Rockall: The Lonely Island
By SETON GORDON
OCKALL the sea area is known to all who listen on R their wireless sets to the forecasts for shipping ; Rockall the island is known to very few. Rising no more than 70 feet above the ocean, which threatens to engulf it. 300 miles west of the mainland of Scotland. is the pointed summit of a mountain which, for all but those last 70 feet, is submerged deep in ocean, and rises from the Rockall Deep. 6,000 feet beneath the sea. During the storms of winter, and, I doubt not, during this severe and stormy spring of 1951, waves at times flow over the summit of Rockall, which during summer becomes whitened by the droppings of sea-birds. A landing on the island is possible only on very rare occasions ; indeed, it is probable that no person has set foot on Rockall since certain members of Charcot's expedition made a landing there during the fine, calm summer of 1921.
These scientists were interested in mineralogy rather than ornithology ; they landed in order to take pieces of the rare mineral Rockallite which, in Europe, is found only on Rockall. As one of the party mentioned to me in a letter, they " left the blids to their business." Since that date Rockall has intrigued bird-lovers, for it has yet to be proved beyond doubt that sea- birds nest on the rock. The birds are there in summer—all are agreed on that—but. do they lay their eggs here, or do they use the rock merely as a roosting-place? The myth that here was to be found the nesting-place of the elusive great shearwater (which fishes in considerable numbers on the-Rockall Bank) has been exploded. but there are other birds, puffin, for example, and kittiwake, gannet and guillemot. Do they nest on this lonely- island?
James Fisher and R. M. Lockley in May. 1949. reached Rockall in a small yawl. The ocean swell defeated their attempts to land, but they made valuable observations on the birds seen in the vicinity. My own visit to Rockall was at mid- summer in the year 1946. I made the flight from Portree in the Isle of Skye in a Sunderland flying-boat, and shall long remember my first sight of Rockall at a distance of some fifteen miles. After the 1,000 feet precipices of St. Kilda on which we had looked an hour and a-half previously, Rockall seemed extraordinarily small anelonely. I metaphorically rubbed my eyes. Could the small object rising from the white waves of the Atlantic be indeed an island, or was it a ship? By our calcula- tions (and these later proved right to the minute) it ought to be Rockall, and this the navigator thought it was, yet the pilot at first was uncertain. The white surf beating against it seemed like the bow-wave of a ship of considerable size—a battleship perhaps—steaming fast towards us.
Nor was this the first occasion on which Rockall had been mistaken for a ship. During the First World War, as I heard from one of the officers concerned, the cruiser escorting a convoy narrowly escaped destruction here on a dark night. The look- out reported a suspicious vessel. She was challenged, and when she failed to reply, or to show any signal, orders were given to ram. As the cruiser, gathering speed, approached, those on board, tense with expectation, saw, just in time, that the sup- posed enemy ship was Rockall and the supposed bow-wave was the surf beating upon its dark base.
But as we flew, that day in late June, through the summer sky at a speed of 140 knots (we had a head-wind to contend with). we very soon saw that this was no battleship, but the lonely isle whither we were bound. We were flying steadily at a height of approximately 1.600 feet. From this altitude the waves seemed small, but when we had slanted down to rather less than 200 feet their size and formidable character were apparent, and It was obvious that no landing could be attempted on the sea. We swooped, like some gigantic bird, almost upon the isle, and altogether made nine runs over it. As we approached on our first run Rockall gave the impression of a haystack built, as some stacks are, leaning slightly to one side. A few yards below its narrow summit was a broad ledge, white (as was the summit itself) with sea-birds' droppings. Here clustered a colony of guillemots, black and white birds, short of tail and wing. The guillemot is of the Alcidae or auks, whose most celebrated member, the great auk, has been, alas, extinct for more than a hundred years.
All but six of the guillemots took flight and flew over the sea. settling on the green, sun-lit water. But the remaining half- dozen birds sat closely on the ledge, and remained thus during the nine occasions on which the Sunderland roared low over them. Their characteristic attitudes showed beyond all reason- able doubt that they were brooding eggs, and our efforts to dislodge them failed. A small party of kittiwakes, immature birds, flew out from the rock and scattered as we approached them on our first run. They did not return.
Although I have no doubt that a small guillemot colony was nesting on Rockall that year, I have little doubt also that the birds lost their eggs during a June gale of exceptional violence which blew up from the south-west five days after our visit. Indeed, I believe that a calm spell of weather during the hatching season is essential for the birds. James Fisher, flying over Rockall at the end of July in a subsequent year, saw no signs of eggs or young on the ledge, and this, I think, points to the fact that the eggs of the small colony were lost in that season also. It may be asked why, under these precarious nest- ing conditions, guillemots should attempt to rear their young on Rockall. The answer- is that fish on the Rockall Bank are unusually plentiful, and presumably at least some of the birds are Rockall-bred, and thus have the urge to return to their nesting-site. The Bank has, indeed, long been a celebrated fishing-ground. In former days smacks from Shetland used to sail here, to fish the cod and halibut ; more recently steam trawlers from Fleet- s wood and Aberdeen have fished the banks, even in winter. These fishermen from time to time have seen the seas break three to four miles east of Rockall ; it looks, therefore, as though an unchartered shoal lies here.