On the island of North Ronaldsay, you join us half-way through our description of the most northerly of Orkney’s islands. On another page - the link is just above and also repeated at the end of this page - we did the north end, discovering lighthouses, views to Fair Isle, and lots of North Ronaldsay sheep.
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As well as these funny wee sheep everywhere near the sea, there are the other features that add so much to the remote island ambience. There is this ancient ancient pile of metal rubbish, for instance. OK, I could have stepped beyond it and taken the photo that would have appeared in the tourism brochures of Linklet Bay. But I'm not writing a tourism brochure, so I might as well be honest with you. I also got a lovely shot of a dumped freezer cabinet as well. Oh, and a nice sofa, pictured below. It isn't easy getting rid of stuff on remote islands. This is another aspect of the brochure phrase about the island of North Ronaldsay: 'the island that time forgot'.
Pardon us this observation, any native Ronaldsay-wegians who read this. But the south end of the island of North Ronaldsay seems to be the posh end. We walked the length of the place, by neglected fields bright with seeding dandelion. (I approve.) Towards the north, we passed houses with their own car museums attached – the politest way I can think of describing them. There are some disconcerting ruins. And some dwellings where it’s hard to decide if they are lived in or not. But down at the south end, well, that’s where the statutory island family ‘big hoose’ is to be found and also the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.
En route, pictured below with the Bird Observatory on the horizon left of centre, we found a signpost directing us to Gretchen Loch, which has a bird hide overlooking it. (I’ll get to the birds in a minute.) To get to the hide, you walk across a couple of fields towards the sea, with a curious standing stone on the way. (It has a hole in it, making it a ‘thirle-stane’ or pierced stone. That’s from ‘thirlan’ Anglo-Saxon ‘to pierce’ also giving us nostril - nose-hole – and thrill, which used to mean to pierce as well. And now, back to the North Ronaldsay island field. )
Anyway, unavoidably, you meet that pesky but practical sheep-dyke again, at this point so high it would keep out marauding Norsemen. So we walk on the landward side of the dyke, along the loch shore to reach the bird hide. And then we have to clamber over the wall to get in to it. Grrrr.
Now, excuse me again, but I thought the whole point of a bird hide was that you were able to approach it screened and without alerting any avifauna in the vicinity – not walk along at the edge of the loch and in front of it to actually get into it, in the meantime alerting every nervous duck and wader for hundreds of yards in all directions. See? They do things differently here.
It was hot. Uncharacteristically warm at least. We were ready for a drink, having walked for miles – so we visited the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory (pictured above) and ordered Orkney beers. Not only did a charming young lady serve us but she also came outside with us to sit in the sunshine and chat amicably about how she had come up to the island of North Ronaldsay from the other end of England with her fiancé to work here. She answered all our questions and we had a lovely time, admiring a panorama of islands spread out to the south across a glittering sea. See? They do things differently here.
The North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory seems a great idea as a base. They cater not just for birdy folk, but for normal people as well. (I’m sure I should phrase that better, but you know what I mean.)
Then it was time to fly back to Kirkwall from the island of North Ronaldsay. We waited in the general purpose waiting room at the airstrip, with the fire crew, who were pretty much locals, and we learned lots more about the island. (Though I must say all that fireproof padding they were wearing made me nervous.) I wanted very much to kick the tyres before boarding but resisted it. Our flight back over the green islands was flawless.
Oh, and about the birds. The island of North Ronaldsay isn’t quite as famous as Fair Isle, plainly in sight on the northern horizon. But it gets its share of, frankly, bizarre things that turn up. (We were happy enough to have seen some dingy kind of warbler, earlier on, which we thought was probably a willow warbler. There are of course, no willows on the island.) You’ve just missed the rosefinch earlier, they said. And the Icterine warbler and the paddyfield warbler, for goodness sake. And the American golden plover. Heck, you could get really birdy here after a few days.
Apart from the rarities, there is always plenty of other commoner things to see, and the fulmars (pictured above) are a bit bizarre. Normally cliff nesters, hereabouts on the island of North Ronaldsay they just seem to claim any space that’s available with a bit of shelter. They have become ground nesters and thus easily photographed.
Tossing the Fulmar
Just as an aside, I see the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory blog of the 1st September 2012 makes reference to stranded fulmars. They get inside the perimeter wall amongst long grass and, as they usually launch themselves off cliffs, they get stuck when there isn't enough wind for take-off. In fact, sometimes the observatory staff have to resort to fulmar tossing, to get the birds aloft. See, they do things differently here?
Overall, I’d go back to North Ronaldsay and stay at the Bird Observatory, though probably anonymously, in case they read this page. There is a broch site on the east side of the island we didn’t have time to explore. And several hundred North Ronaldsay sheep we didn’t say hello to. A settled spell of good weather is to be recommended; though there are a couple of ferries a week as an alternative to the plane – nicknamed ‘the flying Land Rover’.
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Scotland in Three Days