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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Scotland Trip: The Farne Islands

I am always astonished by the number of times I have told a stranger about my academic research, which seems to me must be pretty prosaic and specialised, and found them enthusing back about "my" subject. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that my standard response when asked what I study is that it has to do with robots, cyborgs and artificial intelligences in science fiction. This is stretching the truth somewhat, but is rather more catchy than saying that I am attempting to relocate narrative responses to cybernetics outside of the tradition of monstrous metaphors and within a demonic phenomenology and history, with particular reference to literary writers informed by science. My former, snappier line goes down well with our table partner at breakfast, who is a fan of the 1950s cult space adventure, Forbidden Planet (hostels are great for enforcing close encounters with the stranger kind). Oddly, this is a film that I do write on, though in relation to Freudian psychoanalysis; I think best not to mention this complication now, and instead allow my geeky side to become half-interested in my interrogator's collection of clockwork robots which he keeps at home. Still thinking in dreams at this early hour, I imagine the pepperpots into an array of gun turrents, with a vinegar robot marching across our fry-up breakfasts.

Academic discussions over with (hopefully for the remainder of our travels), we head to Seahouses and take a boat trip out to the Farne islands. On this relatively calm day, only the sealegged skipper seems unperturbed by this rollercoaster of a ride, caused by the swell of tidal water forced narrowly between the cluster of rocky outcrops that comprises the Farnes. Our queasy stomachs are soon diverted by birds, however. A school of puffins bob in the water, then break into flight, their tiny wings jerking vigorously and inelegantly, like an old, broken cinema film or a flick book with a few pages missing. More gracefully, a flock of gannets cut across the stern of the boat; these are Britain's largest birds, with six feet wingspans, and they glow white, with a creamy yellow fluorescence on their heads.

Photograph of a puffin in flight
Puffin, Farne Islands

As we slide beneath one of the islands, we see that black cliffs have become wriggling masses of white. This squabbling parliament of fowls (kittiwakes, terns and puffins) is presided over by kingly cormorants, black silhouettes at the top of the cliffs, which stretch their broad wings like cloaks to dry them off in the sun.

When we finally land on Inner Farne, we are able to get an alternative perspective on these nesting grounds, climbing to the tops of the cliffs and looking down on around 40 000 temporary homes for the flighty migrants. It being the end of April, few of the Arctic Terns have yet arrived and there are only a few eggs at the moment; if we approach cautiously we are able to get close.

Photograph of a razor bill
Razor Bill, Farne Islands
Were it later in the breeding season (according to Helen, who was here in Summer last year), we would find ourselves bombed from above and deafened by the screech of angry parents. As it is, we can at the moment get remarkably close to the birds which, whilst looking beadily at us, remain - no other word for it - unruffled. They have a few natural, airborne predators - merlin and herring gulls prey on chicks and eggs - but without any large land mammals these birds know that they can simply plummet to an easy escape to sea, should anything such as a clumsy foot or swinging camera lens come too close.

It is in the centre of the island, though, that we find the real stars of this annual show. In the field away from the cliff edges, strutting with chests proudly out and flashing their orange beaks from side to side, are the puffins. It is impossible not to have a soft spot for these quirky birds, who seem not to have found any happy evolutionary niche, but exist uneasily in different environments. On land, they burrow like rabbits. In the air, their tiny wings are inadequate for their bodies, so they are forced to flap crazily for the three months of the breeding year when their feathers are unshed. Humans rarely get to see them in their one natural element, underwater, where their bullet-like bodies drive deep to find fish. Perhaps they strut with such comical, inflated chests on land, to protest that they are worthy birds, even if they may seem ungainly to us.

Photograph of a puffin
Puffin, Farne Islands

Unwittingly, even as they preen and pretend to stardom, the puffins do actually play an important role on the global stage. Like all the nesting birds on the Farnes, puffins provide key indicators of climate change. The most important job conducted by the ten young National Trust wardens who live on the island for six months of the year is not shepherding human visitors, but counting the numbers of nesting pairs who return each year. Apparently, each warden takes one species a day, so that each is counted ten times, giving a good average, confidently stated down to the individual pair, even though the total number is in the tens of thousands. It baffles me, watching the screaming airport of arrivals and departures, how they can be so sure. However, these numbers are important, as a fall indicates a loss of fish stocks, whilst earlier breeding seasons indicate a warming climate. Over the last five years, the number of puffins on the Farnes has decreased by a third, and although the National Trust's management ensures a high breeding success rate for those birds that do return, there is an alarming drop in the numbers returning (those who fail possibly having been killed due to starvation during their nine months out at sea).

With this sombre note, as we return to harbour on Inner Farne we spot a bloated, grey body floating in the water. Suddenly, the glazed eye winks, and the body disappears, leaving a thin trace of bubbles. This curious harbour seal is a precursor to the blobby mass of grey and common seals, which slip and slide over each other on the next island. Contrary to the ease with which they glide through the water, on land seals are clumsy, and lazy, creatures. They allow themselves to become beached on the rocks at high tide, where they kick about like bored teenagers, before being reluctantly moved on by the sea to do something productive, policing herring shoals and amusing boat trippers.

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This page was published on July 2011 | Keywords: Northumberland, Farne Islands, sea birds, seals

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