AS a young boy Keith Brockie would get on his bike and cycle the six miles from his home in Haddington to the beach at Aberlady bay to watch the seabirds pitch and dive on the breeze and gaze out towards the white dome of the Bass Rock, where he knew the puffins were flocking even if they were tantalisingly out of sight.
And always to hand was his sketchpad and pencil. “I can’t remember which came first, a love of wildlife or a love of drawing,” he says. “They just seemed to go hand in hand.”
It’s that love of his subject combined with artistic skill which have made Brockie one of Scotland’s leading wildlife artists – and ensured that his books fly from the shelves whenever they are published.
Indeed 30 years ago, when his One Man’s Island, a collection of paintings and sketches done while he spent six months on the tiny isle of May, was printed it immediately became a bestseller. His painstaking studies of shags, puffins, butterflies, rabbits, seals and much more enchanted readers around the world. Now his seventh book – published next month – once again draws on his love affair with the island which nestles eight miles off the east coast in the Firth of Forth. “Since I first stayed there when I was 18, back in 1973, the island has held a special place in my soul,” he says. “I kept going back, but it was only in 1983 that I spent half a year there, and One Man’s Island was the result. I’ve been all over the world since, from Africa to Greenland and India and Svalbard, but the island always draws me back. Then when I was there visiting in June 2009, I found a rare White’s thrush, and I began to think about completely re-doing the book with new artwork.”
So from April to October two years ago, Keith returned to the isle of May, working intensively to produce an entirely new set of drawings and paintings. With his eye for colour, knowledge of the flora and fauna and attention to detail he produced a huge amount of work, from depictions of the majestic peregrine and white-tailed eagle to sketches of fluffy eider ducklings and kittiwake chicks, as well as delicate maritime flowers fish, crabs and lobsters and seals.
And as he likes to work from real life rather than photographs, it means a lot of sitting looking through his telescope – one eye on the lens and one on the sketchbook. “I try to do as much in the field as possible, painting and drawing from life rather than any other way. I can spend a couple of hours doing a sketch of an animal, if it stays still, whereas if you take a photograph you learn absolutely nothing about it.” His environment during both his stays was the lighthouse, known as Low Light, on the island. “It hadn’t really changed much in the intervening years, though I think Scottish Natural Heritage are to refurbish it. Some of the old war buildings had gone, as had the lighthouse keepers who used to live there – they went in 1989 when the Tower Light was automated. And the foghorns aren’t there any more which is not necessarily a bad thing.
“There’s also been a lot more archaeological excavation and as there’s a lot more interest in the island and it’s wildlife there can sometimes be a lot of people there at peak times. There are even remote cameras which relay images back to the Seabird Centre in North Berwick. So yes, things were different.”
He adds: “And one of the changes was in the number of birds. The seabirds are breeding later and when I first went to the Isle of May, the puffin numbers were increasing, they are declining quite a lot now and that’s to do with the lack of food due to overfishing.”
What was the same though, was the multitude of different wildlife to inspire him. “For an artist it’s an absolute paradise there’s so much subject matter to choose from. It is simply a fabulous place to work and your senses are heightened by nature all around.
“Puffins fly in with their beaks lined with fish, attempting to dive into their burrows before gulls can snatch at their catch. There’s a constant murmuring noise from the guillemots and the razorbills... the variety and changes with the seasons offer so many possibilities and there’s always the potential of finding something unusual.”
His new book attempts to capture the variety of wildlife on offer – but it also proves that Keith still has that childlike wonder at the natural world which made him get on his bike all those years ago.
“I think that’s a prerequisite for painting the wildlife,” he admits. “In August I spent a week working on various crustaceans and I was able to marvel at their amazing structure without any preconceived ideas of what they should look like.
“But overall I feel lucky to work at a job I love, and to do so on such a wonderful island.”
• Return to One Man’s Island by Keith Brockie is published by Birlinn, priced £25, in bookshops from November 8.
BURIALS, BATTLES, BEACONS AND INVADERS
The Isle of May lies around eight miles off the coast in the Firth of Forth and is just 1.8km long and less than half a kilometre wide.
Owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage as a National Nature Reserve, it was once used by ancient Scottish tribes as a regal burial site and is also the site of one of the earliest Christian churches in Scotland – founded in the ninth century.
But it’s history hasn’t always been so tranquil. The current chapel on the site is dedicated to Saint Adrian of May, who was killed on the island by Danish invaders in 875.
And during World War One, the “battle” of May Island on January 31, 1918, saw a sequence of accidental collisions between Royal Navy warships sink two submarines with subsequent heavy loss of life.
The Navy maintained a control centre on the island until after the Second World War.
A coal-fired beacon was first established there in 1635 and became the first permanently manned lighthouse in Scotland – using around 400 tons of coal per year.
Since 1956 the isle has been dedicated as a National Nature Reserve.