September 11, 2000 12:00 PM

All Fiona Middleton wanted that day in 1976 was a quiet place to practice her music. So she picked her way along the rocky coast of Scotland’s Cnoc Bay and found herself a spot near the water’s edge. There, with the lapping waves and the seabirds’ cries for accompaniment, she began to play her violin. But as the music echoed off the grassy hills and floated out over the water, “I suddenly realized I was being watched,” she says. “By a seal.”

The lone seal was soon joined by a handful of others, all of whom appeared to be listening raptly to the music. “Here were these wild animals that should have been swimming away, but they weren’t,” marvels Middleton. Now, 24 years later, Middleton, 42, still gives impromptu recitals for the seals of Islay, the island off Scotland’s west coast where she makes her home, but she also does much more. She has lobbied Scotland’s environmental minister to protect them and has even taken sick and injured pups into her house—and her bathtub—when it was necessary.

“We need characters like Fiona,” says actress Virginia McKenna, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, a British animal protection group. “She’s an example of how you respect and understand other creatures and live alongside them.” Says Middleton, who is known locally as Fiona of the Seals: “I owe it to them, if I’m going to live here, to protect them. We are all stewards of this world.”

The world Middleton grew up in was far from the rocky islets of Islay (pop. 3,500), though there may have been something premonitory about the name of her hometown: Seal, a village just southeast of London. Her parents, John Cuthbertson, a management consultant, and Minta, a homemaker, taught all their five children to play instruments, and the family regularly got together to practice the chamber music John composed. “It must have been a terrible racket,” says Middleton. “The dog used to hide in the bathroom.”

When she was 17 and contemplating a future as a classical violinist, Fiona was hired to stuff envelopes by George Middleton, a young mail-order businessman who was thinking of moving to Islay. She and Middleton fell in love and moved to the island to live full-time in 1978, buying the Kildalton Estate, 2,000 acres of rugged land that includes a deserted castle. Married in 1986, the two have three daughters—Hannah, 13, Fifi, 10, and Iona, 5—and, of course, innumerable seals.

But the novelty of luring the seals out to listen to her music changed for Middleton in 1988 when a deadly virus swept through the seal population of northern Europe, killing thousands. Although few in her area died, “suddenly, they were endangered,” she says, “and I realized just how much seals meant to me.”

The Middletons helped form the Islay and Jura Seal Action Group, and Fiona released a violin single called “Today the Seals,” helping to raise money for a boat to look for sick or injured seals. “It was destiny,” says George, now 50.

The next year, 1989, Fiona adopted a sick, starving seal pup. It died after five days. “We buried him near the spot where I first played for the seals,” she says. Another pup came along in June 1992. George put it in a bathtub before Fiona got home. “It wasn’t much of a surprise,” she says, laughing. “You can tell when there’s a seal around; you can smell them.”

This seal, named Aqua, not only survived, she settled in, watching TV with Cliffy, the Middletons’ Lab, and crawling into George’s lap. “She got so used to being in a towel,” says Fiona, “she would drag it across the room to the spot where she wanted to place it. She got spoiled.” Late that fall, Fiona returned Aqua, who had gained weight and learned to eat fish on her own, to the sea. “It was like seeing a child go away,” she says.

Since Aqua’s departure, the Middletons’ chaotic home has become a temporary sanctuary for injured, sick and abandoned seal pups. Fortunately the nine-room house once was a hotel, so there are usually—though not always—enough bathtubs. Dealing with the seal smell has been tougher. “They stink,” admits Fifi. “But I use half a can of air freshener in my room, and then it’s fine.”

This summer the Middletons—who also have dogs, cats, ducks, chickens, sheep, 15 peacocks and a near-blind horse—took in five seal pups, and winter will bring more. Only when spring comes again to Islay—and the last of the healthy seal pups are returned to the sea—will the family get a break. “That,” says Fiona, “is when everyone gets a bathtub.”

Michael Neill

Bryan Alexander on the Isle of Islay

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