‘The Scottish coastline remains one of the most magical, unspoiled places in the world for relaxation and discovery, exploration and adventure.’
Extract taken from Blazing Paddles: A Scottish Coastal Journey
By Brian Wilson
Published by Birlinn Ltd
This edition of Blazing Paddles marks the passing of three decades since, at the age of 22, I launched a small kayak, hoping to paddle it right around the coast of the country that was, and remains, my home. I didn’t need to be the first, or the fastest; it wasn’t about staking a claim. I simply wanted to travel as a self-contained unit ‒ independent of the land and sea support that often accompanies similar ventures ‒ and to explore and discover the whole Scottish coastline, its people and its wildlife, to make it my own. Travelling alone, by kayak ‒ portable, vulnerable, seaworthy, quiet ‒ seemed to me the best possible way to do this.
The journey itself (1,800 miles in four months) was to become a personal awakening, almost a rite of passage. There were periods of intense physical challenge, moments of sublime peace, emotional highs and lows – fear, loneliness, elation – even days when I thought I might die! And by the end I had become a very different person.
One can’t travel on the sea for four months, living in tents and caves, sleeping on beaches, without developing an acute awareness of the intricate ecology of the sea and shore. And along with that awareness comes a concern about everything which threatens its diversity and health. So it was that submarines, supertankers and sea pollution found their way into the fabric of this story.
I hoped (back in 1985) that wider appreciation of some of the issues involved might encourage more open discussion and help people who love the sea to exert more effective pressure towards its sane and sustainable management. And perhaps, to some extent, it did. Sadly, however, many of the problems that I was beginning to worry about as a young traveller have today become major international environmental concerns. Some, indeed, are approaching catastrophe level.
Scotland is home to more than 40,000 species of marine wildlife. Our coasts and seas host a third of the world’s population of grey seals, a third of all whale and dolphin species, and the highest number of porpoises in Europe. We have the world’s largest colony of northern gannets, the UK’s biggest stronghold of puffins, the most northerly pod of bottlenose dolphins and some of the finest sub-marine habitats in Europe. In addition, Scotland is the best place on the planet to see basking sharks, making us one of Europe’s finest ecotourism destinations. All of which is big business, and a huge stewardship challenge. And all of which is currently facing a range of serious problems.
Fish farms crowd the sheltered bays of the Atlantic seaboard, polluting our tides and sea beds with chemical effluents and infecting wild fish stocks with lice and diseases. Industrial ships dredge the sea bed indiscriminately in pursuit of shellfish, leaving wrecked habitats in their wake. The seabirds which once crowded the great cliffs and skerries are today struggling desperately with pollution, overfishing and the effects of a changing climate. Many of their roosts ‒ once raucous festivals of life ‒ have become lonely, subdued places.
When change and decline are gradual, their impact in the short term is hardly noticeable. A 3 per cent reduction in bird numbers each year may be almost invisible to the casual observer, and many of our seabird sites are remote, and seasonal, seen only by occasional visitors. But the majestic spectacle of a major seabird colony is already gradually becoming a distant memory. All the more tragic, as future generations are unlikely to miss what they never knew.
Globally, seabird populations have dropped by around 70 per cent in the past 60 years. Half of all known seabird species are in decline, with a full third facing possible extinction. There are a billion fewer seabirds now than in 1950, with many species plotted on a population graph trending towards zero by 2060.
In European waters, fulmars are down 40 per cent in the last 30 years, kittiwakes may have lost around double those numbers. Atlantic puffins ‒ those ever-popular sea parrots of the northern seas ‒ are under enormous pressures from climate change. With the disappearance of their feedstocks, their numbers will be down to a fifth of what they once were by the middle of this century, thereby becoming a very rare sight anywhere south of the Orkneys.
These are declines for which we are responsible. Human overfishing has much to answer for. (Research has shown that if fishing boats take any more than two-thirds of the available fish stocks, the seabirds begin to die.) But there are many other factors at work here.
Massive numbers of seabirds are destroyed ‘accidentally’ by fishing gear. Even after it is discarded or lost, it can continue to ‘ghost fish’, catching and killing birds, fish and mammals for many years. Pollution of the seas ‒ oils, metals, plastics, PCBs and other toxins from human activities ‒ takes a constant and devastating toll on seabirds. As do the disturbance and destruction of habitat, the introduction of predators to bird breeding sites, and the ongoing effects of climate change and ocean acidification.
All over the world, measures are being taken in an attempt to avert seabird decline. Projects to eradicate alien ground predators (rats, mink, hedgehogs), especially on islands, have been very effective. There have been schemes and initiatives to reduce accidental by-catch and to limit the shooting of seabirds. But at current levels of intervention seabirds continue to tumble towards the abyss. There is no time left for complacency ‒ for blaming the seabird losses on normal oscillations in the ocean ecosystems. Seabird decline is a visible sign that the entire web of marine life may be in jeopardy. Much more must be done, and urgently. Crucially, we must acknowledge that the rate at which we are changing the atmosphere and the oceans ‒ their temperature, acidity and cleanliness, use and management ‒ needs to be brought under tighter control.
The bountiful mounds of driftwood and wooden fishboxes, which once comfortably fuelled and furnished the camp spots of a coastal nomad, no longer wash up on our western beaches, having been superseded by generations of polystyrene and bright indestructible plastics. From the elemental sea-salts to the bellies of the greatest whales, particles of plastic now pervade the entire marine ecosystem.
Plastic pollution, of course, is neither a recent, nor just a Scottish problem. Plastics have been found in all the oceans – from the poles to the tropics – and even in the deepest oceanic trenches. Phenomena such as the ‘great pacific garbage patch’ have become infamous. With an estimated 12 million tonnes of plastic getting into the world’s oceans every year, the issue is at last creating international headlines and entering human awareness worldwide. Impacts of plastic in our ecosystems range from unsightly littering of our coastlines, through entanglement and physical harm to wildlife, down to insidious, far-reaching, long-term damage to habitats, food chains and human health. It has been estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish in the world’s oceans.
Recent media coverage (most notably David Attenborough’s excellent Blue Planet 2) has fed into a growing public backlash against wasteful use of plastics. Beach-cleans and plastic removal are enormously important initiatives, both in terms of clean-up and in raising awareness. But, in the absence of a miraculous technological solution, ocean-borne plastics are going to be a fact of life for the foreseeable future and much remains to be done. The flow of plastics into the oceans needs to be stemmed at source.
All can contribute to tackling this crisis ‒ governments, drinks companies, the cosmetics industry ‒ but it is up to us, consumers and voters, to demand it loudly, and then we must actively support the changes.
Of course, not all is gloom and disaster; much of what I enjoyed in 1985 continues unchanged. The Scottish coastline remains one of the most magical, unspoiled places in the world for relaxation and discovery, exploration and adventure. And there exists today a growing awareness of the need to protect the precious natural richness around us. The great swell-waves still pile in upon our shores from the wide Atlantic; strong tides scour and swish through the island narrows; impressive numbers of plucky seabirds still return to their rocky outposts each spring; and the flowers of summer still crowd the Hebridean machair-lands.
Blazing Paddles was a lone foray into less-travelled areas, both geographically and personally. But the very concepts of solitude and wilderness ‒ which lie at the heart of the journey ‒ are themselves changing quickly: a tsunami of miniaturised digital technology has, in the intervening years, transformed adventure travel. True solitude dissolves when we choose to carry a reliable means of contacting (or being contacted by) the outside world. And the idea of wilderness recedes in direct proportion to the quantity of technical bling we choose to bring with us in pursuit of it.
‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,’ wrote L.P. Hartley. But as Blazing Paddles relaunches, in its fourth edition, I like to think of it reaching out to a new generation of coastal adventurers, and also continuing to touch the hearts of those who care about the salty places where land and sea combine. It’s probably best enjoyed with a generous dram, on a beach, by a driftwood fire, possibly as a narrative record of a time which is rapidly passing, but, above all, it is a portrait of a young man’s first low-tech voyage of discovery, floating boldly alone among the seabirds and fishboxes of a very special country.
Blazing Paddles: A Scottish Coastal Journey by Brian Wilson is published by Birlinn Ltd, priced £9.99