The first evening I spent in Shetland we went to the Island of Mousa, where there is a large broch, a 13 metre high tower, two thousand years old, and said to be one of the best preserved prehistoric buildings in Europe. As if that were not impressive enough, thousands of storm petrels have their nests in the cracks between its stones. While one bird of a pair sits on the nest the other one flies off to sea to feed and then, to avoid predators, only returns after dark. You go there in twilight and wait for the birds to come back; if you put your ear to the broch it sounds as if the whole building is alive, it whirrs and cheeps from deep inside the stones, a mysterious sound that someone once described as like ‘a fairy being sick’. I’m not sure about that but it does sound as if magic is involved, and indeed people used to think the building was haunted.
At about midnight the other birds start to return, fluttering around like bats, then crawling in between the stones. It is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen: this ancient building on its uninhabited island, where every summer for two thousand years these small birds have nested, and every summer night have returned under cover of darkness to the whispering stones. There are other people there but that doesn’t matter as you can’t see them anyway; you just wait in the dark and watch and listen.
Going to an exhibition by Bridget Riley in Edinburgh the day after almost being sick on a small boat may have been a mistake; I gazed at her wiggly black and white pictures and felt the pitching and heaving again: nothing fairylike here. One of the attendants said that at the end of the day he felt as if he had been in a roller-coaster. My roller-coaster was a boat trip to see the cliffs on another island, Noss Island off Lerwick. These cliffs are full of seabirds, lined up on tiny ledges with no space between them: gannets and guillemots and kittiwakes, with other birds cruising around in the hope of finding an unattended chick. The captain of the boat put on a latex glove and flung mackerel into the sea, making the gannets dive for it, just like a wildlife documentary on television. The gannets plummeted, birds screeched, the boat rocked and nobody was actually sick; the supply of mackerel was soon exhausted, we were brought back to shore and spent the rest of the day slightly dizzy.
When a guillemot chick is ready to leave its ledge, as yet unable to fly, it jumps down the cliff to the sea, accompanied by its father. It is then known as a ‘jumpling’. We saw one of these, a tiny bird, sticking as close to its father as if glued to him, heading out to sea, away from predators. We had been told they did this, but actually seeing one was very moving: such a small creature, not even a month old, setting out into the sea, at its father’s side.