b.History and Development

Finlay MacQueen demonstrates climbing

In her classic book An Isle called Hirte, Mary Harman (1997) summarises accounts of fowling by the St Kildans. The gathering of eggs, young and adult birds naturally depended on the life cycle of the birds themselves. Adult birds were collected as soon as they returned to the island in spring – common guillemots from February to April, adult shearwaters and northern gannets in March. Adults and eggs of northern fulmars and Atlantic puffins, and the eggs of common guillemots, were then harvested, as the birds were laying in May. Common guillemots could be harvested twice, with a gap of 18 days, and sometimes even a third time, as they would usually lay a replacement egg. Adult Atlantic puffins were still taken in May, June and July, after which the fledglings then became available, together with the young of northern gannets (gugas), shearwaters and northern fulmars. The northern gannet harvest necessitated visiting Boreray and its stacks, Stac Lee was the most difficult to land on and the men sometimes over-nighted in stone bothies there. The men often worked in small groups, descending the highest cliffs in stages using long ropes of hemp or horsehair. The women and children often helped deal with the catch at the cliff-top. The lower sections of cliff were scaled from a boat. Snares made of horsehair were employed to catch auks, one woman catching 127 Atlantic puffins in three hours and another 280 in a day! Nooses attached to long poles extended the reach of the fowlers, while Atlantic puffin eggs could be scooped out of burrows easier with a spoon on the end of a stick. Dogs were also useful in catching adult Atlantic puffins and shearwaters, a good one catching 60 or 70 in one night. Harvests were divided up amongst the community, the birds being plucked and dried for the winter; feathers and oil contributed to the rent. Latterly, some St Kildans sold eggs and stuffed birds as souvenirs to tourists, Leach’s petrels and St Kilda wrens being the most valuable, necessitating a law being passed by the Westminster Parliament in 1904 to protect them.

Figures on just how many seabirds were harvested are scant and probably unreliable. Martin Martin, for instance, gives an annual northern gannet harvest of 22,600 that is unlikely to have been sustainable over a long period. Similarly estimates of numbers of Atlantic puffin eggs collected, calculated from the number of creels removed from Dun, would have necessitated robbing the burrows of well over half the current population of Atlantic puffins. The 19th-century figures are perhaps the most reliable, but represent the harvests of a declining human population. During the 1830s, the northern gannet (including gugas) harvest never exceeded 4,000, along with 12,000 to 20,000 northern fulmars. In one exceptional day on Boreray in the 1880s, however, 1,000 northern gannets were harvested and the incredible figure of 89,600 adult Atlantic puffins has been calculated for 1876. By the early 1900s the annual average harvest was of 7,500 northern fulmars and about 5,000-6,000 common guillemot eggs.