Britain’s Last Great Auk Was Killed as a Witch

In July 1840, the last great auk in Britain was killed by three men on the island of St. Kilda in Scotland. Species have been regularly hunted to extinction throughout human history, so it is no surprise that the same fate befell the great auk, a bird that is similar in appearance to a penguin. What is surprising about the death of the last great auk in the British Isles is the reason for its murder: its killers suspected it was a witch.

The species had been on the decline since the start of the Little Ice Age in the 1600s. Further decimation by Europeans, who used their down to stuff pillows and who stole their eggs to sell to collectors, prompted Great Britain to pass a law in 1775 that banned hunting great auks for their feathers or eggs. Penalties could be severe, and there are reports of people being flogged for violating the law, but the damage had already been done. In addition, it was still legal to kill the birds to use as fishing bait or other purposes. By the early 1800s, auks had largely disappeared from British shores.

0d47eeef2abf05521f71-1e80f65b3c6327b7cb4b0619fd21f75b.r59.cf2.rackcdn.com
0d47eeef2abf05521f71-1e80f65b3c6327b7cb4b0619fd21f75b.r59.cf2.rackcdn.com

It is no wonder, then, that the men who spied the last British great auk on the islet of Stac an Armin in St. Kilda’s, Scotland, were intrigued by it. They probably knew what kind of bird it was due to the legends that surrounded it on St. Kilda’s. They captured the auk and took it back to their cottage so they could think about what to do with it. They kept it there for three days.

At some point during the days of the bird’s captivity, a fierce storm blew up. The men were trapped alone in their bare shelter, unable to return to the main island of St. Kilda’s. The isolation and fear of the storm must have affected their minds in some way, as they began to suspect that the great auk in their possession was actually a witch with the power to create the storm that now assaulted them. The men decided to kill the bird to try to stop the storm, and they reportedly beat it to death with either stones or sticks. Soon, the storm passed, and they left the body of the bird behind.

Thus ended the life of the last great auk in Britain. Not long after this, the bird species was completely killed off when the last known pair were hunted down in Iceland, and their lone egg accidentally crushed. Now, the only place you can see a great auk is in a museum, where some taxidermied bodies are kept. Sadly, the practice of killing the birds to be used as preserved specimens in museums and private collections was one of the practices that led to their extinction.

Next Article
ADVERTISEMENT
  • The South’s Most Haunted Plantation

    The plantations of the southern United States are full of terrible history because of their connection with the cruel institution of slavery. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of them are believed to be haunted because of the terrible things that happened on them. The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana may...

    Read More
  • Extinct Penguin Species Never Really Existed

    In 1983, scientists discovered four penguin bones in an archaeological site on Hunter Island in Tasmania. The 750-year-old bones were determined to belong to a previously unidentified species of penguin, which they then dubbed the Hunter Island penguin. As no living Hunter Island penguins existed, the species was declared extinct as soon as it was...

    Read More
  • The Scottish Head Hunter

    Jack Renton followed in the footsteps of many of his fellow Scotsmen when he decided to make his living from the sea. And, like a fair number of his fellow sailors, he found himself shanghaied in 1868 at the age of 20, meaning he was kidnapped and forced to work aboard someone else’s ship. Naturally,...

    Read More
  • Was Alexander the Great Killed by Poison Water?

    For centuries, historians believed that Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king and fearless military leader, died after one of his many all-night drinking parties. His drinking buddies reported that he cried out from a sudden, stabbing gut pain and took to his bed, from which he never got up again. He died twelve days later,...

    Read More
  • How a Tea Party Saved an American Regiment

    It was 1776, and Mary Lindley Murray found herself in an awkward position. This wealthy Quaker woman and wife of a wealthy merchant favored the American revolutionary cause. Her husband, however, was a known loyalist and supporter of the British. The Revolutionary War was going on all around her, and she was eventually faced with...

    Read More
  • Ancient Infant Ape Skull Sheds Light on Human Origins

    The lemon-sized skull of a baby ape was recently uncovered by scientists in northern Kenya. Though this at first sounds like an unremarkable find, the skull, which was buried under layers of volcanic ash, is at least 13 million years old. On top of this, researchers believe that it belongs to the earliest common ancestor...

    Read More
  • Was the Delphic Oracle “High”?

    Anyone who has read about or studied Greek history and mythology has heard of the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle was a powerful priestess who spoke prophecies, supposedly after being filled by the spirit of the god Apollo. She supposedly delivered these prophecies while in some kind of trance. Historians and scientists have often wondered...

    Read More
  • Miracle Mike the Headless Chicken

    In September of 1945, Lloyd Olsen and his wife, Clara, a farming couple in Fruita, Colorado, were expecting company for dinner. Clara’s mother was coming for a visit, and chicken was on the menu. Knowing that his mother-in-law enjoyed chicken necks, Lloyd tried to leave as much neck as possible on the rooster he was...

    Read More