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Book review: Seabirds and Seals

by Alastair Hamilton -

In his new book, Seabirds and Seals, Jonathan Wills recounts his quarter-century of wildlife guiding around the islands of Bressay and Noss. However, despite the book’s focus on one small corner of our islands, he succeeds in illuminating much of Shetland’s past, moving effortlessly between natural and human histories. The connections between the local and the global are, similarly, seamless. As he puts it in the introduction, he’s tried to use

…very local examples from my home islands to illustrate and discuss big ideas about natural history, evolution, geology, coastal geomorphology, climate change, sea level rise and other momentous matters.

Jonathan needs no introduction to Shetland audiences, nor indeed to many others; he has had a varied career that previously encompassed print and online journalism, locally and nationally; broadcasting; politics; and the duties of boatman at the Muckle Flugga lighthouse, at the northern tip of Unst and the British Isles

As the book amply demonstrates, his enthusiasm for his topics is matched by his knowledge and understanding of the Shetland environment, from its geological underpinnings to its flora and fauna. He identifies the threats to that environment and maps out the cultural, scientific, political and economic influences that determine how we respond to them. In another’s hands, that might make for a daunting read, but Jonathan’s narrative is leavened with a generous helping of humour and some wonderful anecdotes.

His early boating adventures around his beloved islands of Bressay and Noss were purely for pleasure, in a small wooden skiff and, later, a borrowed yacht. In 1992, he invested in his first aluminium alloy boat, capable of taking paying visitors close enough to touch the cliffs.

When he commissioned his third vessel, Dunter III, an underwater camera and video screen allowed him to explain the astonishingly diverse and colourful world that’s unknown to those of us who’ve not donned a wetsuit and air cylinder; and it seems that the camera is an object of curiosity for many a seal.

By the time he retired, Jonathan had completed more than 4,000 circuits of Bressay and its smaller neighbour. 39,000 lucky people had had an unforgettable introduction to one of the highlights of Shetland’s natural environment. The book takes us on one of those circuits, going “sungaets” or clockwise, in other words with the sun, which for practical reasons (not to mention maritime superstition) is the preferred direction. He picks out 100 points of interest, each with a story attached, along the way.

Before we cast off, though, there’s an excellent introduction to the port and town of Lerwick. As Jonathan explains, it’s a relative upstart in Shetland terms: “there are European settlements in New England and Virginia that date from before Lerwick began”. Its origins lay in the opportunity to cater for the needs of up to 2,000 herring boats and their 10,000 crew that, early in the 17th century, began to use Bressay Sound – Lerwick’s natural harbour – as a summer base.

He observes that the inhabitants of Scalloway, Shetland’s capital at that time, took a dim view of their new rival and tried unsuccessfully to ban the “straggle of gin shops, unwholesome bothies and houses of ill repute” that lined the coast. Despite suffering serious damage in wars involving the English, French and Dutch, Lerwick prospered and displaced Scalloway as Shetland’s principal town.

the “straggle of gin shops, unwholesome bothies and houses of ill repute”

As we head out of the small boat harbour, we learn about the many points of interest along the shore, including Fort Charlotte, the Malakoff shipyard (which began life as a boat) and the evidence of the former and present-day fishing industry; however, for a full understanding of the nature, purpose – and risks – of “hanging cludgies”, you’ll need to read page 12.

There’s wildlife right in the heart of the town, including many seabird species (including the eider ducks or dunters after which the boats were named) and, of course, seals. Jonathan offers a fascinating account of the interactions between grey seals and humans near the fish factories, and of the seals’ problem-solving abilities. Later, we learn much more about them; for example, they must warm up by basking in the sun if their vital, protective fur is to grow.

We may encounter ravens as we head out of the harbour and Jonathan also encourages his guests to scan the shoreline for otters, which are elusive, especially given that they “have more homes than most MPs and move from one to the next in an unpredictable pattern”.

Moving along Bressay’s north coast, Jonathan’s account is not only richly detailed but also endlessly thought-provoking. We learn of Shetland’s geological links with North America and ornithological ones with Africa and Greenland. When those Purple Sandpipers first began commuting across the north Atlantic, how much shorter was their journey than it is today, thanks to continental drift? For how many million years have they and their ancestors been doing that?

More immediately, why are those seabirds so keen on fishing off the Score Holms? Jonathan reveals the existence of an underwater ledge and cliff, which – when the tide flows over them – create turbulence and a wealth of plankton and small fish. During the cruise, his passengers were able to examine a drop of this natural soup under the microscope and witness, on screen, the astonishing diversity and volume of life within it.

Before long, we arrive at the seabird cliffs on the east side of Noss, which tower above the boat. The island is a National Nature Reserve and Jonathan was warden and boatman there in 1970. It was an eventful summer, though his ferry service was suspended for several weeks after the RSPB’s manager in Edinburgh realised that they had no insurance. He wryly observes that, if they’d known “what the work of the devil that two-stroke Evinrude outboard motor was, I suspect they would have declined the business.”

Jonathan explains that, with around 13,700 pairs, the gannet colony on these cliffs is one of the larger ones in Europe. This is despite the fact that no gannet nesting was recorded in Shetland before 1914. He attributes this success to gannets’ willingness to eat “just about anything” and their feeding of chicks on regurgitated food rather than on whole fish brought into the nest in their beaks. Much more is revealed here about the instincts that enable around a quarter of young gannets to reach their first birthday, about the adult birds’ habits and about the evolutionary processes involved.

Impressive though the gannets, guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes and bonxies (great skuas) are, there’s more to Noss than its seabirds. There’s the story of Cradle Holm, a stack once connected to Noss proper by an aerial ropeway; and we’re introduced to the pony pund, where Shetland ponies were bred in the late 19th century in order to meet the demand for pit ponies in north-east England.

The Dunter III continues southwards, skirting the cliffs of Bressay and its coves and caves, some of which served as hideouts for smugglers or men trying to evade navy press-gangs. This coast is exposed to the worst that a North Sea storm can throw at it; one settlement, at Stobister, was allegedly abandoned “whan da olicks cam doon da lum” (that is, when ling fish came down the chimney). Much more recently, in 1997, the cargo ship Green Lily met her end here and a heroic coastguard helicopter winchman, Bill Deacon, was lost after rescuing the crew.

There is more fascinating detail as we round the Bard, the south end of Bressay, a tricky place for the unwary navigator. We pass another natural arch at the Giant’s Leg, and up on the clifftop is a huge gun that was installed during the First World War.

Onwards then, to the Orkneyman’s Cave, inside which it’s possible to moor Dunter III and explore using that underwater camera. Jonathan describes the cave and its natural history at some length, as well as telling the tale of how a Press Gang escapee, virtually dead from exposure, was apparently restored to life, though there were longer-term consequences. There’s an informative discussion here of the essential part that phytoplankton play in life on earth, producing more than half the world’s oxygen, and a strong warning about the insidious microplastics that enter the food chain every time we wash synthetic clothing materials.

The voyage back to Lerwick takes the boat past the Bressay lighthouse, with entertaining observations on the Stevensons who built it, the wrecks that lie hereabouts and a related example of fake news involving a Glaswegian cat and a kipper. Less entertaining, but very much to the point, are his thoughts on the threats to marine wildlife, be they from oil tankers or irresponsible fishing practices; at one point, Jonathan recalls, “a Danish power station was reported to be burning fish oil because it was cheaper than diesel.”

We pass Leira Voe, a soft-bottomed inlet that the Vikings and, later, the Dutch found handy for carrying out boat maintenance. There’s the Maryfield House Hotel, constructed in 1860 by a man notorious for pursuing clearances of people in favour of sheep farms, though the practice was by then faltering in the face of public uproar. There are other lairds’ and merchants’ houses here, the impressive Gardie and the ruined Cruister. Across the sound, memories of another merchant, Arthur Anderson, are stirred by the Anderson High School and the Anderson Homes.

And then, after admiring the upturned boat that roofs Dennis Coutts’ garage and the lodberries of “Da Sooth End” of the town, we’re back at the pier.

In drawing the story to a close, Jonathan pulls together his concerns about the consequences of our actions for the environment, whether in terms of global warming or – more immediately, in his view – mismanagement of fisheries. These are vital and challenging issues for all of us, and he has the gift of being able to communicate them clearly and engagingly.

In a postscript, Jonathan recounts some experiences of other guided cruises that he himself has taken over the years, some of which have clearly lodged in his memory. There was, for example, “the pre-recorded list of government ministries visible from a cruise boat on the Vltava in Prague (read by a robot in five different languages)”. It’s to be hoped that Jonathan’s direct successors in the business, and the other operators who cruise these waters, will seek to emulate the standards that Jonathan set.

In his introduction, Jonathan recalls that people had said, “You should write a book”. We must all be glad that he took their advice. Seabirds and Seals is sublime, blending solid scientific knowledge and endless curiosity with profound and often witty insights into our natural and human worlds, and the sometimes extraordinary connections between them.

The book is profusely illustrated: there are superb pictures, some by Jonathan and some by other photographers. The maps and charts are excellent, too. Seabirds and Seals is published by The Shetland Times Ltd at £18.99, it can be ordered online.

Posted in: Heritage

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