A Letter from Skomer.

Posted on 01/09/2019 By

A Letter from Skomer.

Two birds flying above Skomer backlit by the sun in an otherwise black, cloudy sky.

When we wrote “Belonging“, we told you of Bobby’s love of the two islands off the west coast of Pembrokeshire. A love affair that started at quite a difficult time in Bobby’s life.

When he first set foot on the larger island, in 1995, he entered a glorious world living somewhere he could never have dreamed of even staying overnight before. In “Belonging”, we mentioned no electricity, boil all the water, take all your own food for a week plus a few extra days in case bad weather stops you leaving. We didn’t mention communication. There wasn’t any of what we all regard as necessary nowadays. Basically no mobile phone coverage at all. The only communication with the outside world was writing letters and giving them to visitors to post on the mainland. This led to years of letter writing, for which Bobby became well known. It was only when he found himself on his own that he discovered that Diddley had kept all the letters he had written to her. And then, quite recently, he made another startling discovery. In amongst all those letters were some before he had met her. Some embryo story telling. Most importantly, the very first letter he ever wrote from Skomer. Written to Kate, a friend he used to know.

The first letter from Skomer, handwritten to Kate.

The first letter from the Island.

We decided to type the letters out exactly as they are written, to save problems with Bobby’s handwriting!

Dear Kate

I hope you are feeling much better and enjoying the peace and quiet. Its pretty obvious that you had a virus as my voice is now disappearing! Stop Laughing!

When I stepped off the boat onto Skomer it was with mixed feelings and very nostalgic. It was also very difficult with so much stuff. The island and the birds are wonderful and you can forget your troubles and realise how lucky you are. I treasure the way I feel about the natural world and I treasure you. I have only been here two days and have not stopped talking about you. To be honest without your help it could have been a disaster but I know that I have enough food and equipment to make the week a success. Your fruitcake is already the envy of others. I have already shared some of their food and they cannot wait to have a slice of that cake. Nobody can believe that compared with all their provisions that I have cakes and all the rest. Im really grateful.

The living conditions are primitive but somehow in keeping with the whole adventure. Two wardens didn’t turn up and I have my own room and the top bunk. What can I tell you? The other wardens are an 18 year old girl from Edinburgh University who can’t tell a puffin from a razorbill. A thirty year old doctor of neurology from Germany and his wife who is also a doctor ..both just finished training. Did you know that the German for puffin loosely translated is parrot faced scuba diver!

All our activities are organised by the assistant warden Tim. My first job today was a real “ordeal”. A firm of telescope manufacturers have donated a telescope and tripod to the Trust. I had to take it to the Wick (where the cliff opposite the puffins is.) I set up. Put my Warden’s badge on. (the hat looks the part) and spent the whole day(with a break for lunch) showing all the day visitors the birds on the cliffs. The kittiwake’s chicks are a few days old and seen with the telescope was a great success. As you can imagine I was absolutely in my element. I can’t wait to go down again.

Other arduous duties are “Roving”. This is taking an information bag on your shoulder and wandering around the island and giving information and selling leaflets. Then there is a “sea watch” – which is sitting at Skomer Head all morning and recording everywhere that goes by. There’s “boats”, collecting the money off the visitors and selling T shirts etc. (some people actually get off the boat without any money and they let them go round ..cheek. One lady got off with a pushchair and baby. Another said. “where’s the restaurant/cafe…What do you mean there’s no food we have only got a packet of mints between us!)

Finally, of course, there are the real jobs. Cleaning the public loos (which are also ours, mending hides, bracken clearance, counting nesting birds. Each evening there is a log call where we sit in the warden’s common room and record all the birds/insects/fish etc seen that day.

I have left the most important thing until last. When you get off the boat as we have done, the warden gives you a chat … “Keep to the paths, 8000 puffins, 15000 gulls etc etc and then he will say “ but the most important bird is the Manx Shearwater and there are roughly 165000 PAIRS on the island and you will not see any .. alive at least. You cannot really comprehend that unless you stay overnight . Last night will live in my memory forever. The birds will not come to the island until it is pitch dark because of attacks by gulls. At this time of year that is after midnight. I waited with others .. (there is guest accommodation a bit posher and finally after midnight went off with my torch in the dark, on my own, across the island. There were toads everywhere and glowworms but no shearwaters. I walked on and after a few minutes something flew by making a weird noise. A bit like a strangled bicycle pump. I don’t really know how to describe it but rather unearthly. Gradually the air filled with more and more birds making the noise. When you shone your torch in the air you could catch them in the light . At the same time by your feet the same sound was being made by the partners. One of the pair is always underground with the egg/chick and the other out at sea fishing. They are actually calling to each other to make a link. I walked down to the harbour and by one o’clock there were shearwaters everywhere. Flying down to their burrows. whistling passed your head, on the path. Everywhere. One even flew flew straight into my chest, rolled over, and flew off. I took some flash pictures but nothing can record the experience of standing on an island, alone for that moment in time, surrounded by thousands of one of the marvels of the bird world. They actually fly to South America in the winter.

Well I must go. I have decided to have a snooze in the evening so that I will be out after midnight. If the moon is shining they will not come.

It’s now Monday. I didn’t finish this letter so on we go. Today the island is closed to visitors and it should be work all today. It’s so hot we have to be careful. Suntan cream every hour or so. This morning, anyway it’s woodwork, making wooden plaques and posts for the signposts in the old farmhouse. Just down my street. Looking for some wood I heard a noise. In a big container where all the fence posts are kept a shearwater had crash-landed and got stuck upside down. Everyone had gone off to various parts of the island so I climbed in the container, got hold of the bird (about the size of a collared dove). Climbed out and stroked its head for a bit. It was very strange feeling that this beautiful bird that I had in my hands had for however many years old it was (up to 20 I believe) flown to the Pacific ocean off South America each winter and each spring flown half way round the world back to this island to breed. Just one chick each year.

Well I am definitely going to declare now. The lunch break is over, the suntan lotion is on, and I am spending the afternoon pulling up brambles from the heather followed by a timed 1 hour sea watch for dolphins etc off Skomer Head. I cant stay up late again tonight because I was down by the harbour at 2.00am this morning and I had better get some sleep. Last night was just as remarkable. Apart from the spectacle of the shearwaters it was a black clear night. The milky way was very visible.

No electricity, boiling the water and other privations are not everyone’s idea of paradise but anything more would detract from the experience. This island belongs to its wildlife. Those human beings lucky enough to spend a day, week, season here are privileged to share their lives for a short time but at the end of that time they all leave the island to its wildlife. Come next spring the puffins will be back from mid Atlantic, the shearwaters from the sea off South America and so on. The warden will return and the visitors will come from the “other” world and be enriched by the experience. Those of us who care have a heavy responsibility to ensure that places like this are preserved for ever for the wild creatures and future generations of mere mortals.

I will really look forward to seeing you on Saturday and hope you enjoy the next few days.

Love Bob

PS Please keep this letter as I would like to have it for posterity. I’m not staying up tonight because I’m totally knackered from working in the heat. Had a nice fry up tonight. Marvel’s not bad for breakfast. Must go there is a racing pigeon sitting in my sink!

Final page of Bobby's letter to Kate.

“Please keep this letter for posterity.”

“Please keep this letter for posterity” was realised twenty four years after Bobby wrote it. There are many sub stories arising from what was written. Within Mindfully Bertie, we did write a Shearwater special, which corrects some inaccuracies in the original letter.

And finally… we were booked to be on Skokholm Island when you should have read this story. But, as you may now realise, this blog was delayed following Bobby’s “Very Serious Event”.

There are so many photos of the island that we have encapsulated a number in a slide show from many years following that memorable first year. You might like to play this music during the slide show:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lighting a Candle for Diddley and Amber on Skomer Island.

When this letter was written, Bobby had never met Diddley. Had never heard of Tom Waits. She loved him. So this week’s candle is in the form of a song, anticipating an uncertain future back in 1995. When disappointments in life seemed too hard to bear.

Diddley and Amber having a mock sword-fight and a separate image of a lit candle in their memories.


  1. Jim Allen says:

    Thank you, Bobby. Very interesting for us. On 30 July, Susan and i visited Machias (Ma-CHAI-as) Island, a genially disputed Canadian/U.S. island near the entrance to the Bay of Fundy. We watched the Atlantic Puffins dealing with their latest progeny from a blind. The puffins were still in their breeding “kit”, with full brilliant beaks. Very enjoyable trip. This removed another item from Susan’s bucket list, but we decided we might go back again in a year or two, provided we are still above the ground.

    • Bertie says:

      Keep that bucket list full. There is plenty to do before the grim reaper turns up. On Skomer puffins are now one of the species being tracked by geo locators. The programme started with shearwaters. But they are now studying the winter behaviour of the puffins that come to West Wales. All down to the technology getting smaller and smaller. Really exciting stuff!

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