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Between Weathers

BETWEEN WEATHERS, Travels in 21st Century Shetland was published in 2008 by Sandstone Press to enthusiastic reviews as well as a nomination for the 2008 Saltire Society Literary Awards. Given that no travel book devoted to Shetland had appeared since John T. Reid’s 1869 Art Rambles in Shetland, perhaps the timing was fortuitous. BETWEEN WEATHERS continues to sell well, is in its third printing – and has helped inspire the feature film by the same name, soon to be shot by B4 Films.

“Ron McMillan has the experienced traveller’s eye for detail and a mellifluous writing style.”

– The Shetland Times

(McMillan) “consistently, though subtly, contextualises his narrative with era-spanning layers of evidently assiduous research.”

– Hi Arts Magazine

An Excerpt from Chapters devoted to Fair Isle:

A roomful of bad beards

Quite how seriously bird watching is taken in these parts escapes me until the bank robbers take me to the Bird Observatory for the evening ‘Log’ meeting.

The ‘Obs’, as they call it, is a functional, if unsightly collection of concrete boxes, and its rooms and dormitories draw dedicated twitchers of all ages from the U.K., Europe, and beyond. As well as a canteen and the island’s only bar, it features a distinction that is somehow apropos of dormitories attracting hundreds of members of a single-interest club. It has its own Tuck Shop.

It is often fully-booked – especially during spring and autumn migrating seasons – and its website attracts a half million hits annually. And it is, after all, the major tourist draw on an island with only seventy inhabitants.

Observatory visitors pace the hillsides, fields, beaches and clifftops by day, binoculars to the fore and notebooks forever at the ready. And in the evening, after dinner is taken and the dishes packed away, they sit around low tables in the bar, and compare notes in anticipation of the all-important daily Log meeting.

To reach the bar we have to first pause in a cloakroom and observe a pragmatic rule that protects the building’s interior from an ever-thickening patina of sheep shit. Cloakroom hooks sag under the weight of mouldering rainwear and the floor swarms with boots and Wellingtons undergoing thick, odorous sock eruptions. The robbers lead the way along a convoluted route of narrow corridors until at last we emerge in a neat room full of bad beards.

Not everyone in the room has wispy, patchy facial fuzz. There are four or five females with no facial hair whatsoever – not counting one or two shadowy upper lips – and several men who may actually have taken razor to lower face in the last week or so. But then there are the fashionably unfashionable birder blokes who foster the academic hobo look, untrimmed growth running amok over wind burned cheekbones. At a big table in the library corner, two long sets of whiskers brush the backs of grimy fingernails that dance over computer keyboards. But the unofficial Bad Beard Award goes to a man in his forties who somehow contrives to look completely alone in the crowded room, and who sports a straggly excuse for a full set that no naval rating would get away with, and no self-respecting student half his age would entertain.

Disregarding a lingering whiff of the cloakroom that is explained by a plenitude of bare feet and stocking soles, we manage to get drinks from a wood-lined bar just before it is taken over by a warden toting a dog-eared file folder and a clutch of sharp pencils. The nightly Log commences, and the atmosphere, although perfectly cordial, switches from casual and carefree to academic, competitive and, dare I think it, just a little bit obsessive.

The warden has an urbane self-confidence about him. Change his well-worn khakis for overpriced designer duds, and he could warrant a swivel chair in a fevered London dealing room, but up here he is in control of a very different set of numbers. From what is an exhaustively detailed list of avian species and sub-species, he reads out category after category, pausing after each to listen to reports from the assembled throng on numbers spotted over the course of the day.

Proceedings get off to a telling start when the straggly-bearded loner claims that he saw thirty-one pink footed geese. All around him, eyes roll, but if he notices, he doesn’t let it show. From then on, whenever another twitcher says a figure, straggly-beard casually ups it like a bidder playing to the crowd at an antiques auction. When someone reports seeing one hundred and five grey lags, he thinks better of raising the stakes, but provides us with the precise flight plans for twenty of the ones he tracked, and the locations to within a few centimetres of two corpses. Cue more rolling of eyes and one or two openly contemptuous sneers.

A woman in a buff-coloured down vest registers twenty-seven red shanks; a man clad head to foot in grey cotton says he saw twenty-eight – and just as the warden’s pencil descends towards file page, straggly-beard delivers a withering declaration of thirty-nine. As triumphs go, it is short-lived, because a full second later, he is trumped by a shout of fifty-seven from a clean-shaven chap who floods the entire room with a beaming expression that says got him! Straggly-beard looks disgusted by the underhand tactics, while others all around him can barely hide their glee.

I realise belatedly that the warden is paying little heed to the braggart’s claims. The man’s credibility among his peers is palpably non-existent, and he is the only person in the room who fails to realise it.

I am surprised to find myself quite at ease with the whole scene, as its allure begins to open up to me. Bird watching as a pastime can surely be thrilling (albeit usually only fleetingly), and demand patience and endurance and resourcefulness and outdoor skills as well as other qualities that are at the very least harmless, and perhaps even admirable.

Yet there is something about the fevered nature of the pastime that makes me a little uncomfortable. I cannot help feeling that even here, among its most ardent practitioners, it seems to be mainly about a dispassionate obsession with ticking birds off in a personal log book.

Sure, to mention something so rare or desirable as, say, a lanceolated warbler – only twice ever spotted on Fair Isle – is to instantly watch drool encrust bearded chins. The arrival on Fair Isle of a British ‘first’, or a bird never before seen anywhere in Britain, soon sees the island airstrip crowded with light aircraft full of birders. At a cost of several hundred pounds per person, enthusiasts as far away as the south of England drop everything, charter a plane, fly to Fair Isle and sprint to wherever the rare animal was most recently seen. There, they peer at it through binoculars, perhaps take a few photographs and (surely the real goal of the exercise) add it to their lists. Then they run back to the airstrip and leave the island.
I wonder too at what might even be a lack of concern for the wellbeing of birds sighted, however briefly, however far away from the bird’s native habitat.

For a ‘first’ sighting to occur on Fair Isle, it requires that a poor creature be blown off course by unseasonal winds, forced to fly hundreds of kilometres from its instinctual migration route until it drops onto the only visible spot of earth, completely exhausted and doubtless bewildered, in an alien, never before visited land. Where, within a few hours, it can find itself incessantly harried by binoculars wearing bad beards.

If the bird ever manages to take off again, it almost certainly perishes at sea, never having regained its intended course.
In the midst of the revered Log session, I am certain that I am the only person in the room who would rather that bird never set eyes on Fair Isle, never mind if that meant I could never set eyes on it.

Months later, I call bank robber Peter on his mobile phone to ask about this, and by pure chance, I catch him when he is back tramping the fields of Fair Isle.

‘People don’t realise that there is a very competitive element to bird watching,’ he says. ‘There are about 275 to 280 species commonly sighted in Britain, but very serious British bird watchers, the so-called ‘high listers’, can have lists of over five hundred. These guys hate to have one put over on them by a fellow-bird watcher, and will drop everything to see a new bird.
‘But it’s not fair to say we only care about our lists. Even when we do track down a “first”, we are always careful to give it space, and not to disturb it too much.’

When I counter that it still sounds to me as if his beloved pastime is surely more about the bird watcher than the bird, he only laughs.