Friday, 26 April 2013

Back to St Kilda


Outside our compact but adorable city apartment, there is frantic activity both front and back on this sunny Spring morning. Building projects, the fitting out of new shops, installation of street furniture and road improvement schemes suggest that there is still plenty of money out there, it's just a matter of how you divert it in order to catch a few crumbs falling off someone else's banqueting table.

All the urban bird life (90% Lesser Black-Back gulls) are squabbling over prime nesting territory in the annual ritual of sex and violence which marks the beginning of the breeding season, and last year's off-spring which are optimistic enough to think they can get away with popping round to visit mum and dad, are being pecked in the head and told to fuck off. It will be a year or two more before they are mature enough to raise a family, but they still play grown-ups by gathering handfuls of moss and rubbish which they pretend to build nests with. A gull's 'nest' is one of the messiest in all the bird world - unlike a Long-Tailed Tit's, which is so cozy-looking that I would consider living in one myself if I weren't so big.

Between now and the Autumn, living where we do in the middle of town is a bit like living on the side of a cliff. The gulls make a continuous racket for 22 hours a day and you find yourself having to shout over them, or turning up the radio so you can hear it. I once called a friend who lived on the other side of town, and he asked me if I was on holiday. He imagined me sitting on the edge of a pretty little quay in Devon or Cornwall, where the gulls are so aggressive that you have to fight them off your lunch with your bare hands.

I've got a clip of silent film on DVD which shows the evacuation of St Kilda all those years ago, when Scotland's mainland government decided it could no longer afford to subsidise the handful of crofts and inhabitants still hardy enough to want to stay there, and sad footage it is too.

The boat which took them all away for the last time, also carried a party of mainland sight-seerers who wandered around the tiny, turf-roofed hovels with beaming smiles on their faces, dressed in utterly inappropriate clothing which looked completely incongruous on the remote and desolate island.

Women in floral-decorated hats with fur coats; men with white spats and highly polished shoes stumbling over crude cobbles and chatting to weather-beaten locals through open doors and windows.

For the last time and for the sake of the camera, a couple of men abseiled down a vertical cliff face to collect gull's eggs as they had done for centuries. They calmly picked an egg or two from each nest as the birds launched attack after attack at them as they dangled from a slender, hessian line held by a single peg rammed into the thin layer of earth which covered the hard rock at the top of the cliff.

One of them had a long pole with a wire noose at the end, and he deftly reached out to a gull which had not taken flight. In a second, the gull's head was in the noose, and a second later he had given it a quick flick, breaking the bird's neck before he stuffed it into his pocket and brought it up to the top. This was their only source of meat, even though it did taste of fish.

In the final scene, all of St Kilda march forlornly up the gangplank of the boat, carrying small bundles representing their entire family possessions accumulated over generations - or at least the ones which they thought worth taking with them and were small enough to carry. You can visit the island today and see what they left behind if you really want to.

I would eat gull's eggs here if they were collected from a proper coastal cliff, but the diet of a town gull (pizza, kebab, vomit - or all three) puts me off the idea.



13 comments:

  1. Talk about real men - the bloke in the top photo is actually smoking a cigarette as he dangles over the cliff!

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    1. He was buried with it still clamped in his jaws

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  2. I think I'd prefer fish, crab, and lobster; presumably all available on Kilda.

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    1. Not ON Kilda - you would have had to get your knees wet to get them. It's a long way down.

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  3. When I was in Hastings, I got used to the cries of seagulls - though I don't like the way they stare at my fish 'n chips. In Germany we have a poem by Christian Morgenstern (sorry, Iris, if you don't know it): "The seagulls all look as if they name is Emma".
    My father sometimes brought home peewit eggs (long time ago) - I was intrigued by that turquois colours with the spots.

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    1. Sorry - wanted to change "they are called" to "their name is".

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    2. Actually, why did the wind cry 'Mary' for Jimmy Hendrix as well?

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    3. In Germany the (beautiful) name Emma has a homely connotation: something dowdy, narrow,-minded, inelegant. We even have 'Aunt-Emma-shops'.'Emma' was used, as Vita Sackville-West would say, for the 'Bedienst', domestic servants. Though there is a change now - modern parents using old names now.

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    4. I never knew that. My mother's (German) name was Hilda, and we took great delight in reminding her that it meant 'battle-axe' - another nick-name for a difficult woman in Britain!

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  4. I heard the same sort of story from the south coast on New Zealand. Donna Toa's sister in law used to get told off by her Mum for climbing down the cliffs to collect albatross eggs. It was not conservation that bothered her Ma, but the idea of her children hanging out there!

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    1. I don't think that Albatross nest in cliffs, but I might be wrong. With an 8 foot wingspan, the eggs would have bee quite a weight to carry back up, so it beats the shit out of us small boys collecting Blackbird eggs here in the UK. I would like not to believe this story, but this may be why the Toa family has been cursed all these years.

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