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.
Maybe 75 people mustered and boarded at the Tingwall ferry terminal on the eastern shore of Orkney Mainland, departing at 7:30 pm. Eynhallow lies at the end of Eynhallow Sound, a narrow channel of water which becomes a significant tidal race during strong northwesterly winds. Fortunately conditions tonight were calm and the weather was benign. As we approached the island after a passage of 30 minutes or so, passengers were instructed to assemble on the forward deck ready to ‘run’ off the ramp and up the beach to firmer ground above. In the event there was very little running, and more a chaotic scramble up a steep bank of loose storm-piled beach cobbles. We turned right and followed the RSPB wardens into a sheep fold from which further progress was blocked by thick nettles. With disappointment and difficulty we returned to the beach and followed the shoreline further around, across algae-covered cobbles garnished with slippery seaweed. There was a lot of slipping. Eventually we were able to climb on to firm ground again and pick up the lightly-beaten perimeter path that encircles the island through rough tussock grassland. At least we were on the kind of ‘rough ground’ that everybody was expecting!
Immediately we began to observe flocks of Kittiwake and Oystercatcher, plus a few Fulmar, Tern and the odd Arctic Skua and Great Skua. More of a bonus was some quite large groups of Puffin, initially in the water and then on the shoreline.
After this delightful encounter we had to pick up the pace to complete our circumnavigation before the ferry returned. We just had time for a quick stop at the abandoned monastery. Whether it actually ever was a monastery is a somewhat open question, as discussed on the respected Orkneyjar website.
Here Orkneyjar describes the mystery of the “missing passengers” from a much earlier midsummer trip to Eynhallow – best read after you have returned safely to the ferry!
After continuing our trek (luckily for us, a tern colony had failed and we we able to take a slight shortcut) we arrived back at the ‘beach-head’ in time to see the ferry making progress towards us up the Sound. We were happy to find relatively easier access to the beach from this direction. The ferry quickly loaded and we departed soon after 10:30 pm as scheduled, thankfully observing no missing passengers (real or ephemeral) chasing after the ferry!
We are glad to have visited Eynhallow and also pleased to get it out of our system. After the protracted process of getting on and off the beach, visitors are left with a little over one hour to complete the circumnavigation across rough ground – I gather that in some years groups have run out of time and have had to back-track, so we are grateful to the two Orkney Rangers who know the terrain and kept the groups moving. I am guessing that the organisers do not carry out a reconnaissance visit shortly beforehand, but in my experience a site visit is always useful before running a group activity and could serve to address the practical difficulties encountered on disembarkation.