Birds and omens on the way to St. Kilda

August 29, 2009

In his A Late Voyage to St Kilda (1698), Martin Martin wrote about the experience of alighting on Boreray at night after a long and treacherous journey. He immediately noticed an ‘extraordinary high Rock’ to the north of the island which was ‘all covered with a prodigious Number of Solan Geese hatching in their nests’. The St. Kilda archipelago has been famously dominated by birds for centuries, with the native fowl structuring the lives of the inhabitants. The thematic power of the birds is such that as soon as Martin sets foot on the shore his narrative, environment and the hopes of the sailors who transported him there become dominated by birds also:

the Heavens were darkned by those flying above our heads; their Excrements were in such quantity, that they gave a Tincture to the Sea, and at the same time sullied our Boat and Cloaths; Two of them confirmed the Truth of what has been frequently reported of their stealing from one another Grass wherewith to make their Nests, by affording us the following and very agreeable diversion, and ’twas thus; One of them finding his Neighbour’s Nest without the Fowl, lays hold upon the opportunity, and steals of it as much Grass as he could conveniently carry, taking his flight towards the Ocean; from thence he returns after a short turn, as if he had made a foreign Purchase, but it does not pass for such, as Fate would have it; for the Owner discovered the fact, before this Thief got out of sight, and being too nimble for his cunning, waits his return, all arm’d with fury, engages him desperately; this bloody Battel was fought above our heads, and proved fatal to the Thief, who fell dead so near to our Boat, that our Men took him up, and presently Dress’d and Eat him; which they reckoned as an Omen and Prognostick of good Success in this Voyage. (pp.8-9)

One Response to “Birds and omens on the way to St. Kilda”

  1. […] Martin’s 1698 account of a voyage to St Kilda at Airs, Waters, Places, triggered I suspect by this article in the Guardian last […]

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