Island Going – Robert Atkinson

The cover of the 2008 reprint of Robert Atkinson's book, which spans the period 1935 to 1949

The cover of the 2008 reprint of Robert Atkinson’s book, which spans the period 1935 to 1949

I recently came across Robert Atkinson’s wonderful book “Island Going”.  First published in 1949, it charts Atkinson and his friend John Ainslie’s journey from the south of England to the north of Scotland in search of the rare sea-bird, Leach’s Petrel. Setting out in July 1935 in Ainslie’s mother’s car, they motored all the way to Kinlochbervie in a day and a night – going ever onwards until the road runs out: “Fifty miles beyond Lairg the road reached a little township called Kinloch Bervie … The ribbon that unwound from London in July sun petered out into rain-swept moorland two or three miles beyond Kinloch Bervie. Another fifteen or so miles of uninhabited, trackless moor and the cliffs turned the north-west corner of Scotland at Cape Wrath.”

As ornithologists they were looking for a remote island as a base for their study and had set their hearts on getting to North Rona.  But then, as now, reaching North Rona, was not easy. And so they had to change plans, put Rona on hold and make Handa Island their first port of call.  Handa lies off the North West Sutherland coast at Tarbet, near to Scourie.  Though not their first choice of island, it was there that their adventures began. Writing of their first view of a sea-cliff colony, Atkinson said: “The birds were sounding long before we reached the cliff edge; then, peering over, the void below was a snow-storm of flying sea-fowl. The noise struck us like a blast. It was new, all new…”

It’s a book well-worth reading, not only for their enthusiasm and insights as ornithologists, but also for the descriptions of the islands they visited and the often very primitive conditions they were prepared to camp in to carry out their studies.  They were brave and hardy young men!  And they did make it to North Rona.

It’s a book that makes you want to be ‘Island Going’ yourself.

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