Who is the Mole?

Getting under the skin of Orkney

The Orkney Mole is a blog about Orkney – predominantly from the inside. It originated in 2016 during the extended Orkney sabbatical by Nigel and Tish Jennings and which continues intermittently to this day.

In addition to news of our perambulations the Orkney Mole aims to provide broad content about the diverse aspects of life in Orkney that I hope will appeal to a wide readership.  If you enjoy the writing please consider following the blog in order to receive email notification of new content.


The Assault on Eynhallow

D-Day Landings (courtesy History.com)

Lying between Orkney Mainland and the large outer island of Rousay (acclaimed for its wealth of Neolithic tombs, cairns and Iron Age brochs) is the uninhabited island of Eynhallow. It’s 75-hectare size puts it in that range of Orkney islands which are considered too small to be worth inhabiting in the 21st Century, but large enough to be worth a visit if you can get there. Eynhallow was abandoned by its last human population in 1851, although a flock of sheep is landed each year to graze and the island supports a large colony of breeding and roosting seabirds, so it is closely monitored by the RSPB. An abandoned Middle Ages monastery adds archaeological interest.

Each July the Orkney Heritage Society organises a special evening trip to Eynhallow using the services of the Tingwall-Rousay ferry which is capable of making a beach landing in the D-Day style. Tickets for the trip sell out online within hours, such is the demand, and it has been our long-held ambition to attend the trip. This year (2018) I was successful so expectations were high. The trip is guided by Orkney Rangers, RSPB wardens and leading local archaeologists. We were informed that the landing party divides into two groups and proceeds around the island perimeter path clockwise and counter-clockwise respectively.

Preparing to disembark at Eynhallow

Continue reading “The Assault on Eynhallow”

Not so welcome to Orkney?

The Orkney Mole blogged about cruise ships in 2016 (see here) and it seems the associated controversy has not gone away. A BBC television programme to be screened on Monday 31 July, Orkney: When the Boat Comes In (BBC One 19:30-20:00), documents the experience and debatable benefits of Orkney having become the cruise ship capital of the UK. Perhaps unwittingly, it has also catalysed the ever-present undercurrent of opinion in Orkney about the benefits and disbenefits of thousands of cruise ship passengers arriving on the island on virtually a daily basis in the summer.

Orkney: When the Boat Comes In

The acutely-observed “Giddy Limit” cartoon that graces the pages of The Orcadian newspaper (July 27, 2017) also added a satirical comment this week:

Today, Orkney was blessed by the arrival of the 4,345-passenger cruise ship MSC Preziosa (which sounds like Hermione Granger enunciating a Harry Potter spell) on the Kirkwall deep water pontoon at Hatston.

Continue reading “Not so welcome to Orkney?”

The power and the glory

Episodes of an Orkney Winter and the Churchill Barriers.

Winter storm at Birsay Bay, 7 February 2017

Five months have passed since the Orkney Mole last surfaced. There should have been at least one post entitled “Orkney Mole goes to Sicily”, comparing island life in two startling different climates. Sadly however, the vagaries of mobile internet connections followed by commitments to everyday life disrupted that literary opus. This latest and brief sojourn to Orkney was suggested by our Orcadian friends who kept telling us that we should experience an Orkney winter. So we packed for cold, wet and windy, and for a large part that is what we have got. What we didn’t expect however was to observe the tenacity with which local people get on with life in conditions that would drive many people to their beds. Not for the first time either, we have experienced highly disrupted mobile phone and internet signal coverage, so getting this first blog out has been a significant achievement.

I need to reprise several of the stories and subjects covered by the Orkney Mole last year. One of the most topical relates to the Churchill Barriers, touched upon in The Pentland Ferries Road Race. During the last few years the barriers are often temporarily closed during winter storms for safety reasons because, depending on wind direction and tide height, storm waves break dangerously over these narrow causeways. Prior to this it was left to driver discretion, but incidents of damaged and stranded vehicles were increasing and it was feared to be only a matter of time before a fatality occurred. Continue reading “The power and the glory”

Dr John Rae, Arctic explorer & navigator

The Hall of Clestrain

Orkney has many famous sons and it would be invidious to declare one of them THE most famous. This post is about my personal favourite, Dr John Rae, Arctic explorer and navigator. John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain near Orphir on 30 September 1813, fourth son of John Rae senior. Between the time of his death in 1893 and his 200th anniversary in 2013, Rae was little regarded outside of Orkney due to a Victorian smear campaign which persisted, quite extraordinarily, until the 21st Century.

John Rae’s father was factor (land agent) to Sir William Honeyman, judge, baronet and wealthy landowner in Orkney and elsewhere. Sir William is described as the proprietor of the Hall of Clestrain, which was a fine house in its day and the Rae family enjoyed considerable privilege at a time when most Orcadian folk lived on the edge of poverty. Sir William was notorious for being one of the first landowners to evict tenant crofters in order to graze sheep in what became known as the Highland Clearances. Meanwhile the young John Rae enjoyed all manner of healthy outdoor pursuits which served him well in his future life. There are interesting parallels to the privileged life of Charles Darwin (1809-1892).

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Show season – winter cometh!

The Orkney agricultural show season has come and gone in a week! Several Orcadians kid us that this signifies the end of summer, when the tourists leave, the nights draw in, the weather turns to cold raging gales, and they shut their doors. This is a little harsh (even though a gale was raging outside as I started to write this) because there are several festivals still to come in the next few months including the Orkney Science Festival which has justifiably earned an international reputation, together with the Rock and Jazz festivals all in September. Others have commented that Orkney community activities only really get going in the winter months when the farming is less intense and the locals have the place to themselves.

Meanwhile, the last week has seen a fast-moving circuit of agricultural shows held in East Mainland, Shapinsay, Sanday, St Margaret’s Hope and Dounby, culminating in the grand Orkney County Show held in Kirkwall today (Saturday 13 August 2016). Entirely by chance, Tish and I visited the nearby isle of Shapinsay on the day of their show last Tuesday. It was bright and breezy after the last set of gales blew through the day before. On the small ferry we found we were the only non-commercial vehicle but we chuckled that we were not pressed up against the huge tractor with the massive bale prongs and intimidating raker attachment (only to find it was our close companion on the return crossing). This is one of the inter-island ferries that require you to reverse on, care being needed not to end up in the harbour as reported in my It’s Gone Technical post).

Continue reading “Show season – winter cometh!”

Batten down the hatches…

Strong winds gusting to at least 60 mph are forecast across the Northern Isles tomorrow (Sunday 7 August 2016) and Monday. The effects of this impending breeze are already evident: the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, where we work in the shop at weekends, is closed tomorrow and heavy rain on Monday morning will probably ensure no digging gets done then. The gargantuan Caribbean Princess cruise ship (3,599 pax) has cancelled its visit tomorrow and run for shelter. Intriguingly, the cancellation of this cruise ship has released a full day’s-worth of places on pre-booked tours of the magnificent Maeshowe chambered tomb. Visitors to the Ness today have been quizzing us about the impact of the weather forecast on their own plans which are in some disarray, but at least we have been able to offer them short-notice tours of Maeshowe. We might have asked for commission but Historic Environment Scotland are already generously giving us a staff discount on shop purchases so we can’t complain!

Continue reading “Batten down the hatches…”

An Island on the Edge

The ancient breed of North Ronaldsay sheep spend most of their lives extracting low-copper nutrient from seaweed (pic courtesy: NR Sheep Festival)

We have just returned from a three-day trip to join in the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival, the first week of which was focused on helping to repair the 13-mile stonewall sheep dyke that surrounds the island and confines the famous seaweed-eating sheep to the foreshore. This breed has adapted over centuries to extract all the nutrient they normally require from seaweed washed ashore. During the lambing season ewes get a short boost feeding on grass to increase their milk supply, after which they and their lambs return to the foreshore with the males. Too long on grass and they will succumb to copper poisoning.

‘North Ron’ as it is colloquially known, is the northernmost island of the Orkney archipelago, roughly 30 miles distant as the gannet flies from Kirkwall. It takes nearly 3 hours to reach by ferry from Orkney Mainland, but only 20 minutes at 130 mph in an Islander aircraft. Unsurprisingly therefore, there are only one or two freight service ferries per week, but at least three daily flights which is more than most inter-island services.

In their comprehensive travel guide to the outer islands, Orkney Islands Council (OIC) assigns North Ron the epithet, “The island time forgot“. Considering that last year OIC invested in a new fleet of airfield fire trucks across the outer islands and just in the last week (July 2016) opened a brand-new airfield “terminal building” here, it is clear that the council has not entirely forgotten this far-flung island.

Continue reading “An Island on the Edge”