Backstory: I quit my job. Ran for an island. Swapped a desk in London for a 12 kilo rucksack, my camera and a small Scottish island. A really really tiny one. You can walk the length of North Ronaldsay in an hour, it has a population of about fifty and is home to a unique type of sheep and a bird observatory, where I will be volunteering for the next four months. The following is extracts from the diary I’m keeping.
I have never seen the Pentland Firth calm. I was travelling up under the yellow cloud of a Met Office severe weather warning for gales and high waves. Today I would take a ferry and then a flight and I was distinctly unhappy about this. The boat left Gills Bay, slowly — motors revving and the boat juddering. I don’t get sea sick but I can’t bear to be inside a boat when I can be on deck, so I stood outside, braving the wind while hanging onto a bench. It was a bright day and stretching all around was mostly white: the foam of waves, and spindrift creating drifting rainbows along the surface of the sea. I was half in the mind that I might find a White-billed Diver. But the only birds braving the raging sea were Guillemots: Common and Black (in breeding plumage already), Kittiwakes, Gannets and Fulmars. Fulmars are one of the world’s greatest and least appreciated birds. They may dress dowdy as seagulls, but its the mind of an albatross inside that sets them apart. The wind that forced me to hold onto a railing just to stand up was a plaything to them. Stiff-winged soaring, carving shapes through air that shouldn’t physically be possible. Elegance in heavy weather. Grace under low pressure weather systems.
Logan Air could have the slogan ‘making people believe in God again’. It was hard at times, cooped up in a tiny metal box with two propellers flickering in the corners of my eyes, to not think that this would require divine intervention at some point. The wind shook the box. It would hit turbulence and drop. For a couple of seconds too longer than comfortable progress would seem to stop: the propellers still circling and the engine still rattling, but no forward motion could be felt, until it jinked its way through the air again. Underneath: the Stronsay Firth and the Sanday Sound were wrinkled white and blue-grey. Sanday island was all peninsula and isthmuses draped across the sea, like a bracket on which North Ronaldsay is suspended. The descent to North Ronaldsay was hairier still. The plane turned on its wing above the sea to face the island and drifted down towards the runway. The wind was side on, turning the plane at an angle. Lights resolve themselves from amongst the gloom. The white horses on the waves whip into the rocky shoreline. Blink. Look again at that rocky shoreline. Suddenly I find myself unable to not look at the overlapping strata of rock as the plane descends, angled across the runway, and drifting in over the rocks. Until — at seemingly the last possible moment — the pilot accelerates, the nose swings back to the runway and we hit the ground, the right way up and in the right direction. My internal organs return to their right places. It was either divine intervention or a well-trained chap called Colin, possibly both. I unfold myself out of the seat and I have arrived. North Ronaldsay: population fiftyish…and one now.
There is currently a dead Great Skua in the porch. A victim of a broken wing from the power lines that cross the island.
10th of March
Last night I didn’t sleep for the gale banging my window frame all night. It’s more than wind. This is air that sounds like it’s ripping through the walls of the buildings and tearing through grass. I expect a scene of devastation when the sun comes up.
It feels real now but I'm still not taking it all in. I don't have an idea of the island as a whole, as an organism or ecosystem. I'm still trying to believe my own eyes and immediate surroundings. Yesterday playing as a film on fast-forward: I watched it but I didn’t see it. I went for a walk after arguing with the toaster — which burnt one slice and left the other untouched — and went over the dyke, along the coast to Gretchen loch. Terminology: dyke here means wall, which is doing semantic somersaults in my mind from the East Anglian meaning of ditch. Further counter intuitiveness: the dyke keeps the sheep off the fields and on the beach where they eat the seaweed and navigate wet rocks with aplomb. Pinned between a fierce wind flinging spindrift and foam at me, I do less well, making sure of anxious deliberate footfall on the wet rocks, acutely aware of the waves flagellating on the rocks. By the time I reach the hide overlooking Gretchen loch a vicious rainstorm soaked my binoculars through and stung my face raw. Shovelers do circuits around the loch despite the weather and Fulmars run along the loch surface and take off into the wind, as if the loch was the sea. Of all the things that take getting used to, that Fulmars are everywhere is one of the most jarring, but also the easiest. It's a bird I want around in my life. I find everything they do to be beautifully elegant, even if they belong at sea and not in or above fields.
The obs takes a delivery of food and I help fix the shelves in their new freezer, price up cans of cod roe and meet some locals who want to buy their groceries from us. Mark takes me for a drive around the island mid afternoon, showing me the routes for the daily census counts. Later I create the bonfire. Onto it yesterday's dead Great Skua goes, a Viking cremation for a pirate bird. The evening is still and calm, blue sky and golden sunset dappled with clouds. We retrieve three Twite from the Heligoland trap: two female and one male and the first time I've seen a healthy bird in the hand, having its measurements taken in return for a ring. Twite are fabulous creatures.
Sanderlings on the golf course. Turnstones in the fields. Dunlins on the rocks. Sheep on the beach. Skylarks take off and get swept back fields. Fulmars nestled under walls and a Glaucous Gull waddling, the size of a sheepdog. A Long-tailed Duck sits on the flashes morbidly staring at the others out to sea. A male amongst the waves raises its neck, in anticipation of displaying.
This is still a wind harrowed place. Today the winds swung unexpectedly southerly and we headed to the eastern flank of the island, to the golf course that is alleged to be the most northerly in the world. A golf course on an island this tiny seems extremely out of place, though it is Scotland I guess.
The afternoon: bar training, fire-safety training. Imbibe the information, sign the forms. The evening: learn the bird log process. Sleep.
12th of March
Still persevering with Thoreau. Cliche: alert. He understands. He understands why I had to leave the desk and London for something I felt I could grow with. Resignation is committed desperation! These are my more fervoured rebellious thoughts. He reflects my depressed ones too but I'm not sure if I can handle an entire book of me agreeing with him. He suffers terribly from his own pious idealism though. Ultimately I’m reading him on an island, to see how it alters how I read my own solitude. I’m wondering instead about work and toil, because I seem to default to a stoic suffering: I have blisters from the muck boots and wind-burned ears, a perpetual fug of tiredness and half an eye on how this will be worth it in the end. I’ve also been thinking a lot about god: it’s the sort of landscape that makes you irresistibly think of big things.
Today there was a major island funeral and the first time the obs has been full of visitors. Despite the alcohol involved a funeral isn’t an ideal place to meet people, particularly not when you’re nervously handing bowls of soup and platters of cheese and ham sandwiches around emotional people. The only incident on my first bar shift was hearing ‘a box of red wine’ as a bottle, and then searching for the key to open the already unlocked store door. Oh Steve. As with a surprising amount of things in life, it just needed a good shove.
The weather has still been atrocious, still with a hint of easterly. I tried to count the Wigeon on Gretchen loch as part of today’s survey but the wind was such that standing up was best done bent at an angle, half-hiding behind the collapsed sheep dyke. Of course, still no sign of the Green-winged Teal. The waves were spectacular, crashing into the wind and rocks in a meringue of whipped white. A Snow Bunting foraged amongst the sheep grazed rocks. Highlight of the day was the Glaucous Gull of yesterday, battling the wind in Nouster bay. It appeared overhead and out of the sun, and first noticed as a gull where the wingtips didn’t seem to end in the correct edge of black. It moved out of the light and then I could see the sun and sea bleached white features, the missing primary feather and large bulk of the bird. A note on gull ageing: almost any gull born last summer will be in its first winter plumage by now. But Glaucs and Iceland Gulls retain their juvenile feathers throughout the winter until they end up beaten and broken, more shaft than feather and bleached the colour of ivory. I like that about them. A biological stoicism.
13th of March
Tiredness abides. The wind and rain passes. It dawned gorgeously, still and calm. A Skylark singing sort of morning. A Merlin hunting singing Skylarks sort of morning. I take the bike up to Dennis point, the very northeastern tip of the island for today’s census. The kelp flies have hatched this morning and the beach is aswarm with them. They blunder into me, like small hail stones. A flock of Starlings, at least 300 strong counter-swarm and lay waste to them. Rock Pipits take the pickings at the edge, too wary to commit fully to the frenzy. A couple of flies flew into my mouth. I didn’t really see the appeal. Ravens and a Glaucous Gull off the tip of the point. A Water Rail scurrying (the only way they have of moving) between thick weedy margin of the dyke and a rather small pond. I thought this would be good for the island but apparently not.
I really can’t express enough how nice a day today was. It was the sort of day when performing a daily census of the island’s birds isn’t just my daily task but what I would be doing anyway, for fun. That can’t be overstated as to how good that feels. I’m reminded of an Andrew O’Hagan essay on his holiday in Bora Bora. He pauses after his lavish descriptions and apologises — because ‘paradise makes pricks of us all’.
Paradise has work as well, and not just in the naming of the beasts. This afternoon we took down the rusty chickenwire that has been half of a Heligoland trap for the past six years, and replaced it with fresh wire. If paradise involves ladders, nails and hammers in one direction, and a marsh in the other with electric lapwing song, a quartering Hen Harrier gingered by the evening sunlight, and
a Green-winged Teal then I am quite ok with this. Tasks in a nice environment aren’t tasks at all. And not a way of killing time either (so as that I don’t injure eternity, thanks Thoreau).
We caught two female Blackbirds in the Heligoland trap and I held and released them both. Nestled calmly between my fingers, they behaved well. You release them simply by letting go, which heart-stoppingly feels like you will drop and the Blackbird will just drop calmly to the ground and injure itself. But this is not so. For a split-second after you release and the bird drops, its wings flick out and it disappears over the pallet fence. That was all I felt. Too nervous to feel any more.
14th of March
Six more blackbirds released. Each a beating heart and keen eye, a bundle of energy and a plumb line from my hand to behind the nearest wall.
Later we switch on the rugby, serve some fisherman in the bar and then watch England v Scotland. England win, naturally. The evening unwinds. Unspooled: stories and reminisces of islanders of old and what it was like, merely 30 years ago. Sunny and full of youth, laced with currents of darkness, anger and regret for people lost and the decline of the island. I want to meet more of the islanders.
15th of March
Tiredness abides. A full stop. The last day of my first full week at the obs and it feels like it's been a year. Ok, I exaggerate. Into the space of a week, it feels like a month of upheaval and weather has been packed and wedged in.
This morning. A fine day to rival Friday but wind ruffled. My blisters stagger around with me, keeping me moving forward. I headed up to the east links, where a low footpath between high cattle fields kicks you out at a gate, opening up at a white sand beach, bands of kelp and boulders and seventy Sanderlings describing the extent of the sea’s waves. The sea still blue. The sky cloudless. Common Seals on the rocks and a flock of Bar-tailed Godwits on the sand. On the links: three Glaucous Gull, all bleached juveniles — one a new arrival on the island — and a Snow Bunting.
Back by the crofts near the loch a Hen Harrier materialised above the bones of a bush, hovering, then quartering on and out of sight behind another croft. I ran up the road to see it again but when I get to where it disappeared… nothing. You can’t engineer a Hen Harrier. Can’t predict where to see one. It’s a matter of it appearing from behind a wall and disappearing in thin air, of its own volition. They are impossibly difficult.
Tiredness increases. The rest of the day spent feeling as if under glass. Strangely devoid of the experience of life.