Stephen Gregory explores the rich history of Puffin Island…

Uninhabited – that’s the word which keeps cropping up when you’re reading about Puffin Island.

Of course, it means there aren’t any human beings living there at the moment. But you soon find out that, over the last nearly 2000 years, Man has left his clumsy great clod-hopping footprints all over the place.

Long before the island was named after the delightful bird which nests there, it was called Ynys Seiriol, after the hermit who lived there in the 6th Century. Seiriol was the son of Owain, a ruler of Gwynedd, and he was the brother of Einion, the king of the Llŷn Peninsula… but rather than remain a part of the Royal Court and honour his responsibilities and duties, he opted out and established an ecclesiastical settlement first of all at Penmon, before retiring to the peace and quiet of his hermitage on the island.

Seiriol became known as Saint Seiriol Wyn, ‘the fair’.  Having quit the duties he would have assumed as a member of a royal family, he was free to enjoy leisurely walks from his island retreat and across Ynys Mon. He would stride halfway across the larger island and meet his friend Cybi, who would become known as Saint Cybi Felyn, ‘the tanned’. The reason for these odd nicknames? Seiriol, walking from the south eastern tip of Anglesey in the morning, with the sun rising behind him, and returning with the sun setting behind him, remained fair of face… while his saintly friend from the north-west of the island had a lovely tan from walking into the sun both morning and evening.

And so Saint Seiriol lived the life of a reclusive holy man, and his bones remain resting somewhere on the island which humans have called Priestholm, and then Ynys Lannog and, nowadays, Puffin Island.

Uninhabited? The story goes that Gerald of Wales went there in 1188 and found a plague of mice. And of course it’s famous for the variety and abundance of its birdlife.

You can’t visit the island these days – it’s privately owned by the Baron Hill estate – but there are a number of companies offering boat trips around it. You can marvel at the fecundity of the island’s seabird populations… the air is whirling with different kinds of gulls and terns, and the steep cliffs are raucous and busy with guillemot and razorbill, kittiwake and shag. According to the records, Puffin Island is home to nearly 800 cormorants – that is, extraordinarily, about 10% of the whole population of cormorants in the United Kingdom. The boat trips provide
a great opportunity to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of our Welsh wildlife without even setting foot onto the island.

Smells? Well, yes, there’s a rich farmyard fragrance as well, because there are grey seals on the rocks and slipping gracefully into the water. If you’re lucky you’ll see bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises, truly beautiful and miraculous creatures of our native coast… so you’ll enjoy the natural proximity of some of our local marine mammals, as well as the plethora of birdlife.

Oh, and puffins… I almost forgot to mention them. You could be fortunate and see some of these charmingly comical birds, as they take off from the cliffs on their whirring wings and settle into rafts, feeding on the surface of the water. They dive among the waves and reappear with a catch of sand eels, held expertly askew in their uniquely multi-coloured beaks. It’s said that, until late in the 19th Century, there were 2,000 or more pairs of puffins on the island, so indeed the place was appropriately named… but then, if I can return to my idea of a heavy human footprint, it was a sudden arrival of rats from a shipwreck which cost the puffins dearly.

Rats. They came ashore and bred so successfully, and they foraged so voraciously on the eggs and chicks of the gentle puffins, that the numbers of the native birds plummeted. Over the following decades, until almost the end of the 20th Century, the rats plundered the island of its birdlife. If Gerald of Wales had seen a plague of mice in 1188, he would have been shocked to find the island plagued by rats… and so, to mention our human intervention again, in 1998, a poison was unleashed onto Puffin Island to control and eradicate the rats. As a parallel intervention, the burgeoning population of rabbits was almost completely wiped out by the introduction of the myxamatosis virus.

Since then, the number of puffins has gradually increased again. But only to about 300, in total.

Uninhabited? Well, there are no human beings living on Puffin Island. But, while remaining physically absent from the island for hundreds of years, we’ve still managed to stamp our footprint onto it by naming and re-naming it, briefly seeking solace on its grassy windswept surface, then causing a plague of this and that and utterly altering the numbers and lifestyles of the creatures living there, changing the make-up of its inhabitants. Man can shape the ecology of a place, an island, while hardly setting foot on it.

Over the years, our ships have suffered some bruising and tragic collisions with the rocks of Puffin Island. The Rothesay Castle foundered at Penmon Point in 1831, on a day trip from Liverpool, and 130 people were drowned. As a result of this awful loss of life, by 1838 the lighthouse was built at Penmon.  Fifty metres high, designed by the architect James Walker for Trinity House, it cost exactly £11,589, and has been a much-loved feature of that corner of Anglesey ever since. At the time of its construction, and in the early years of the lighthouse’s life, it had a quirky claim to fame for having one of the first WCs in such a building, a little bit of luxury for the lighthouse keeper. However, it didn’t work very well, subject to alarming and probably unpleasant malfunctions caused by the tidal surges… 

Penmon lighthouse has been unmanned since 1922. Since then, its bell has rung every 30 seconds, day and night without stopping. Right now, as I write, there’s a heated controversy about the bell … there’s been talk of changing it to a powerful foghorn, but the people of Penmon and its surroundings have launched a vociferous protest, to try and keep the original bell and its wonderfully sonorous tones. In the local newspapers you can read of the current debate – ‘the beautiful bell’ as it has rung for nearly 100 years, and ‘the soulless foghorn’ proposed for the future.

No one lives in the lighthouse now. And no one lives on Puffin Island. So much the better. No more humans, with their clod-hopping footprints, bringing their mice and rats and rabbits. Ynys Seiriol, Priestholm – whatever. Puffin Island sounds good to me.    

All images courtesy of photographer Nick Coburn Phillips