Great auks were once plentiful across the northern Atlantic. Though flightless, they were excellent swimmers, able to dive to depths of 75 metres. They bred only in a small number of sites, requiring rocky islets near to a plentiful supply of fish- the St Kilda archipelago was perfect for them in this regard. However, human hunting on both sides of the Atlantic took its toll on the population. While in 1697 the garefowl, the “largest and stateliest” of the seabirds of St Kilda, appeared to have been common, they were already rare just half a century later. With its increasing rarity, it began to be prized by museums and collectors; this in turn drove people to hunt out and kill the remaining birds for specimens. By the mid 19th century, it was so rare that the St Kildans had all but forgotten it.


In 1840, Lachlan McKinnon and four other men were hunting seabirds on the cliffs of Stac an Armin. They happened upon a great auk sleeping on a cliff and captured it, tying it up and taking it to their bothy. The bird made a “great noise, like that made by a gannet, but much louder”, and nearly cut through the rope tethering it with its bill. Soon after, a storm blew up. The combination of the sudden bad weather and the eerie noises made by the strange bird frightened the men, Lachlan in particular, and caused them to believe it was a witch. On Lachlan’s suggestion, three days after capturing it they beat it to death with two large rocks- it took a full hour to kill it. This was the last known bird in the UK; four years later, the last in the world was killed by specimen hunters in Iceland.

Great Auk from Birds of America (1827) by John James Audubon (1785 - 1851), etched by Robert Havell (1793 - 1878).

The 1840 date commonly given for the killing of the great auk on Stac an Armin is based mostly on the somewhat hazy recollections of Lachlan Mackinnon in interviews nearly half a century after the event, so there is a fairly large margin of error. Recent research by John Love has raised the possibility that the long-accepted date for the the St Kilda incident is wrong, and it actually took place 8 years later, in 1848.  If correct, that would have come 4 years after the last known bird in Iceland, and Lachlan might just have dispatched the last ever Great Auk in the world.

Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas 1905