Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Island 279 - North Ronaldsay, Orkney

North Ronaldsay is the remotest and most exposed inhabited island in Orkney.  It is located to the north of Sanday.  It is low lying with the highest point only 20 metres above sea level and is 4 miles from north to south by 2 miles from east to west at its widest point. At the time of the 2011 Census North Ronaldsay had a population of 72 but I understand that this figure has fallen since.

I'm not quite sure why it took me until my 6th visit to Orkney in 2015, which was 36 years after my first one, to get round to visiting North Ronaldsay.  I think I thought it would be too complicated to arrange a visit, as it is only rarely (on some summer Sundays) possible to visit by ferry for the day.  The ferry calls only twice a week - currently on Tuesdays and Fridays - and the journey time is 2 hours and 40 minutes.  However arranging a day trip by air was remarkably simple and the flying time is only 18 minutes from Kirkwall.  I think I saved the best island until last, as I enjoyed every minute of my 9 and a half hour visit.  It was raining when I arrived but within 20 minutes the rain had stopped and a short while later the sun came out.  It was the calmest day of my whole holiday on Orkney and a very pleasant walking temperature.  Sometimes you immediately bond with an island and for me this was the case with North Ronaldsay.  I will be coming back for another visit in a few years time.

I walked a total of 15 miles up, down and around the island.  In the end I ran out of energy rather than time and spent a while sitting in the Old Kirkyard with the former residents of the island, about 90% of whom had one of 5 surnames - Tulloch, Swanney, Scott, Cutt or Thomson.  

North Ronaldsay's most famous inhabitants are its ancient and primitive rare breed of seaweed eating sheep.  The sheep are small, naturally have short tails and can be a range of colours from white, through grey to brown and black.  A 13 mile long dry stone Sheep Dyke runs round the coast of the whole island.  Its purpose is to keep the sheep on the outside.  In some places they have some grass to eat but their diet consists mainly of seaweed.  The ewes are brought in to the inland fields at lambing time and for a few months afterwards.  At certain times of the year the sheep are herded into stone punds to be sheared, dipped or separated out for sale.  

The Sheep Dyke may be designed to keep the sheep out but at certain points around the island I found that it was keeping me out too, as there aren't that many breaks in it.  

There is a Bird Observatory on North Ronaldsay because its exposed location makes it an ideal staging post for migrating birds in spring and autumn.  I visited in early summer, so the bird numbers weren't as great but I saw black guillemots, lapwings, terns, curlews, oystercatchers, eider ducks, fulmars, skylarks, swans and greylag gees.  The Bird Observatory provides hostel accommodation and has a café.  However it was shut for the afternoon when I visited at 3pm.  This was a shame because I could have done with a cup of tea.  They also sell Orkney Ice cream and I was very tempted to take one and leave the money for it on the counter but there was no price on the freezer and I had no change. 

New Kirk - doubles as a Heritage Centre

Crue at Dennis Ness
These were used to raise cabbage plants in a sheltered place and where the sheep couldn't eat them. Their location by the seashore was also a place where the frosts were less severe.  Once the plants matured they were transplanted into the inland fields.
Sheep Dyke at Linklet Bay
Although there are working parties to keep the Sheep Dyke in good repair there are times when coastal erosion destroys part of it.

The famous seaweed eating sheep.  
Sadly they were all very camera shy, so I couldn't get a close up photo of them.
Memorial to Derek Taylor and Garry Leaburn.  
They were both Prince's Trust volunteers from Dundee, who were helping on a project to repair the Sheep Dyke. On 6th August 1997 they were helping to repair a section of the sea wall near Westness when a 5 tonne concrete slab fell on to them and they were both killed.  The Prince's Trust was fined £10,000 for breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act.

New Lighthouse
Well, it might be new in comparison to the Old Beacon but it was erected in 1854 and at 109 feet it is the tallest land based lighthouse in the British Isles.  It was automated in 1998 and is open to the public for guided tours at certain times but not on the day I visited.  There is however an excellent café in the building at the foot of the lighthouse, staffed by a very chatty and friendly man.  The chocolate orange cake I had was delicious.  Like many people on small islands he had about a dozen part time jobs, one of which was fireman at the airport, so he was the first person I spoke to when I arrived.  In addition to the café there is an exhibition about the history of the lighthouse in an adjacent room and a small gift shop.

New Lighthouse

I do love stripey lighthouses, so here is another photo of it

And another

Foghorn at the New Lighthouse - installed in 1932 but no longer in use

New Lighthouse from one of the sheep punds at Dennis Ness

Seal Skerry from the north end of the island

Don't go too near a fulmar - if you do they will vomit foul smelling yellow liquid at you. Thankfully on this occasion it missed me!

Yes, it's another photo of the New Lighthouse

New Lighthouse and Cafe

Old Beacon 
This was undergoing repair when I visited in June 2015. The beacon was needed because of the large number of shipwrecks in the area.  It was designed by engineer Thomas Smith and his son-in-law Robert Stevenson and was first lit on 10th October 1789 and had a fixed light.  It was built of local stone and is 70 feet high.  However it was not successful in preventing shipwrecks, so in 1806 the reflectors were shipped to Start Point off Sanday and to Eilean Glas and Kinnaird Head.  The masonry cap with its distinctive stone ball was brought from Sanday.  The ruins next to the Old Beacon are the remains of the lighthouse keeper's cottage.
Old Beacon

Fish House at Bewan - this building was once used for curing fish

Is this a fossil? - I found it on the beach at Linklet Bay

Linklet Bay looking north east towards the Old Beacon

Is this art or junk?

Looking south down Linklet Bay

War Memorial
Memorial Hall.  
It commemorates those men from the island who died during the First World War.

North Ronaldsay School

Old Mill at Nesstoun.  
This engine driven mill was built in 1907 by the laird Mr Traill and was used to grind corn and oats.  The pillar to the right of it is the remains of a small windmill.

Holland House
This is the grandest house on the island and was built by the Traill Family, who bought the island in 1727.  It is still owned by the same family.  Their garden contains the only sizeable collection of trees and shrubs on North Ronaldsay.

Old Kirk
Standing Stone
This is located between Holland House and Loch Gretchen.  It is 13 feet high and has a hole through it. It may have been a marker stone for a stone circle that once stood on Tor Ness at the north west corner of the island.

A circular walk is waymarked from the road leading past this standing stone and on to the bird hide at Loch Gretchen.  However once I got to the coast I couldn't work out how to get to the bird hide without either getting wet feet at Loch Gretchen or climbing over a makeshift fence.  I went for climbing over the fence.  I then found the hide (but saw no birds).  However I then found I was stranded on the outside of the Sheep Dyke.  I found a newly built rock stile in the Sheep Dyke eventually and climbed over that but then lost the way again (more waymarking would be good if anyone from North Ronaldsay ever reads this)  and ended up walking through someone's garden.   

No idea what this is - presumably it is a purely decorative feature?

The leaning tower of North Ronaldsay  overlooking Loch Gretchen

Bird hide at Loch Gretchen

Looking north up the west coast

Sheep Dyke and what looks to me like a Heligoland Bird Trap, Twinyess on the south west coast

West coast at the south end of the island

Pier at Nouster.  
This is where the twice weekly ferry from Kirkwall docks.

South Coast at Nouster

South Bay from Nouster

Trig Point behind the Old Kirk - only 20 metres above sea level

Bistort in flower 
- I wish my bistort at home flowered this well

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