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20 Feb 2020

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

Written by Kevin Rideout, NT Visitor Experience Office, Studland, Dorset
A man stands outside on a small fishing boat, with several other people. All are wrapped up warm and wear binoculars around their necks.
Kevin checking out the seabird colony from a boat sometime in the early 2000s
When a fresh-faced lad arrived at St Abb’s Head in 1986, little did he know that he wouldn’t leave until he was double his present age, and had a wife and grown-up children.

I arrived at St Abb’s Head in the middle of February 1986, accompanied by my mum and dad and Jude the budgie. Ranger’s Cottage had been empty for three months and was cold, damp and bare. The only source of heating was a log burner in the living room and there was not a trace of dry firewood. The work van had a flat tyre and battery, so a scavenge in the woods followed and after a few failed attempts warmth slowly spread through the room. Next was a tour of the area with my new employers and my first look at what was to become my place of work for the next 23 years.

Not many people in countryside conservation are lucky enough to get their dream job at the age of 24, especially when it’s their first time in full employment; looking back, it seems miraculous that I ever got the job at all. It’s true that I knew a fair bit about seabirds and coastal wildlife, having worked on the Dorset, Norfolk and Northumberland coasts on various seasonal contracts over the previous three years, but I knew very little about inshore fishing, even less about farming and had never lived in Scotland before.

So those early days were a bit tricky and I relied very much on people’s patience and goodwill to find my feet. The Gordon family, who farmed Northfield, and Dougie, the shepherd from Colonsay, were very helpful neighbours, who showed me what farming was about despite a few glaring gaffes on my part. Willy Wilson enrolled me in the Coastguard within hours of my arrival and amazed me with his stories and experiences. Peter Hood took me out potting in his fishing boat Sterina and I well remember my first views of the Head and the Berwickshire coastline from the sea – absolutely stunning.

I was very fortunate in my first year to work with Keith Robeson, an excellent naturalist and wildlife photographer from Kelso who knew the Head well and introduced me to other parts of the Borders. We trained as rangers at the same time and often worked together when he joined Scottish Borders Council; I learned a lot from him. Andrew Panter from Scottish Natural Heritage kept me right on technical stuff and making choices about managing the Head. He was always most welcome at Ranger’s Cottage as he brought a chainsaw and could whizz through a whole stack of firewood logs in no time.

I loved St Abb’s Head from the very start. The nature and landscape and the sense of wildness was exhilarating. Ranger’s Cottage was a joy to live in – it was my castle and a wonderful place to raise a family. Being part of a local community was a new experience, and getting to know a whole range of different people and regularly seeing familiar faces around the place was brilliant. Early comments from locals were ‘he’s just a bairn’ and ‘ach, no another Englishman’ – all taken in good heart of course.

Three people straddle a wall in front of a lighthouse, with the blue sea behind.
L to R: Eileen, Kevin and Holly at the lighthouse

My life as a single man at St Abb’s Head was short-lived, as Eileen and I were married just six weeks after I moved in. Eileen is a Geordie so gave this southern boy a little more credibility among our Scottish friends and colleagues. She loved Ranger’s Cottage at first sight, though in the early days she was a little nervous about being there on her own. When I had to go away for the first time for a couple of days on a training course, her imagination ran riot and she was certain someone was going to break in. Realising that there were all the necessary tools in an unsecured outbuilding to demolish the front door, she brought the crow bar, sledgehammer and axe into the cottage. Then her thinking went along the lines of ‘If someone does break in, then all the tools are easily at hand to cause grisly carnage’, so she put all the tools back outside. I’m sure this could have gone on all night without a reassuring phone call to set her mind at ease.

Again in those early days, if I was still out on the Head as it turned to dusk, as I often was as this is my favourite time of day, she would come out to try and find me. On one famous occasion, when it had become pitch black and she just wanted to get back home as soon as possible, she ran straight into the side of a cow.

I can’t praise Eileen highly enough for the way she supported me and took to country life. She was an unpaid worker, a safety back-up, a champion for the nature reserve, an advocate for the Trust and a shield when, at times, living on the job became tough. She turned Ranger’s Cottage into a lovely, warm and welcoming family home and we raised two beautiful daughters, Holly and Megan, there. I couldn’t have done the job even half as well without her.

Seabirds became a passion, almost an addiction. I spent thousands of hours counting, monitoring, photographing and simply admiring seabirds. The Head is an outstanding place for getting close to seabirds, perhaps the very best on the Scottish mainland, and the concentration of birds in a relatively small area makes a vibrant, exciting, action-packed wildlife spectacle set in incredibly beautiful surroundings. I witnessed this spectacle from the clifftops, from the sea, from the air and, thanks to the Coastguard, even on the sheer cliffs themselves.

I enjoyed showing people seabirds, talking about them and even presenting them with various body parts – wings, skulls, bones and feet – to demonstrate how seabirds work. We often set up watchpoints with binoculars and telescopes for people to view and learn about them. One of my all-time favourite memories happened at one of these sessions. I was concentrating on focusing the telescope on a pair of nesting razorbills. When I looked up, there were two nuns in full regalia standing among the group next to me and for one glorious, magical, hallucinogenic moment I saw them as two giant razorbills. The nuns were on a pilgrimage of early Christian sites and were most interested in looking at the razorbills. But I don’t think they made the same connection that I had.

Four people sit on the cliff edge, looking towards the opposite cliff face, on a bright sunny day.
L to R: Megan and David Ferris, Eileen and Holly Rideout at Foul Bay

The Head is well known as a hotspot for finding rare birds, especially in spring and autumn when small birds on migration lose their way or get caught in storms. Birders came from all over the place when something unusual turned up. Memorable moments included Tim Drew, one of our summer rangers, finding a Marmora’s warbler (the first and, I think, still the only record for Scotland) and Dave Graham finding a red-flanked bluetail, a bird that breeds in Siberia. Dave was a regular, who diligently kept accurate bird records and did some great work for wildlife on his farm at Reston, particularly for tree sparrows.

Getting to know, and chewing the fat with, the birders was always great fun while waiting for something to appear. Jimmy ‘the bear’ Jamieson from Eyemouth was a lovely, cheerful bloke who’d wait patiently in the same spot for ages, puffing away on his pipe, binoculars protected from the ash by a strip of leather. For a while Jimmy, who was not a small man, rode a bike from Eyemouth, which was quite a funny thing to see. Perhaps the most dedicated was Alan Kerr, a bird ringer who would drive across from Hawick and set up his nets before sunrise. Alan was a burly guy with big hands but had a wonderful skill for extricating birds trapped in the nets and a fine touch when handling the birds to examine and measure them. It was fascinating to see birds in the hand and the fine plumage details that allowed Alan to age them – I really enjoyed spending time with him.

Though birds were my main thing, there were so many different aspects to St Abb’s Head and I learned a great deal from people who had other interests and expertise. Rennie Weatherhead is a good example, a man I often saw walking on the Head in what seemed to me a serene and contemplative way. Rennie’s enthusiasm was for the early history of Coldingham and St Abbs, particularly Princess (later Saint) Aebbe who lived in the 7th century and founded a monastery on the Head. He unearthed and researched many old writings and documents to build a fine historical picture of those times. Whenever I met him, he always had something new to say about his subject.

The Voluntary Marine Reserve grew from strength to strength and although I found scuba diving wasn’t for me (despite plenty of encouragement and a couple of tries), I loved getting out on the sea. One of my best ever wildlife encounters was when snorkelling at Pettico Wick. We were happily admiring the swimming guillemots when a shout went up: ‘Basking shark!’ Sure enough, the shark came lazily sailing by within a few metres, causing either pure panic or incredulous excitement within the group depending on the gut reaction to very large sea creatures.

Working for the National Trust for Scotland gave me the opportunities to explore Scotland and see incredible places in the company of a great team of rangers. Exploring Ben Lawers with David Mardon and Torridon with Seamus MacNally were privileges, and I travelled to remote islands like St Kilda and Fair Isle. I learned so much about what it means to be a countryside ranger in Scotland from people like Paul Johnson, Ben Notley and Gordon Riddle – our ranger gatherings and sing-songs were memorable occasions. Closer to home, I got to work with, and become friends with, fantastic people and I hope that St Abb’s Head was a good stepping stone for those that went on to pursue a career in countryside and conservation.

Looking back, I realise that it’s not just one thing, but the magic combination of people, place and nature that makes St Abb’s Head a very special place. I’m happy and very thankful to have been part of that.