Visiting Orkney again? Yes, why not, as we failed to catch up with friends there during our ‘working’ visit in April. The beginning of June found us driving up the A9 once more, this time to pause only briefly on Mainland before catching a flight onwards to North Ronaldsay.
We have history with that small island, the northernmost of the Orkney group. Sonia and I first visited in 1977, when I was in search of a baseline sample of ‘unimproved’ sheep for my PhD thesis. Fascinated by the place, and having made some good friends, we found excuses to visit again through the late 1970s and early 80s, then another couple of times in the early 90s with our small children. Since then, regrettably, life has taken us elsewhere. 2016 was our first return to the island for far too long.
Inevitably, there have been changes. The airfield on North Ronaldsay is no longer just a field – it actually has a gravel runway! Our friends Christine and Tommy were there to meet us, looking older but still very much the same people. The island’s population is gradually shrinking. In 1977, the island had a population in excess of 100. Today it is below 50. The one shop has closed, though provisions can be had at the bird observatory, which also boasts a café http://www.nrbo.co.uk/. At the opposite end of the island, buildings around the 1854 lighthouse, now automated, include a second café and a woollen mill.
The woollen mill http://www.northronaldsayyarn.co.uk/ aims to process and market wool from the island’s sheep, a multi-coloured flock of survivors famous for the quantities of seaweed in their diet. It is often said that seaweed is all they have to eat. That is not strictly true. All year round, the sheep have access to a couple of areas of grassy ‘links’, and the ewes with their lambs are taken in to pasture fields during the spring and summer. That said, we were amused to watch a bunch of sheep abandoning their grazing area as soon as the tide fell far enough to expose kelp down the foreshore. The important point about the seaweed diet is that kelp is especially available in late winter, thrown up onto the beaches by storms, so the sheep are best fed and at their fittest in the early spring, unlike conventionally-pastured sheep.
We spent nearly a week on North Ronaldsay, some of it with our friends and some of it just pottering about watching birds (35 species without really trying) and enjoying unusually bright weather. The island still raises excellent beef cattle, but in smaller numbers than in the past, and a lot of land is left fallow or just mown for silage. There have always been empty houses, usually the old crofts replaced by more recently-built two-storey houses. Today, though, the degree of abandonment is conspicuous as it becomes more and more difficult to make a secure living in outlying rural places.
One of the things that North Ronaldsay appealing is the sound of it. In almost any weather and at whatever state of the tide, there is the sound of the sea, a gently pulsing white noise to which wind passing through grass adds another layer. Then there are the birds: oystercatchers piping indignantly, curlews more elegantly, the overhead whirr of a diving snipe, the harsh screech of arctic terns and the ak-ak of fulmars. Just very occasionally, the infernal combustion engine intervenes, but not for long.
Islands have the wonderful effect of separation. The sea is visible in all directions. On the horizon to the south and southwest there are other islands, yet there is something slightly unreal about them. The only reality is the few square miles of the island that you are on. Everything else is at arm’s length and temporarily on hold until you choose to return to it. It is easy to see why some people choose not to make that return, but to isolate themselves by staying offshore. Sitting on a warm rock by the sea, watching birds and seals getting on with their lives, it is easy to understand that attraction. On the other hand, I have been on North Ronaldsay in January, when it has seemed all too possible that an Atlantic storm will simply sweep over the entire island, and well-nigh impossible that a boat or aircraft will ever again manage to bring supplies.
And so we left, to return to the urban hubbub of Kirkwall and more friends to visit, and then back to mainland Britain. Amongst the odds and ends that we brought back was nearly a kilogram of wool from the island.
On that first visit in 1977, we were both taught to spin. Maybe it is time to dust off the wheel and try to remember what we were taught. Watch this space.