I was delighted to be asked by the great guys who operate the Mousa Boat to start to provide a guiding service for some of their evening boat trips to the fabulous island of Mousa off the east coast of mainland Shetland. Just ten minutes away over a glassy calm sea it’s in many ways another world entirely from Shetland – nobody’s lived there since the mid 1800s, so it’s delightfully undisturbed – and home to an internationally significant population of breeding Storm Petrels, as well as some pretty impressive archaeology.
We arrived on Mousa in warm sunshine at just after 9pm, and spent the next few hours walking the coast and enjoying terrific views of territorial drumming Snipe, feisty Great Skuas, confiding Red-throated Divers, Common Seal mothers with newborn pups at their sides and, perhaps the star of the show, a Ringed Plover distracting us from her newly hatched chicks with a bravura performance of a feigned broken wing.
Of course, the real highlight was yet to come, this being the return of the Storm Petrels as night fell – as much as it ever does at midsummer here – to the 2,000 year old broch on the shore of the island. The dry-stone structure itself is awe-inspiring – complete with beehive shaped rooms, a stone staircase and horizontal galleries inside the walls. It’s hard to imagine how such a complex building could have come to be built in those far-off days. It’s redolent with history…
…and with the perfume of Storm Petrels, a wonderful musty seabirdy smell that I believe I must be alone in thinking smells gorgeous, and would make a terrific aftershave! On such a clear, light evening as last night the birds took their time in judging it dark and safe enough to return, so it was long past midnight before we were treated to a swirling kaleidoscope of birds flying mere inches from the walls of the broch. All the meantime we could hear the sound of other petrels at their nest-sites within the cracks and crevices of the walls, performing what passes for song amongst Storm Petrels – a churring, bubbling cadence that the late Shetland naturalist Bobby Tulloch likened to “the sound of a fairy being sick”!
The return to the mainland was swift and smooth, and we marvelled at the lightness of the sky – the sun had just dipped below the horizon and was already rising once again – a proper Shetland simmer dim. I can’t wait to get back out there to share this unique and special experience with more visitors – this is truly a once in a lifetime experience.