Keeping the zombies in

Watching wildlife always plays a big part in our holidays, but I wouldn’t want you to think we’re one trick ponies.  We like to mix it up a bit: history, scenery, architecture and gardens all feature in our itineraries. Moreover, Mrs P is a notorious Captain Quirk, always on the lookout for the unusual, weird or downright bizarre to add a touch of the exotic to our expeditions in the UK and overseas.

And when we’re talking about quirky, you’d find it difficult to beat these mortsafes we found in a graveyard at Cluny in Aberdeenshire, on our way back from Shetland earlier this year.

Four mortsafes in Cluny Graveyard, Aberdeenshire, in front of the mausoleum of Miss Elyza Fraser (1814)

Mortsafes were a 19th century invention designed to prevent body snatchers stealing corpses and selling them to be dissected by students at medical schools.  They were impregnable cages made from heavy iron plates, rods and padlocks, and were used to enclose coffins for a period of about six weeks until bodies had decayed sufficiently to render them unsuitable for dissection. 

When the danger had passed the mortsafe was removed and could be reused to protect another coffin.  It is, incidentally, comforting to note that in these far-off times recycling was alive and well, even if the deceased were not.

Close-up view of the mortsafes

This is the official explanation of the mortsafe phenomenon.  However in the 21st century our society seems to have an uneasy relationship with the truth, one in which all propositions are true for a given definition of the word “true.”

If you think I’m being unnecessarily cynical in this assertion you should check out the nonsense that’s circulated on social media regarding the link between autism and the MMR vaccination.  To say nothing of the way certain world leaders deny the evidence for mankind’s role in climate change because they find it politically expedient to do so. 

And as for some of the nonsense spoken in the name of Brexit, don’t even go there.

The era of fake news plainly provides endless opportunities for mischief. With this in mind, I’d like to point out that although no-one is much troubled these days by the prospect of body-snatching, many of our more suggestible fellow citizens seem to live in fear of an imminent zombie apocalypse. 

That being the case I propose that the real purpose of a mortsafe was not to keep the body snatchers out, but rather to keep the zombies in.

All propositions are indeed true, for a given definition of the word “true.”

Embed from Getty Images


Puffins – the upstairs neighbours from hell

Bird cliffs are wonderful things.  Home to thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of birds living in close proximity to one another, they are a cacophony of noise and a maelstrom of action.  On the cliffs birds mate, lay their eggs, raise and feed their young, and fight off predators.  All life – and sometimes death, too – is here.

And then, of course, there’s the delicate matter of having a poo.

We all know that when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.  And we also know it’s best not to mess in your own back yard.  But how does the fastidious bird cope with this, without leaving – and therefore possibly losing – its favourite spot on the crowded cliff?  During our visit to Sumburgh Head on Shetland we were pleased to see a puffin demonstrate how it’s done.

We’d been watching the bird for a while.  It was standing motionless on scrubby grass close to the cliff edge, staring out at the ocean as if deep in thought.  Finally, it seemed, the puffin reached a decision. 

The bird shuffled around until its head was facing inland and its tail out to sea.  It then engaged reverse gear and inched gingerly backwards.  At last, teetering on the very edge of the cliff, just inches from disaster, it dipped its head, raised its backside into the air and casually did the business. 

Except for its bill a puffin’s face is unmoveable, an inscrutable mask.  But I’m sure I could detect in that bird’s eye a mischievous twinkle, the barest hint of smug satisfaction.  I swear the puffin was quietly rejoicing in a job well done as it waddled away from the cliff edge, turned and resumed its previous position to stare serenely out to sea.

It was a fine performance, and Mrs P’s photo captures for posterity the exact moment when the foul deed was done.  But spare a thought, if you will, for the poor fulmars and guillemots nesting on the cliffs below without a care in the world, unaware that just a second or two later they’d be showered in puffin poo, courtesy of the upstairs neighbour from hell.

It’s all about the puffins

I wish I could tell you we had great holiday in Shetland earlier this summer, but as the Platypus Man never tells porkies I’ll simply say that it was, sadly and for all the wrong reasons, an unforgettable experience.  We were there 17 days, and it rained on about 14 of those.  On several days it didn’t stop raining at all, while a bitter wind from the north made us wish we’d packed our thermals. 

Shetland is an island group at the northern extremity of the British Isles.  It’s much closer to Norway than to London, and it’s a different world up there.  We’ve been before, nearly 30 years ago, and when the sun’s out it’s strangely beautiful in a stark, barren, pared-back kind of way.  In June 2019, however, we barely spotted the sun at all.  Gloom and despondency settled upon the Platypus Man and Mrs P, and we bitterly regretted not going somewhere more congenial, like Antarctica, or maybe Everest base camp.

But of course every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case it was the puffins.  Shetland is one of the best places in the UK to see the Atlantic Puffin, and although their numbers are falling steadily due to the impact of climate change on the fish that make up their diet, they are still present in good numbers. 

Sumburgh Head, at the southern tip of Shetland, has an easily accessible puffin cliff.  We went twice, and on both occasions a miracle occurred: the rain stopped and the sun came out, though the wind buffeted us mercilessly, howling like a banshee and tugging roughly at our hair and coats like an old woman stroking a cat.

Mrs P and I are seasoned birders – bird-nerds, some might say – and enjoy nothing more than spending time watching birds of all types.  The average Brit is less keen, but I defy anyone not to be enchanted by puffins.  Some people call them sea parrots, others cliff-top clowns, but what’s in a name?  They are, quite simply, the most iconic and instantly recognisable of this country’s seabirds.

And they came in their droves to the cliffs at Sumburgh, ordinary folk who’ve probably never done a day’s birdwatching in their lives, to be captivated by the puffins.  Some of the birds are so close you can almost touch them, and they seem to pose for the camera.  It’s difficult not to take a good photo of a puffin.

Everyone loves a puffin, wants to see them, wants to get up close and personal with them, wants a selfie with them.  It was just the same when we visited Newfoundland a couple of years ago.  In coastal areas, wherever the birds were known to nest, the conversation between ordinary tourists was dominated by one subject: where is the best place to see a puffin? 

In coastal Newfoundland, as at Sumburgh Head in Shetland, one thing is beyond doubt: it’s all about the puffins.