Yorkshire Climmers: Egg Harvesting Alongside a Coastal Identity

Communities in Scotland and the UK have their history in their shorelines and cliffs, living alongside the world of the sea which dominated their lives.

The shared lives and homes between seals, humans, and birds alike allows for a unison – and in some cases, unique characteristics seen nowhere else.

My family history lies in peat bogs and farm lands in Ireland, and I have never experience the sea properly before now, outside of Sligo amusements and Blackpool pleasure beach as a child. There is something key in people who live with the sea – and I wish to iterate a distinction between living with, and living by the seaside. The seaside is a novelty for most, however a select amount of people have lived and still do live alongside the sea in a unison.

Bempton Cliffs, Photograph by Samuel A. McKie

I became aware of climming when talking to locals from where I am currently based, on Flamborough Head. There is a rich history of sailing, boating, engineering, fishing, and seabird egg collecting, Even seeing the sea birds has been eye opening, as I had no idea there were so many birds specific to the lifestyle of the beach and see besides a seagull. The coast offers a rich tapestry of fauna, wildlife, aquatic life, stones, seaweed, etcetera.

There are creatures which dwell under the sand such as razor clams and lugworms, which they have evolved alongside as the only home they could ever have, or maybe even wish to have. And it is the same for some of the people along coastlines – the freedom offered by the sea, the constancy and the comfort offered by the great expanse. The sustainability, and the nod to a past livelihood which still exists in fragments – fishing, shellfish eating raw from the beach, and up until the Victorian times – Climming.

The Bounty, Illustration by Heffernan, C.

Climming is a Yorkshire dialect shortening of the word climbing, creating a distinct identity for the locale and activities of these people. They were groups of people who congregated on Bempton Cliffs, and had tools stored in an under-ground dug-out. They would assemble their pieces, and one of these men would descend the steep cliff in search of eggs. Most notably: guillemot eggs, and if you’re lucky, a red one – the Bempton Belle. There is a wonderful point of study to be found on the Yorkshire Films Archive, which is a short black and white silent film of a group of Flamborough men descending the cliff, now existing as a rare physical documentation of the local history, outside of just word-of-mouth.

The beautiful, unforgiving, and harsh Bempton Cliff reaches almost 330 metres in height at points, making a human scaling down the side look no bigger than a guillemot.

(Image by Samuel McKie)

The YFA footage truly shows us how precarious and dangerous this venture was, for such a modest return of eggs. An unforgiving and harsh cliff reaching almost 330 metres in height at points, this mass body of land was scaled by a small human vessel carrying nothing but a woven basket and courage during the bounding descent on this pilgrimage for seabird eggs. Often they were collected for consumption, but in some cases they were used in leatherwork, and sugar refinement.

The primary egg collected seemed to be guillemot eggs. These strange birds have eggs which are shaped distinctly to work with their precarious home dwellings, so that if knocked they roll in almost a spinning motion, so that the eggs do not fall off the cliff edges, unlike eggs we are used to seeing, which are very circular and do not fair well if left on a raised surface. Guillemots are birds, like a lot of sea birds, which have adapted their form and the formation of their eggs to the landscape which is their home.

With the landscape of the Coast, this impacts the diet of the people and the animals – guillemot eggs have been described as having quite a fishy taste, which is no surprise with their meals being so dependant on the landscape – fish, mussels, etcetera – much like the people living in these areas, whose diets would be influenced by the trades. There is little cattle grazing, but an abundance of sea to utilise on a local scale.

Loose 3D print of the guillemot egg, seen with a slimmer edge which allowed for it to spin within itself rather than rolling away if nudged.
Dug-out in the cliff, Illustration by Heffernan, C.

I quickly became obsessed with this fragment of history, so intimate to the local birds and the landscape of the Head. Similar occupations occurred on the West coast of Scotland, with St. Kilda before the evacuation sharing a similar rich history of living with the coast surrounding the small islands, utilising the landscape for fishing, farming, and harvesting seabird eggs. There is still practise of egg collecting this today on the Faroe Islands, while it is now illegal in Scotland, Wales, and England under the Wild Birds Protection act of 1954.

The Climmers of Flamborough wore a distinct shaped hat for protection upon their descent down the sheer chalk cliff, made of just cloth stuffed with straw, and tied to a rope held onto by the other men who joined for the day’s work. I desired to further document this history in a modern way, befitting to where I am now and the methods I have available.

Rope and Basket, Illustration by Heffernan, C.
Collecting Tackle, Illustration by Heffernan, C.

This started with a series of illustrations of scenes from the YFA footage, to get a feel and an idea of the landscape. However I was not completely happy with flat images, and so moved into 3D model for a physical installation in ode to this unique and overlooked history. This led to use of a 3D printer with the help of ChapelPrintsCo – a Flamborough Head based cottage start-up business – and compostable plastic to produce small, minimalist sculptures for an installation on the chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head.

Climmers, by Heffernan, C.

The pieces were drawn by myself and with help from Samuel of ChapelPrintsCo, converted into 3D files for printing. As an ode to the tools used and the Celtic ideas of living in unison with the land and sea, I drilled patterns into chalk stones replicating the twists of rope and organic, earthy patterns associated with Celtic history. These were to be the framework and basis of the small sculptures.

We now still have these pieces decorating our home, as small historical figures, that are quite strange and unique. The 3D eggs were left white as they mimicked the colour of the chalk and made for a grand baseline of the installation.

This project wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Samuel A. McKie, who enriched it thoroughly, encouraged, and continues to encourage development of these ideas further.

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