Walk and Talk with Norman Ackroyd

The Leeds-born artist and Ramblers member is renowned for his distinctive etchings and watercolours – many capturing the wild beauty of the British Isles' Coastline.

Portrait of a man in a room with prints on the walls

By Rebecca Swirsky

Where did your fascination for wilder extremes that you capture in your etchings and watercolours begin?

When I was about six or seven, my father and I visited Bridlington. At the harbour, we got into a boat. The sea was extremely rough, so, on hitting a deep surge, the boat began to rock sharply. I had a taste, then, of the immense power of the sea. I was scared witless! And I thought, ‘These islands are surrounded by this kind of thing.’ Then, seeing the extreme islands off the coasts on maps, including the St Kilda archipelago (which lies 41 miles west of Benbecula in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides), I had a strong urge to understand how it was for the people who lived there, surrounded by incredible rock formations, who had never seen a tree – a notion I found moving. 

St Kilda features widely in some of your work. Why does it inspire you?

Today, St Kilda is well protected. Its four main islands, Hirta, Dùn, Soay and Boreray, together with their adjacent stacks of Stac an Armin, Stac Lee and Stac Levenish, have a coastline that is around 35km long. St Kilda’s last 36 residents left the islands in 1930. The army is based there, and perhaps three or four cottages have been rewired for scientists who are looking at feral sheep and birdlife. Partly because of the dramatic sea cliffs, the entire archipelago became Scotland’s first natural World Heritage Site in 1986. I consider it the British Galápagos.

Have you passed on your love of wild nature?

Oh yes, indeed. I have a daughter who is a musician. Poppy and her partner, Joe – a skilled sound engineer – have accompanied me on trips to St Kilda, North Rona and the Flannan Isles. They come to record the gannets bustling about and crowing. (During the summer, St Kilda has the largest seabird colony in the north-east Atlantic Ocean, with nearly one million birds.) They incorporate these sounds into beautiful music for their band, Hidden Orchestra. Together, we’ve visited really remote rocks. One of our most memorable experiences was witnessing the strange phenomenon of what locals call a ‘glass sea’, which happens about twice a year and is the consequence of a confluence of different currents hitting each other. In water that was smooth as oil, we witnessed hammerhead sharks.

So you’ve visited St Kilda many times…

Yes, to sleep on St Kilda – unreachable by telephone – is particularly special. It means you can be up for the sun. Seeing the sun rising and setting is important as it furnishes you with an intricate knowledge of the mapping of St Kilda and the way it’s laid out. Witnessing the sun begin to rise behind St Kilda’s jagged, isolated sea stacks, the UK’s highest, is spectacular. Stac Lee (which rises to 564ft above the North Atlantic) and Stac an Armin (which rises to 643ft) are huge volcanic cauldrons bursting out of the ocean, white with guano. St Kildans would harvest the gannets and great auks from Stac an Armin. They developed prehensile tools to get the eggs, so they were great cragsmen and climbers.

The weather can be rough in that part of the world – have you been caught out?

About eight years ago, I was stranded on St Kilda for nine or 10 days when the weather changed. I was about 72 or 73, but I managed to survive. The boatman who dropped me o_ had given me some mackerel, I had tinned sardines and baked beans, plenty of tea, and a tap I could use for water at the Ministry of Defence tracking station. On the upper floor of a store built in 1780, from my comfortable bed and sleeping bag, I could look out onto a storm force 10 sea. It was wonderful. Incredibly productive. I did a set of 10 etchings just on St Kilda – lots of watercolours. There are traces of prehistoric houses on St Kilda, which show it was inhabited for 4,000 years. I was glad to get back to a bacon sandwich, though.

A print showing the coast, cliffs and birds

How has exploring our islands enriched your life?

We are blessed in this country. Many islands, now uninhabited, have become feral and are well protected. The bird colonies of Mingulay, which is part of the Bishop’s or Barra Isles, are fantastic – the birds flourish like mad. If you see a gannet and a skua fighting in mid-air, well, it can be pretty vicious. The skua is the Wild West bird of the seas. Their eggs lie in nests in the grass – if you walk nearby, they will dive-bomb you. Then there’s the vegetation growing through the villages – the wonderful flora and fauna, and the colonies of wild goats. They’ve done it so well down the west coast of Scotland and Ireland. Some of these islands don’t even have piers, so to access them, you find a fisherman who has a love of the sea and is in semi-retirement. They possess a depth of knowledge acquired over a lifetime: where to land, at what time and when to turn for home, so you charter their boat for three or four days. It’s rather good. I get handed around the coast of Britain from boatman to boatman – which suits me fi ne. It’s like chartering an Atlantic taxi for a few days, going for the light and the sunsets. And when the seabirds get into the rays of the sun, they sparkle in the skies. I chartered a wonderful boat off Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point in mainland Britain. I had one of the world’s best breakfasts on that boat – fresh mackerel, straight out of the sea, cooked at 5am on the boat’s gimbal stove, and eaten in a butty with butter. Nothing better!

Norman has submitted work to the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, 10 June–12 August, www.royalacademy.org.uk