North Ronaldsay sheep, which eat seaweed, and the lighthouse
(Note: Since my last blog, Roscoe the rescue border collie has come to live with us. I’ll be telling his story soon in another blog).
My husband Graham and I have lived in the Orkney Islands – in the West Mainland – for nearly two-and-a-half years. There are around 80 islands in the archipelago, about 16 of which are inhabited. In all the time we’ve lived here we’ve only managed to get to two of these: Shapinsay, which is nearest to the capital of Kirkwall, and Hoy, the High Isle, the one that dominates the skyline and is more like the Highlands than the other islands in Orkney.
But all that changed in the last week when we had visitors from England, who gave us an excuse to do a bit of island hopping. Why it requires someone else to get us out there, I don’t know. We could go any time, it just feels as though there are always other things that need doing.
Two weeks ago we all piled onto the Earl Thorfinn ferry and headed north for a day trip to Orkney’s most northerly island, North Ronaldsay. It’s famous for its two lighthouses, the Old Beacon being an iconic image of Orkney that appears in all the tourist brochures.
The ‘new’ North Ronaldsay lighthouse, built in 1852
It was very exciting to head so far north – the furthest north I’ve been in my life. It was a beautiful sunny day, so we sat outside and enjoyed the views and watched for interesting birds. The ferry stopped at the islands of Sanday and Eday, between which I spotted several Arctic skuas and had a gorgeous view of a pomarine skua which, while seen in Orkney, aren’t that common.
On arrival at North Ronaldsay we watched in amazement as they lifted several cars off the ferry and onto the quayside using webbing under the tires and a crane on the ferry.
Car being lifted off the North Ronaldsay ferry
North Ronaldsay is a small island, less than three square miles, and quite flat. There is only a population of 60, with just one child in the school, which doesn’t bode well for the island. There isn’t enough work to entice young families in and so, although housing has been built, it could be faced with a dwindling population.
North Ronaldsay landscape
We had lunch at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory. The island is the first stop for migrant birds heading south so there are often unusual sightings, especially if storms blow the birds off course.
We were able to get a lift to the northern end of the island where the lighthouses are. As we approached I asked the driver about the scaffolding surrounding the Old Beacon. He said there had been funding granted for restoration but work only got as far as erecting the scaffolding before the money ran out. It’s apparently been there for nearly five years, rusting away and spoiling the appearance of this wonderful old building.
The Old Beacon, North Ronaldsay
This is a topic that rose several times during our visitors’ stay in Orkney: there are many things in Orkney that rightly deserve preservation, but with resources stretched thin and a remote location with relatively few tourists, compared to places like Stirling Castle, it’s doubtful they ever will be preserved. It’s a shame, but understandable. Battles must be picked and with a country as rich in history as Scotland it can be a difficult choice.
Our other island visit was a three-night stay on Westray. We’ve often stood at the Brough of Birsay to the north of where we live, gazing out across the sea to Westray’s Noup Head lighthouse. Westray is bigger than North Ronaldsay, just under 20 square miles, with a population of somewhere around 500 (we’ve read anything between 300 and 600).
The landscape reminded me of West Mainland, where we live, albeit with more hills. We stayed in the main village of Pierowall, set on a lovely crescent-shaped bay, and had our dinners in the hotel there, the only restaurant on the island. There are three cafes, but the hotel is the only place to get evening meals since the second hotel on the island was bought and turned into a private residence.
Papa Westray ferry coming into Pierowall from our cottage window
Roscoe came along on his first ever holiday. This was a good way of seeing how he’ll be when we go on our holiday sometime in October. He loved it and had a whale of a time!
On our first day we took the ferry over to the neighbouring island of Papa Westray, or Papay as it’s known locally. The name means ‘Islands of the Priests’, as there are several important religious sites there. There is an excellent website about the island: http://www.papawestray.co.uk/
According to this website, the next stop from North Hill on the island is the Arctic Circle, and the island lies roughly at the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway! It’s four miles long and only a mile wide. If you want to bring your car it has to be lifted off the ferry by crane, just as in North Ronaldsay. It’s a perfect island for bicycles, if it’s a nice day.
The ferry to Papa Westray
It certainly was nice the day we were there – warm, sunny, with hardly any wind. We had booked the Peedie Package Tour. The morning was spent touring the island, which has more than 60 archaelogical sites. Our guide, Tim, was formerly the RSPB warden for the island and has been there more than 20 years, so was full of information.
The Knap of Howar, the oldest dwelling-house in Western Europe, Papay
We visited the Knap of Howar, thought to be the oldest known dwelling-house in Western Europe, which dates back to around 3800 BC. The tour also took in the St Boniface Kirk and Holland Farm with its tiny museum of island life.
Roscoe guarding a Viking Earl’s grave, St Boniface Kirk, Papay
Tim drove us back to the hostel at Beltane House, which provides accommodation on the island, where we were served a fantastic lunch of the best carrot and coriander soup I’ve ever tasted, homemade quiche with salads and excellent homebakes. Clearly people had been busy preparing all the food for us.
Because we had Roscoe with us, I sat outside in the sun with him, hoping to swap over with Graham at some point. One of the women spotted me, and brought my meal out to me! I felt very spoiled.
In the afternoon we were taken on a guided walk by Sarah, the RSPB warden for Papay. It was a brilliant walk, beginning on a pearly-white sandy beach, which Roscoe immediately began digging up with gusto. This attracted the attention of a group of grey seals, who came in quite close to shore to see what he was doing. I think some people weren’t thrilled to have a dog on their tour, but I believe this redeemed him a bit. I don’t think the seals would have come in so close without him making such a commotion, and people seemed generally to warm to him after that!
Seals coming in to watch Roscoe on the beach, Papay
We had a brilliant walk along the cliffs and up over the maritime heath, seeing bits of the shipwreck of the Bella Vista, nesting shags and our first ever Primula Scotica, a diminutive pink primrose that only grows in special places in Orkney and Caithness. We also viewed The Bore, a distinct line in the sea where the Atlantic meets the North Sea.
Primula Scotica, Scottish Primrose, Papay
Roscoe tackled his first stiles, and showed that he just might make an excellent agility dog!
This statue and cairn commemorate one of the last Great Auks. A ‘victim’ of yarn-bombing!
All in all it was a great day, and we were really thankful to the people of Papay for making it such a nice experience. I can’t recommend the tour enough!
More about our time in Westray in Island Hopping part two.