A few years ago Scottish Natural Heritage mounted an exhibition called Highland Naturalists which celebrated the work of people from all walks of life who had contributed much to our understanding of Scotland’s natural world. Most made their mark in living memory, but Martin Martin made his contribution back in the 17th century with his ground-breaking A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland.
Martin Martin wasn’t a ‘scientist’, but because he wrote such accurate accounts of what he saw we know things about wildlife in the distant past that we wouldn’t know otherwise. And that approach still applies today; being a good observer and an accurate recorder is every bit as important as being an ‘expert’. This following website will tell you how your observations can be shared and saved so that others can benefit from them: http://www.brisc.org.uk/index.php.
In 1696, Martin Martin travelled throughout the Hebrides and in 1697 reached St Kilda in an open boat. Today we have GPS, but he had to resort to following gannets to find the islands. In his notes he said: “Our crew extremely fatigued and discouraged without sight of land for sixteen hours … discovered tribes of Fowls of St Kilda flying, holding their course southerly of us. We put in under the hollow of an extraordinary high rock… which was all covered with a prodigious number of Solan Geese (this is an old name for a gannet) hatching in their nests”.
To our everlasting benefit, he recorded the lives and environment of the islanders and the wildlife he encountered. Martin’s description of the great auk is unique. The bird was described to him, first hand, by people who knew the birds’ habits well. These observations, a few collected eggs, and the odd skeleton are all that remain of a bird, like the Dodo, now long extinct.
Details for Martin’s life are a little sketchy. He is known to have studied at both Edinburgh University and Leiden University and he died in London in 1718. His book is said to have influenced Johnson and Boswell in their famous tour of Scotland in 1773.
A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland set out to do many things and boasted that it was a study “… containing a full account of their situation, extent, soils, product, harbours, bays, tides, anchoring places, and fisheries.” It did this and much more besides.
Of Lewis Martin noted “There is one sort of Whale remarkable for its greatness, which the fishermen distinguish from all others by the name of the Gallan Whale; because they never see it but at the promontory of that name. I was told by the natives, that about 15 years ago, this great Whale overturned a fishing-boat, and devoured three of the crew; the fourth man was saved by another boat which happened to be near, and saw this accident. There are many Whales of different sizes, that frequent the Herring-Bays on the East side.”
When visiting Boreray Martin was made aware of the corncrake and had this to say : “The corncrake bird is about the bigness of a pigeon, having a longer neck, and being of a brown colour, but blacker in harvest than in Summer. The natives say it lives by the water, and under the ice in Winter and Spring.” Of course Martin was reporting the facts as presented to him, we don’t know if he believed that the corncrake lived under the ice , but we know that the locals told him they thought it did. As a good recorder Martin jotted down all of the observations that came his way.
Such has been the value of Martin’s work that a major three-day event to mark the tercentenary of the publication of Martin Martin’s book on the Western Isles was held in 2003. Today, thanks to the National Library of Scotland’s digitisation policy we can all enjoy reading about Martin Martin’s remarkable journey and his observations of bygone culture and nature.
Further reading: You can read Martin Martin’s book in full via the National Library for Scotland website at https://archive.org/details/descriptionofwes00mart
For further information on the great auk please see http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/collections-at-the-museum/museum-treasures/great-auk/index.html
We would be interested to hear if any readers are aware of to what species the Gallen Whale refers to (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
All colour images in this article (c) Lorne Gill / SNH.