Illustration: Kate Hazell

What the storms blew in

Siberian blue robins and red-winged blackbirds have been blown off course—and they're not the only ones feeling adrift
March 31, 2020
The storms this year seemed to drag on for what felt like months. Here on the island, winds topped 100mph, and hail came so heavy that it lay in the roads like snow. We battened down the hatches, and during the spring tides, as waves lapped at their doorsteps, pulled planks across slipways and piled sandbags in doors. 

We were spared floods, thank god—though only just—and took the opportunity to disappear for a few days. But as much as it’s nice to get the stove on and cuddle up beneath a blanket, stormy weather can be invigorating too. I love to get out there in the wind and the lashing rain, let it blow the cobwebs away. 

There’s lots to see in a storm that you miss otherwise. The beaches, after a heavy night, are almost unrecognisable. Relentless wave action stirs up a great deal from under the low tideline and casts it onto the shore as wrack. Shells I didn’t know existed litter the shore: the tiny, wave-form slit limpet, luminous white and notched at its base; mauve tiger scallops the size of a fingernail; the corkscrew pelican’s foot, with its horned toes; bonnet shells, flopped over and curling at the tip like Victorian night caps. 

All this agitation brings unusual opportunity for the nature buff. The Orkney marine mollusc recorder Yvonne Simpson puts out an alert to be on the lookout for specimens only rarely seen above water: can anyone find the elusive poached-egg shell, a glossy quenelle of a creature with a slit on its base like a cowrie; or the beautiful, twisting small wentletrap, with its shell of ridged ivory? 

Ornithologists too are full of excitement: rare birds often pitch up here in rough weather having been blown off course or hitched a ride through the storm on a passing boat. In the past, exotic specimens like the Siberian blue robin, the Scops owl and the red-winged blackbird have landed up here in the Orkneys, thousands of miles from their normal haunts, prompting enthusiasts to mount Wacky Races-style journeys by car, boat and chartered plane from all over the UK to see them. (A snowy owl is currently haunting one of the outlying isles, which I hope to catch a glimpse of myself.) 

Our old friends the seals come high onto the land, as they heave themselves, exhausted, from the wave. They scatter the slipways and the coastal fields. Sometimes even the roads, as they seek safety. As well they might: what looks like an entire kelp forest has been felled and lies strewn along the high-tide mark. At Skaill, foam tumbles across the beach: stiff and white as whipped cream, as surfers dash fearlessly in the opposite direction and into the breakers. 

It is at times like these, as salt spray lashes my face and floods the shore path, that I feel most keenly how here on the archipelago we are at the meeting point of three elements: air and water and earth. Suddenly the boundary between them feels so thin. 

All my life I have lived within a single realm—the land—and come to know it: its plants, its mammals, its rodents, its amphibians. Yet, amid the storm, here come the other creatures, rubbing shoulders with us, and I am adrift.

It reminds me, a little, of a time I spent in Switzerland among writers of many nationalities. I was humbled, first and foremost, by their superior language skills—skipping easily from French to German to Spanish to English—catching only a quarter of what went on. And then I was humbled afresh by their knowledge of European literature, taking in not only their own country’s output but seemed as well versed in British and American writing as I. I realised suddenly how I had been wearing blinkers all this time, in only engaging with the Anglophone world. And so too it is with the sea and the air. A new resolution, then: to be more like the gull—at home on land, sea and air. To look up more often, and out to the ocean.