Friday, 17 May 2013


Yesterday, a beautiful sunny day, I joined RSPB members, organisers and participants in Orkney Nature Festival on a trip round the Pentland Skerries.

I was slightly anxious that my  stomach would let me down - well, it was the PENTLAND FIRTH! - so I supplied myself in advance with sea bands for my wrists and sun cream for any bits of skin exposed through chinks in my anorak.

We set sail from Burwick on the Pentland Venture. I've never seen a boat so full! Keen bird watchers - about half and half local and visitor, as a show of hands at the end revealed - trained binoculars and long camera lenses on the choppy sea round the boat. A wonderfully knowledgeable running commentary by Steve Sankey of Orcadian Wildlife kept the binoculars swinging from port side to starboard, to stern as we were treated to sightings of bonxies, fulmars, guillemots, shags, Arctic terns, kittiwakes, gannets, and one Arctic skua, all either flying above us or nesting in colonies on the cliffs of the skerries and South Ronaldsay. And then there were the puffins. 

And I failed to bring binoculars! But I'm not very good with them anyway: a bird I see with the naked eye, seems to elude me as soon as I raise the glasses.

I'll tell you a story
aboot Tammie Norrie
If you don't spaek
in the middle o it

This is a rhyme my father used to say to us when we were young. He'd speak the words above, then stop. We would then demand the next part of the story, he'd say we'd spoken so we couldn't have it! We fell for it a few times before we discovered that was it, that was the story!

I was much older before I learned that Tammie Norrie is the Orkney name for a puffin. I've seen them before close up at Costa Head. But despite having nothing to magnify them yesterday, I really enjoyed watching them in the water and flying past the boat. They are small birds, dumpy and engaging, with their choppy, fussy flight style, their sub-tropical beaks and their eyes that look out mournfully to sea.

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of my mum's death. She worked in the Tourist Office in Kirkwall, where the staff were driven slowly mad by the stream of visitors all summer long asking where they could see a puffin. She had a mug that expressed some of her feelings, with a puffin on one side against a rocky background and on the other side, just the rocky background. PUFFIN; NUFFIN, it read. But I think she would have enjoyed seeing them in their natural habitat yesterday. There were rafts of them beside the boat a few times and at least twice a lone bird flew past, close enough for me to see its brightly coloured beak and black and white plumage.

Lighthouses on Muckle Sker
Steve Sankey's interesting commentary went far beyond the birdlife though. He told us about the lighthouses on Muckle Skerry, built by Orkney masons in 1794 and supervised by Robert Stevenson, his first of many.

On Little Skerry there is the wreck of the Ben Barvis which ran aground in 1964 and was flung far up on the rock by the raging tides of the Pentland Firth. 

Ben Barvis aground on Little Skerry

Sitting on rocks on one of the skerries was a colony of shags, drying their wings. Steve said that if you think you see a cormorant at this time of year, it's more likely to be a shag, smaller and greener, but otherwise similar in its wing-drying habits.

I was amazed to hear of the antics of bonxies or Great Skuas, who don't look for their own food, but steal the food of other birds. According to Steve they will attack a gannet in mid flight by fastening on to its wing tips - a six feet wing span he said gannets have! - until they drop their cargo of fish into the waiting clutches of the bonxie. Or until they stop to fight their pursuer when apparently  they always come off worse. Bonxie - bully of the sea.

Fascinating too was the fact that fulmars have only been in Orkney since the early Nineteen Hundreds. Unlike kittiwakes and Arctic terns, who depend on sand eels, fulmars - and gannets - benefit, rather more than the fishermen, from the policy of having to throw back, dead, all fish caught accidentally that exceed or otherwise don't comply with regulations. The fulmars follow the trawlers and find rich pickings slung over the side.  One followed our boat for a good few sea miles and flew directly above us eyeing up the passengers for potential food. 

That was a cold inspection I can tell you! Edwin Morgan

At least he didn't spew on us!

I can't remember how far Steve said the Arctic tern travels in its life, but it seemed a phenomenal number of miles to me. Thousands - I think about 130,000!

Picky Terno is the Orkney name I know for these birds, because of their needle sharp beaks with which they will peck your head if you come too close. 

It was a good afternoon and the weather couldn't have been much better.

On the way back we sailed past the Tomb of the Eagles and could see folk walking on the cliffs. We didn't see any whales or dolphins, alas. That could have been because I was on the boat! All the things I'm longing to see elude me. 

But Steve did tell the story of a fin whale that must have been thrown onto the cliff in South Ronaldsay and hung there as if from a hook. I'm glad that wasn't the sight of a whale we had yesterday. I look forward to seeing minke, orcas and harbour porpoises swimming in these waters someday soon. 

They'll show themselves to me when they're good and ready.

Thank you to Anne Bignall of RSPB for the opportunity to go on the boat trip. And to Steve Sankey for the fascinating stories. 

Come in to Orkney Library & Archive to see the lovely displays of books, exhibition of archive materials and the presentation of the work of the Orkney Biodiversity Record Centre (OBRC) on screen in the foyer. 


  1. Oh, how I envy you. Id love to visit Orkney with you someday. My grandfather had one of those 4 line stories he used to torment us with too and we always fell for it. Absolutely stunning pictures and beautiful writing.

    1. Thank you, Beth. I'm glad we weren't the only ones who had these stories! I'm sure we'll see you here one day.

  2. Lovely blog, Alison. Great mix of the public and the personal and cute puffin photos too! Steve Sankey is an old friend of mine. Haven't seen him in years, so if you're in touch with him say a big hello from me. PS You're making being a Reader in Residence sound like fun!

    1. Thanks, Magi. I've never met Steve Sankey before - and didn't really meet him on the boat, there were so many people there. But if I meet him again I will say to him. And it IS fun! We had a great night last night with Ian Stephen reading his poetry and telling his salty sea stories. Good audience too.


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