After spending his early years in Leeds, Yorkshire, a young John moved with his family to Gillingham, Kent. On leaving school, he began work as a cartographer. Desk work, though, did not suit his temperament; his passion was for the outdoors, in particular birding, and he was an enthusiastic and talented swimmer and footballer. Eventually, he left his job as a cartographer and became a lifeguard at The Strand, a large, outdoor, saltwater swimming pool in Gillingham.
This was to be a life-changing decision, as it was here that John met his future wife, Sue. A few years later, their adventures began: a friend had recommended Fair Isle as a birding destination, so they hitch-hiked all the way and, on the last leg, they helped to push the plane out of the hangar to load supplies for the ‘new’ (in the late 1960s) Bird Observatory. This was their first of several holidays in Orkney and Shetland.
Eventually, the call of the Northern Isles saw the family – which now numbered four – relocating to Stronsay, Orkney, in 1977, albeit only for a short while. They soon relocated again, this time to Fair Isle. It was on the boat that was transporting their family and their belongings to Fair Isle that I first met John. John and Sue were to be the new island shopkeepers. Their arrival was keenly anticipated – John’s background (a trained cartographer, lifeguard at Gillingham’s outdoor swimming pool and all-round sportsman – he’d declined to become a semi-professional footballer) did not, at first, make him seem ideal for the job. Three of his – and Sue’s – other qualities, however, quickly made Stackhoull Stores central to island life: their sense of humour, their determination and their birding skills.
John and Sue brought with them two more pupils for the Fair Isle School: Hazel was six at the time and Hayden was just three. In 1978, the dozen or so 5–12-year-olds – the whole school – put together the first edition of the Fair Isle Times. Within a few months, this weekly newssheet evolved into a printed publication that was delivered, by the schoolchildren, to all houses on the island. Among other articles, it carried – for nearly four years – an eagerly anticipated cartoon strip by John called Slogar Joe, which chronicled the adventures and reflections of a character who had lived on Fair Isle since time immemorial. This gave John an outlet through which to share his outstanding artwork, his sense of fun and his passion for island life. From time to time, John would also publish a written commentary on island life; this, too, was very well received – not least because of his particularly idiosyncratic poetic style.
John and Sue’s third child, Kevin, was born in 1978, just a fortnight before my first son, Tristan. Both native-born Fair Islanders, they were firm friends from the very first time they met each other – and they still are, living just five miles apart with their own families in Kirkwall.
Many birders might have found the duties of shopkeeper on Fair Isle too restrictive, especially during migration time. Not John and Sue. They set about bringing the birds to their own domain; and that led to the publication of Fair Isle’s Garden Birds in 1984 – an illustrated diary of their first five years, and a selection of species from the list of over 170 species seen in or from their garden! Those illustrations are a tribute to John’s in-the-field identification skills, and to his artistic talent.
In 1983, the family moved back down to Kent – and now John was superintendent of what had become The Strand Pool and Leisure Park, where, on hot summer days, there might be 3,000 customers. John collated a systematic list of The Birds of Gillingham and he was delighted to see the progress at the Riverside Country Park – a project with which he had been involved in the 1970s and an area that is now regarded highly as a conservation success story. But, just four years later, the family was drawn north again, back to Stronsay. John and Sue renovated a house called ‘Castle’ and, as well as making it a guesthouse, they set about creating their own bird reserve. By 1989, all was ready, and opening day revealed the logo chosen for the Castle Bird Reserve, as it had come to be known: a Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola. As John later wrote: ‘We had set ourselves up for ridicule unless we attracted one to the reserve area fairly quickly. It was a calculated risk and, on 21st September 1992, we discovered one feeding in the very patch of oats we had planted for the species.’
Ten years later, on 7th June 2002, he heard an Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina singing in a deserted garden bordering the reserve. It was to be the beginning of a remarkable story – fully documented from an upstairs window in the empty house – of a breeding pair that raised four, possibly five young during the subsequent two months.
The whole family was delighted to welcome ‘regulars’ and first timers to the guesthouse and this swiftly led to visitors becoming personal friends – friends who returned every year. Some were already keen birdwatchers; many couldn’t fail to be infected by John’s enthusiasm and expertise. It is no great surprise that John’s book The Birds of Stronsay includes a chapter of reminiscences, recollections and favourite memories by over two dozen such friends; for over 30 years, John really was the ‘Birdman of Stronsay’. John and Sue’s daughter, Hazel, also became a keen birdwatcher; she married her Stronsay sweetheart and still lives not far away at the farm of Airy.
At the end of February this year, we received our copy of the 2022 Stronsay Bird Report – John’s annual summary of the birds of the island, including records from other residents. Mine (each cover was drawn and coloured individually) features one of my favourite species, a Bluethroat Luscinia svecica (just one record from 2022, on 23rd October). And, inside, a note – ‘Must ring for a chat! We keep losing track of you! Love, John and Sue’. We are among many who have enjoyed and valued John’s friendship and birding expertise, his art, his books, and – of course – his sense of fun. Many members of the island community, and birding friends from farther south, gathered for John’s funeral in Stronsay on 17th February. There was, too, a memorial gathering over 700 miles away at The Strand on the same day.
Roderick Thorne, with input from Jennifer Graham
001. John Holloway Unknown