Interview | Stephen Rutt

20 May 2020

Flight to freedom

The Saltire Award-winning nature writer Stephen Rutt on how he found release from anxiety in inhabiting the world of seabirds. By Carol Hogarth

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“I lost my heart to the fulmars, the kittiwakes and the black guillemots. I lost my heart to the seabirds.” 

Dumfries-based writer Stephen Rutt’s decision, at the age of 22, to escape an increasingly stressful and nature-deprived life in London for a seven-month residency on North Ronaldsay, the most northerly Orkney Island, transformed his life.

His time there, and subsequent travels to other remote corners of Britain to study seabirds, are the subject of his first book – The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds. Launched this time last year, it has attracted a Society of Authors award and a Saltire Award. Now the paperback is here, and he is preparing for a live #WigtownWednesday event on 10 June.

Lyrical and personal, The Seafarers is a celebration not just of seabirds, but of the healing power of nature and our country’s wild places.

“I left Orkney, mostly whole, mostly human again, but with a seabird-shaped hole in my heart,” Stephen writes. “So I travelled again. From Shetland, to the Farnes of Northumberland, down to the Welsh islands off the Pembrokeshire coast, before coming back up to Orkney…

“This then is the story of those travels – my love letter, written from the rocks and the edges, for the salt-stained, isolated and ever-changing lives of seabirds.”

Now 27, Stephen “migrated” north in 2018 from Essex to Dumfries, where his partner Miranda Cichy is studying for a PhD at the University of Glasgow’s Crichton campus.

While working part time as a museum attendant at the Robert Burns Centre, he worked on his second book – about geese and winter – inspired by his new life in Dumfries & Galloway.

Originally from Suffolk, Stephen’s passion for birds developed in his early teens, with encouragement from his father, also a keen birder. He recalls a trip the pair took to Minsmere nature reserve on the Suffolk coast, when he was 14, armed with binoculars and a camera.

They came upon a rare Cetti’s warbler, the first one Stephen’s father had ever seen. Describing the incident in the book, he writes: “I was swept up in all of it … From that moment on I was guided by birds. Birds were my awakening to the world outside.”

Stephen’s other love, books, took him to Stirling University to study English after which he moved to London for a job in app development. It should have been the time of his life: “We were young and we were free and we had a taste for good booze and bad food,” he writes.

But things started to go wrong…

“I had built a mental dependency around space and quietness, the two things that nature gave me that I required to find my peace. Behind the meagre privacy of that privet hedge, starved of nature, I was short-circuiting.”

Stephen movingly describes a panic attack he suffered on a tube journey and subsequent anxiety which led to him often unable to leave his room: “Shyness took over. Shyness has always been a part of me but in the exhaustion, the feeling of permanent defeat, it colonised me like a virus. All-consuming.”

The bravest thing he did at 22, he says, was to leave and head for Orkney. “The North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory was looking for volunteers. I had always been interested in migrant birds and it seemed like the right thing to do.” Stephen’s vivid descriptions of living and working among the seabirds on the island are remarkable. Having given up on a blog while living in London, he says he found enjoyment in writing again on the island.

His Tweets and blog posts attracted growing interest and he had a piece on Terns published in an anthology, Driftfish. After leaving Orkney, Stephen studied for an MA in literature and the environment in Colchester, Essex, where he met Miranda. After completing that, he took a part-time job as a guide at Colchester Castle museum and signed his publishing deal with Elliott & Thompson.

Working on The Seafarers meant travelling the length and breadth of Britain to all the places he’d always wanted to visit: “Britain is really special for seabirds and I wanted to communicate my love of them and the feeling of what it’s like to go and experience them.”

The book also touches on their environmental threats: “Unfortunately, not all seabird colonies are in great shape. I didn’t want to shirk the environmental issues but I also didn’t want to beat readers over the head with it.”

In his introduction, he simply states: "Like almost everything symbolic of the remote and wild, they are deeply touched by human activity: pollution, overfishing, the warming of the seas.”

As well as a poetic and personal memoir, The Seafarers is highly detailed and authoritative on the seabirds themselves. Stephen’s research was extensive and thorough, evident from a lengthy bibliography: “There were a lot of specific things I wanted to find out. I made contact with scientists and read lots, which is not a chore to me at all. I’m obsessed with accuracy, it’s really important to me to get my facts right.”

On moving to Dumfries, Stephen became a regular visitor to Caerlaverock Wetland Centre and Mersehead nature reserve where he says the landscape reminds him of the mudflats and marshes of East Anglia where he grew up. He recalls walking from Sandyhills to Kippford, enjoying razorbills, peregrines and “an amazing colony of cormorants”.

“This is a fabulous area in which to explore the outdoors,” he says. “There is so much variety from the hills to forests and the coast.”

Living here has also fostered Stephen’s interest in geese. He took friends to experience the mid-winter dawn flight of the Barnacle geese at Caerlaverock and the first two chapters of his second book, Wintering, are dedicated to the area: “Geese are great signifiers of change and the seasons,” he says. “I’ve always known about geese but I didn’t love them before I moved here.”

Although Stephen says he wanted the seabirds themselves to be the stars of The Seafarers, rather than himself, and the book genuinely is a deeply felt tribute to a whole host of remarkable seabirds, it remains above all, an inspirational human story: “It seemed to me that birds had the power to express untouchable freedoms,” he writes. “If the world we live in can feel entangling, entrapping; birds can transcend that.”

He later concludes: “North Ronaldsay is the place that brought me back to the language of life.”

A version of this article originally appeared in Dumfries & Galloway Life Magazine, Wigtown Book Festival’s regional media partner.