Shearwater, Artsreach tour at Wootton Fitzpaine

reviewshearwaterAS a student scientist in the 1970s, Malcolm Green and a fellow undergraduate spent three months on a tiny uninhabited island in the Vestmann archipelago off the western coast of Iceland.

They were there to study and record the breeding lives of the seabirds and particularly of the shearwater, tiny elegant birds, which migrate from Argentina and Brazil to the Scottish islands and Iceland to breed.

They followed the truly extraordinary cycle of these beautiful birds, who spend about three months at their long burrow – 50 days while the female waits for her single egg to hatch and 70 days for the chick to reach fledgling stage.

The male goes far out to sea to feed, returning only at night (to avoid the island’s predators, including gulls and peregrine falcon). After hatching the two take it in turns day by day to feed the baby, who grows bigger than its parents.

At some mysterious moment, the parents know when to leave and the fat fluffy baby has to slim down until it can leave the burrow and with its fellow fledging shearwaters will take off into the deep blue unknown.

The bleak beauty of the place, the drama and occasional humour of the lives of the birds – particularly the puffins – had a profound influence on Malcolm Green and as a professional storyteller, he has woven the experience into a show, Shearwater, which he performs with the Scottish accordionist Tim Dalling, of the New Rope String Band.

Tim is well-known to Artsreach audiences, and the large gathering in Wootton Fitzpaine’s cosy Arts and Crafts village hall, were enthusiastic participants in a show which included Icelandic and Gaelic poems and songs.

The stories were drawn from the ancient traditions of the Arctic region, including Iceland, the Scottish islands and Siberia – they were about death, rebirth, mysterious gull-women and a golden eagle who sheds his feather-skin to shelter a reindeer herder.

There was the shocking true story of the extinction of the Great Auk, and the real-life drama when Malcolm fell down one of the island’s sheer cliffs.

And bringing things right up to date, there is the ongoing story of climate change … the islands are  now bare of seabirds, no pufflings (baby puffins) were born there last year. The sea is warming, the plankton is gone, the fish are gone …

This was a haunting, moving, often funny and deeply involving evening. Most people who bought tickets had little idea what sort of show Shearwater would be. Some had trusted to their previous experience of Tim Dalling and others had trusted Artsreach.

Some, like me, just thought it sounded fascinating and slightly mysterious. Rather like the shearwater.


Pictured is one of the Vestmann islands.

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