The salmon run: an autumn ending to a long journey

Each year, Atlantic salmon make an incredible journey back from the ocean to return to their breeding grounds. To get there, this mighty fish propels itself, like a dart, up and over the fast-flowing waters of some of our finest rivers in Scotland.

A male Atlantic salmon leaping up a waterfall, River Almond. Copyright Lorne Gill/NatureScot

At a cascade where salmon gather, their jumping against the flow can seem little short of miraculous. October is the peak season for Atlantic salmon moving upstream in over 350 of Scotland’s river systems.

On many rivers, waterfalls are obstacles that must be overcome if they are to return to their gravel bed spawning grounds. This gives us a unique opportunity to see this epic struggle as they launch themselves high through the air in a determined effort to clear the barrier in one tremendous leap. It can take many attempts before they make a successful jump, as many fall short or crash off the rocks that block their way. However some fish can get it right first time and soar majestically upstream in one perfect leap.

Atlantic salmon are found in the temperate and arctic regions of the northern hemisphere. They occur in the rivers of the countries that border both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean, and the Baltic Sea. Scotland is blessed with both many waterfalls and many salmon rivers. It is also unusual in having salmon that enter its inland waters most months of the year. This includes a sizeable ‘autumn run’ of fish, which often peaks this month in October.

People watching as Atlantic salmon migrate up the River Almond.
©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION

As an anadromous species, Atlantic salmon live in freshwater as juveniles but migrate to sea as adults before returning up river to spawn. Atlantic salmon return to their native river, and even the same stretch of the river from which they were born, with amazing accuracy. This means that many ‘populations’ of Atlantic salmon may exist within the same river.

Spawning usually occurs from November to December, but may extend from October to late February in some areas, particularly larger rivers. About 90 to 95% of all Atlantic salmon die after spawning has taken place. Those that survive may spawn again.

Female fish lay their eggs in gravel depressions known as ‘redds’. As a female releases her eggs, an adult male or mature juvenile immediately fertilises them. The female then covers the fertilised eggs with gravel.

Hatched Atlantic aalmon egg at the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board Hatchery at Almondbank.©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

How long it takes for eggs to hatch depends on water temperature. Eggs will usually hatch in early spring. Once the fish have developed markings on their sides, they’re known as ‘parr’. The parr will live in the river for two to three years, depending on water temperature and food availability. On reaching about 12cm in length, the parr undergo a physiological transformation that lets them survive at sea.

The young fish, now called ‘smolts’, continue to change in appearance, becoming silver. These ‘post-smolts’ begin to leave rivers for the sea in late spring, with most fish gone by June.

We still don’t know much about the migration pathways of post-smolts or returning adults. Some research has shown that post-smolts move in schools when heading to deep-sea feeding areas. Some of these fish feed in the Norwegian Sea and the waters off southwest Greenland. These fish remain in the ocean from just over a year to three or four years.

Of course, many of us haven’t been able to get out and enjoy the salmon run this autumn, but luckily our photographer, Lorne, has put together this wonderful video – we hope you enjoy it!

Posted in biodiversity, Ecology, Marine, NatureScot, Year of Coasts and Waters, Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 | Tagged , , , , ,

An Ceòl a bu Bhinne Chualas / The Sweetest Music Ever Heard

Sgrìobh an sàr-bhàrd Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir mu a ghràdh do nàdar. ’S dòcha gu bheil a bhàrdachd fhèin a cheart cho airidh air moladh ’s a tha òran nan cearcan monaidh

The master wordsmith Duncan Bàn MacIntyre wrote lovingly of wild nature. Perhaps his own majestic poetry deserves to be as much praised as the song of the mountain grouse …

‘An Ceòl a bu Bhinne Chualas’

Taobh a-muigh saoghal na Gàidhlig, ma dh’fhaodte gu bheil e fìor ri ràdh nach eil mòran Albannach a’ tomhas Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir am measg nan sgrìobhadairean as fheàrr a th’ againn mu nàdar. Ge-tà, bu chòir dhuinn an oideachadh, oir cò a b’ fheàrr a chuir gràdh nan daoine do mhonaidhean is àrainneachd na Gàidhealtachd an cèill, seach Donnchadh? Eadhon an-diugh, tha na tuairisgeulan aige de ‘sealgaireachd nam bealaichean, dol mach a dhìreadh garbhlaich’ a’ bruidhinn rinn mar gun robh iad air an cur ri chèile an t-seachdain sa chaidh, seach còrr is dà cheud bliadhna air ais. Tha cuid de rudan bunaiteach agus seasmhach ann an cultar, agus tha gràdh do na beanntan am measg na tha bunaiteach dhuinn mar Ghàidheil.

Tha carragh-cuimhne Dhonnchaidh Bhàin ann an àite brèagha faisg air Dail Mhàilidh. Chithear Cruachan Bheann agus Loch Obha bhuaithe. / The view from Duncan’s Memorial near Dalmally takes in Ben Cruachan and the other peaks nearby, as well as Loch Awe and its scattering of islands. The Duncan Ban MacIntyre Memorial (C)John C

Tha gu leòr dhen bheachd gu bheil an laoidh-gràidh aige do na beanntan – Cead Deireannach nam Beann – cho math ri rud sam bith a sgrìobh e (ged a chuireadh an t-ùghdar seo Beinn Dòbhrain agus Coire a’ Cheathaich air thoiseach air mar obraichean-ealain). Dh’èirich an dàn às an turas mu dheireadh a rinn am bàrd do bheanntan òige, gu seachd àraidh Beinn Dòbhrain, air 19 Sultain 1802 nuair a bha e seachdad ʼs a h-ochd bliadhna a dh’aois. Ghabh Donnchadh tlachd à fiadh-bheatha nam beann – ‘na laoigh bhallach … na maoislichean ʼs na ruadh-bhuic, na coilich dhubha ʼs ruadha’. Bha e a’ cuimhneachadh làithean sona an t-seilg nuair a bhathar an tòir air na fèidh, seach na làithean ùra, agus Beinn Dòbhrain ‘fo chaoraibh’.

Bha Donnchadh air a’ bheinn aig toiseach na dàmhair (le seann chiall an fhacail) nuair a bhios na daimh a’ langanaich, agus tha a’ chiad rann a’ togail dealbh dhen bhodach na ghlòraidh, mar a chanamaid an-diugh:

Bha mi ʼn-de ʼm Beinn Dòbhrain,

ʼS na còir cha robh mi aineolach;

Chunna mi na gleanntan

ʼS na beanntaichean a b’ aithne dhomh.

B’ e sin an sealladh èibhinn

Bhith imeachd air na slèibhtean

Nuair bhiodh a’ ghrian ag èirigh,

’S a bhiodh na fèidh a’ langanaich.

Beinn Dòbhrain faisg air Drochaid Urchaidh, dhan tug Donnchadh cliù air leth na bhàrdachd. A rèir beul-aithris, sgrìobh e ‘Cead Deireannach nam Beann’ ri taobh Allt Chonoghlais le taic a bhràthar, Calum. /
Beinn Dòbhrain (the specific is sometimes spelled Dòrain as the ‘bh’ is silent) near Bridge of Orchy – Duncan’s beloved mountain. He reprised his role as ‘mountaineer’ in 1802 at the age of 78. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Ged a bha Donnchadh agus a bhean, Màiri Bhàn Òg (mar a tha cuimhne againn oirre, ged nach robh i òg tuilleadh), air a bhith a’ fuireach ann an Dùn Èideann bho 1767 a-mach, cha deach e dhachaigh mus do chuir e a smuaintean an cèill mun turas mu dheireadh aige do na beanntan, co-dhiù a rèir beul-aithris. Theàrnaich e far na beinne air a cliathaich dheis agus rinn e suidh air creag faisg air an abhainn ann an Gleann Achadh Innis Chailein, faisg air far a bheil an drochaid rathaid-iarainn an-diugh. Ge-tà, bha e air a chur troimhe-chèile leis na faireachdainnean làidir aige agus bha e do-dhèante dha crìoch a chur air a dhàn. Fhuair e taic airson sin bho a bhràthair, Calum. Ged a bha comas aige le briathran, cha robh Calum airson a bhith ri bàrdachd, a rèir choltais. Chaidh ceist a chur air mu dheidhinn sin, agus fhreagair e, ‘Cha bhi e air a ràdh gun do rug mo mhàthair dà bhàrd.’

Chan eil Cead Deireannach nam Beann gu tur às aonais bròn, oir cha tig an aois leatha fhèin; cha robh comas aig Donnchadh tuilleadh a bhith ‘treubhach’, agus bha a ‘dheudach is [a] lèirsinn’ air fulang le aois. Agus, ann an seantans a dh’aithnicheas luchd-coiseachd nam beann a ruigeas aois mhòr, sgrìobh e ‘cha dèan mi ceum ro-chabhagach’. Bha mòran de a sheann charaidean a-nis air falbh agus ʼs ann na chuimhne a-mhàin a bha e a’ faireachdainn ‘coibhneas blàth nan caileagan’ air an àirigh.

Cruinneachadh de na h-òrain aig Donnchadh Bàn a bh’ air fhoillseachadh 36 bliadhna an dèidh bàs a’ bhàird. B’ e seo an còigeamh eagran dhen leabhar. / A collection of Duncan’s songs (fifth edition), published 36 years after his death.

Ge-tà, tha an rann mu dheireadh dhen dàn mar bhrosnachadh air a’ phìob-mhòir dhuinn. Cò nar measg nach leanadh Donnchadh?!

Mo shoraidh leis na frìthean, O s mìorbhaileach na beannan iad,

Le biolair uaine s fìor-uisg, Deoch uasal rìomhach cheanalta;

Na blàran a tha prìseil, Na fàsaichean tha lìonmhor,

O s ait a leig mi dhìom iad, Gu bràth mo mhìle beannachd leo’.

Anns an dàrna rann, tha am bàrd a’ foillseachadh mar a tha gràdh aige don ‘cheòl a bu bhinne chualas’ – gairm nan coileach-dubha is nan coileach-ruadha sa chamhanaich anns a’ mhonadh. An d’ rachadh duine againn às àicheadh sin?! Ach ʼs dòcha gun cuireamaid ris a’ cheòl sin na h-òrain aig Donnchadh fhèin, oir bidh iad air an seinn fhathast, an dà chuid ann an Alba agus Canada, agus tha iad mar dhearbhadh air cho bunaiteach ʼs a tha gràdh nàdair do mhac is nighean an duine. Ma dh’fhaoidte, an ath thuras a bhios cunntas-bheachd air na sgrìobhadairean nàdair as fheàrr ann an Alba, gun riochdaich cuideigin Donnchadh Bàn na Bàrdachd ʼs nam Beann, oir tha a dhìleab a’ cur solas brèagha togarrach air ar monaidhean is ar fiadh-bheatha eadhon chun an latha an-diugh fhèin.

Clach-uaighe Dhonnchaidh ann an Cladh nam Manach Liath, Dùn Èideann. Ged a bha e a’ fuireach an dàrna leth de a bheatha ann am ‘baile na smùide’, bha a chridhe riamh ann am beanntan òige. / Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s grave in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, Edinburgh. Although he spent the second half of his life in ‘Auld Reekie’, his heart remained in the mountains of his youth.

‘The Sweetest Music Ever Heard’

Outside the Gaelic language community, it is probably true to say that few Scots, when asked to name their favourite writer on the subject of nature, would think of Duncan Ban MacIntyre, yet his lyrical descriptions of the scenery, wildlife and botanical heritage of the hills of the Gàidhealtachd are perhaps unsurpassed in any Scottish language, and give an abiding voice to the enduring attraction of dol a-mach a dhìreadh gharbhlaich ‘going out to climb the rough heights’. Duncan died in 1812, and one of his most memorable works is no overture to something finer, but an elegy for a life well spent, the first half of which was in the hill country in the borderlands of Argyll and Perthshire, before he and his wife moved to Edinburgh in 1767. [She, by the way, despite reaching a good age, is still affectionately known to Gaels by her husband’s poetic moniker for her – Màiri Bhàn Òg ‘fair young Mary’ –as if, ageless and ever-beautiful, she belonged to Tìr nan Òg itself!] Cead Deireannach nam Beann, Duncan’s ‘final farewell to the mountains’ was composed (orally, for he could not read or write), following the bard’s final visit to his beloved mountains on 19 September 1802 at the age of seventy-eight.

A’ chlach-bhuinn air carragh-cuimhne Dhonnchaidh. / The foundation stone of Duncan’s Memorial.

Some of Duncan’s greatest works are paeans for the hills and corries he knew intimately as gamekeeper, forester and hunter – most notably Beinn Dòbhrain (whose name probably means ‘mountain of [the] stream’), arguably the subject of his greatest and most complex composition, and Coire a’ Cheathaich ‘the corrie of the mist’ in which his skilful use of imagery and language enables us to picture the place in the days before it was heavily grazed by sheep (one of his poems Òran nam Balgairean ‘song to the foxes’ praises the predators for chasing the sheep that Duncan disliked).

But it is his final love-poem to the mountains, written following a nostalgic journey to Beinn Dòbhrain, that is perhaps of greatest inspiration to today’s hillwalkers of a certain age, for it speaks, not of the sadness of an old man whose life is approaching a sedentary demise but of the joys of the memories of mountain days, and of once more experiencing the thrill of being there:

… B’ e sin an sealladh èibhinn, bhith ’imeachd air na slèibhtean,

Nuair bhiodh a’ ghrian ag èirigh, ’s a bhiodh na fèidh a’ langanaich.

‘that was a sight most splendid, to be walking on the hillsides,

When the sun was rising and the deer were bellowing.

Coire a’ Cheathaich, beagan mhìltean sear air Beinn Dòbhrain – àite eile a mhol Donnchadh na bhàrdachd. Tha a thuairisgeul de bhòidhchead ‘rìomhach…na Creige Mòire’ fhathast a’ toirt spionnadh do Ghàidheil a tha measail air nàdar. / Another of Duncan’s poetic subjects is Coire a’ Cheathaich, a few miles east of Beinn Dòbhrain, which the poet-gamekeeper-forester-hunter-climber knew intimately and lovingly. His description of the biodiverse alpine garden of the Creag Mhòr still inspires people today.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

This is no bardic recall, but the poet-climber experiencing once more the dàmhair, the start of the iconic deer rut in the Highlands (the word has been temporally shifted in recent times and now means the month of October). According to tradition, Duncan made his composition while seated on a stone under the mountain’s south-eastern slopes in Auch Glen, a short distance upstream from the modern railway viaduct. He was so moved by his experience of once more being in his beloved hills that he found it impossible to finish the poem, and was assisted in its completion by his brother, Malcolm.

In his younger days, Duncan would go stalking happily on the mountain passes (sealgaireachd nam bealaichean), venturing out to climb the rough heights and getting home late, but it was these activities and the ‘the fresh rain and air’ on the summits of the high mountains that gave him slàint’ is fallaineachd ‘good health and wellbeing’. And, of course, the elderly gentleman is permitted his nostalgic recall of the sociable days of the shieling (the removal of people and livestock to summer pastures in the mountains) and of flirting with the girls there.

Tha cunntasan pearsanta dhen àirigh a’ dearbhadh mar a bha daoine a’ faireachdainn saorsa agus fallaineachd de sheòrsa nach biodh aca nam beatha àbhaisteach. / Personal accounts of the shieling reveal a sense of being ‘on holiday’, of gaining a sense of wellbeing and renewal, and of a freedom otherwise unknown among the constraints of normal everyday life. Photos via The Shieling Project.

The poem is not without its sadness, for nothing can halt the ageing process, Duncan is no longer able to be adventurous, and his eyesight is not as sharp as it was in his young hunting days. Many of his friends are gone and the world has cheated him because Beinn Dòbhrain is now, sadly, fo chaoraibh ‘under sheep’.

We might think, however, of the final verse and its expression of joy, as Duncan’s anthem for the mountains and for his life (the English translation is naturally pedestrian in comparison to the energetic and complex rhythm and rhyme of the Gaelic):

Mo shoraidh leis na frìthean, O s mìorbhaileach na beannan iad,

Le biolair uaine s fìor-uisg, Deoch uasal rìomhach cheanalta;

Na blàran a tha prìseil, Na fàsaichean tha lìonmhor,

O s ait a leig mi dhìom iad, Gu bràth mo mhìle beannachd leo’.

I bid farewell to the deer-forests, Oh! how wonderful are the mountains,

With green water-cress and spring water, a noble, elegant, gentle drink;

The moors which are so precious, the pastures which are so plentiful,

Oh, joyfully I took my leave of them, forever my thousand blessings on them.

In the second verse of Cead Deireannach nam Beann, the bard proclaims his enduring love for ‘the sweetest music ever heard’ – the sound of the blackcocks and red grouse cocks at dawn. Who among us, who have camped out in the mountains, would dare argue with that?! But perhaps we could add to that assessment the rhythm and melody of Duncan’s own poems/songs – which are still widely sung in both Scotland and Canada – for they help us to appreciate and celebrate the love of people for nature that has remained fundamental and steadfast to the human condition through the ages. Perhaps, the next time there is an opinion poll on the finest Scottish nature-writers, somebody will champion fair-haired Duncan of the songs and bens, whose legacy informs and inspires to this day.

An ceòl a bu bhinne chualas. / The sweetest music ever heard

The Author

Bha am blog seo air a sgrìobhadh le Ruairidh MacIlleathain, a tha na sgrìobhadair, craoladair, eòlaiche-nàdair is sgeulaiche, stèidhichte ann an Inbhir Nis.

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

Posted in Gaelic, History, Nature in art, poetry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Spectacular autumn in Scotland

Today we’re highlighting some of amazing wildlife spectacles you can see in Scotland in autumn, including the fierce deer rut, thousands of migrating geese and much more. Of course, many of us aren’t able to get out and about to see all these wonders this year. So if you’re one of those number, these autumn wildlife wonders are especially for you!

Pink-footed geese at Loch Leven NNR. Copyright Lorne Gill/SNH.

Geese – Several species of geese migrate as far as 3,400 miles to reach Scotland for their winter feeding, before returning to more northern climes in the spring to breed. At Loch Leven, October sees a mass migration of pink-footed geese from Iceland, with as many as 20,000 to 25,000 geese at peak times, while at Caerlaverock, the entire Svalbard population of 40,000 barnacle geese stay on the reserve for the whole winter.

Barnacle geese at Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill-NatureScot

Red deer – The roar of red deer stags across a Highland glen is one of the most evocative sounds of the season. Red deer are Britain’s largest land mammal and stags can be seen and heard roaring from late September onwards on nature reserves from Ben Wyvis in the north to Cairnsmore in the south. The fierce rivalry between stags to mate with the hinds usually starts with roaring, posturing and thrashing the ground, before moving to a shoving match with clashing antlers.

A red deer stag roaring during the deer rut. ©Lorne Gill-NatureScot

Red squirrels – Who can resist watching red squirrels, as they prepare for winter, hiding food in scattered places to prevent it being pinched by other animals? At this time of year, red squirrels are on the ground more as they collect and bury fallen nuts and seeds. They also eat fungi, brambles and rosehips in autumn. Red squirrels are diurnal mammals, so with the shorter days we more likely to see them as we are out and about at the same time as they are scavenging for those nuts. These charismatic characters grow their bushy winter coats in autumn, ready for the cold nights ahead.

Red squirrel. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Grey seals – Autumn is an important time for grey seals, as large groups of pregnant grey seal females return to traditional breeding sites on rocky coasts to give birth. Grey seals are only found in the North Atlantic, the Baltic Sea and the Barents Sea. As one of the rarer seal species worldwide, its entire population is around 400,000 individuals. About 40% of all grey seals live in UK waters – and about 90% of this number breed at colonies in Scotland. Grey seals pup on the Isle of May form October to December with almost 2,500 pups born, making it among the most significant grey seal nurseries in the UK.

Grey seal pup, Tentsmuir NNR, Forth and Borders Area. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Salmon run – Part dweller in freshwater, part traveller in salt, the Atlantic salmon is a true survivor. It starts its life in the headwaters of its natal river, before eventually venturing to sea. It then travels thousands of miles to its feeding grounds in the North Atlantic off Greenland, evading predators at all stages before eventually returning to the same river in which it was born – and even the same stretch of the river with amazing accuracy, to spawn in autumn.

A male Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) leaping up a waterfall, River Almond. ©Lorne Gill-NatureScot

Fungi – With autumn comes cooler nights and frequent showers, making it the best time of year for fungi to thrive. Fungi like huge penny-buns, golden chanterelles and bright red fly-agarics appear like magic overnight in the damp woodlands. Learn more with our guide to Scottish fungi.

Fly agaric, a fungi growing in woodland. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

There are plenty of ways you can help nature this autumn as well. We have lots of practical, easy tips in our Make Space for Nature campaign to help wildlife thrive in autumn and all throughout the year. Spending time in nature is also a wonderful way to help take care of your own mental and physical health; it’s proven to reduce stress.

Posted in biodiversity, Birds, deer, mushrooms, National Nature Reserves | Tagged , , , ,

A quest to learn more about humpback whales in Scotland

As part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, Ron Macdonald, chair of the North East Biological Records Centre and an avid humpback whale watcher, introduces a blog by Lyndsay Macneill, a talented and enthusiastic citizen scientist who discovered a love of whales when she heard of a sighting a short drive away from home.

A humpback whale photographed in Longyearbyen Svalbard in Norway in May 2017.
Copyright Iain Rudkin photography

Back in 2018, I first came across Lyndsay on the Forth Marine Mammals Project Facebook Page. I could see by the way she wrote that she was smitten by seeing her first humpback whale. But it went deeper than simply seeing the humpback – like many, Lyndsay immediately felt a spiritual connection between herself and the whale. 

That first sighting in the Firth of Forth signalled the start of her quest to learn as much as she can about the lives of whales that visit our seas and coasts. In 2019, she set up the Scottish Humpback ID Facebook Page, which in just over a year has significantly added to our knowledge about the movements of humpback whales seen in Scottish waters. Possessing a photographic memory, Lyndsay has matched several humpback whales photographed in Scottish waters and off Norway and Holland.  I’m sure you will enjoy her blog. 

A humpback whale breaching in Holland. Copyright Hans Verdaat

It all started when I read on Facebook that a humpback had been spotted at the Fife coast, only a short drive from where I live in Edinburgh. Crowds had been gathering and drawing people from everywhere. We headed over and met a few people who pointed the humpback out. I was in disbelief that we had them here on our doorstep!

You could say my first sighting was extremely lucky. Standing on a steep hill, a tanker passed and the humpback breached multiple times, along with pec slaps and tail slapping. We nicknamed the whale, Sonny, and I was hooked. I can’t describe the feeling of knowing how lucky we were to see this amazing animal so close to home. I can’t describe the happiness it brought me and others.

Soon after, I discovered there was a need to find out where these humpbacks were coming from, and so I started to volunteer to help identify the whales seen in Scotland. We spotted three or four in my first three years. At first, they all looked so similar to me, but I was so intrigued to find out more I began trawling social media (perhaps obsessed!), looking at people’s holiday shots and tour operators’ photos.

Humpback whale fluke photographed in the Netherlands at Dan Helder navy port on 8 March 2017.

When I stumbled across my first match, matching a whale seen in Scotland and the Arctic, it was quite a feeling to think this whale had come all that way. There was huge interest in the humpbacks and we all wondered if they would return the next year. I felt I was wishing away the year to see if they would return, and was thrilled when they did return!

They are such special animals, with such grace and beauty. There’s nothing quite like seeing a huge whale breaching free and happy.

I found it fascinating when I learned they all had unique tail flukes, with every one different.  I began storing all photos and data of humpbacks seen around Scotland and built up a good amount of info to set up the Facebook page. I find looking for them and learning more about them so relaxing after a day behind the chair in my day job as a hairdresser, and I have since made a few more Scottish matches.

It’s a match! Pictured here is a humpback fluke picture taken 12 miles NW of Sula Sgier Scotland on 21 January 2018. Below is the same whale in Skjervoy, Norway. Top picture is
copyright John Lowrie Irvine; bottom picture is copyright Steve Truluck.

Since setting up the Facebook page, many people have sent photos of humpbacks around our coasts. The west coast seems to be a hotspot for them. It’s like a huge jigsaw: why do they come, why did some stay for winter, and not head south? I find it all incredibly interesting.

I feel if you have a passion, you can achieve anything. I will continue to keep looking for more matches and hopefully see more humpbacks. The humpbacks didn’t appear in 2020 on the Fife coast, but I’ll be waiting and hoping to see that beautiful bushy blow that fills me with so much happiness. If only they knew what joy they bring to us.

If you’re interested in helping identify humpback whales, see Lyndsay’s Scottish Humpback ID page on Facebook.

If you’re interested in finding out the many about other citizen science opportunities, see the citizen science resources page on our website. Taking part in citizen science is a really useful way to help nature and the environment. Information gathered by citizen scientists is vital to scientists across Scotland to understand how nature is doing and where more action is needed. By getting involved you really can make a difference! There are different surveys to take part in depending on how much time you have to spend, and many of them don’t require any previous knowledge. 

Posted in biodiversity, citizen science, Year of Coasts and Waters, Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Archaeology revealed the Hebridean way

Seven archaeological sites along the Hebridean Way are set to feature in digital reconstructions created by the Uist Virtual Archaeology Project. Viewers’ experiences will be revolutionised in a project which will harness emerging technologies to better explain the tremendous archaeological assets of this region to locals and visitors alike.

Uist has long been appreciated not only for its scenic grandeur and notable wildlife but for impressive archaeological riches too. In a project which will follow the trail of the Hebridean Way, visitors and the wider public will be introduced to key stories about ancient island life in a new and engaging way.

The Hebridean Way is an ideal focal point. A glorious 156-mile walking route which stretches the length of the Outer Hebrides between Vatersay and Lewis, it passes an array of internationally-significant archaeological sites spanning several millennia. Most of these sites have minimal interpretation and there is a feeling that the remarkable story of the area is not currently told as well as it could.

That’s all about to change. Making these sites more accessible and better understood is a key aim of this progressive project. As is bolstering the area’s fragile economy.

Key to improving the experience is better harnessing of new technology. An Augmented Reality App and mixed media exhibition in a local museum will tap into the wide range of existing published and unpublished materials, to make for a better presentation of this key tourism attraction. An additional travelling exhibition will be used as a pop-up ‘portal’ to Uist, for prospective visitors to get a taste of the heritage offering. There is no doubt that more could be made of the area’s outstanding archaeological legacy, set as it is in achingly beautiful scenery, to make it a ‘must visit’ destination for archaeology and cultural tourism.

Cladh Hallan, South Uist, is a Bronze Age site and the first one to be reconstructed.

So what are the seven sites that will feature? Four are based around sites synonymous with the Machair of South Uist, and two North Uist islet sites feature a Living on the Water theme. The final site is to be confirmed but will be on Benbecula, and will be nominated by children at the local primary school who will also be involved in the visualisation and creation process.

The Living on the Machair element will feature An Doirlinn (a Neolithic settlement), Cladh Hallan (a Bronze Age site), Kildonan Wheelhouse (an Iron Age roundhouse) and Bornais (A Norse settlement). The Living on the Water sites are the islets at Dun Torcuill, an Iron Age broch and Dun an Sticer (an an Iron Age settlement with medieval activity).

The Iron Age settlement at Dun an Sticer

Although there are visible remains at some of these sites Augmented Reality will allow users to more easily envisage the complete structures and imagine the sheer scale of these impressive structures. Using an app, visitors will be able to ‘explore’ the site as it may have been, via a series of digital reconstructions triggered by features in the landscape, and better appreciate the lives of our ancestors in the existing landscapes.

Without doubt the sites enjoy a stunning setting. Fresh, sweet Hebridean scents to savour along with famous wide views and big skies attract to visitors world-wide. Overhead the sight and sound of an array of fabulous birds is highly likely. It should be stressed that the digital elements of this project will not be available in your home, rather the digital resource kicks in either out onto the sites or in the museum. There is certainly a growing appetite for digital solutions to bring archaeological sites into the home. During lockdown, for example, over three million viewers logged on to watch sunrise and sunset over Stonehenge and that kind of mystical allure certainly applies to the Outer Hebrides. 

Given that these seven sites are all well-researched and widely published there is a wealth of material to tap into. However, a lot of the published material is academic in nature and a focus of this project will be making scholarly materials as widely accessible as possible. Some of the sites are tricky to access, so having a digital experience will enable far more people to enjoy finding out about significant sites.

The project is sure to be laced with innovative and cutting edge technology, which has galvanised a local community long aware that it had a fabulous asset on its doorstep but was perhaps unsure on how best to present it. Now local historical societies, the local authority’s heritage service, schools, and the Uist Community Archaeological Group are just some of the stakeholders who have joined Lews Castle College in developing a plan to maximise the potential of these intriguing sites.

Cill Donnain Iron Age wheelhouse, (C)Kildonan Museum

The project will be led by Dr Emily Gal and Dr Rebecca Rennell who are both based at Lews Castle College, University of the Highlands and Islands, in association with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Dr Rennell said: “Working with our partner Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, we are really excited to be bringing decades of archaeological research at these fantastic sites to the wider public. The team is thrilled to have received funding from the Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund. It will help to realise community benefits, unlock economic potential and improve the visitor experience in a way that conserves and protects the unique natural and cultural heritage recognised across the region.”

That statement is as neat a summary as you could wish for.

In embracing new technology so warmly, this project should contribute significantly to promoting Uist and the wider region as a key destination for heritage tourism. And engaging the local community so enthusiastically in this superb local asset is surely great news for the social and economic future of the area.

The Uist Virtual Archaeology Project is supported by the Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, National Lottery Heritage Fund, and Lews Castle College UHI.

Posted in Community engagement, Geology, History, long distance routes, machair, National Walking and Cycling Network, Projects, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wading birds and a shared approach to wildlife management

At the end of last month, NatureScot launched the Shared Approach to Wildlife Management, which sets out how different interest groups can work together to help ensure healthy and valued populations of wildlife across Scotland. In the third of a series of blogs, Davy McCracken of Scotland’s Rural College and co-chair of Working for Waders looks at how this approach can help us address some of the challenges facing wading birds.

What is the shared approach?
The shared approach is a way of working together on wildlife management issues, even when opinions differ. At its heart are the principles of how we can work in partnership: to respect each other’s views, build knowledge, share information, develop a common understanding, clearly communicate decisions and pursue best practice in animal welfare. It advocates that differences in opinion are dealt with in a constructive manner which helps to advance our relationship with nature. In this blog on wading birds, we show how we can apply these principles, particularly in relation to working together.

What does it mean for wading birds?
Wading birds, like curlews, have suffered catastrophic declines in recent years. We have lost nearly two-thirds of our curlews since 1994, and the number of lapwings has halved in the same time. We all love to hear the plaintive call of the curlew and catch a glimpse of the iridescent sheen of a lapwing. Scotland still holds onto these birds in fragmented pockets across the country. Without urgent action, the future looks bleak for several of our most celebrated and exciting species.

Working for Waders was set up in 2017 to try and tackle these losses and save waders from this perilous state. Wading birds are affected by predation, some farming practices, land management changes and other factors outside our control like weather. No one single organisation or group can reverse the declines in waders. Saving our waders depends on farmers, conservationists, keepers and public bodies working together.

Working together is one of the key principles of the shared approach. Working for Waders brings together all those who are involved in and passionate about waders. A Facilitation Team, which I chair along with NatureScot, facilitates collaboration and generates ideas. Membership is open to anyone.

Collaboration and co-production are commonly used words, but not commonly understood at a practical level. Genuine collaboration demands time, effort, a willingness to listen and an acceptance that not everyone will agree. Collaboration needs a common goal. The common goal of Working for Waders is to reverse the decline in waders. There are different opinions on how we do this. Some believe that predator control is key to saving our waders, while others believe we should focus on habitat management.  Both are correct; both are needed. However navigating different values and keeping the focus on the main aim of saving waders is challenging. An example is the perceived conflict between woodland expansion and waders. It is generally recognised that waders need open areas to breed and are negatively impacted by proximity to trees. Working for Waders is teaming up with others to find ways of taking waders into account in land management decisions. Wader hotspot and zoning maps are one of the practical tools which have been developed through Working for Waders to help with this.

Working for Waders provides the space for people to exchange their views, disagree, question and ultimately agree on a way forward. One example of this is a Working for Waders trip to Glen Prosen a couple of years ago, organised by Head Keeper Bruce Cooper. This was an opportunity to see waders, discuss estate management and predator control. These discussions help build relationships, develop trust and help keep channels of communication open. Cutting off communications doesn’t do anyone any favours, least of all waders.

This listening and respecting other’s views is a crucial part of collaborating. It’s not easy and frustrations can surface. It also takes time.  Genuine collaboration requires everyone to play their role and take responsibility. It means everyone participating. This is not easy, especially when people are busy and have competing priorities. But it is worth it. Ideas discussed and explored and shaped by different views and perspectives are more likely to work.

There are still a number of challenges ahead of us. Land management choices and priorities are changing to focus more fully on the biodiversity and climate change emergencies. Curlews and lapwings are red listed and other wading birds are suffering serious declines. The shared approach requires hard work and sustained effort. Working for Waders demonstrates this. It’s not always easy, but it’s far better and more productive to air differences in a shared space than to argue from afar. Disagreements, when channelled and worked through, can lead to new ideas and a better collective understanding.

For more information go to www.workingforwaders.com.

Posted in Birds, wildlife management | Tagged , , , ,

#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Marine Ecology Adviser Karen Hall

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been joining NatureScot staff working along our shorelines and watery places to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do. This month we hear from Shetland-based Marine Ecology Adviser Karen Hall about her very special lockdown wildlife sightings.

Living on an island you’d think we’d be used to isolation and travel restrictions but even for us it’s been tough adapting to lockdowns and missing the community events that Shetland is known for.  Fortunately, wildlife doesn’t pay attention to the rules or respect quarantine boundaries!

In Shetland, you’re never more than three miles from the sea” – I’m lucky to have a view over the ocean and having my own personal patch to watch has been my lockdown saviour.  As I left the office for the last time back in March, I was glad I had the foresight to grab my work binoculars. While others do pilates, running or knitting for their mental health, I’m having ‘just another scan’ of the sea and wondering whether those on my virtual meetings will notice if the binoculars get lifted!

A home office with a view! © Karen Hall

So what have we seen? Well during March to May it was the ‘usual’ things – porpoise, killer whales and humpbacks, with more Risso’s dolphins and minke whales as we approached the summer. In June and July, as usual we had a lot of orca sightings tying in with the harbour seal pupping time, with the pod known as the #27s keeping us all entertained on their tour of Shetland.  Minke whale sightings also increased to almost daily occurrences. 

This year we also saw the return of large numbers of Atlantic white-sided dolphins and white-beaked dolphins from June right through to September.  These are normally ‘offshore’ animals so it’s been a real treat to see their acrobatics close inshore. We also had some other deep water animals with a few pilot whales seen closer to shore. 

From July onwards sightings of Risso’s dolphins seemed to rocket – I don’t think any of us can remember a year when there have been so many sightings.  Interestingly this increase has coincided with a decrease in orca sightings.  We have heard reports of Risso’s being aggressive or defensive towards orca pods and this year we did witness large groups of Risso’s – many with very young calves – ‘herding’ the smaller pod of orca away. 

Moving into September, we’ve started to get our humpbacks back, minkes and various dolphins are still around, including a large group of common dolphins – which are not common at all this far north – seen bowriding this week.  Orca sightings are beginning to increase which coincides with grey seal pupping in October.  Also this month we start to see large aggregations of harbour porpoise with sometimes hundreds of animals close inshore.  It’s thought that part of the reason for these large groups is for mating and we have seen the aerial and rushing behaviour that is associated with this. 

It was also a very unusual year for basking sharks.  Normally we may only get a handful of sightings – Shetland isn’t exactly what you think of when you want to ‘bask’ in the sun. In 2019 there were only eight records over the whole year whereas this year it was almost 30.  There seemed to be a similar pattern in Orkney as well.

So what were my highlights? Well, my three top sightings moments this year were skipping ‘home school’ with my son to go and watch killer whales (it’s not often you get a teenager voluntarily out of bed before 9 am!), watching humpback and minke whales bubble feeding huge bait balls from the cliffs below my house and watching a basking shark through the mist in our local bay – there is something very hypnotic about their movements.

As well as seeing these animals myself, the real joy is sharing that experience with others. Letting folk know what is around or helping them to see their first ever marine animal is always a special moment. Whether that is a grandfather who has lived all his life on Shetland but never seen an orca, a Logan air crew on a longer lay over desperate to see something, the local postie wanting to see a whale, or visitors who have come to Shetland instead of their foreign travels and are just happy to see a seal. The joy and enthusiasm watching wildlife brings is inspiring……I’m also an alert system for a local friend who swims and wants to avoid becoming orca dinner!

Looking back, the hundreds of hours I, and others, have put in sea watching this year have most definitely been worth it. I’ve had the privilege of some amazing sightings, most from my living room and all within an 8 mile radius of my house – I can’t think of a better place to have been locked down – #OnlyinShetland! (All images © Karen Hall)

Summer in Shetland means you can go sea watching at 11pm © Karen Hall

Posted in Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mulling over Ulva’s history

A mere hop, skip and jump from Mull will land you on Ulva.  An island with ancestral links to David Livingstone, known in the past as ‘Wolf island’, and the scene of sweeping Clearances. To this day Ulva is as culturally fascinating as it is wildly beautiful.

North West Mull Community Woodland Company became the owners of Ulva in July 2019, and from the outset their aim was to encourage social and economic development for the benefit of the community.

The island of Ulva is about 8miles long and 3 miles across

Their ambitions will benefit hugely from receiving £812,682 from the Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund (NCHF), £212,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and £194,090 from the Scottish Government’s Regeneration Capital Grant Fund. This money allows work to begin on spreading the word about Ulva’s rich history through the creation of an ambitious new visitor centre in Ulva House.

Ulva House

The centre will certainly tell the story on the ground, but thanks to a strong digital approach the community will also speak to virtual visitors around the globe. The interpretation and education centre will make the story of Ulva, and its people, accessible to audiences who otherwise might never hear of, let alone visit, Ulva.

The built heritage itself is worthy of a chapter in any cultural update.

Ulva House is a Grade B Listed building, it may only date back to the 1950s (there were other Ulva Houses before this one) but it was designed by the famous Scottish architect, Leslie Grahame-Thomson. There are two other Grade B listed buildings on Ulva – the  Kirk and the Manse – both of which have design links to Thomas Telford.

The Kirk on Ulva

Telford’s isn’t the only famous name to feature in Ulva’s history.  The ‘father of Australia’, General Lachlan MacQuarie was born on Ulva and there should be space too to mention Dr Johnson and James Boswell who visited in October 1773 during their intrepid travels.  But it is the tale of the ordinary Ulva residents which carries deepest human interest – fishing, ferries, and farming have long been the heart-beat of this island.

Clearances loom large over the history of Ulva. The island fell into the grasp of the notorious Francis William Clark in 1845. He carried out a vigorous and sweeping series of clearances which saw the population of Ulva fall from 570 in 1841 to just 53 souls by 1881. Today the ruins of 16 abandoned townships stand testament to the relentless clearances.

Until the mid-19th century Ulva’s main industry was kelp collection and export.

Whilst visitors reflect on the past, residents will concentrate on future growth and sustainability. In what is often perceived as a remote and rugged area, creating jobs, whilst supporting local community businesses and services, is a constant challenge.

The rich natural history of the area should help. Otters, seals, orchids, sea eagles, hen harriers, golden eagles the slender Scotch Burnet Moth, these are just a few of the ‘local residents’ that are bound to captivate and draw visitors. With a mixture of habitats ranging from coast to moorland to woodland, there is something for everyone with an interest in natural history.

A research project with the University of the Highlands and Islands will investigate further the story of the people of Ulva. They will be busy. This is an island with a fascinating history.  And whether it is nature or history that provides the spark, one thing is sure, Ulva will remain a gem in the crown of Scottish islands.

The Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund is led by NatureScot and is part-funded through the European Development Fund (ERDF).

Posted in Community engagement, conservation, Projects, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Eun a’ Chinn Duibh air a bheil ‘Ceann-fionn’ / The Black-headed ‘White Head’ Bird

Carson a tha na Gàidheil a’ gabhail ‘ceann-fionn’ air eun le ceann dubh? Tha Ruairidh MacIlleathain a’ feuchainn ris an gnothach a shoilleireachadh. / Why do Scotland’s Gaels call penguins ‘white-heads’, despite their being black-headed? Roddy Maclean investigates a nomenclatural conundrum.

Eun a’ Chinn Duibh air a bheil ‘Ceann-fionn’

Air a’ chiad shealladh tha an t-ainm Gàidhlig a th’ air ‘penguin’ – ceann-fionn – car annasach, oir tha cinn dubha air na h-eòin-mhara ainmeil sin. Ged a bhuineas na cinn-fhionn don leth-chruinne mu dheas, ma dh’fhaodte gu bheil am fuasgladh airson an tòimhseachain seo ri lorg anns an leth-chruinne mu thuath – ann an cànan Ceilteach eile, eun-mara nach maireann a bha uaireigin a’ neadachadh ann an Hiort, agus eilean air taobh sear Chanada.

B’ e an gearra-bhall, no ‘great auk’ eun-mara mòr, aig nach robh comas sgiathaidh, a chaidh à bith ann an meadhan an naoidheamh linn deug. Tha co-dhiù ochd ainmean Gàidhlig clàraichte air a shon, ged as e gearra-bhall am fear as aithnichte. Tha dùil gun do dh’èirich seo bho ainm an eòin ann an Lochlannais – geirfugl ‘eun-sleagha’ – às an tig ainm eile ann am Beurla – gairfowl. Ge-tà, bha ainm Beurla a bharrachd air – ‘penguin’ – agus bha ainmean car coltach ann an cànanan Eòrpach eile. Tha luchd-saidheans eòlach air mar Pinguinus impennis agus, ann am Fraingis, canar le petit pingouin ris a’ choltraiche a tha dlùth-chàirdeach don ghearra-bhall (ach nas lugha).

Razorbills on the Isle of May, Firth of Forth > Coltraichean air Eilean Mhàigh, Linne Fhoirthe ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Tha cuid de sgoilearan a’ cumail a-mach gu bheil ‘penguin’ a’ tighinn bhon Chuimris pen gwyn a tha a’ ciallachadh ‘ceann bàn’ no ‘ceann fionn’. Ged a bha ball bàn air ceann dubh a’ ghearra-bhuill, tha feadhainn dhen bheachd nach ann air ceann an eòin a thathar a’ dèanamh iomradh leis an ainm, ach air mullach eilein faisg air Talamh an Èisg ann an taobh sear Chanada. Ann an Cuimris, ’s e Pen Gwyn a bh’ air an eilean air sgàth na h-innearach a dh’fhàg na gearra-bhuill is eòin-mhara eile a bha a’ neadachadh ann. Ann am beul-aithris, thathar ag innse mu phrionnsa Cuimreach, Madog ap Owain Gwynedd, a chaidh a-null a dh’Ameireagaidh a Tuath anns an dàrna linn deug agus a dh’ainmich an t-eilean ann an Cuimris. Chan eil e soilleir an e sin an t-eilean ann am Bàgh Fundaidh air a bheil ‘White Head Island’ ann am Beurla an-diugh.

Tha aon rud soilleir mun ghnothach, ge-tà – nuair a chaidh maraichean a’ chinn a tuath a chuantan a’ chinn a deas, chuir na Cuimrich (agus ’s dòcha seòladairean às a’ Bhreatainn Bhig) an t-ainm ‘pen gwyn’ air na h-eòin-mhara nach tèid air sgèith agus a chunnaic iad ann am pailteas. Tha cunntas againn bhon bhòidse aig Sir Frangan Drake tro Chaolas Mhagellan ann an 1578 mu na h-eòin ‘ris an can na Cuimrich “Pengwin”’. Nuair a chaidh an gearra-bhall à bith, bha ‘penguin’ an uair sin a’ buntainn a-mhàin ris na h-eòin anns an leth-chruinne mu dheas.

The Adélie Penguin, a native of Antarctica > Ceann-fionn Adélie a bhuineas don Antartaig

Mar a bhiodh dùil le a leithid de thòimhseachan, tha sgeul eile ann – gu bheil am facal a’ tighinn bho thùs bhon Laidinn pinguis ‘geir’. Bha seòladairean às an Spàinnt is Portagail a’ gabhail ‘pinguin’ air a’ ghearra-bhall mar iomradh air an t-saill fo chraiceann an eòin. Ann an Spàinntis is Portagailis an latha an-diugh, ’s e an ceann-fionn pingüino/pingüina agus pinguim, agus tha ainmean coltach ann am mòran chànanan eile, leithid pingvin (Suainis), pingüin (Dùitsis) agus penguen (Turcais).

Ach Gàidhlig na h-Alba! Tha ar cànan fhèin air taobhadh leis na Cuimrich ann a bhith a’ riochdachadh pen agus gwyn leis na faclan Gàidhlig a tha dlùth-chàirdeach dhaibh (le tùsan Ceilteach) – ceann agus fionn. Air an làimh eile, ann an Gàidhlig na h-Èireann, canaidh daoine piongain ris an eun.

B’ e an t-aon àite far an robh an gearra-bhall ri fhaighinn air Gàidhealtachd na h-Alba Stàc an Àrmainn ann an Hiort, far an deach am fear mu dheireadh ann am Breatainn a mharbhadh ann an 1840. Cha robh Alba càil na b’ fheàrr na dùthaich sam bith eile a thaobh glèidheadh an eòin sin, ged a tha cunntas à Ameireagaidh a Tuath mu chreachadh do-labhairt anns an robh gearra-bhuill air am fionnadh beò agus air an losgadh air teine mar chonnadh air eilean gun chraobhan, a chionn ’s gu robh iad làn ola.

“The Great Auks at Home” by John Gerrard Keuleman > ‘Na Gearra-bhuill air an Àrainn fhèin’ le John Gerrard Keuleman

Ann an 1821, chaidh gearra-bhall, a bh’ air a ghlacadh ann an Hiort, a thoirt gu sgiobair soithich airson a ghiùlan a Dhùn Èideann far am biodh e air a mharbhadh is air a thaisbeanadh ann an taigh-tasgaidh. Faisg air Arainn, shaoil an sgiobair gun robh an t-eun salach agus feumach air ionnlad. Chaidh a leigeil le cliathaich an t-soithich, agus ròpa ceangailte ri a chois, ach rinn e a dhol-às agus cha d’ fhuaradh an t-eun ann an Dùn Èideann, ged a tha fear ann an taigh-tasgaidh Khelvingrove ann an Glaschu.

Gu mì-fhortanach, tha an gearra-bhall air a dhol à bith, ach tha fear de ainmean beò fhathast ann an co-cheangal ri ‘penguins’ na leth-chruinne mu dheas. Agus – ’s dòcha – tha an t-ainm Cuimris air eilean ann an Canada a’ mìneachadh mar a bhios Gàidheil na h-Alba a’ gabhail ‘ceann-fionn’ air eun le ceann dubh.

The Black-headed ‘White Head’ Bird

The generic Gaelic word for ‘penguin’ at first sight seems incongruous. It is ceann-fionn ‘fair or white head’ – yet a quick photographic survey of these flightless maritime birds of the southern hemisphere shows that their heads are overwhelmingly black. The solution to this conundrum – while still a matter of intense scholarly debate – might lie in another Celtic language, an extinct seabird that once bred on St Kilda, and a Canadian island.

The Great Auk, which survived until the mid-19th century, was a flightless bird which weighed up to 5kg and was an important resource to maritime peoples in North America and Europe. It has at least eight recorded Gaelic names, the most familiar of which is gearra-bhall. This is literally ‘short or squat spotted one’ but is likely to be a corruption of the Norse geirfugl ‘spear-bird’ which gives an alternative English name gairfowl. Yet another English term for the species was ‘penguin’, a name with cognates in some other western European languages. It carries the scientific binomial Pinguinus impennis, and its closest living (and more diminutive) relative is the razorbill (coltraiche in Gaelic), known in French as le petit pingouin.

The razorbill is the closest living relative to the extinct great auk > ’S e an coltraiche an t-eun as dlùth-chàirdiche don ghearra-bhall ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Many scholars claim that ‘penguin’ originates in the Welsh pen gwyn ‘white head’. While the great auk sported a white spot on its black head, it is believed by some authorities that the name comes not from the bird itself but from an island in the vicinity of Newfoundland in eastern Canada which was known in Welsh as Pen Gwyn, named for the white guano left by the auk and other roosting seabirds. There are folkloric references to an island named Pen Gwyn by Madog ap Owain Gwynedd, a Welsh prince who is said to have voyaged to North America in the 12th century. It is uncertain as to whether this refers to an island in the Bay of Fundy, known today in English as White Head Island.

That the term ‘penguin’ was applied by mariners to the southern hemisphere flightless birds they encountered on early expeditions, and which reminded them of the great auk, is supported by an account from Sir Francis Drake’s expedition through the Magellan Straits in 1578 of the large numbers of ‘foule which the Welch men name Pengwin’. When the great auk became extinct, the word came to be exclusively applied to the southern hemisphere penguins.

It’s the belly of penguins that is notably white, rather than the head, despite the Gaelic name > ’S e brù bhàn seach ceann bàn a th’ air a’ cheann-fhionn, a dh’aindeoin ainm Gàidhlig

As with most good etymological conundrums, there is an alternative narrative – that the word originates ultimately in Latin pinguis ‘fat’. Spanish and Portuguese voyagers called the great auk the ‘pinguin’, referring to the bird’s thick layer of blubber. In modern Spanish and Portuguese, the penguin is pingüino/pingüina and pinguim respectively, and many languages have similar terms – for example, pingvin (Swedish), pingüin (Dutch) and penguen (Turkish).

But not Scottish Gaelic. Our own language has supported a Celtic origin for the word by interpreting Welsh pen gwyn as the cognate Gaelic ceann-fionn; the Irish Gaelic name, in contrast, is piongain.

The only known breeding site of the great auk in Scotland’s Gàidhealtachd was Stac an Àrmainn in St Kilda, the site of the last known living specimen in Britain, which was killed in 1840. Scotland’s record in the conservation of this species is hardly better than any other place, although there is a particularly brutal record from North America of the species being skinned and burned alive, their oily bodies being used as fuel on a treeless island.

Great auks in breeding plumage by John James Audubon > Gearra-bhuill ann an ràith an neadachaidh le John James Audubon

In 1821, a live auk was caught on St Kilda and given to the captain of a visiting cruiser in order that it be taken to a museum in Edinburgh, where it would be killed and stuffed for display. In the vicinity of Arran, the skipper decided that the bird was dirty and needed a bath. A rope was tied to its leg, and the auk was lowered into the sea. However, it escaped, and no great auk ever made its way to lifeless display in Edinburgh, although there is a specimen in the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.

Sadly, the great auk has gone but one of its names lives on in the much-loved penguins of the southern hemisphere. And – perhaps – the Welsh name for a Canadian island explains why these black-headed birds are called ‘white-head’ in Scottish Gaelic.

The Author

Bha am blog seo air a sgrìobhadh le Ruairidh MacIlleathain, a tha na sgrìobhadair, craoladair, eòlaiche-nàdair is sgeulaiche, stèidhichte ann an Inbhir Nis.

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

Posted in Birds, coastal, Folklore, Gaelic, Land management, Uncategorized, Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Great Scottish Squirrel Survey is back!

The Great Scottish Squirrel Survey returns for its second year this autumn. Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) are calling on people all over Scotland to explore outdoors on the lookout for tufted ears and bushy tails between 21-27 September, during National Red Squirrel Week.

SSRS monitors squirrel populations all year round, but autumn remains a particularly rewarding time of year for squirrel-spotting. Squirrels are often more visible as they busily forage the autumn harvest in preparation for the winter ahead.

Anyone can take part in the Great Scottish Squirrel Survey by reporting sightings of both red and grey squirrels throughout the week. Each sighting creates a snapshot of the situation, helping the project understand how populations are changing over time and to decide where to focus its conservation efforts.

To find out more and record your squirrel sightings, visit scottishsquirrels.org.uk

Red Squirrel feeding on nuts. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Britain has just 160,000 or so native red squirrels. About 75% of them live in Scotland’s woodlands, parks and gardens. NatureScot is a partner in the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Posted in biodiversity, mammals, Squirrels | Tagged , , , , ,