Seven Swans a-Swimming in the Outer Hebrides

Wild Swans
Wild Swans. Morris (1855), British Game Birds and Wildfowl.

According to the traditional English carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, on the seventh day we should look forward to the delivery of “seven swans a swimming” which would be a notable addition to any menagerie. It conjures an idyllic, pastoral vision of a septet (or should it be heptad) of swans serenely swimming around a village pond, floating majestically on a lake in an arcadian landscape or perhaps, more prosaically, in an urban setting in a suburban park or on a canal. Whatever the scene, they would be immediately recognisable as our native Mute Swans.

In the Outer Hebrides, Mute Swans are resident mainly to the southern islands, from Berneray to Barra, with Loch Bee on South Uist recognised as a nationally important site for non-breeding, moulting and wintering birds. The spectacle scores of elegant, white birds on a winter morning on Loch Bee, shrouded in mist as the sun rises behind Beinn Mhor, is far removed from the municipal parks inhabited by their semi-domesticated relatives. The nearest I can get to seven Yuletide swans are the pair of Mute Swans with their family cygnets on Oban na Buail-uachdraich, which regularly delight passers-by on their way to Eochar. These are stately and imperious birds, which I suspect would be disdainful of any offering of stale crusts of bread, however kindly offered.

I see Mute Swans on almost a daily basis and watch as they go through the annual, domestic cycle of nesting and rasing their young. As the cygnets reach maturity, and summer turns to autumn, with the approach of winter it is time to look and listen for migrating wild swans. Whooper Swans leave their breeding grounds in during October and November, moving south for winter. First the birds which have failed to rear any young and then the family groups begin their journey. Travelling from 800 to1,400 km this is probably the longest sea crossing made by any swan species. Most pass over the Hebrides, leaving only the echo of their bugling calls and memory of strong white wings and long slender necks as the skeins are silhouetted against a stormy sky. Haunting and evocative, the sight and sound of herds of wild swans flying so low as to appear to just skim over the waves, captures their romantic essence and place in Celtic mythology. Perhaps they really are the Children of Lir¹, condemned to swim between the Scottish and Irish coasts for 900 years.

Most of the Icelandic population of Whooper Swans winter in Ireland, but small numbers, often family groups, remain on the lochs of the Outer Hebrides for at least part of the winter. In the 1930s and 1950s Whooper Swans were more numerous in the islands with accounts of 200-300 birds wintering regularly on Loch an Duin and the surrounding area in North Uist. At this time they were also to be found on Loch Bee with as many as 400 recorded on one occasion. The numbers wintering in the islands has declined, but we can still look forward the spring and autumn migration when we are alerted to the change in the season by the call of the wild swans.

¹ In Irish mythology  the children of the Lir, an Irish chieftain, were cursed and transformed into swans by their jealous stepmother

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