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20 Jan 2020

Through the eyes of: St Abb’s Head’s first Trust ranger

A man mows long grass in a garden on a hot summer’s day.
Stephen Warman mowing the meadow outside the Piggery (now the Ranger’s Office)
Arriving at St Abb’s Head after a long trip up from Pembrokeshire, Stephen soon found out that when you’re a National Trust for Scotland ranger, you never quite know what each day will bring.

‘I’ll get the gate,’ said Nan, ‘You’ll have had a long journey so we can chat in the morning.’ Nan Brown, the lovely lady who managed the entrance gate by Northfield Cottages, was right. It had been a long drive from Pembrokeshire. I was tired and couldn’t for the life of me see why Nan had to ‘get the gate’. It was already there, firmly on its hinges and securely bolted!

Language was one of the early challenges in my new job and, even when I got the hang of Scottish accents and vocabulary, I was easily thrown when ‘foreigners’ like the Northumbrian fencing contractor who, while working with me on Nunnery Point, said, ‘Hoya hama owa heeya’ (chuck a hammer over here)!

Getting to know the locals didn’t prove at all difficult. Peter and Anne Gordon from Northfield Farm were wonderfully hospitable for our whole time at St Abbs, as were all the other people we met from St Abbs, Coldingham and Eyemouth.

My partner Carol had stayed on at Skokholm, the Welsh seabird island we had looked after together, until our successors were in post, so I had a couple of months in Berwickshire on my own. One evening during my first week I made my way to the Anchor Inn at Coldingham. Quite what happened there that night remains a mystery to me but it did involve darts, beer and, I’d guess, whisky. My new friends and neighbours decided that I might not manage the walk home and I have a glimmer of a memory of being pushed, horizontal, into the back of a taxi, headed north.

So there I was in April 1981, a long way from my usual stamping grounds. The front garden of the ranger’s cottage was a sheet of ice; no form of heating could be found indoors; and, apart from a mattress, there was no furniture. I did have a fish box that I had found in the old piggery and it was this that I used as a table when my first visitor called round with a bottle (yes, more whisky!). He was called Lawson and he would become a very significant person over the next five years. It was Lawson Wood, with George Davidson, who would teach me to dive and it was Lawson who did the early thinking around the development of a Voluntary Marine Reserve. We sat on the floor and put the bottle on the fish box.

Carol arrived during the summer and we were married at Eyemouth Registry Office. It was deemed an appropriate step for a couple living in a National Trust for Scotland tied-cottage! We had invited only a handful of family members and close friends but that didn’t deter our new neighbours who politely arrived at Ranger’s Cottage, after a respectful period to let us get into the swing of the party. They came, laden with … you guessed it, more whisky. A ceilidh ensued! A friend gave us a wheelbarrow as a wedding present. It came in very handy that evening for returning the shepherd to his cottage at Northfield.

A road runs beneath a cliff towards St Abb’s Head.

So where had we arrived? Only at one of the most beautiful and unspoilt stretches of the British coast! As well as the stunning scenery there was a stupendous seabird colony, fantastic unimproved coastal grassland, a tiny loch, a handful of trees, crystal clear sea and, in spring and autumn, a crazy guessing game of anticipating which rare birds might pass through the next day.

I wasn’t the first ranger at St Abb’s Head. George Evans was there before with his wife Fran and they did a lot of the early work with the Scottish Wildlife Trust to put the nature reserve firmly on the map.

The administration of the reserve looked complex when I arrived. The Ranger-Naturalist post was equally shared between the Trust and SWT, with 75% of the salary being paid for 7 months of the year by the Countryside Council for Scotland (now Scottish Natural Heritage). In practice, it was simple. Willy Swan, the Lord Lieutenant of Berwickshire, chaired a calm and well-disciplined management committee. Sound advice and continuity were provided, in particular, by Douglas Bremner (then the Trust’s Head Ranger) and Chris Badenoch (the Nature Conservancy Council’s Assistant Regional Officer for Berwickshire).

The job was clearly going to be very seasonal. I would be engaged in seabird-based activities in the spring and early summer; dealing with greater visitor numbers through the summer holidays; and carrying out a mix of nature reserve maintenance and giving talks to interested groups throughout the winter. During the five years we were there, I estimate I gave 150 talks to Members’ Groups; branches of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute and anyone else who would invite me, both near and far. I will never dare go to Duns again because of the awful gaffe I made during my judging of the SWRI Valentine’s Card Competition, all those years ago!

We already knew quite a lot about seabirds – we had lived and worked on seabird islands for three or four years – so we knew that, apart from the obvious things like stopping people dropping rocks onto ledges of guillemots (which did happen from time to time), there’s not much to looking after a seabird colony – except for the counting! However, it soon became clear that the new job provided a wonderful platform for promoting messages about coastal wildlife and spreading the word about marine conservation. Only a lucky few would ever have a chance to snorkel or dive in the waters at St Abbs but the seabird cliffs are accessible to almost everyone. Once I led a group of blind people along the cliff path from St Abbs harbour and on to The Head. I was terrified. They were enthralled. They could hear birds below them, feel the wind coming from beneath and we could catch the musty warm whiff of fulmars on that rising breeze.

A lady kneels on a cliff top and smiles towards the camera. She wears a pair of binoculars around her neck.
Carol Warman, seabird monitoring

Carol and I both learnt to dive, and dive we did. In my time at St Abb’s Head I logged over 250 open water dives, many of them after the end of the working day. The phone would ring and someone would suggest meeting up for a dive and a pint. ‘Where are you thinking of diving?’ I’d ask. ‘Oh, just divin’ aboot’ was the standard reply!

I did other stuff there too: I joined the Coastguard cliff-rescue team under the friendly but exacting ex-Royal Marine, Ken Taylor. I was on the crew of the inshore lifeboat and spent many hours, day and night, on this tiny vessel listening to the stories of fishermen: tales too lurid to even hint at in print!

We counted birds, butterflies, moths, plants and people. We built fences, planted trees, led walks and developed interpretive material. I wrote a column for the Berwickshire News; we were on Radio Scotland several times and Carol once doubled for a scuba-diving Diana Rigg in a documentary about the National Trust for Scotland. One of the crowning moments was when David Bellamy, to a roar of applause, declared the St Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve ‘OPEN’ and jumped into the harbour.

We lived and worked in the St Abbs and Eyemouth community for five years, but the day came when we decided to have children and to move to a working pattern that involved fewer phone calls from strangers late on Friday night asking, ‘are there any birds about?’ and trying not to reply, ‘Yes there are 17,000 guillemots’! I got a job in Cornwall with what was then the Nature Conservancy Council and we prepared to move.

Finally the day came. A large van arrived at the narrow gateway by the old piggery and, with an eye to saving ourselves the trouble of carrying all of our possessions down the garden for loading, I asked the driver whether he could manage the gate. ‘Ah!’ he said, hopping into the back of the removal van and reappearing with a tape measure. He measured the gate, he measured the van, he scratched his head and finally said, ‘It’s alright, there’ll be room. I’ll take the gate!’

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