My first memories of albatross are from my early childhood. On Arran an eccentric couple, who seemed old through my young eyes, opened the Nature Centre at Claddach between Brodick and Corrie. This was housed in a wooden hexagonal building, a site that now houses Arran’s mountain rescue team.
On rainy days, when the sea, the mountains and the sky melted together, we loved to visit that treasure-trove of things collected from the natural world. There were tanks of shell fish and crustaceans; tables of shells and cones; stuffed mammals and birds galore and paper and pencils. What more does any child need for entertainment?
We did not mind the higgledy-piggledy nature of the displays and the amateur style of the taxidermy. My clearest memories were the large seabirds that were hung from the ceiling. These included a gannet with its stunning streamlined beak and pale apricot head, and an albatross.
Here, I learned that the wandering albatross has the longest wingspan of any living bird. In my head, I stared up at these ghostly maritime beauties, to the classic drones of Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross instrumental. Some music commentators believed the languid sounds it created may have indicated the metaphorical use of albatross as a wearisome burden. However, the inclusion of the track on their album titled The Pious Bird of Good Omen suggests that it was indeed written about the bird.
Artist Chris Rose sounded more like an ornithologist as he introduced several species of albatross at his Royal Scottish Geographical Society talk last week about his expedition to South Georgia in the South Atlantic to see and paint the ocean’s birds, including the albatross.
It was obvious that his passion for birds fuelled his art with a love and tender care towards the birds’ shape and mannerisms. Although his photographs were stunning, the working sketches were almost more alive, more immediate, a connection between the artist and the creature.
In his Rime of the Ancient Mariner,Samuel Coleridge wrote:
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came:
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne-er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
Using a measuring tape Chris and his partner showed us the length of a fully grown wandering albatross’s wingspan, 11.5 ft (3.5m). Even in the large lecture theatre one could get a sense of the scale. He pointed out a hump shape on its back between the wings. This is an exaggerated muscle that allows the bird to hold its huge wings. It rarely flaps its wings because it is able to soar for long distance using the Antarctic winds; it can sleep on the wing.
Chris took us on a detailed journey around South Georgia. The north-east coast of the island is more protected than the south-west, although the winter type weather is still present in what is supposed to be their summer. A man sits under a green tarpaulin his sketchbooks and art materials vulnerable to the climatic movements and the shelter pegs vulnerable to a white-feathered mischievous beach scavenger.
The main stops on his study trip to South Georgia were made at Pickersgills Island, Willis’s Island, Bay of Isles and Cumberland Bay. Each landscape photograph was dominated by breath-taking mountains, high peaks of Tolkien’s lands, patched with snow, their dark rock faces encircled with clouds.
He talked of the aggressive fur seals – gaping mouths showing long teeth. He talked of the elephant seals –huge cumbersome creatures, the males growing up to a length of 21ft. He talked of leopard seals whose ability to pull a man off the ice is infamous. In contrast the smooth clean cut penguins shone on the huge screen - chinstrap, macaroni, gentoo and king.
The images built up a full picture of the topography and landscape of South Georgia. Most endearing were the images of albatross courting, their heads held close in a neck embrace. However, in the last episode we were shown a photograph of an albatross attached to a long liner’s fishing hook – held underwater and drowned.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!
God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!
– Why looks’t thou so?” – With my cross-bow
I shot the albatross.”