Papay Update

A blashie day, meaning one of blustery showers, gives me a chance for an overdue update. I write sitting at a wooden table in the converted byre at Hundland on the north end of Papay, one of the outer isles of Orkney, close to the seabird cliffs at Fowl Craig where the last pair of great auks in Britain were killed in the early 19th Century. Through the window I watch veils of spray being skimmed from breakers by the wind whipping across the treeless landscape from the south-west. The sky is vast and grey. Squalls of rain pelt the glass.

Some of my eggs in the Kelp Store

Yesterday marks three weeks since my arrival here, meaning this post acts as something of a catch-up of my activities to date. Most of my time has been spent down at the Kelp Store, the island’s arts and heritage centre, where I’ve been casting the large number of replica great auk eggs that will form the backbone of the work I’m aiming to produce while I’m here. On sunny days I’ve been working outside, gazing over the white sands and turquoise waters of South Wick towards the low shape of the Holm of Papa on the horizon, a burial isle where the Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney interred their dead. It is also thought to be one of the auks’ old breeding grounds—its gently sloping shoreline would have made it ideal for these flightless birds to make landfall. Yesterday also marks the return of the auks’ eggs to this place, at least in replica form. Tim, one of the locals, took me across in the holm boat, the ‘Dunter’ (meaning eider duck in the Papay Doondie dialect), and left me for the day to construct my many strange pin hole camera ‘nests’ and gently place a single egg within each one. I will return in six weeks to gather them, the length of their former incubation. Each egg has been marked with photographic emulsion, and the idea is to record the passage of this time onto their surface.

Holm of Papa

It feels an apt time to be here making this work about extinct birds. Whilst pouring and casting, many curious folk (both islanders and tourists) have stopped to ask what I’m doing and about my project. From the locals I learn that the declines in the populations of breeding seabirds that I knew were occurring here are much more extreme, and felt much more keenly than I had imagined. Paradoxically, for the tourists (and from my position as a visitor) the isle feels full of bird life; their noises and movements. Reams of Arctic terns hover and dive over the shallows before being engaged in swooping, kleptoparasitic ballets with the piratical scootie alans (Arctic skuas) trying to steal their catch. Huge, messy skeins of greylag geese fly overhead. Pairs of fulmars nest in the dunes and amongst the rocks all around the shore. Out to sea large numbers of guillemots and razorbills rest and preen on the waves beneath the cliffs. But this relative abundance masks massive decline. Vast die-offs of guillemots and other seabirds caused by a toxic algal bloom in the North Sea in autumn 2021 has meant that far fewer have returned this year to breed. Kittiwakes (a soft, beautiful species of gull) no longer nest here. The cliff they once occupied, which was known as ‘Kitti City’ due to their overcrowding, now stand empty. Many of the Arctic terns have once again given up on breeding after arriving. Over the past quarter of a century the temperature of the surrounding sea has risen year on year due to climate change, causing rippling disturbances to run through these coastal ecologies. With the warming waters has come a decline in the amount of zooplankton, and of the sand eels that feed on them. With the diminishment of  this important food source the birds struggle, flying far further to gather nourishment for themselves and their chicks, and many abandon trying. On top of all of this avian influenza is very visibly running through their populations. Out to sea sick and dead birds bob up and down on the waves; each tide delivers the corpses of gannets, shags, fulmars, and guillemots. On North Hill dead bonxies (great skuas) are so abundant that a community clear-up has been organised to remove them.

The empty cliffs at Kitti City

I begin thinking of ways I might tie these various elements together in my egg artwork—of extinctions, past and present; of place and its history; of emotion; and of a notion of community that extends beyond the human. I think of the great auk eggs I have seen in museums. Layers of biography drift and  settle over each other. Firstly in the unique surface patterning of each, which enabled parental recognition within densely packed social colonies. Each mark would have been formed from pigments formed in an individual female’s blood and bile, a bodily echo of ecological context, where environment and food absorbed transforms an organism’s being (see Pálsson, 2013) and the borders between body and world blur. Layered over this are the marks of Victorian collectors inscribed later onto their surfaces—initials, dates of ownership, catalogue marks, Linnean descriptors. I imagine ways such biographies could be marked onto my own eggs. I see how through the recording of light and time through photographic exposure (and inevitable weathering) a subtle essence of place gathers onto their shells. But I also start to imagine how other inscriptions might be layered over these—the memories, stories, and insights of the island residents regarding contemporary bird life that might begin to draw connections between historical extinction, and the emotional context of these present day declines.


PALSSON, G. 2013. Ensembles of biosocial relations. IN: INGOLD, T & PALSSON, G. ed. 2013. Biosocial becomings : integrating social and biological anthropology, New York; Cambridge University Press.

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