Seabirds and Stendahl Syndrome


Gannets at Troup Head

Are gannets good for you?  Not as food, of course, though the former inhabitants of St Kilda would certainly have thought they were. Last week Judith and I took a short break to visit the gannetry at Troup Head in Aberdeenshire, just along from the village of Pennan, famous as the location for ‘Local Hero’.  Troup Head, an RSPB reserve, is the only mainland gannetry in Scotland, and our timing was perfect, as thousands of birds had already returned to set up their nesting sites, along with similar numbers of kittiwakes, a few razorbills, and some jackdaws playing at being seabirds.

We’ve been to similar seabird colonies on the Isle of May, and the Brough of Birsay in Orkney, but those are both island locations.  There’s something special about being able to just park your car, walk across a couple of fields, and then suddenly come across this vast seabird community.  By a quirk of acoustics you can barely hear the colony until you’re, literally, almost on top of it, and then the noise is deafening.  Gannets were everywhere: courting (that wonderful necking dance), fighting viciously over patches of ground (to the disapproval of their neighbours), flying—apparently—for the sheer pleasure of it, or just sleeping, head turned round and long beak lined along the back.

We sat and watched them for the best part of an hour, the closest birds barely 25 feet away.  We were the only humans there and we were completely ignored.  I guess it might be a different matter once the chicks have hatched! And I found that I felt a really profound sense of wellbeing, a sense of inner calm and unalloyed pleasure, to an extent that I’d not really recognised before.  I think it was being so close to so many birds, and those birds being apparently oblivious of us.  For the first time I felt I really understood what an Attenborough or a Chris Packham must feel like.

Afterwards, I began to think about the analogies between this experience of the natural world, and experiencing the arts.  The recent death of the great painter Howard Hodgkin had reminded me of when the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art had presented a major exhibition of his work, and I remembered standing in the centre of the largest of the four galleries involved, just slowly rotating, as my eyes and senses filled with the glorious colours and forms—never quite abstract—of Hodgkin’s large paintings. Much more recently, just last month, and in the same week, I had had two similar reactions, to the near-perfect playing of the Sitkovestsky Piano Trio in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, and to the astounding dancing of the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba at the Festival Theatre.

How can I sum up this feeling? Exceptional physical and mental wellbeing, inner calm, an absolute sense of rightness, and the paradox of feeling both excited and stimulated, and soothed and relaxed, all at once.  A sense of time standing still, and of wanting the experience not to end. When it reaches an extreme level, there is even a name for this: Stendahl Syndrome.

I’ve been googling whether anyone has been researching these parallels between how we react to nature, and how we respond to the arts. There’s plenty on how art might help us relate to nature but that’s not quite what I mean.  I’m interested in understanding if the two experiences are, fundamentally, similar or even the same.

At the moment the different arguments for the links between nature and wellbeing, and the arts and wellbeing, tend to march in parallel.  Those arguments are similar, but I’m not sure that they’re necessarily being linked up.  The Westminster Government seems to be accepting some of the arguments about nature and wellbeing, and this seems to have led a coalition of bodies to present a powerful argument for a Nature and Wellbeing Act . With the process of consultation for a new Scottish Cultural Strategy, should we be thinking about being equally bold and ambitious, and making the case for an Arts and Wellbeing Act?

Because arts provision is not a statutory duty of Local Authorities, support for artists, arts organisations, and arts activities, is drying up across much of Scotland.  The gaps in provision are often most acute in those communities which also score very heavily on indexes of Multiple Deprivation. Maybe it’s time for those who support the arts, and those who care about the natural world, to make common cause.

© Robert Livingston April 2017

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One response to “Seabirds and Stendahl Syndrome”

  1. chrisfremantle says :

    Phil Hanlon, Professor of Public Health, did suggest a while ago that our environmental crises and our health crises intersected (eg obeisity and the food system) so there are good reasons to link these two issues.
    Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplanand Kaplan) is one, albeit very specific, way to link the two. Kaplan says that things that attract our involuntary attention (including ripples on ponds, fires, leaves moving in trees, and probably flocks of birds) restore our ability to pay voluntary attention to things. Kaplan doesn’t restrict their list to natural things, but they predominate. I think they did a study in a museum context too. And they aren’t looking for the Stendahl Syndrome… that sounds exhausting! Whilst all encounters with nature (even urban and degraded) have the potential to be valuable and health promoting, not all encounters with the arts are ‘good’ – there are quality, context, content and intent issues. Art is afterall made by humans and subject to the vagaries and varieties of all things made by humans. That being said, the arts for health movement has done a lot of work on how to create art that contributes to health and well being and there were references in Creative Scotland’s Arts Strategy. Hopefully those ideas will travel forward into the Cultural Strategy.

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