If Rockall has a personality, it’s one defined by the stormy ocean around it. Two visitors dwell on the swell: William Spotswood Green, writing in 1896, and James Fisher, whose 1956 book on Rockall inspired this project.
REVEREND SPOTSWOOD GREEN: We could not approach the steep face any nearer than twenty yards. The sea was so disturbed that it was difficult to avoid being sucked in towards the corners of the rock where the sea, every now and then, broke with a loud roar. It was only now we could appreciate the height of the swell, the ship going completely out of sight to the top of her masts when the first sea rose between her and us.
NARRATOR: That was Spotswood Green, writing in 1896. When people write about seeing Rockall they talk about the waves and the weather – occasionally the screeching gulls – but not often about the island. It’s hardly suprising. They’re a mighty sight: the swell’s high enough to obscure tall ships in their entirety, and there are photographs of the island in gales where the white wash smashing against it climbs to more than twice its height.
Ornithologist and writer James Fisher first saw Rockall from the air in 1947, and the stillness of the ocean on that day had a weird affect on him.
JAMES FISHER: We ran into cloud at about 500 feet, though we were soon through it, and in a minute Rockall was in sight. We closed it with a chorus of ragged cheers from the civilians in the galley, dipped down to about 150ft, and started work. The Atlantic Ocean was glassy, though the remains of a swell trimmed the rock’s foot with a thin rim of white.
NARRATOR: They snap pictures of the island for a few passes before heading home.
JAMES FISHER: Two miles east lay two steam trawlers, the Fleetwood vessels Bulby and Ben Dearg. We waved; they waved; we finished our photography, closed our notebooks, climbed from our last low run and headed for St. Kilda. We were all deeply excited at having seen Rockall for the first time, but some element in its personality had been missing. It had been such a calm little rock on that calm day.
NARRATOR: To Fisher, Rockall’s very personality seems to exist in harsh tumult, so when things are calm its character is lost. These writers all define the island’s personality in opposition to the elements. Which is like describing a person by the effect the rain has on them.
AboutA Lonely Isle is a collection of anecdotes about Rockall, a remote island in the Atlantic ocean. Each chapter is based on accounts written by visitors over the last two hundred years.
The project came together by a process of dead reckoning. Researched in 2012, written in 2014, recorded in 2015, scored in 2017, and published in 2018, it’s a product of guessing and sun-sights, serendipity and cumulative error.
The Last Outpost of Empire (music for A Lonely Isle)
by Richard J. Birkin
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