Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 3
THE HOME OF THE SHEARWATER
"Beyond Lhyn," says Giraldus, "there is a small island inhabited by very religious monks, called Cælibes, or Colidei. This island, either from the wholesomeness of its climate, owing to its vicinity to Ireland, or rather from some miracle obtained by the merits of the saints, has this wonderful peculiarity, that the oldest people die first, because diseases are uncommon, and scarcely any die except from extreme old age. Its name is Enhli in the Welsh, and Berdesey in the Saxon language; and very many bodies of saints are said to be buried there." Six centuries before Giraldus wrote about this island which he never visited, Cadfan, with his cousin Maelrys and a party of refugees from turbulent Armorica, found their way into Lleyn, where Einion, its powerful prince, provided them with asylum. Cadfan was created first Abbot of Bardsey, and here the tutelar saint of Celtic warriors had the winds and tides to fight for him; no invader would lightly cross the race.
Ynys Enlli is still little visited. At times a tourist steamer calls, but does not always land its pilgrims, and crossing by boat from the little cliff-sheltered village of Aberdaran, the most westerly settlement of any size in North Wales, is at the best of times uncertain; the visitor may have to extend his holiday. Yet Bardsey is no weather-beaten, inhospitable rock, but a well cultivated island, inhabited by farmers and fishermen, at home behind the plough or in the stems of their open boats.
We rowed south, hugging the shore of Aberdaron Bay, rounded Pen-y-cil, passed under the frowning cliffs, storm-washed Careg-du on our left, until we reached the great headland of Braich-y-pwll. Centuries ago the fame of the sacred island spread far and wide; pilgrims in thousands, so it is said, toiled westward through Wales or sailed from Ireland to visit or end their days on Bardsey. Some waited chance to cross at Aberdaron, where an ancient church still stands, but others sailed from Eglwysfair, beneath the shelter of Mynydd-mawr. Throughout their route they found wells of clear, health~giving water, blessed and tended by holy men. There was Holywell, where good St. Beuno raised to life his murdered niece, St. Winefred; there was Tremeirchion, Clynnog, and many another. Last of all on the mainland was the one below the turf-covered stones, all that remains of St. Mary's Church, where the water bubbles into a natural basin, and thence down the steep steps to the limpet-covered rocks beneath, where the boat waited to take them to the land of their desire. Here, too, we left the shelter of the land, hoisted sail, and pushed out into the racing tide which bore us swiftly south.
With wind and tiller keeping our course westerly, and the tide drifting us rapidly south, we swirled and tossed through the white-capped waves, cheered by the minute and vivid descriptions of our two boatmen of the exact spots in the race where their various relatives were drowned. Diseases may be rare at Bardsey, accidents seem to be frequent. However, this time all went well, and very skilfully our seamen reached the island exactly opposite the one landing-place, where a narrow strip of beach is sheltered by an opening in the rocks just wide enough for a Bardsey boat. The island is divided into two portions by a narrow neck of land, but a few yards across at its narrowest part; here, when the wild west wind or a strong south-easter is blowing, great seas dash over and make the connecting road impassable. At the south end is the lighthouse, at no great height above the sea; the main island is north of the isthmus, and a good road, the only one in the island, connects the two portions. At the northern end, under the shelter of "the Mountain," a rugged upland, is the crumbling ruin of St. Mary's Abbey, on the site of Cadfan's monastery. On the road are the farms, about a dozen in all, good substantial buildings, walled around, built about forty years ago or more by Lord Newborough.
Around the four walls of ancient masonry, all that remains of the Abbey, are the graves of the former inhabitants of Bardsey. and in their midst, beneath a stately marble cross, rests the "old lord" who did so much for the island. Hard by is another cross, in memory of the 20,000 saints who lie beneath the turf, for it was, as Bradley says, "good to die here." On this cross are the lines:
"Safe in this island
Where each saint would be
How wilt thou smile
Upon life's stormy sea."
When the lighthouse was built and the present farms replaced the older dwellings, the bones of hundreds of "saints" were discovered and reinterred. Coins, gold in some instances, were also brought to light, for the pilgrims did not always come empty-handed; "the road to heaven and the gate to paradise," as the bards called it, was worthy of toll. Twenty thousand may be far above the mark; one cynic says "it would be much more facile to find graves in Bardsey for so many saints, than saints for so many graves." But at Mecca all are saints; the travel-stained, footsore pilgrim who washed in the healing wells thought so, at any rate. What do we really know of those early inhabitants? Tradition tells of the American refugees, and of the survivors, a century later, of the massacre at Bangor Is-y-coed; of St. Beuno ending his days here, though Nevin and Clynnog both claim him; of Bishop Hywyn, and of Archbishop Dubricius. Did not this last crown King Arthur in 506, and were not his bones removed half a century later to Llandaff?
Doubtless when the population was so extensive sea-fowl were much in request. Even to-day the shearwater is relished on some of the Scottish islands, and, as was the case with the puffin, a considerable business was done in "pickled" shearwater. The birds were salted, packed in barrels, and exported for inland consnmption. There is no record of an export trade from Bardsey, though, not so very long ago, puffins were shipped from Puffin Island. We were advised to take food with us, in case we did not wish to live on sea-fowl; we ignored the advice, and found abundance; it was a land of home-cured bacon, eggs, milk, fish, lobsters and crabs; vegetables and new potatoes were waiting to be eaten. the gooseberries ripe for pies. We lacked nothing needful.
There was, perhaps is, a king of Bardsey, an hereditary monarch without a constitution. No one disputes his right to the title or to the gilded metal crown adorned with the Newborough arms; no one obeys his commands, for he, wise man, gives no orders. The king, when we saw him, had no heir; indeed there are few children now on the island. "The oldest die first" still; what will happen when the present generation, now well advanced in years, joins the 20,000 which have gone before? When we landed we found few people about, but learnt that they were all up in the mountain, "taking the wools from the sheeps"; when they descended they were all middle-aged folk, the only children were aliens, the family of the light-keepers. The fishermen and farmers of Bardsey, though so few in number, have no communistic "parliament" like the crofters of St. Kilda; every man is independent. As sailors and fishermen, too, they are far ahead of the St. Kildians, and are out in all weathers to visit lobster-pots and long lines, often starting at night; "there is plenty of time to sleep in winter," our host explained.
We may divide Bardsey roughly into a cultivated and uncultivated portion, though mountain sheep graze over the rocky upland which makes the island so conspicuous from the towns in Cardigan Bay. The low-lying land to the west of the "mountain" is cut up into fields, bounded by low turf walls, wonderfully cushioned with pink masses of thrift in mid-June when we were there. The cattle, mostly black, occupy some fields and are milked in the fields; other land is under crops. The grating song of the corncrake resounded from all the fields of long grass, for this bird is an abundant inhabitant of the lower land. A few stunted thorns barely manage to top the wind-swept banks, and brambles grow on the sheltered sides; here the blackbird nests and on any weed or spray that ventures to rise above the wall the corn bunting perches and jingles. From bank to bank along the shore or up amongst the rocks on the mountain flew with wheezy cries scores of hungry young starlings, bustling on whirring wings after their fussy parents. Titlarks mounted high with jerky notes and dropped again with dying trills, and in a few damp spots the sedge-warbler was singing.
The vernal squills and hyacinths were nearly over, but great white masses of bladder campion, a few red campions, and an abundance of bird's-foot trefoil flowered on bank and cliff; kidney-vetch was thick in places, and little blue Speedwells gave variety of colour. One field, we noticed, was one mass of fumitory, and yellow rattle was everywhere mingled with the flowering grasses.Bardsey is practically treeless; save for a sycamore or two and a few stunted ashes there are no trees; but in certain places there is a luxuriant undergrowth, mostly rank weeds, brambles, and elder bushes, where a few warblers and other birds find shelter. When the cottages were pulled down to be replaced by better dwellings, the old sites were walled in and allowed to lie waste; these unused gardens are a paradise for whitethroats and hedge-sparrows and no doubt for blackbirds. Willow wrens, chaffinches, and spotted flycatchers and a pair or two of goldfinches nest on the island, but we did not meet with these; perhaps by the middle of June they had flown across to the mainland. Round the farms swallows were flying, twittering as they flew, and the familiar chirp
of the house-sparrow came from untidy nests under the eaves of the farm buildings. Considering that Bardsey had been inhabited for about 1,500 years it is not surprising that there are sparrows in plenty, and yet Bingley was informed that they only began to nest on the island at the end of the eighteenth century.
The boat landing is a natural narrow fissure boats can lie in most weathers, but it is necessary, for safety, that they should be hauled up high and dry whenever they are not in use. One of our friends told us that he came one stormy morning to look for his boat and found it in a field a hundred yards away. A few boats are beached on the westward side of the isthmus, but they are not always kept there. Near the boat landing—Cefn Enlli—we saw a pied wagtail tending its young, and on this bit of beach and the surrounding tangle-covered rocks there were frequently curlews, oyster-catchers, and other birds; it was here that we saw a redshank, though, like a black-headed gull which was near it, but a casual visitor. Oyster-catchers nest all round the lower cliffs, on the grass or on the rock, and constantly keep up a noisy cry of alarm when anyone approaches their chosen stretch of cliff.
A few wheatears haunt the mountain, and on its western slope, overlooking the village, where low-growing sheep-cropped furze covers large areas, a single stonechat was evidently concerned about its hidden family. The natives cut the furze, bracken—which also grows on the mountain side—thistles, or anything else that comes handy, roll it into bundles, tie it with rope, and carry it on their backs to the farms. Chopped up small in a chaff-cutter and mixed with hay, this rough West of the hill makes excellent fodder. Thanks to the mountain the water-supply of Bardsey is abundant and pure; a well just above the monastery never runs dry and provides cool, sweet water when all the other sources have given out. Below this well are several hollows to contain water for the sheep; in one of these hollows I found the rarest but most widely distributed of our newts, the palmated newt. Is this the only batrachian on the island? Bingley was told that there were no toads, frogs, or snakes on Bardsey, and a friend of mine who visited the island made enquiries, and was informed that no "great snakes" occurred, only "little small ones." What these were we neither of us discovered. Frogs, my friend was told, could not live on Bardsey, and Bardsey earth, if taken to the mainland, was fatal to the frogs where it was put down. The man who told him afirmed that he had tried this and that the frogs died. The sacred earth or the curse of the saints has apparently failed to banish all the "reptiles," for this one newt, which also occurs in a pool above St. Mary's Well near Braich-y-pwll, is here, an interesting problem in distribution. High on the mountain at the northern end, where we look out across the ever racing tides to furthest Lleyn, is another well, or rather two. These are the pilgrims' wells, two deep holes in the rock, always filled with not overclean water; in the old days, tradition says, it was here the pilgrims went to wash and shave.
Herring-gulls, in a huge colony, nest along the top of the cliffs on the eastern side of the island; their nests containing eggs or grey-downed young were placed even on the narrow sheep-track which runs between the actual rocks and the slippery slope above. A pair of greater black-backs nest amongst them, and oyster-catchers, by their excitement, proved that they, too, were interested in young. Rock pipits piped anxiously when we invaded the colony, but their notes were drowned by the barks and laughs of the angry gulls. A few carrion crows build on the rocks, and one or two pairs of kestrels; when examining an empty carrion's nest we stumbled across a lovely bed of primroses, still in full flower in mid-June, hidden in a rocky vastness.
Amongst the herring-gulls, resting on the cliff and reluctant to fly, was a brown-backed homer pigeon; how dare it linger, for I saw it in the same place an hour later, close to the eyrie of a pair of peregrines? The tiercel flew past, but did not see the pigeon. Jackdaws swarm on the rocks in some places, and with cheeky familiarity feed in the farmyards, and two pairs of choughs still manage to rear their young on the steeper cliff faces. The red-billed, red-legged birds flew over with their easy undulating flight, very tame and very noisy; their loud, clear "keeaw" easily distinguishable from the "jack" of the daws.
Linnets twittered over the gorse, lapwings called on the lower slopes and in the fields below, cormorants and shags flew by over the water; on the ledges and in crannies below the edge of the cliffs guillemots and razor-bills were crowded, and puffins were abundant on the sea. These last do not appear, at any rate now, to nest on Bardsey, but there are large colonies on islands in Cardigan Bay.
While on the cliffs, looking down on the birds drifting past us on the tide, we heard the clamour of gulls far away in the distance. The birds were floating round or hovering above some large dark object which kept appearing above the surface, some strong swimmer who dived and rose, his rounded head rolling up again and again. When the whole party came racing past, for the waters hurry everything along, we saw that the swimmer was a grey seal playing with or killing a large fish. The gulls were jealous of the prey and swooped again and again, but the angry seal snapped at them when they came too near, and once, springing high out of the water, nearly caught a bird.
Rabbits occur on the mountain, and, when not shot down, in the fields below. In the shallow burrows laboriously worked in the rocky ground there are no puffins, but there are Manx shearwaters. There are not, however, rabbit-burrows enough for the shear-water colony, and by far the greater number of the birds lay their single white egg in some deep crack or hole amongst the rocks. In these rocky holes we handled several birds, and brought out one blue-grey baby of but a few days old; the mother bird, after biting furiously with the long, thin, hook-tipped bill, flew when released straight out to sea, leaving her light-dazzled infant to scramble back as best it could into its dusky retreat. The shearwater, according to popular ideas, cannot rise from the ground without difficulty; it is true that they do not stand upright, in the position in which they are often depicted and always stuffed, but resting on the tarsus and with breast well down the bird spread its long wings, flopped down the slope, and in a few seconds was clear of the cliff. The shearwater, for many months in the year pelagic, is thoroughly at home on the wing.When, in the evening, we were sitting in the cosy kitchen of the farm, discussing with our genial host and hostess the doings of Bardsey "and the adjacent islands of Great Britain and Ireland" we learnt that the shearwaters were most lively during a heavy rainfall or in fog. Rain came on that night, heavy rain, and before we retired to bed we enjoyed the shearwater concert. The birds we had handled had had little to say, only a few guttural grumblings; but this was a treat we had hardly expected. We had read of the strange voice of this strange bird, and of its habit of calling at night; we had heard vivid descriptions from lighthouse keepers; we had formed no mental picture of the reality. As the birds came flying swiftly round the hill, passing unseen in the darkness,
within a few yards of the house—"in the doorway," our host expressed it—we heard what sounded like an emphatic "it-y-corka," the emphasis on the third syllable, and other land remarks—"kitty-coo-roo," "kok-a-kok," sharply repeated, and "kok-a-go-go," all uttered with a vehemence which was perfectly astonishing. The birds flew swiftly, following one another; at times there was a moment's silence, then a babel of voices.
Pliny talked about the birds of Diomede, with teeth and fire-coloured eyes, which attacked strangers but fawned upon the Greeks; these are supposed to have been shearwaters. Even now the strings which fly "as if the furies were behind them" over the waters of the Levant are the "âmes damnées." Did not this title really originate in their weird nocturnal calls, not in their easy, graceful, diurnal flight? A lighthouse keeper once told us that the bird said plainly: "It is your fault"; as we listened we understood. Were they blaming us for the disturbance of their sleep earlier in the day, for liberties taken with their infants? Long after midnight the din continued, heard through the open window; as we passed into the realms of sleep the cry: "It is yor folt," mingled with our dreams.