Who is the Mole?

Getting under the skin of Orkney

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

Although the original intention was simply to provide news of our touristic perambulations, the Orkney Mole quickly discovered that providing more incisive content about the diverse aspects of life in Orkney appealed to a wider readership.

The disjointed publication of late is due in no small part to the Orkney Mole turning native, as Nigel & Tish have integrated into the Orcadian community and are periodically engaged in archaeological research support for the University of the Highlands & Islands (UHI).  The drawback is that, even as willing volunteers, our days of leisurely exploring Orkney have become subsumed into what might pass as useful activity in the field, or in the bones lab at Orkney College. This is a convenient moment to emphasise that all observations and opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s alone, and do not represent any of the Orcadian organisations with which we are associated.

Despite this shoddy apology for a lack of recent productivity, if you nevertheless 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).

Continue reading “Dr John Rae, Arctic explorer & navigator”

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”

It’s complicated

Waking up to the EU Referendum result last month was a nasty shock. It was neither what I expected or wanted. I wondered what the Orcadians would make of it, but on the surface they appeared remarkably sanguine, despite Orkney having a ‘Remain’ count marginally higher than Scotland overall (62%) and receiving very significant investment from EU energy research and other projects. Neil Oliver gets it exactly right when he declared revenly:

While the world falls apart, the Orkney Isles remain the same

The Sunday Times, 17 July 2016

While this is true on many levels, it is clear that Orcadians exhibit a broad spectrum of political views although, in general, there is a lack of innate allegiance to Scotland.  Here is a Scottish perspective on the Orcadian question:

Should the Northern Isles be set adrift and returned to the control of Norway and thus save Scotland a fortune in transport subsidies?

From, Does Anyone Like Midges? and 99 other improbable Scottish questions
by Jim Hewitson, Black & White Publishing, 2006

Never has a truer word been spoken in jest, certainly from as distant as 10 years ago.

The “Northern Isles”, as TV weather forecasting folk like to call Orkney and Shetland, were recently excluded from the cheaper ferry fares scheme that benefited the Western Isles – an island chain that while not entirely geographically closer to mainland Scotland is recognised as being distinctly ‘more Scottish’. Is it any wonder that a majority of Orcadians and Shetlanders don’t consider themselves Scots?

This may have something to do with Orkney’s Norse roots. In my limited experience another reason why many Orcadians do not consider themselves to be part of Scotland is the high proportion of incomers – some originating from Scotland but probably the far greater number from England. Moreover, to the Orcadians (and presumably Shetlanders too), Edinburgh feels just as remote as Westminster. There have even been recent calls among the Orkney Islands Council and elsewhere locally to examine ways of Orkney gaining greater independence – an “Orkzit” if you will. In Orkney and Shetland the Brexit outcome has just thrown a huge spanner in the works, more than anywhere else in Scotland I have no doubt.

Continue reading “It’s complicated”

Magnus Erlendsson

There is every likelihood that Orkney would be significantly different today had it not been for Magnus Erlendsson, son of Earl Erlend, subsequently sanctified as Saint Magnus and still a central figure in Orcadian culture.

The story is told in the historically reliable Orkneyinga Saga, written in Icelandic around 1250, of how Magnus and his cousin Hakon came to rule jointly over the Orkney earldom on behalf of the Norwegian kingdom from 1105 until 1114. According to the Saga, at this stage the amicable relationship between the two cousins turns to discord as Hakon becomes increasingly jealous of the popularity of Magnus who is described lavishly in Chapter 45 of the Saga thus:

St Magnus, Earl of Orkney, was a man of extraordinary distinction, tall, with a fine, intelligent look about him.  He was a man of strict virtue, successful in war, wise, eloquent, generous and magnanimous, open-handed with money and sound with advice, and altogether the most popular of men…

The Saga continues to pour praise upon Magnus so it is of little surprise that Hakon was encouraged by his supporters to be rid of his celebrity kinsman.  Norwegian Earls did not die peacefully in their beds – if not in battle, then nearly all were slain variously by their uncle, brother, cousin, son or other claimant upon their earldom.

Continue reading “Magnus Erlendsson”

The changing face of the landscape

The dominant agricultural crop on Orkney is grass.  Almost any field that does not physically contain prize beef cattle or other livestock is seeded with high-quality grass to turn into hay, haylage and silage to feed the animals through the winter.

When we arrive on Orkney towards the end of May, we bring spring with us. At this stage the grass has barely grown an inch since planting. This year Orkney luxuriated in a particularly warm and sunny spring, so perhaps a little earlier than usual the first hay cuts were being taken well before the end of June.  Now at the middle of July, cutting is proceeding at furious pace; wherever you look fields are being cut by mowers, rowed-up and turned by the raking machines, and now the baling machines are out.  Mountains of silage bales adorn the land and the silage clamps are full and covered with tarp and tyres (not unlike that we removed from the Ness of Brodgar recently).  The landscape is now a patchwork as shades of green are interspersed by the pale-coloured squares of freshly cut fields.  Here’s a video showing silage baling using fancy machinery.

Grass can be stored for the winter in a number of ways.  Hay is grass that has been cut at a late stage of growth in order to reduce moisture content.  It still requires time and effort to dry by spreading and turning it.  However, Orkney farmers haven’t got the time or necessarily the weather for this – moreover, they also need to get three grass cuts from their land each summer season.  Silage is basically grass that has been cut at an early growth stage and pickled using natural anaerobic fermentation – in theory it can remain usable for years. It is produced either by sealing bales in airtight packaging, as in the video, or packing several tonnes of grass into a “clamp” where it is pressed (by a heavy tractor), covered with plastic tarpaulin and weighted down with old tyres.  For the latter the grass is chopped more finely and carried straight off to the clamp in a trailer rather than being dried in the field for a few days. However the clamping process can produce liquid effluent that needs careful environmental handling (although cattle reportedly like a drink of the mildly alcoholic liquor).  Both production methods have a whole raft of advantages and disadvantages which one imagines the Orkney farmers spend a lot of time debating.  Smaller quantities of green hay are also taken and lightly baled with mesh for drying in storage.  Whether this meets the proper definition of “haylage” is a matter of opinion so we won’t go there.

This pile of silage bales dominates one end of the Midhowe Stalled Cairn on Rousay
There’s a farm somewhere behind there!

Meanwhile, a bit like these sheep, the Orkney mole is keeping his head down lest he gets his curls trimmed by a mower!

The Orkney Mole apologises for the lack of recent reports.  We have been experiencing broadband issues in the deepest reaches of Orkney Mainland.  Although these are now ostensibly resolved, it has still been a struggle to get this post out with larger than average images.


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