Goodbye to the northern isles
21 June 2017
Our two final days in the northern islands were spent exploring Sanday further. We went back to the Quoyness cairn as the weather was overcast and much cooler the following day, and walked down a path walled off from any cattle. Go figure! For me the cairn was a disappointment, as the entrance passage was barely three feet high, and my flexibility is not what it was these days, so I did not go in. Ju braved it, however, and took some photos inside. Impressive, well restored and maintained. We had a conversation about how sites like this could do with the kind of body trolleys car mechanics use to get under vehicles.
Sanday has an excellent heritage centre, which covers the history of the island from earliest times. There was a section celebrating the life and work of Peter Maxwell Davies, Max as they called him, who lived on Sanday after he left his croft on Hoy, and died there only a few years ago. He did a huge amount of work with people in Orkney, making music and founding the St Magnus festival, which flourishes every year, attracting mainstream classical orchestras to the islands.
Our third day dawned sunny, so we headed back up to the bay with the beached destroyer, as low tide was early in the morning. I got some good photos of this amazing relic, still recognisable as a large ship, around 70 metres long, and very high up the beach.
Then we turned our attention to an interesting geographical feature of Sanday, high sand dunes, in a line down the edge of a wide sandy bay, with another wide sandy bay on the other side, culminating in an almost tidal island of a few acres, with farm buildings on it. In brilliant sunshine, with Jack off the lead, we walked down towards the houses by the farm. One of these, to our amazement, has just newly been built, in fact we saw a man still working on it. We could understand why someone would want to buld a house there, with a fantastic sea view and privacy guaranteed as the only access was by a four by four driving down a sandy and stony beach. More concerning is the pervasive erosion of the coastline here, as elsewhere on Orkney. The sandy beaches and cliffs of sand in the dunes are fast disappearing, so it could happen that these houses might end up literally isolated, on a new island! We found out later from our campsite owner that the man who owns the house made his money in the oil business.
On Thursday morning we headed down to the ferry, and enjoyed a smooth sail back down to Kirkwall, slightly sad as that was our last trip north to the islands from there.
On our way west we decided to look at two cairns signposted off the Kirkwall Stromness road, and headed to the top of the hill behind Kirkwall, Wideford Hill, covered in radio tv and mobile phone masts, with tremendous views of Scapa Flow, of Kirkwall, of many of the islands we had visited. The second cairn was nearer Finstown, and needed us to climb a hill to see. There were torches provided in a box for the intrepid visitor. Once again the access passage was tiny, so we let Jack have a look for us, helped by the beam of the torch. Then we climbed to the top of the hill and saw the interesting stone pillars which we suspect locals have built up in recent years, out of the ubiquitous flat Orkney stone, just to see how easy it is to construct things with.
A lunch at Leigh’s wonderful taste of Orkney lunch stall at Finstown, then off to Dounby for some supplies. Back at Birsay campsite we caught up with our laundry, and settled in for a few days rest and recreation before heading for Hoy on Sunday morning.
Finally we managed to cross the causeway and get on to the Brough of Birsay, with its interesting archaeological remains from nelithic and viking times. Discouraged by a rather old and battered notice banning dogs from the hill because of sheep, Ju and Jack stuck with the stones and I climbed up to the lighthouse. It was tiny, not very tapl, simly because it didn’t have to be. It sits on the top of high cliffs, so it can be seen for many miles around.
Sanday, or number ten
12 June 2017
A calm night, then off to the ferry queue. As the weeks go by, it is clear that Orkney is getting busier. Our ferry today, the Earl Sigurd again, was absolutely full of traffic, going to Sanday and Eday. We were first off, in lovely sunny weather, so we drove upisland for a bit then found a long curving sandy beach to go for a walk on. Jack was in his element, and we were the only three on that beach. Beautiful white shell sand.
We had lunch back at the van, parked on the grassy verge beside a graveyard with a ruined church in it. Then we headed for the chambered cairn at Quoyness, having read that it was exceptional. Down a long farm track, to a car park, after a mile or two, only to discover that no dogs could be taken down the path from there to the cairn. It was too hot to leave Jack in the van, so all we could do was spit and fume and turn round. It does not seem fair that Historic Scotland should have a brown sign pointing to this ancient monument without ensuring that the farmer provides a fenced path to it, away from their cows with calves that they don't want dogs to upset. Or at least say no dogs allowed beside the brown sign. Grrr.
Driving further north on Sanday we saw the Start Point lighthouse in the distance, with its vertical black and white stripes. Another Stevenson lighthouse, they are all over Orkney, it seems.
On the road we passed a bay where one of Germany's first two destroyers ever built for the first world war lies beached and visible only at low tide. We made a mental note to come back one day at low tide. The two world wars have left their mark on these islands. We went on to pass bizarre buildings left over from a radar tracking station.
Finally we headed for our campsite, where we were pleasantly surprised to find a good pitch, with electricity, and a direct view of the sea, looking out westward towards Papay and Westray!
Almost feeling nostalgic, as this is our tenth and last of Orkney's northern isles. Next up will be Hoy.
North Ronaldsay to Shapinsay
10 June 2017
Well we know now how it went, don't we? I fully intended to stay up all night in the van on election night and listen to the radio as the results were declared, but having got myself all wound up about the possible outcomes, in the event I just went to bed.
Woke up to a hung parliament. Our last morning on North Ronaldsay. But I digress. On Wednesday evening we had dinner in the observatory restuarant. North Ronaldsay roast mutton. Those amazing sheep that eat seaweed. Mutton is a meat very much out of fashion these days. I remember it as a child in the fifties, before everybody started insisting on lamb. This meal was delicious, the meat looked dark in colour, and was full of flavour. I followed my main course with a pudding of rhubarb and custard! They actually grow rhubarb in a walled garden next to the campground, so I reckoned the food miles would not be many. We got chatting to the other diners, all tourists or bird watchers who had come up by plane, and were staying in the hotel accommodation the centre offers. There was also a team of three from the Northern Lighthouse board, up to give the lighthouse on this island, one of the tallest in Scotland, its annual once-over. There is a large crew of young people, mostly students doing degrees involving the environment or wildlife, and their days are filled with bird census walks, trapping in the bizarre Heligoland bird traps, and ringing birds. This was apparently the tail end of the migration season, and not many rarities were noted. The funny thing was that in the evenings all these keen young shorts-wearing ruffty tuffty men and women suddenly became waiters in the restaurant!
We did some good walks on North Ron, the first on our first really windy and rainy day to a broch on the southern tip of the island. The weather on Thursday was in stark contrast, it was warm, blue sky, no wind, jackets off weather. We walked up island, saw Fairisle on the horizon, and walked the east coast for a bit, finding the golf course on the way. The club house, a rickety wooden construction, stood open, a golf bag with elderly clubs in evidence within. Brilliant, I thought.
We had a great day on Thursday, and as described above I just went to bed rather than stay up for a blow by blow account of the election.
Our plan was to pack up the van and head up-island to look at the Stevenson lighthouse, however the lovely weather of Thursday had evaporated, and we were left with strong winds and rain. So we just packed up the van and waited for the ferry to arrive.
When it did Reg's flight into the ship was more hazardous than the previous one, but somehow it did not bother me as much. I knew they could do it, and not bash the van in the process, so all was well.
The first part of our voyage was definitely the worst, as North Ronaldsay is in pretty exposed seas, so we hung on as best we could as the ship rolled and bucked its way through a sideways on swell, as it shipped seas on to the loading deck which sent heavy galvanised buckets dancing around the deck.
Soon the ship was in the lee of other islands, and it was possible to sit down again without hanging on as well.
Ju had booked us in to Pickaquoy campsite, where we settled in for the night. That was island eight.
On Saturday morning we packed up and headed for another ferry, to our ninth island, Shapinsay. This is possibly the closest island to reach from Kirkwall, and has many interesting features, including a former castle now hotel, a little village street with houses on one side, gardens on the other, like Ellenabeich near home, an mzing broch.
We went first to the bird hide, then to the north point of the island. There is no campsite here, rather like on Stronsay, so we had to case the joint for a possible campsite to wild camp. Prime suspect was the car park near the ferry terminal, which had the 24/7 public toilets in it. But we had a look at other possibilities and discarded all of them. You can't beat being parked next to a loo!
This island has an air of prosperity about it. There are some lovely buildings, the castle, the heritage centre, the watermill, the old ruined church, the workers' houses. As we found everywhere else on Orkney, large ranch-like farms with beef cattle and some sheep grazing in rectangular fields, all very lush green. The cattle always come to see us when we walk past. On a few occasions they have stampeded over to the fence next to us, to say hello. The fields mostly have electric fences, so they are careful not to touch them! They run about freely in the fields, like I can't remember cattle ever doing on the mainland. I suppose that's because most of the cattle I see at home are dairy.
On one of the lochs we saw today was a strange floating island, manmade, on which a large dog otter was asleep. Ju spotted it and took some photos. At last, an otter!
Back to Pickaquoy tomorrow, then the last of the northern islands, our tenth, Sanday!