Posts tagged ‘craigsman’

Dec 18, 2020

The birdcatcher – Fowlsheugh’s heughman and the queets, the nories and kittyweaks (and brawny women)

The long, unbroken waves with thundering sound

Strike on this mighty cliff incessantly,

Breaking in sprays of snowy foam around,

Flung back by rocks that stand defiantly… *1

Those defiant rocks form the cliffs at Fowlsheugh, a stones throw from Stonehaven in northeast Scotland.

Now an RSPB Scotland nature reserve and site of Special Scientific Interest, Fowlsheugh is home to countless thousands of seabirds arriving annually to breed on its 200 foot cliffs.

Queets, nories and kittyweaks, their names now more familiarly anglicised to guillemots, puffins and kittywakes are an attraction in their own right with people looking for that perfect photograph or just to gaze at the fabulous sight of them all in the breeding season. Changed times. Their popularity used to be as food or ‘sport’ and were regularly ‘catched’ and traded until seabird fowling was banned in 1954.

Seabirds (all wildbirds) had monetary value until protection was brought in. This monetary value either benefitted local communities (mainly on Scotland’s remote islands) or the proprietor of the land where the birds were caught and killed. Popular for their eggs more than their flesh, birds also supplied feathers for pillows and quills but mainly in the Victorian era, hat decorations, as well as oil for lamps and tanning leather.

Fowlsheugh

Fowlsheugh’s laird rented out ‘his’ bird colonies to a local tenant, the heughman for about £2 a season and the heughman (known as craigsman in other areas and in Walter Scott’s Old Mortality – see below) was also obliged to present the laird with a prize specimen of a young hawk. To gather birds the heughman or bird catcher had to descend the cliff face from the top since the heaving waters of the German Ocean beneath the cliffs prevented any sort of ladder being used to climb up. Rather like a modern-day mountaineer abseiling he was lowered by rope – in his case by five or six of his fellow villagers. These weren’t usually brawny blokes but brawny women. A wooden pulley was also used at times to hold the rope clear so prevent it rubbing and wearing through against the sharp rock. With the rope secured about his person, the heughman was slowly lowered – steadying himself by bouncing his feet against the side of the cliff, signalling to those up top to tighten the rope from time to time so he could empty nests of their eggs.

“Are ye mad?” said the mendicant: “Francie o’ Fowlsheugh, and he was the best craigsman that ever speel’d heugh, (mair by token, he brake his neck upon the Dunbuy of Slaines,) wodna hae ventured upon the Halket-head…” *2

The heughsman’s equipment included a large sack or bag, its mouth kept open by an iron ring, attached to a pole of some twenty feet in length. Using the pole to gather eggs into the sack meant he didn’t have to get too close to nests protected by distressed birds and reach into nests deeper into hollows in the cliff. With his sack filled he would be pulled back onto the cliff top to empty his load before descending again. And so his harvesting of the eggs would continue until huge quantities were taken.  

Eggs were often hard boiled straight away, to preserve them. There was a brisk local trade in them so it was rare that they had to be taken any great distance to sell. Sundays, peoples’ only day off, would find many folk from Stonehaven cover the short distance to Fowlsheugh to buy the heughman’s eggs.

Queets (guillemots) tend to lay a single egg but often will lay a replacement if the first is lost. The kitteweak (kittywake) lays two eggs per season. The eggs of the queets and marats (razorbills) were most sought after because their hard shells meant there was less chance of them being damaged while being collected and selling on. The queets sparse nests sit exposed on open rock while nories (puffins) along with marats nest in niches which offer more protection to the egg and young, though not from a 20-foot pole.

A few weeks after that season’s eggs had been collected the heughman would descend once more, this time to gather young chicks hatched from those eggs left on the rocks. Kittyweaks being the most popular for eating. Demand for these little chicks usually outstripped supply and they were often eaten fresh, sold in local markets, with few being preserved by salting and drying in the open air.  

With the coming of autumn came still more harvesting of the cliff’s bird population. This time Fowlsheugh’s heughman was armed with a net to trap birds before they flew off for winter. These older birds were wanted mainly for their feathers, as explained above to decorate women’s hats or stuff cushions.  

This was, still is, the time known as the shooting season. Crowds came by boat, foot and horseback from Aberdeen, Stonehaven and all around to take pot shots at those birds that had escaped the raid on eggs, chicks and adults. Here was another source of income for the heughman who charged a shilling for each gun. All in all he was provided with a fairly decent living by the wild birds of Fowlsheugh. The birds were easy targets, seldom straying far from the rocks and it was reported as many as six birds could be killed by a single shot. Needless to say the raucous cries of the birds during these attacks was tremendous.

The air was dirkit with the fowlis

That cam’ wi yammeris and with youlis,

With shrieking, skreeking, skrymming scowlis,

And meikle noyis and showtees.    *3

Fishing rights to the sea below Fowlsheugh belonged to the crown and there was a huge row in 1897 when leasing rights were leased to private interests for salmon fishing by stake netting because this resulted in wholesale slaughter of seabirds, drowned in the nets. An outcry among the public at the carnage led to an end of the practice.

Many of the seabirds took their food from the sea by diving into it and these birds were scooped up in nets; some were hanged in the mesh and some trapped so they slowly drowned. Thousands of queets were destroyed in this manner, to the horror of those who witnessed it, for it proved impossible for the birds to be freed from the mesh without breaking their wings and legs. There were descriptions of the birds’ eyes – wild and staring from fear as they thrashed about in a desperate struggle to escape the mesh which cut deep into their flesh. This horror was repeated daily during the egg hatching season, meaning the young were left without an adult to protect them and provide them with food and it was feared that within a couple of years Fowlsheugh’s bird population might be wiped out. And all this horror so the crown could profit along this four-mile stretch of water to the tune of £70 per annum. On the back of popular local opinion the crown ceased netting under Fowlsheugh’s cliffs early in the season but the slaughter was just delayed for the start of August brought the shooting season and the coastal birds were again targeted.

Around me and above is noise and strife

Of rocks and waters, birds in upper air,

Turmoil and unrest, grandeur, power, and life

Displayed, commingled, and exerted there. …*1

Life was tough for the coastal folk of Fowlsheugh but so was it a sair fecht for the birds breeding on the cliffs there – and wildlife everywhere in Scotland. In 1850 is was reported that ‘Scotland’s largest and most prized hawks (prized in terms of trophies) were virtually exterminated. The kite, the gyrfalcon (the largest of the falcons often used in falconry) and goshawk had vanished, persecuted to extinction. The only sighting for ten years of a goshawk in Scotland, was in April 1850, and that bird was trapped two weeks later by a gamekeeper at Doune of Rothiemurchus. The protection of birds is more tokenistic than real, even today.

On the coast the heughman’s trade was not only driven by his local country people’s need for food but Victorian museums’ near insatiable demand for egg specimens to display and stuffed birds to exhibit, such was public curiosity and fascination with nature – mainly of the dead kind (not so long ago natural scientists insisted on killing living species as means of properly identifying them, even in the case of the rarest of specimens.)

The fowls of Fowlsheugh and elsewhere or rather the occupation of bird catcher, craigsman and heughman gave rise to the name Fowler or more commonly in these parts, Fowlie. Scotland had a makar (official poet) called Fowler. William Fowler who was a fixer for James VI and in the pay of the English court of Elizabeth for whom he spied, hired by her spymaster, Walsingham, the man who plotted against James VI’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots and the one responsible for her execution. Fowler was rewarded for his services to the crown with a 2,000 acre estate in Ulster. Talk of feathering nests. When he had a minute to himself he wrote poetry.

Covenanter’s stone at Dunnottar cemetery

And to finish on the subject of writers, Walter Scott met the man who would become Old Mortality in the book of that name, Peter Paterson, when he was cleaning the gravestones of Covenanters who died in Dunnottar castle, at the local graveyard so preserving their names and contributions to this religious struggle in Scotland’s past. The two got into conversation and Peter became Robert Paterson in Scott’s tale of political and religious turmoil during that period.

Think we better leave things there.   

*1 At Fowlsheugh near Stonehaven by George Colburn

*2  Old Mortality, Walter Scott

*The Goldyn Targe,William Dunbar