The British Presence
in Southern Patagonia

+  +  Zillah Goudie (1872-1942)  +  +
Fulmar Hunting in St. Kilda, 1906

home page English   site map Site map   names of persons Databases   recent additions News   contact webmaster E-mail   text search Search   about this site Orientation   página inicial Español  
You are here:  Home  >  Zillah Goudie  >  St. Kilda


The first day of the fulmar week broke bright and clear in St. Kilda. A subtle feeling of excitement was in the air, affecting all the seventy souls on the island; and small wonder, for on that week's hunting depended their supply of food for the winter. By eight o'clock not a man remained in the tiny village on the bay. All were away to the mighty cliffs on the north-west of the island, on the ledges of which the fulmar — one of the largest species of petrel — lays its solitary egg. On the north of the island, from the top on Connachar the cliff falls straight down to the sea, 1,300 ft. below, and here myriads and myriads of fulmar nest yearly. And here, year after year, the hardy islander risks life and limb to gather his winter store of food.

At nine o'clock the women and children, each carrying a sack, set out to follow the men, and I went with them — a foreigner, a "Sassenach," but keenly interested, and, though I did not know it, destined to become a participator in the day's exciting sport. A long and arduous climb over the damp and slippery Mullach Mor and round the Glen brought us at length to the top of Cambargh, at whose base, some 800 ft. below, thundered the long Atlantic rollers. Here we found the men, armed with long ropes, making ready for the descent. This yearly raid on the fulmar is made at the beginning of August, just before the young birds can fly, and they are caught in the hands or, if the bird is out of reach, by throwing a running noose over its neck. Like all the petrel tribe, the fulmar is in the habit of squirting a vile-smelling oil at any enemy who comes to close quarters. As this oil is valuable in several ways, part of the art of fulmar-catching lies in seizing the bird by the neck before it has time to eject the oil. During the hunting the women and children remain on the top of the cliffs and draw up the birds in bundles as the men catch them. The men work in pairs, tied together by a long rope. Bare feet are the order of the day, for it would be impossible to get the toe of a boot into some of the cracks along which these expert cragsmen make their way.

When we arrived at the top of Cambargh the descent was about to begin. Men, women, and children, we all climbed down to a small grassy plateau some twenty feet below the summit. Our coming disturbed thousands of puffins, which circled round us with their curious twinkling flight and shrill, protesting cries. The scene was magnificent and awe-inspiring in its grandeur. As I stood contemplating the frowning majesty of the cliffs one of the older men came behind me and, laughing, slipped a rope round my waist and knotted it, inviting me by signs to join in the hunt. The women expostulating shrilly in Gaelic, fearing, I suppose, that "Mees" might take an involuntary "header" into the waves below. But the opportunity was not to be lost, for no "Sassenach" had ever before hunted fulmar in St. Kilda; so with my heart in my mouth and an uneasy feeling at the pit of my stomach, I gaily followed my guide along a twelve-inch ledge with a distinct list to seaward. After about five minutes of this we came to the first corner. The ledge narrowed to four or five inches, and it became necessary to face the cliff, hugging it with both arms, with the cheerful assurance that one's heels were over about eight hundred feet of nothingness. But once round the game began.

I was the last of three on the rope, and we were divided by about thirty feet of slack. Bird after bird was seized, killed, and slung onto a rope round the shoulders of the men. Every now and again we stopped on a ledge a little wider than the rest, and one man let down the other to work the ledges below us. Any easy catch they left to me. The young fulmar is an exquisitely pretty creature, just a great ball of snow-white fluff, with two beady black eyes and a yellow bill. It was some time before I could make up my mind to wring the neck of one. I caught them and passed them to the men to be killed, and was laughed at for my pains. Up and down we went, now along a wide ledge, now working our way with toes and fingers along a mere crack. There was no time to feel dizzy. All one's energies were taken up in seeking too and [sic] finger hold and scanning the cliffs for birds. Now and again on some good wide ledge we stopped, and tied all our birds together by the neck, and one of the men gave a wailing call which brought the women to the edge above. They let down a rope and hauled up the birds.

At last we came to what looked like the end of things. A fault in the cliff raised the continuation of our ledge some twenty feet above our heads, and the rock rose perpendicular and smooth at right angles to our path. It seemed to me that only a fly could crawl up there. The first man stopped, looked up and down, and then began climbing the edge of the rock. I watch, expecting every moment to see him fall headlong. I suppose it was not two minutes, but it seemed an hour before he reached the ledge above. Then up went the second man with some assistance from the rope. Now it was my turn, but to go up that saw-like edge was more than I could manage, and I shook my head. The man grinned and began to haul in the slack, and the next minute I was ignominiously dangling at the end of the rope. Nothing astonished me more during my stay on the island than the amazing strength of arm the men have. I am a heavy woman, but that man hauled me up, hand over hand, with no more trouble than if I had been a child.

After some time my unaccustomed muscles began to feel the strain, and on reaching a short ledge some four or five feet wide I signed to the men to unfasten the rope and leave me to rest while they went on. Then I had a bad five minutes. The ledge sloped outwards, and I had time to think what would happen if I slipped just a little, now that the moral support of the rope was gone. The noise of the waves grew louder, the puffin cries became mocking and maddening, the birds wheeled closer round my head screaming — nearer, nearer — they would surely push me off! One glance below completed my discomfort. I closed my eyes and, sick and giddy, clutched the rock behind me. The panic passed in a moment, but while it lasted it was horrible. Then, heartily ashamed of myself, I opened my eyes, gathered a handful of loose stones, and amused myself with pelting the puffins till the men returned.

On the return journey I went first. At the break in the ledge I was lowered down at the end of the rope. As I was gingerly picking my way along the ledge below I heard an excited shout behind, and, looking back, saw my companion gesticulating wildly and pointing upwards. "Fulmar, fulmar, you get," he cried in his broken English. From his elevation he could see a bird invisible to me. "You get" was all very well; the question was how? The cliff was almost perpendicular, but there were two parallel cracks running obliquely up the face. They were about four feet apart, and, insinuating toes into one and fingers into the other, I slowly mounted till a widening in the upper crack revealed the fulmar. And here my earthly career nearly ended. I had for the moment completely forgotten the artillery the bird carries, and just as my face came on a level with the nest its occupant discharged a well-aimed volley of the stinking stuff. Ugh! I gasped, and nearly lost my hold. Then swiftly and suddenly that bird died. There was no sentiment about it this time. My companions laughed a good deal over the incident. I failed to see the joke at the time.

Arrived once more at the summit, I found my feet were cut and bleeding. I had felt nothing while climbing, but the subsequent walk home was not unmixed joy. My clothes were reeking of fulmar oil, my feet distinctly painful, and I was aching in every limb. Still, it was an experience I would not have missed for anything, but one which I am not likely to repeat. We caught that day 1,241 birds.

Zillah H. Goudie

Thanks: Gordon Ollivere (III-2013)
Source: "Manchester Guardian", 21 March 1907
Page created: 27-XII-2013