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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Birth of Christ is more recent…

The Jewel in the Crown of the annual archaeological dig season in Orkney opened for business this week at the Ness of Brodgar – currently the most significant Neolithic site in Europe – or the World for that matter.  I briefly touched upon the Ness in a recent post The Heart of Neolithic Orkney

I spent a day helping the archaeologists and students to uncover the site from its protective winter covers – acres of heavy plastic sheeting and tarpaulin weighted down by thousands of old vehicle tyres.


First break after starting to clear the main dig area
Tyres are preferred for ease of handling and storage but traditional sand bags are still used to support and protect delicate areas of the site

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Puffin Central


“Reflected in his Eyes”

Our second attempt at getting over to Westray (see “It’s gone technical”) was successful and we were blessed with fine sunny weather for most of the day. If you have the opportunity there are many reasons to visit Westray for a day or more and not for nothing is it known as “Queen o’ the Isles”. To name just a few: the sheer Noup Head cliffs at the top of the island are the breeding site for tens of thousands of seabirds where you will see kittiwake, fulmar, gannet, guillemot and razorbill. There is a major archaeological rescue dig underway at the Links of Noltland. Explore the substantial ruins of medieval Noltland Castle. The best fish and chips in the known Universe are to be found at the Pierowall Hotel (book ahead). The Castle o’ Burrian sea stack is home to the biggest colony of puffin in the Orkney Isles. The latter was our chief reason for visiting now, before the parent birds head back out to sea – which most do by the end of July and leave the chicks to fend for themselves.

Time for a photo gallery…

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