I took the image below on a beautifully still late summer evening out a Dorlin, just as the sun was dropping behind Eilean Shona and as oystercatchers were returning to the mudflat on the opposite side of the River Shiel to roost. As they did so, their shrill calls, which are so evocative of the beautiful shores of western Scotland, filled the air. It is such a magical sound, and it is little wonder that the oystercatcher, and its call, features so much in the folklore of the West Highlands and Islands
Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, in his book “The Peat Fire Flame” describes how it was related in the Islands that, when Christ was being pursued from one Hebridean Isle to another, he was hidden at low tide by two oystercatchers, who covered Him with seaweed, and kept watch over Him until His enemies had passed. And that it is supposed that for this act of grace, the oystercatcher was chosen to be the gille or manservant of Saint Bridget, Christ's foster-mother. Hence the origin of gille-hridean, the oystercatcher's Gaelic name.
An alternative story is that Saint Bride (Bridget) was running away from a band of evil men who were trying to kill her and, after being chased to a beach where there was no place to hide, she prayed to God to thank him for her life and lay on the sand to accept her death. However, before the men reached the beach, oystercatchers, who were patrolling the shoreline, saw her, recognised that she was in danger and covered her with seaweed, hiding her and saving her life. She blessed the species and since that day the oystercatcher has been the brìdean (Brìd-eun ‘Bride’s bird) or gille-brìde ‘servant of Bride’.
These two very similar stories may well be pure myth, but there is much written about the bird in the folklore of the West Highlands and Islands. Indeed, they say in the Hebrides that the oystercatcher was originally completely black, and that, in recognition of the two oystercatchers saving Christ from His enemies, it was awarded white plumage on its breast causing it to look like a white cross when it is seen flying towards you.
However, the oystercatcher’s most distinguishing feature must be its call and, more often than not, you will hear its shrill, insistent peep, peep, peep long before catch sight of any birds. In Gaelic the cry of the oystercatcher is " Bi glic, hi glic ; bi glic, bi glic! ", meaning ' be wise,' ' be prudent,' ' take care.' One story has it that Saint Bride followed this call across the sea from Ireland in her coracle to finally be guided to the shores of South Uist with an oystercatcher on each wrist. She is also said to have been able to call them to her hand and, in rough weather, send them out to sailors to guide them to safety. This may be why the cry of an oystercatcher was commonly regarded by West Highland mariners and fishermen as a warning of an approaching storm.
Video: An Oystercatcher Sunset Chorus, Dorlin, Loch Moidart
After hearing their call, you may well spot oystercatchers swooping low over the sea, making a dazzling flight pattern, before eventually landing on exposed sand and mud flats, where they feed on shore-dwelling bivalves such as mussels and limpets, along with other invertebrates like ragworms. I just love watching these gregarious and noisy birds as they quickly run up and down the tideline in an almost comical fashion. To watch this flurry of activity and boundless energy helps you understand why one of the collective nouns for the oystercatcher is a “stew”. The two others I’m aware of are “Rockefeller” and “parcel”, but they just don’t seem to fit the bill as well.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.