Sea Pies and Tom Noddies: Thomas Pennant on the Farne Islands

Alex Deans

Thomas Pennant’s Tour In Scotland 1769 presents a few obstacles to the unsuspecting reader. In the first edition of 1771, it takes a healthy 39 pages to arrive on the Banks of the Tweed (omitting Pennant’s dedication to his friend and neighbour Sir Roger Mostyn). The itinerary is hardly direct, striking almost due east so that Pennant can linger in the natural-history-rich Lincolnshire Fens, before heading north up the coast, with some notable excursions on the way. I’ll admit that in the past I haven’t given the English opening leg of Pennant’s Tour the attention it deserves, instead hastening on to see what he had to say about Scotland. Now that I’m editing the text, such selective reading isn’t really an option, and since relocating to the north east of England a few years ago, these materials have become more interesting to me, for the simple reason that they describe places close to me. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve begun to appreciate how valuable some of Pennant’s descriptions of England are from the perspective of natural history.

In the peat wetlands of the Lincolnshire Fens, Pennant gives a rich account of a landscape regarded at the time as a featureless waste, but which is now recognised for its huge environmental importance as a carbon sink and wildlife habitat, lost when the Fens were drained over the subsequent decades. Of the Fens, Pennant wrote: ‘I never met with a finer field for the Zoologist to range in.’[1] Efforts are now underway to preserve and restore some parts of the English Fens, now seen as a key part of the planetary biosphere, comparable to equatorial rainforest.

Further north, Pennant takes to the sea for an excursion around the seabird colonies of Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, followed by a trip to the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast on 15th July. Pennant made his journey to the islands on a coble: ‘a safe but seemingly hazardous species of boat, long, narrow and flat-bottomed, which is capable of going thro’ a high sea, dancing like a cork on the summits of the waves.’[2]

A black and white print entitled 'Eider Duck and Drake', showing two ducks swimming in water near a grassy piece of shore in the foreground.
An illustration of Eider ducks from Pennant’s tour.

As in the Lincolnshire Fens and at Flamborough Head, it is the exhilarating abundance of birdlife on the Farne Islands that captures Pennant’s attention, producing some of the most dense and colourful natural description of the whole tour. Pennant’s paratactical description of the nest of an Eider Duck captures his naturalist’s delight at being able to observe the animals and their behaviours up close:

Landed at a small island, where we found the female Eider ducks at that time sitting: the lower part of their nests was made of sea plants; the upper part was formed of the down which they pull off their own breasts, in which the eggs were surrounded and warmly bedded: in some were three, in others five eggs, of a large size and pale olive color, as smooth and glossy as if varnished over.[3]

Even the purely denominative takes on a lyrical quality in these moments, with Pennant giving the evocative names of features in the seascape (the Pinnacles, House Island, the Meg, the Churn), as well as lists of bird species, including ‘Sea Pies’ (Oystercatchers), and the Northumbrian names of ‘Puffins, called here Tom Noddies’, as well as Eiders, or ‘Cuddies Ducks’, the latter after St Cuthbert, who lived as a hermit on one of the Farnes.[4]

Detail from an eighteenth-century map showing the Farne islands and part of the nearby coast.
John Adair, Holy-Island, Fairn Islands with the many Rocks and Hazards that lye Scatter’d in that Sea (Edinburgh: 1703), National Library of Scotland

In August 2023 my family and I followed Pennant’s voyage around the Farne Islands, joining one of the many tours that run from Seahouses on the Northumberland coast. Even on the tour company’s substantial catamaran, we felt the effects of what Pennant calls ‘a most turbulent rippling, occasioned by the fierce current of the tides between the islands and the coast.’[5] My sense of Pennant’s intrepidity in making the same journey in a coble was immediately increased, let alone St Cuthbert, voluntarily stranded one of these lonely rocks in the seventh century. The violent currents didn’t seem to trouble the Grey Seals, which tumbled around quite comfortably in the white water, demonstrating an agility almost comically at odds with the animals I’ve seen hauled-up on the shore.

A photograph taken from a boat through a metal guard rail, showing an island out to sea under a cloudy sky.

From a distance, the Farnes appear almost flat, but as the boat approaches they rise up out of the sea in a series of jagged black cliffs. The boat made its way slowly around each island, and I quickly lost my sense of direction: we’d round a corner to find yet another dark outcrop breaking the surface, where I’d expected a distant view of the mainland and Bamburgh Castle. Between the rocks, the seabed rose up beneath the boat, and sand shone turquoise through the water.

A photograph taken from a boat through a metal guardrail, showing a steep rocky shore with seabirds flying above it.
Farne Islands, August 2023

Our visit was less well timed than Pennant’s, coming at the end of the breeding season by which time many of the birds had moved on, although we spotted a few straggling Puffins flying low over the water, alongside Cormorants, Kittiwakes, and the odd Gannet. The Farnes have suffered from the impact of the ongoing avian flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 6000 birds in 2022; landing to get closer to the bird colonies as Pennant did in 1769 is out of the question for the foreseeable future. Something about the isolation and relative compactness of the Farne Islands creates a certain sense of proximity to those who have been there before you, saints and naturalists. Seasons aside, I couldn’t but compare my own visit to the Farnes with Pennant’s, and think not only about what has been lost, but perhaps more urgently, what we still stand to lose in places like these.

[1] Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland 1769 (Chester: 1771), p.10.

[2] Pennant, p.35.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pennant, p.36.

[5] Pennant, p.37.