Skip to main content

Full text of "Man In The Modern World"

See other formats

blackbirds of the western Highlands appear to differ slightly from
those of Britain as a whole, and the difference is in the direction of that
seen in the more distinctive race of the Hebrides.
We cannot suppose that wrens and thrushes were able to support
glacial conditions: so that the observed changes must have taken
place since the end of the Ice Age, certainly less than 15,000 years ago
—an infinitesimal period in the thousand-million-year perspective of
There is no necessity for the British biologist to go to the high arctic
or to the tropics to study evolution: he has problems of the greatest
interest on the doorstep of his own country.
So it came about that, looking for a holiday with a point to it, I
attached myself to an ornithological party which was going to visit
St. Kilda and other normally unvisited Scottish islands.
St. Kilda was unquestionably the high spot of the voyage, not
merely because of its biological interest but for its astonishing scenery
and its human history. It is forty miles to westward of the Outer
Hebrides. Forty miles doesn't sound far; but it is a good way for a
25-ton yacht against the wind, and we were all night making the
island after leaving the Sound of Harris. The one anchorage is
Village Bay in the island of Hirta, and even that is unsafe with
southerly or easterly winds. The first sight of this island is a little
disappointing—a grassy coomb, a little like the head of Fairfield in
the English Lakes, with the deserted village in its centre. After
breakfast, we set off up to Conachair, the highest point, strung out
in a line so as to cover more ground, as we wanted to make a survey
of all the land birds—a survey later published in British Birds by
Max Nicholson and Jarnes Fisher. An extraordinary fact was the
number of snipe in and around the old village, although it did not
look at all like snipe country.
Another peculiarity of St. Kilda is that the rock pipit, which is
usually confined to a narrow zone along the sea cliffs, here extends far
inland, into regions which would normally be the preserve of its
relative the meadow pipit—and this in spite of the fact that meadow
pipits also breed on the island.
This phenomenon, of changed habits toward the limits of the range
of a species, or in other exceptional conditions, we encountered in
several other birds .elsewhere. The reed buntings of Lewis and the
mainland opposite, in the absence of their usual sallow thickets and
reed-beds, were nesting on islets in lochs, where, owing to the absence
of browsing sheep, there were rather more trees and shrubs than on
the mainland. Herons nest here in very small colonies, often on the