cliff is narrow, threading over the fragile, burrowed top soil to the tiny hide perched on a stone pile, overlooking the seabird colony. With each step the calls of the auks and gulls grow and transform. Recognising my shape against the sky, guillemots shoal from the cliff into the water. I scramble down to the hide and disappear.
Some of the birds quickly return, dark bodies sleek, penguin-like, transported on short, whirring wings. Their flight up the rock wall is a kind of scramble, rising in straight lines to their perching place. Around them kittiwakes are inscribing loops and arcs in the air, launching themselves out to glide and gyrate for a time, before effortlessly returning to their perches with a final pulse of wings. Here and there the black-backs sit, quite still, disinterested, watching all.
The cliff wall is graduated in tone. At the waterline the basalt is almost black. Lichen colonies take over beyond the reach of the tide, deep green fading to yellow and burning orange higher up. Above are mosses and pillows of thrift, still winter brown. There are grasses clinging in the hollows, narrow pours of soil, and spring water leaking down. The multi-coloured, multi-layered rock surface is crazed and fissured – intersecting lines run the whole length and height of the cliff, forming cubes and rhomboids, angled pillars, triangular overhangs, narrow rectangular ledges. Everything is planes and angles; the pattern of igneous cliffs shattering at the surface, falling away in blocks and slices.
Against this, the monotone, sea-sculpted forms of the birds.
It is an April morning, the wind gusting cold. The cliff is mostly in shadow. Guillemots sit facing the wall, or sleep, their heads curled over and back, their beaks tucked between folded wings. Razorbills, in smaller numbers, squat in pairs, their backs hunched. Kittiwakes, bright against the dark walls, sit dove-like in nesting pairs. On the guillemot ledges, each bird is an exact copy of the next: facing the wall, head up, tapering bills all held at the same angle. Each grey-black profile is white-edged, with two upturning arcs on the folded wings. They stand in rows, unmoving, factory packed.
Only here and there, on the few ledges that outcrop far enough to catch the sun, the birds face out to sea – preening, tapping beaks, calling – their pure-white breast feathers glowing. Razorbills prefer more privacy, in pairs, each bird the mirror image of its partner. Below in the water, the auks congregate in rafts: puffins, razorbills and guillemots gently rising and falling with the tamed waves at the mouth of the hole, flowing closer to and further from the cliff, paddling slowly, turning and weaving like synchronized swimmers.
This orderliness and uniformity is not at all to be found in the acoustics of this colony. From the cliff top, the noise of the birds is a bass string tremolo. Up close it is a machine-shop roar. For someone used to the inland notes of birdsong – the wood- and pasture-tuned pitch of blackbird and thrush – this song of the auks is a shock to the system. The sound does not equate at all to the graceful, Brancusi curves of the creatures from which it emanates. It is raucous and hoarse, an undulating roar, pierced with screeches, creaks, grunts, gargles. The auks don’t sing; they retch sound. This is a phonic brawl. These cacophonic waves undulate in the space between the Bull Hole’s high walls, bouncing, echoing, refracting.
As the ear adjusts, the sound opens out to reveal the counterpoint calls of other species: the cough of jackdaws, the kee of a buzzard nesting high up under a rock promontory and the hungry cries of herring and black-backed gulls. Beneath all this a slow punctuation of waves draws the length of the narrow channel to boom against the smooth, black boulders at the foot of the rift’s terminating wall.
Perhaps the sound can be described as a bellowing. Perhaps this is what the ancestors who named the place were trying to evoke with the toponym. The word bull has one of its roots in the Germanic verbal stem “bulle” which means “to roar”. So, Bull Hole: the roaring hole.
I exit the hide. Half way up the cliff, with the bellowing fading now, I turn back to look down into the water. In the shifting jade mirror of the sea a dark orb rises and floats between the rafts of sea birds. Through the binoculars I see the brown speckled head and bloated, whiskered nose of a bull seal, it’s black eyes watching me go.
Click here to listen to the sound of a guillemot colony on Skomer Island.
James E. Roberts is writer in residence on the island of Skomer. He is a poet, based in Wales. His recent work has been published by Agenda, Envoi and the Dark Mountain Project.