Scootie Allan over Muckle Water

Perhaps the best part of the coastline for walking in Westray is the west coast. The section from Mae Sands to Noup Head Lighthouse can be walked comfortably in a day and gives breathtaking views, geology, archaeology, and wildlife and nature in abundance. Here’s my experience of walking it, on day one of walking the whole of the coast:

There are Tammie Norries (Atlantic Puffins) and Tysties (Black Guillemots) here, nesting in the cliff rock cracks and Mallimacks (Fulmars) nesting on the ledges.

Westray - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

The power of the Atlantic has piled up a storm beach and created a pond next to the cliffs. Facing the southwest gales, it holds back the fresh water from reaching the sea. This is Muckle Water, near the farms of East and West Kirbest. All that keeps it from draining is the high beach, which has been hurled up a short slope, and is made of storm-brought stones

Muckle Water - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

I love the word muckle. It’s from the same Proto-Indo-European language root as the Greek word mega, meaning ‘a lot’. I have muckle love for the word.

From the ridged side of Skea Hill I can see a Scootie Allan (Arctic Skua) hunting. They have a very distinctive silhouette, with two long tail feathers making a central point:

Arctic Skua - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

It’s possible to just sit here, quietly and, if you choose your spot well, they will appear close-by as they come back from a hunt and sweep majestically up the hill to their chicks.

Arctic Skua - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

They always seem to have a drip on the end of their beak.

Their hunting consists of kleptoparasitism, stealing fish from other fish-eating birds, which they catch up with, and steal from, when they are speeding back to their nests. Whenever Scootie Allans see a convoy of Couter-nebs (Razorbills), Aaks (Guillemots) or a lone Tammie Norrie (Puffin) with a silver fish in their beak, they set off with tremendous power, speed and agility to rob them. This is one of the light-coloured and patterned forms:

Arctic Skua - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Their wings have a real whip about them and they can accelerate and manoeuvre easily. This is one of the dark-coloured forms.

Arctic Skua - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Further up the coast is a geo (a rocky inlet, pronounced with a hard ‘g’), called Whey Geo, full of nesting Kitticks (Kittiwakes), settled uneasily on narrow rock ledges. Here, the Scootie Allans glide down to surprise their unsuspecting quarry, which are passing by constantly from their feeding grounds to their nests towards the north of the coast.

Arctic Skua - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

This one is a pale form, a colour and pattern variation which still mystifies scientists.

I can see one out in the ocean. Behind it is the mainland of Orkney viewed from the island of Westray. It’s the headland of Marwick Head and the Kitchener Memorial on top with the Brough of Birsay, a small tidal island to the right.

Arctic Skua - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Soon all the Scootie Allans will be gone, to spend our winter off Africa or South America, continuing to harass other birds into giving up their hard-won fish. It’s a pirate’s life on the ocean waves.

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