All posts by Nick

Birdwatching on the Western Front

The Times has this interesting compendium on the first cuckoo calls of the year from its extensive archive. This extract is from an article from 1917 sent from the Western Front during the Battle of Arras (above picture).

I heard the cuckoo first on April 22, calling amid bare woodlands in the occasional gleams of thin winter sunshine. A single chiffchaff – plucky little thruster that he is! – was singing impatiently not far behind the battle-line as long ago as on Easter Day, even while our guns thundered the overture of the Battle of Arra. Complete diary here: Spring at the front: nature amid desolation

Folklore about shearwaters

Shearwaters are associated in folklore with death. This undoubtedly comes from their eeirie cooing nocturnal cry like a cackling witch from the underworld.

This Isle of Man web on the Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) notes:

“A description of their voice on The Isle of Man, in 1731 says this: “The spirit which haunted the coasts have originated in this noise. , described as infernal. The disturbed spirit of a person shipwrecked on a rock adjacent to this coast wanders about it still, and sometimes makes so terrible a yelling that it is heard at an incredible distance. They tell you that houses even shake with it; and that, not only mankind, but all the brute creation within hearing, tremble at the sound. But what serves very much to increase the shock is that, whenever it makes this extraordinary noise, it is a sure prediction of an approaching storm. . . . At other times the spirit cries out only, ” Hoa, hoa, hoa !” with a voice little, if anything, louder than a human one.”

Richard Dawkins cites the Manx Shearwater on page 87 of his book The God Delusion.

One of the cleverer and more mature of my undergraduate contemporaries, who was deeply religious, went camping in the Scottish isles. In the middle of the night he and his girlfriend were woken in their tent by the voice of the devil, Satan himself; there could be no possible doubt: the voice was in every sense diabolical. My friend would never forget this horrifying experience, and it was one of the factors that later drove him to be ordained. My youthful self was impressed by this story, and recounted it to a gathering of zoologists relaxing in the Rose and Crown Inn, Oxford. Two of them happened to be experienced ornithologists, and they roared with laughter. ‘Manx Shearwater!’ they shouted in delighted chorus. One of them added that the diabolical shrieks and cackles of this species have earned it, in various parts of the world and various languages, the local nickname ‘Devil Bird’.

Around the web

Folklore about shearwaters elsewhere in the world

  • In Turkey it was believed that the Dusky Shearwaters which daily travel in mysterious flocks up and down the Bosphorus were animated by condemned human souls. Read here
  • Aboard French ships in the nineteenth century both storm petrels and shearwaters were known as âmes damnées (“souls of the damned”), the subtext being that, like some ghosts, part of their punishment after death was to continue to haunt the earth. Muslim seafarers in the nineteenth century similarly said that the Manx and Mediterranean shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus and Puffinus yelkouan) of the eastern Mediterranean were inhabited by damned souls, a belief possibly suggested by their dark plumage. Read here

Landscapes of Yorkshire by David Hockney

Is it possible to do anything new in the twenty-first century in landscape painting? Although most of the art world has given up painting hills, fields and trees, David Hockney doesn’t agree and returned to his native Yorkshire to paint a series of works of the countryside he knew as a child and teenager.

In Europe, the idea grew that painting was finished, not needed. This is because it had been replaced by something – the photograph – the pencil of nature, the truth itself. This assumes photography is modern; at least it’s only 180 years old. If one rejects the “immaculate conception” theory of photography – it came from nowhere, about 1839 – one begins to see another history. David Hockney

  • See all the paintings here: David Hockney – The East Yorkshire Landscape
  • Tate | Press Releases | David Hockney: The East Yorkshire “East Yorkshire first engaged Hockney’s imagination as a teenager when he worked on the land during summer holidays, stooking corn. As an adult, Hockney has intermittently returned to this part of England when visiting his mother and sister at their home in the coastal town of Bridlington. However, he only became fully absorbed by the landscape over the past four years, making it the primary source of inspiration for his art.”
  • Pagel, David. “The view from the woods. David Hockney’s East Yorkshire landscapes make Cézanne look Pop” Los Angeles Times, Around the Galleries, 16 February, 2007.
    click to read the full article
  • Muchnic, Suzanne. “Landscape perspectives. David Hockney rediscovers the landscape of his youth and his celebrated countryman, John Constable.” Los Angeles Times, 11 February, 2007.
    click to read the full article

Loch Coruisk

Loch Coruisk in the Isle of Skye is one of the most spectacular and isolated places in the British Isles.  The head of this freshwater loch is surrounded on three sides by the imposing volcanic Black Cuillin while the southern end runs into a small rivulet, which then discharges into a sea loch, Loch Scavaig. Coruisk is an Anglicisation  of the Scottish Gaelic, Coire Uisg meaning “Cauldron of Waters”. As with much of the Highlands, once it would have been thickly wooded. Deforestation has left it all the bleaker.

Robert Macfarlane visited Loch Coruisk  in his tour of Britain’s remotest parts, The Wild Places. He describes it as the greatest example in Britain of what he calls “sanctuaries”: hidden valleys with all the lure of lost worlds.

Sir Walter Scott visited the loch in 1814 and described it vividly:

“Rarely human eye has known
A scene so stern as that dread lake,
With its dark ledge of barren stone…”

Lord Tennyson was somewhat more descriptive:

“Loch Coruisk, said to be the wildest scene in the Highlands, I failed in seeing. After a fatiguing expedition over the roughest ground on a wet day we arrived at the banks of the loch, and made acquaintance with the extremest tiptoes of the hills, all else being thick wool-white fog

The loch has been painted by many painters including Sidney Richard Percy (1821-1886) who painted the above picture, William Daniell (1769-1837), J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), and Alexander Francis Lydon (1836-1917). Turner almost fell to his death while painting this view of the Black Cuillin from a crag high up the valley.

The foreground figures help establish the scale of this awe inspiring view over the remote Loch Coruisk. The Cuillin Mountains soar above the loch like gigantic waves. Read National Galleries of Scotland

The loch is accessible by boat from Elgol, or, most usually, a 7-8 mile hike from Sligachan.

See also

  • Loch Coruisk – Wikipedia
  • Misty Isle Boat Trips. We are a family-run business running boat trips from Elgol on the Isle of Skye to the famous Loch Coruisk in the heart of the Cuillin Hills.
  • Skye – Loch Coruisk Cruises
  • Review of The Wild Places in the Guardian “In certain predictable ways, his early travels provide him with “the real” that he wants. On the island of Ynys Enlli, off the westernmost tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, he identifies with the contemplative and austere connectedness of the original peregrini – the monks and other devout solitaries who settled there. In Coruisk, the loch-filled valley on the southwest coast of the Isle of Skye, he encounters “a silence that reached backwards to the Ice Age” (similar sorts of time-travel occur in later chapters as well). Making “an ice-bound traverse” of Rannoch Moor, trekking through the Black Wood east of Rannoch, teetering on cliffs that define the north coast of Scotland and contemplating the peatbogs (the “Flows”) nearby, he is at once taken out of himself and connected with the original need for his journeys. They are all places that put human achievement in the perspective of eternity and generate a sense of the primitive that is salutary and bracing.”

Books about the Isle of Skye

Collins Rambler’s Guide – Isle of Skye

Produced in association with the Ramblers, this walking guide covers the beautiful Isle of Skye and combines detailed route descriptions with information on the local history and wildlife.

This famous corner of the Scottish Highlands and Islands is home to a spectacular variety of mountain landscapes and dramatic coastlines. There is also a wealth of fascinating places to explore: caves and sea stacks, headlands and arches, waterfalls and castles.

The introduction gives information about the topography, geology and history of the area, and describes the flora and fauna inhabiting it.

Isle of Skye: 40 Coast and Country Walks (Pocket Mountains)

An excellent little walking guide, especially for those – like me – wanting to explore as many parts of the Isle of Skye as possible in a visit. Arranged roughly by ‘peninsular’, there are walks ranging from 45 minutes to a few hours, even a day. We did at least one from each section and they were all straightforward and, of course, beautiful!

Zoological and natural hazards in Britain

Volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes, lizard bites and hornet stings caused some of the more unusual injuries listed by the Department of Health (DoH).

From the Guardian here :
Accidents cost the NHS about £1bn a year. The most common cause of injury was falling, which led to 119,203 admissions to casualty.

Thousands suffered attacks from a wide variety of animals. These included 451 people stung by hornets, 46 bitten by venomous snakes and lizards, 24 bitten by rats, 15 injured in contact with a marine mammal, two people bitten by centipedes and one attacked by an alligator. But dogs accounted for most injuries with 3,508 people suffering bites.

Hundreds more fell victims to natural hazards, with 54 people struck by lightning, 37 victims of “volcanic eruption” (sic), 25 injured in “cataclysmic storms”, 12 suffered from avalanches and seven were victims of earthquakes. A further 107 were exposed to “unspecified forces of nature”.

Adder bites in the UK

From the NHS (Plus lots of information on symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of adder bites)

  • Each year, approximately 100 cases of adder bites are reported in the UK. Most bites occur between February and October, with the number of bites peaking during the summer months. Note: I was bitten by an adder in Norfolk in 1972 when I was seven, though it did not inject much venom).
  • Since records began in 1876 there have only been 14 reported deaths caused by adder bites, with the last death  a 5-year-old child in 1975.
  • In addition to the adder, it is estimated that there are 75 species of exotic venomous snakes held in the UK, both legally and illegally, by private snake collectors and enthusiasts. These snakes are thought to be responsible for between five to six cases of snake bites in the UK each year. Most cases involve the snake’s owner

Statistically you have more chance of being killed by a wasp than dying at the teeth of Britain’s only venomous snake. The Independent

Worst natural disaster in British history

According to experts a tsunami in the Bristol Channel could have caused the deaths of as many as 2,000 people in one of Britain’s greatest natural disasters.

Map

Shading shows area affected by the 1607 disaster

For centuries, it has been thought that the great flood of January 1607 was caused by high tides and severe storms. It is estimated that 200 square miles of land in south Wales and south west England were covered by water. Eyewitness accounts of the disaster, published in six different pamphlets of the time, told of “huge and mighty hills of water” advancing at a speed “faster than a greyhound can run” and only receding 10 days later. Professor Simon Haslett, from Bath Spa University College, said: “There is an overall theme running through the pamphlets of a destructive event, very violent, disastrous, on a scale that is unprecedented.” Australian geologist Ted Bryant, from the University of Wollongong, agreed: “The waves are described as mountainous – that’s a description of a tsunami.” Read all (BBC)

Bristol Channel floods, 1607 (Wikipedia)

On 30 January 1607 the Bristol Channel floods resulted in the drowning of an estimated 2,000 or more people, with houses and villages swept away, an estimated 200 square miles (518 km2) of farmland inundated and livestock destroyed, wrecking the local economy along the coasts of the Bristol Channel. The devastation was particularly bad on the Welsh side from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow on the English border. Cardiff was the most badly affected town. The coasts of Devon and the Somerset Levels as far inland as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles (23 km) from the coast, were also affected.

There remain plaques up to 8 feet (2 m) above sea level to show how high the waters rose on the sides of the surviving churches. It was commemorated in a contemporary pamphlet God’s warning to the people of England by the great overflowing of the waters or floods.

“Gods Warning to his people of England.”. The British Library. Fascinating contemporary account

“Many there were which fled into the tops of high trees, and there were inforced to abide some three daies, some more, and some lesse, without any victuals at all, there suffring much colde besides many other calamities, and some of them in such sort, that through overmuch hunger and cold, some of them fell down againe out of the Trees, and so were like to perish for want of succour. Othersome, safe in the tops of high Trees as aforesaid, beholding their wives, children and servants, swimming (remediles of all succour) in the Waters. “

Other UK tsunamis include a 70ft high wave that hit Scotland 7,000 years ago, following a massive landslip in Norway.