The islands off the west coast of Scotland have always intrigued me – windswept, rain-lashed, distant. Moreover there were things I had to see there.
It must have been something to do with the paperback books I read when I was younger. Ever since I was a boy I’d wanted to see penguins and puffins, especially the latter: amusing-looking little seabirds found only in the Northern Hemisphere.
And then there was Fingal’s Cave, an unusual natural structure that the German composer Mendelssohn visited in the 19th century. He subsequently wrote a piece of music called the Hebrides Overture (or Fingal’s Cave) which haunts me for days whenever I hear it.
And so I set out by boat one spring day for the island of Mull. Once there I had to take a ferry to the island of Ulva, then another boat to the uninhabited island of Staffa – and Fingal’s Cave. As we approached the strangely angular, basalt stacks, the boatman played a recording of the overture for all to hear. It was a special moment.
Then on to another uninhabited speck: the island of Lunga. Here there were huge colonies of nesting seabirds. Amid the awful noise of thousands of fulmars, guillemots and razorbills, I had to protect my head. Terns, similar to gulls, defending their nests attacked and drew blood. Hats were essential and baldness unthinkable.
Suddenly there they were – puffins standing sentinel outside their burrows which they dug in the soft, turf-covered cliffs. Undeterred by approaching humans, they were as curious about me as I was about them.
Puffins resemble miniature penguins with black backs and wings, white faces and underparts. Their legs are a brilliant orange but it is their triangular, multi-coloured bills, half as big as their heads which give them their trade-mark comical appearance.
Scores were returning from the sea, their bills crammed with sand eels. Dozens were enjoying a wing flap buffeted by the wind. Others were preening themselves or having a scratch. Hundreds were flying out to sea, their wings a blur.
Then a squall of rain hit. The puffins didn’t mind; they looked happy. So was I.