Leatherback turtles in the Orkney Islands

Species: Some cold turtles, seen off the coast of the Orkney Islands, probably leatherbacks (Demochelys coriacea), also some chilled-out pet tortoises (sp. unclear).

Source: Scotia Illustrata (Scotland Illustrated), a complete geography of Scotland written in early enlightenment Scotland by Robert Sibbald.

Date: First published 1684 CE.

Highlights: This blog post introduces, translates and comments what I believe to be the earliest record of a marine turtle (most probably a leatherback) from Britain. This record, from Robert Sibbald’s Scotia Illustrata has been overlooked by previous scholars because the book is only available in difficult Latin. It is a decade older, and more certain than the previous oldest record.

leatherback turtle bigger than himan

Photograph of leatherback turtle with Marian Garvie and other, unknown, taken by Steve Garvie, licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0.
You too can grow up this big and strong on a diet of Natural History and jellyfish.


Most people don’t think of Britain as being a place where we find many chelonians (turtles, terrapins or tortoises). If turtles could be found here, surely we wouldn’t have to send David Attenborough to the Galapagos or Madagascar.

Surprisingly though, those people are wrong. Sea turtles do regularly visit the coastlines of Britain and the most commonly seen species is the leatherback turtle. The waters here are too cold for most species of sea turtle, but the leatherback is special. It is able to regulate its own body temperature, as if it were warm-blooded. This is a unique feat among our contemporary reptiles, but it means that leatherback turtles are able to routinely tolerate sea temperatures of 15° C (Beebee & Griffiths 2000, p.177, 179). The seas around Orkney are cooler than this, even in summer (Sea Temperature, 2016) but only by a couple of degrees.

The species of turtle in the picture at the top can be seen all around Britain and Ireland, but sightings are most common around the south west of England, Wales, the south of Ireland. They are also seen around Scotland, especially around the Western Isles but also the Orkney and Shetland Isles. Leatherback turtles dominate sightings lists and other species of turtle are not able to tolerate British waters. All individuals of other species of turtle found in 2014 required emergency medical assistance (NBN, 2015; Stephen, 1953; Penrose & Gander, 2015, pp.10-12; 19-20).

Marine turtles were also seen by the earliest naturalists.

Scotia Illustrata is a Latin text describing the geography of Scotland. It was published in 1684 by Robert Sibbald, Geographer Royal to Charles II.

So far, so boring right? Who cares about geography? Well in the case of Robert Sibbald, geography was not just about falling asleep on maps (Withers 2001). Sibbald was writing in the last years before the Union of Scotland and England, and his royal audience was a dynasty with a shaky grasp of the kingship.

Scotia Illustrata aims to convince you that although Scotland is a cohesive whole which is firmly under Jacobean rule, Scotland is also an objectively superior place to England. Its natural resources are richer, more varied and more exciting. Scotland should have pride in itself as a modern nation as great as any other in early modern Europe.

robert sibbald in wig

Portrait of Robert Sibbald. This image is in the public domain due to its age.
Geographers. More political than you might think.

But what has this got to do with turtles? Well they come under the ‘natural resources’ part of the book. Part of Scotia Illustrata is a long natural history of Scotland. This is exciting because it suggests that biodiversity was a prestigious and valuable attribute for an area centuries before scientists invented a word for the concept.

I’m hoping to get funding to do a translation of the whole part later in the year, but for now let’s see what Sibbald says about two common turtley-looking beasts:

Among the Egg Bearing [species is] the shell-covered tortoise or turtle. It is either terrestrial, in which case, it is kept in our gardens; or salt-water aquatic, in which case, it can be captured living [wild] in the Orkney Islands. I have [this] from a respectable, reliable man spending time there.

(Sibbald, 1684, Scotia Illustrata 2.III.2.6, my translation)

As far as I am aware, this is the first historical reference to a wild marine turtle from Britain (compare Bell 1849, p.16). Sibbald’s work was based mainly on the responses to a questionnaire he circulated among the gentry and clergy in the 1680s (see: Withers, 1996). One of Sibbald’s informants from Orkney was James Wallace, whose answer was later published as the Description of the Isles of Orkney in 1693. In the published version (ed. Small, 1883)  Wallace explains ‘sometime they find living tortoises on the shore’, so it’s likely Wallace was Sibbald’s source for this nugget.

Regardless of the exact age of the record, it helps demonstrate that our modern finds of sea turtles are not unprecedented, and that they have been visiting Britain for a considerable length of time. It is however worth pointing out that the species may not have been common. By situating the sea turtle in the Orkney Islands, Sibbald is exotifying the species to some extent; there is nothing, for example, to suggest he was aware of leatherback turtles ever washing up at in Edinburgh where he lived. This can in part be explained by the species’ preference for the western coast of Britain (NBN, 2015) but probably also suggests the species was never commonly found on the coasts of Britain.

McInery & Minting (2016) following Stephen (1953) point out another record by Sibbald in one of his later books: Auctarium musaei… Rerum Rariorum  (1697). Rerum Rariorum describes the shell of a ‘scalie sea-tortoise’ (III:2.4; p.193) in Sibbald’s collection as one of his rare specimens. Previous to this post, Rerum Rariorum was believed to contain the oldest British record of a sea turtle. The description of the record prompted Stephen (1953) to suggest that the turtle concerned may have been a hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) rather than a leatherback. Since the specimen was not observed alive, and other species of turtle do occasionally strand on British shores, this is a possibility, but unlikely for the reference I translated above from Scotia Illustrata which was observed as viva (alive) and wild and is therefore more likely to be a leatherback.

Our record above is also one of the earliest British references to keeping tortoises in captivity (Thomas 2010). It indicates that reptile-keeping may have been more widespread in the early-modern period than previously believed, and can be interpreted in line with the Jacobean obsession with keeping pets for emotional gratification (Thomas 2010). The use of the Latin verb alere even has some connotations of long-term captivity and rearing, although this alone is not sufficient to argue for a captive breeding operation.

table of seventeenth century people with reptiles and amphibians

Image of a naturalists’ meeting from the contemporary Douce Ballads 2 (c.1672-1696). It is used to illustrate a sexist moral ballad called ‘The scolding wife’ but almost certainly recycled from elsewhere.
Image is believed to be in the public domain due to its age. Go histoggggsee the amazing comic adaptation of this illustration on Hark a Vagrant.

So there you have it. Wild leatherback turtles and pet garden turtles attested in seventeenth century Scotland. Of course, sea turtles have been swimming around most of the world’s oceans since the time of the dinosaurs (at least the lower Cretaceous: Cadena & Parham, 2015), so their adaptability and versatility shouldn’t surprise us too much really.

Did you already know that leatherback turtles visit Britain’s coasts? Leave a comment below!


You can also contact me on Twitter @NaturalHistoryL, or follow me on Facebook to get the highlights without any of the boring bits.

I would like to acknowledge the expert assistance of members of the UK Amphibian and Reptile Groups Discussion Forum in improving this blog entry including especially Mark David Barber & Pete Minting.

N.B. I am hoping to publish more on Robert Sibbald later this year. I’d prefer it if you contacted me if you want to use my ideas in the meantime.

Should you wish to reference this post, you can use the following information:

Raye L (2016) Leatherback turtles in the Orkney Islands. Natural History. page: http://wp.me/p4zZmQ-7p, accessed: 04/01/2016.



Beebee, T.J.C. & Griffiths, R., 2000. Amphibians and reptiles, London: Collins.

Bell, T., 1849. A history of British reptiles, J. Van Voorst.

Cadena, Edwin A, and James F Parham. 2015. “Oldest Known Marine Turtle? A New Protostegid from the Lowe Cretaceous of Colombia.PaleoBios 32.1

McInery, C. & Minting, P. 2016. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Scotland. Forthcoming.

Penrose, R.S. & Gander, L.S. 2015. British Isles & Republic of Ireland Marine Turtle Strandings and Sightings: Annual Report 2014. Cardigan: Marine Environment Monitoring.

Sea Temperature. 2016. Orkney Average August Sea Temperature. page: http://www.seatemperature.org/europe/united-kingdom/orkney-august.htm, accessed: January 4th 2016.

Small, J. (1883) A Description of the Isles of Orkney by the Rev. James Wallace. Edinburgh: William Brown.

Stephen, A.C. 1953. Scottish turtle records previous to 1953. Scottish Naturalist, 65(2), pp.109-114.

Thomas, R., 2010. Translocated Testudinidae: the earliest archaeological evidence for land tortoise in Britain. Post-medieval archaeology, 44(1), pp.165–171.

Withers, C.W.J., 1996. Geography, science and national identity in early modern Britain: The case of Scotland and the work of Sir Robert Sibbald (1641–1722). Annals of Science 53: 29–73.

Withers, C.W.J., 2001. Geography, science and national identity: Scotland since 1520, Cambridge University Press


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