Kirstin Jones sails to the Shiant Isles to witness the wonder of the seabird breeding season on Scotland’s West Coast and examines the distressing effects of climate change

Braced against the rolling of the boat, I sipped scalding tea from the mug cradled in my cold hands and watched the misty blue hills of Scotland materialise ahead. Wandering Albatross, our 43ft steel cutter, raced ahead of a brisk west wind. Restless grey-green swells rose and tumbled all around, their crests shredded into white ribbons.

Close to starboard, a fulmar, one of my favourite seabirds, dipped across the waves, sweeping in effortless loops. Softly shaded in grey and white, the beautiful bird danced on the wind like an ethereal being from another world.

Late that afternoon, Gary and I made landfall in Oban. After an 11-day passage from the Azores, we revelled in the luxury of hot showers, unbroken sleep and easy access to fresh provisions, but we couldn’t linger.

This summer, our goal was to visit some of Scotland’s far-flung seabird colonies, and the breeding season was already well underway.

Almost half of Europe’s breeding seabirds nest in the UK, with about 70% of those concentrated in Scotland. The impressive 18,000km coastline, sprinkled with hundreds of islands, attracts an estimated 5 million seabirds. Each spring, they stream over the horizon from distant wintering grounds in the Atlantic Ocean, returning year after year to the same nest sites.

Seabirds are an integral part of the marine ecosystem. One key function is the redistribution of nutrients from the open sea, where the birds feed, to the coast, where they breed. Seabird guano enriches inshore waters with nitrogen and phosphorus that support plant growth.

From marine algae and invisible phytoplankton at the base of the marine food chain, to top predators such as seals and seabirds, coastal biodiversity is an intricate tapestry of life.

Kirstin at the helm of Wandering Albatross as the couple sail south after leaving the Shiant Islands. Photo: Kirstin Jones

The Trenish Isles

Two pleasant day sails from Oban lie the uninhabited Treshnish Islands. The haunting melody of seal calls greeted us as we inched between rocky skerries into the anchorage. Puffins whirred past like wind-up toys and kittiwakes circled overhead. A muddy path hugging the cliff edge led to a wonderland of seabirds.

Beside the trail, shags resplendent in their breeding plumage, craned their snake-like necks to peer at us. Razorbills, pristine in black and white, snoozed outside their rocky nesting caves. On precarious cliff ledges, kittiwakes sheltered their recently hatched chicks.

At every turn puffins, clown-like in bright breeding colours, strutted and postured with an air of mild anxiety. It is easy to underestimate these charismatic little birds, but they are far from frivolous. Many would have just returned from arduous fishing expeditions. They may have dived hundreds of times, to depths of over 50m, to catch enough fish to feed their growing chicks hidden in nearby burrows.

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It is deeply disturbing that seabirds are now one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates worldwide. Of Scotland’s 24 species of breeding seabird, all but one are of ‘conservation concern’ and a third, including puffins, are endangered.

Human activities on land and at sea are unravelling the very fabric of marine ecosystems. Toxins, agricultural runoff, and other pollutants flood down rivers to poison and disrupt the fragile balance of coastal waters.

Plastics large and small permeate the ocean from surface waters to bottom sediments. Development destroys vital seashore habitats. Overfishing and harmful fishing methods, such as dredging, create wastelands below the surface. Exacerbated by climate change, rising sea levels and more frequent storms threaten coastal areas.

Wandering Albatross at anchor in Village Bay, on the island of Hirta, St. Kilda, on an unusually calm afternoon. Photo: Kirstin Jones

Out to St. Kilda

A forecast of light westerly winds gave us the long-awaited opportunity to visit St. Kilda. Far to the north-west of Scotland, this remote archipelago presents an irresistible challenge to sailors. Adverse weather often lashes the islands, and the ocean swell can make it difficult to land.

After 12 hours underway, we dropped anchor in Village Bay, off the main island of Hirta. Low clouds brushed the hilltops as we admired the scenery from the cockpit, thrilled to be here at last.

Puffins are endangered partly due to changes in the availability of prey caused by global warming and over-fishing. Photo: Kirstin Jones

For the next two memorable days we explored Hirta’s dramatic landscape. At the edge of the dizzying sea cliffs, I came eye to eye with fulmars. Their solitary nests dotted along the rock face, clinging to ledges and crevices.

These birds are masters of the air; we watched as they hung suspended, feet dangling, tails a-twitch with precise adjustments as they landed beside their partners who responded with a cackling welcome.

Throughout the ages, humans have loved and revered birds while simultaneously hunting and persecuting them. Just 100 years ago the hardy inhabitants of St. Kilda survived on seabirds. They scaled the dangerous cliffs to harvest eggs, chicks and adults for food and oil; they paid their rent with valuable feathers. The last people were evacuated in 1930, their lifestyle unsustainable in the modern world. Stone cleits, winter larders for birds and eggs, still scatter the slopes above the abandoned village.

To glimpse St. Kilda’s famous gannet colony, one of the largest in the world, we motor-sailed a few miles north to the precipitous sea stacks. The rocks were white with closely packed birds, and squadrons of gannets flew past.

Motor-sailing out to the sea stacks a few miles north of the St. Kilda where one of the world’s biggest gannet colonies turn the rocks white. Photo: Kirstin Jones

The sea sucked and heaved at the base of the cliffs, and mist shrouded the summits. It was a raw, desolate place that suited the uncompromising nature of these birds.

There is nothing gentle about gannets. They epitomise wildness and power. They are aggressive, with sharp bills used to hunt and to defend their territory. Supremely adapted to plummet from great height into shoals of fish, they can stretch their wings behind them and enter the sea like arrows. Air pockets cushion the impact and forward-facing eyes allow them to see and chase their prey underwater.

Avian flu epidemic

Gannets are one of the few UK seabird species to have prospered in recent years, but the boom may be over. The year after our voyage, gannet colonies lost thousands of birds to the avian flu epidemic, believed to have started in a commercial chicken farm. Many other species also suffered severely; the long-term effects are as yet unknown.

The Shiant Islands were declared rat-free in 2018, after a successful rat eradication project, which has allowed the seabirds to thrive. Rats are an invasive species introduced by humans and cause a lot of damage in breeding colonies, where they eat eggs and chicks. Photo: Kirstin Jones

The issue of biodiversity loss now looms large, and it could be more devastating than climate change. Biodiversity is a broad concept that includes everything from the variety of different species in a given habitat, to the total numbers and genetic variation of each species. The key is variability, the foundation of evolution. The structure and resilience of marine ecosystems revolve around biodiversity. Without it they will collapse.

Unprecedented numbers of flora and fauna are disappearing from land and sea, at a rate that many scientists agree signals the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. This disaster is being driven by a single species: humans.

Despite our intellect, we seem incapable of grasping the consequences of our actions. A healthy ocean system absorbs carbon dioxide and heat, slowing the effects of climate change. The sea provides food for billions of people. The natural beauty of our coasts and wildlife contributes to our wellbeing. We need the ocean, but it does not need us. Urgent action must be taken to protect our seas before it is too late.

A spell of settled weather enticed us to the magical Shiant Islands, a seabird paradise north of Skye. In 2018, the islands were declared rat-free after a successful eradication project. Rats, an invasive species introduced by humans, are the scourge of seabird islands, eating eggs and chicks; without rats, the seabirds have a chance to thrive.

A marvellous spectacle awaited us as Wandering Albatross reached the anchorage. Tens of thousands of seabirds crowded the sky. Their raucous clamour – shrieks and whistles, croaks and groans – was music to our ears.

The pungent aroma of guano thickened the air.

An uncertain future

Ashore, a vast jumble of boulders at the base of the cliffs seethed with nesting birds. Puffins, guillemots, razorbills and shags cohabited amongst the rocks. A steep path led to a grassy slope full of puffin burrows.

Perched amid the noise and frenzy of this vibrant colony it was difficult, and desperately sad, to imagine it one day silent and empty. Yet this is no idle threat. Scientific models predict that, if current trends continue, numerous seabird species will be pushed to the edge of extinction. Huge puffin colonies in Iceland and Norway have already disappeared. Kittiwake numbers have dwindled and fulmars are in decline.

Gary watches from the cockpit on approach to the islands of St. Kilda, a remote archipelago Kirstin had always wanted to visit. This challenging destination is a 12-hour sail from the southern end of the Outer Hebrides. Photo: Kirstin Jones

The precise reasons and outcomes are difficult to determine. Each new threat triggers a cascade of inter-linked, and sometimes unexpected, consequences; each species responds differently.

The marine environment may quite simply be changing too fast for seabirds to adapt. Seabirds rely on the ocean as a food source.

Over millions of years they have evolved to fill every ecological niche. Some, like the fulmars, will travel hundreds of miles to pick plankton, fish and squid from the surface. Others, like puffins and razorbills, are inefficient in the air, but can ‘fly’ underwater to pursue sand-eels and capelin. As climate change warms and acidifies the ocean, and fish stocks are over-exploited by humankind, seabirds’ preferred prey becomes less available.

Alternative food sources may be less nutritious. If birds fly too far or dive too deep to find a meal, the energy costs become too high: seabirds will abandon their breeding attempt rather than starve themselves.

I pushed these gloomy reflections aside. That morning we had been enchanted to see a puffling for the first time ever. It had crept from its nest hole, furtive and uncertain, to stretch its stubby wings in the sunshine. The breeding season was almost over and any day now it would depart, alone and under cover of darkness, to spend two to three solitary years at sea before returning here to nest.

Like the birds, we were soon to head south. On that last evening in the Shiants the sea shimmered to the north, softly rippled like a sheet of beaten gold. Below me, razorbills and guillemots speckled the mirror-calm sea.

Above me, countless puffins wheeled and swirled. Right then, in that miraculous colony, I felt hopeful the seabirds would, somehow, prevail.

Fulmars are beautiful birds with grey and white plumage. They are masterful fliers, making precise adjustments with their tails as they come in to land. Their numbers are declining in the north Atlantic. Photo: Kirstin Jones

Spotting seabirds in Scotland

The best months to see Scotland’s seabirds are May – July, the peak breeding season for most species. The majority of colonies are located on islands without all-weather anchorages, so it is important to monitor the forecast regularly and to wait for suitable weather.

Lunga, Treshnish Islands

The main anchorage, with good holding in sand, is off the east side, at the northern end. Careful navigation is required to enter. Tuck well in towards the shore to avoid strong tidal currents in the channel.

We like to wait for the weather window in Tobermory, on Mull. Sheltered from most winds, apart from strong north to northeast winds, it offers visitor moorings, a small marina and good facilities. Contact the HM on: 07917 832 497 or Email:

Shiant Islands

In settled weather, anchorage can be found on either side of the low spit between the two halves of the island, but we found the bottom to be rocky. Below the boulder field on the east side of Garbh Eilean, we found sand patches in around 10m, quite close to the shore. Beware of back winding!We waited for weather in Loch Gairloch on the mainland coast, an easy day sail away. This attractive, deep bay has a choice of anchorages to suit prevailing conditions.

St Kilda

Sailing to St Kilda is a real challenge. The anchorage in Village Bay offers reasonable protection from SW to NW winds but it is subject to ocean swell, which can make landing difficult.

The closest ‘jumping-off’ point would be from anchorages on Harris or North Uist, via the Sound of Harris. However, our approach has been to wait in or around Barra until a favourable southwest wind allows us to reach St Kilda in a long but pleasant day sail. Be ready to leave if conditions deteriorate.