I had missed last year’s SOC trip to North Rona but, fortunately, Bob Theakston and the good ship "Poplar Voyager" had another trip planned for this year. So it was a group of like-minded souls who congregated in the bar of the Kinlochbervie Hotel for a meal that Friday evening.
North Rona and the nearby rock of Sula Sgeir are in the North Atlantic some 44 miles north of the Butt of Lewis as this satellite photo (courtesy of Landsat and NASA) shows.
We were a motley lot: three crew, Stuart Murray, the expert on Scottish seabirds, and six assorted passengers including some birders, some folk who had been before to North Rona and were desperate to return and some who had tried to land there before but had been beaten back by the weather.
And the weather was not going to be too kind to us, at least initially. Captain Bob told us that first evening that the winds were gusting up to 45 knots and coming from the wrong direction to allow a landing. We would be keeping an eye on the weather over the next few days. By coincidence, there is an unmanned meteorological station (looking a bit like a dalek) on North Rona and every 3 hours the report is posted on the BBC’s site.
The weather forecast the next morning was, if anything, even worse with the pressure falling so we decided that it was foolish to go anywhere by boat. Three hardy souls set off to walk to the lovely beach at Sandwood Bay while the rest of us decided to visit Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point on the Scottish mainland, by land.
We arrived at the passenger ferry at the Kyle of Durness just too late to catch the morning ferry so we killed time by visiting Smoo Cave near the village of Durness. This is an impressive cave carved by the sea out of the Durness Cambrian limestone found in this area with a connecting sink-hole where surface water has dissolved the limestone. Appropriately there were Rock Doves on the cave walls as well as Fulmars. More information about the cave can be found at http://www.smoocave.org/
We headed back to the ferry to eat our packed lunches just as we were hit by a hailstorm (and this is May!). The ferryman waited for the squall to pass before taking us across to the waiting minibus. There is a road on the Cape built at the same time as the lighthouse but private cars can’t access it. It is an 11 mile drive from the ferry to the lighthouse across some wild country where nobody lives any more - just as well really since it is a Ministry of Defence Firing Range used mainly by NATO navies. Someone suggested, rather unkindly I thought, that the huts on the range had been painted a gaudy black and white check to help the Americans hit them.
At the magnificent lighthouse, built by the Stevenson family, we saw Fulmar, a few Gannet and a Bonxie while on the way back to the ferry there was a pair of Cuckoos and a very obliging Wheatear who popped up from behind a wall to have his photo taken. Returning by road to Kinlochbervie we saw a pair of Merlin displaying on a rock face beside the road.
The weather forecast on the morning of Sunday, 8th May was not much better but we decided to sail south to Loch Glencoul. We landed at the head of the loch and, while the main party climbed the rather spectacular stac there, two of us decided to do a lower level walk round the side of Loch Beag and as far as the Eas a’ Chúal Aluinn, at 200 metres the highest waterfall in Britain.
Back on board in the afternoon we were treated to an explanation of the fascinating geology of the Assynt region by the geologists we were lucky enough to have in our party. Their talk of the Moine Thrust, the Glencoul Thrust, Lewissian Gneiss and Torridonian sandstone even brought back to me the little geology I had studied at Aberdeen University many years ago. Since people who watch birds are often referred to as "birders" we decided that it would be appropriate to call our geological friends "thrusters".
We awoke on the morning of Monday, 9th May to find snow capping the hills around our overnight anchorage in Loch Beag. The weather forecast rather reflected this weather so we decided to head north to visit Handa Island then overnight once more at Kinlochbervie hoping that the weather would be kinder to us on Tuesday.
We arrived at Handa Island just after lunch and set off on the pleasant walk round the island. The almost horizontal layers of Torridonian sandstone of which the island is composed have created some impressive cliffs with ledges ideal for seabirds with Guillemots and Razorbills breeding here in internationally important numbers as do Bonxies (Great Skuas) away from the cliffs. There are also Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Puffins. The Puffin burrows can be seen on the top of the Stac an Seabhaig, a sandstone pillar standing just off the cliffs. The two puffins we saw there were amongst the earlier arrivals.
We berth back at Kinlochbervie and hear from Captain Bob that the weather forecast is improving so we go to bed slightly less depressed about our chances of getting to North Rona.
I went on shore before breakfast on Tuesday, 10th May to see if I could get more photos of the Cuckoo that we could hear constantly calling. Even more interesting was the vast skein of geese that we could see heading north. They’re not daft these geese and are very unlikely to be setting off back to their northern breeding grounds if they were to be flying into a gale. All the same, it was nice to get confirmation at breakfast that the forecast for the next 24 hours meant that an attempt to land on North Rona was feasible.
We covered the 48 mile journey in about 6 hours so it was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived. As we approached the island, apart from the more modern structures of the lighthouse, weather station and a scientist’s hut, we could see the ruins of the village and the lazy beds in the surrounding fields.
In the village there still exists a 7th or 8th century Christian oratory or small chapel possibly used originally by a hermit. The island has certainly been inhabited in the past as the Old Statistical Account of Scotland made clear when it was written in 1797:
"The island of Rona, situate in the northern ocean, about 16 leagues distant from Eorapie Point, or the Butt of Lewis, (which is reckoned the furthest to the north-west of any in Europe), belongs to this parish [Barvas]. It is reckoned a mile in length, and half a mile in breadth; there is a temple in it dedicated to St Ronan. It is rented by one of the Ness tacksmen at £.4 Sterling per annum, who regularly, every season, sends a large open boat, and brings from it some corn, butter, cheese, a few sheep, and sometimes a cow, besides some wild-fowl and feathers. There were once five families residing upon it, but now only one, who are employed by the tacksman as servants."
It was inhabited up to 1844 but has since been abandoned except for about 150 sheep belonging to some Lewis shepherds who visit the island once a year.
We returned to the boat for dinner and then 5 of us decided to spend the night on the island to try to hear and see the Storm-petrels. We had hoped to get some sleep in the hut set up by the Sea Mammal Research Unit (North Rona has the 3rd largest breeding colony of Grey Seal in the UK) but it was looking a bit cramped.
At midnight we walked down to the village and settled down by the wall of the cemetery which surrounds the ruined chapel and sure enough, we started to hear the strange calls of both European Storm-petrel and, more frequently, of Leach’s Storm-petrel. Quite spooky in many ways and even spookier as we caught sight of the silhouettes of the birds as they flew into their nest burrows built into the ancient walls of the village. In the almost total darkness it was difficult to make out too many features but the Leach’s were noticeably larger than the Stormies. They reminded us of bats both in their flight movements and in their uncanny ability of avoiding both animate and inanimate objects in the gloomy light.
After about 30 minutes it started to rain and two of us made a dash for the hut where we attempted to get a bit of shut-eye. But it was hopeless as far as I was concerned. Not only was it extremely uncomfortable but I felt the calls of the storm-petrels luring me back to the village. So, when the rain stopped, I went back to immerse myself in this amazing experience. North Rona is one of the few places in the UK where storm-petrels breed. They use burrows so must find sites, such as islands, that are free of mammals such as rats. They really only come to land for breeding purposes spending most of their time at sea often near the edge of the continental shelf. Like most burrow breeding birds they visit their nests either in the twilight or at dead of night so that other predators find it more difficult to capture them or their chicks.
I spent much of my time trying to work out how I could get a photo of either of these storm-petrels but concluded that it would be virtually impossible in this light and with their fluttery movements. I was also well aware that Leach’s is a Schedule 1 bird and I would need a licence to photograph it anywhere near a nest-site. Strange in a way because, worldwide, Leach’s is far from being a rare bird with a population estimated at around 8 million individuals. European Storm-petrel, for which I wouldn’t need a licence, is less common on a world scale with an estimated population of 840,000 birds.
But who would want to disturb these marvellous creatures. I would recommend the North Rona experience to anyone fascinated by nature. (I would also recommend that they take a small insulated mat to sit on and very warm and weatherproof clothes.)
The calls of the storm-petrels died away at about 3:45 am just as the light was strengthening with sun-rise officially at 5:03 am that day. I didn’t feel like trying to sleep again so I wandered round the island in the dawn light before meeting up with the others and heading back to the boat at 7:30 for breakfast.
Most of us had a sleep after breakfast but we were back on the island at noon. Paul Speak had thought he had seen an Iceland Gull in the early morning and we tracked it down on the Fianius headland. I managed to get some reasonable photos of the gull then concentrated on getting some more pictures of Razorbill, Puffin, Shag and Golden Plover as well as a distant Whimbrel.
After dinner, it was an early bed for most of us after an exhilarating 24 hours.
We woke up on Thursday, 12th May to a beautiful sunny, calm day with great views of North Rona and hundreds of seabirds flying to and from the cliffs of Toa Rona under which we were anchored. After breakfast, we set sail for Sula Sgeir where we arrived at about 11:00 am. On the way, we were passed by a pair of Barn Swallow, not a common bird in these parts, moving too fast for a decent photo.
Sula Sgeir is a small rocky island famous for the guga hunt by the men of Ness on Lewis. Since at least 1549 groups of men have been coming to Sula Sgeir in late August to hunt Gannet chicks (known as gugas). It still goes on with a special provision under The Protection of Birds Act 1954 allowing the men of Ness to carry on their centuries-old tradition.
The Old Statistical Account of 1797 tells us:
"The rock Sulisker lies 4 leagues to the east (sic) of Rona; it is a quarter of a mile in circumference, and abounds with a great variety of sea-fowl. The boat which goes to Rona, generally touches there for fowl and feathers. There is in Ness a most venturous set of people, who for a few years back, at the hazard of their lives, went there in an open six-oared boat, without even the aid of a compass. There is no place in it where they can draw up their boat; some of them continue in it, taking shelter under the lee-side of the rock, whilst the rest are busy in taking the birds, who are so tame, that they knock them down with sticks; their feathers sell at Stornoway, at from 9 to 10 s. per stone."
We felt that we were early enough in the breeding season not to disturb the Guillemots, Razorbills and Gannets if we were careful when we landed. Leaving Captain Bob to keep the boat on station (there is no anchorage), we made our way gingerly to the bothies where the men of Ness live during their guga hunt and saw the peat fire-places used to burn off the feathers and the platforms on which the guga bodies are piled to be salted. However, to minimise disturbance, we quickly made our way to the headland known as Lunndastoth which, for some reason we couldn’t fathom, is as bereft of breeding birds as the main part of the island is packed. It should be noted that landing on the island between mid-May and mid-August is not recommended in the interest of the breeding birds who will abandon eggs if disturbed leaving them to the mercies of marauding gulls. Visitors to both Sula Sgeir and North Rona should also advise Scottish Natural Heritage who manage both islands.
Coming off the rock, the dinghy took us through an amazing complex of sea-caves with Kittiwake and Shags nesting on the dark ledges. Then back to the boat for lunch before we set off back to the mainland. On our way we see few birds apart from a pair of Gannets squabbling about some nesting material, and the only cetaceans we were to see on the whole trip, 3 small groups of White-beaked Dolphin.
Rather than spend the night at Kinlochbervie Harbour, Captain Bob took us to the head of Loch Inchard where we dropped anchor, ate an enormous meal, looked at a few photos of the trip and dropped exhausted into our bunks.
Friday, 13th May was another glorious morning made better by a pair of Red-throated Divers fishing near the loch shore.
It was unlucky to an extent because it signalled the end of a great trip. We weighed anchor and made our way back to Kinlochbervie where we packed up, made our farewells and set off back to our various homes.
You will find a species list here.