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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“It’s gone technical”

So said the guy as we arrived at the Orkney Ferries pier in Kirkwall at 7am this morning, to see the Westray ferry limping away from the ro-ro berth in need of some engineering attention.

Inter-island ferries are the key transport between thirteen islands of the Orkney archipelago.  Depending upon the length of sea crossing, the vessels range from bath-tub landing craft to sturdy small ships fit to cross exposed open waters.  Services to the very smallest islands are usually passenger-only, although vehicles can be carried on separate cargo sailings.  Some services require you to reverse aboard; ferry staff will manouvre vehicles upon request which helps to reduce the number of vehicles driving into the harbour.  This occurs more frequently than you might imagine:

Boarding the Shapinsay-Kirkwall ferry went horribly wrong for this driver on 4 June 2016 (pic courtesy

Fortunately in the recent case pictured above, a 71-year old retired ex-Met policeman was on hand to dive in and help free the driver from the vehicle.

The ferry timetables are complicated enough to get a railway enthusiast excited: nine vessels serve thirteen islands so most services call at one or two neighbouring islands and daily schedules vary considerably during the week.  The casual visitor needs to be aware that the provision of an outbound service does not automatically imply a return crossing later on the same day – or even several days.  During June-August however, ‘Sunday excursions’ run to many of the popular islands which is a great way of getting there and back on the same day.  Because of the convoluted coastline of Orkney Mainland, ferry services operate from three different harbours; turning up at the wrong one will result in disappointment so it pays to know your North Isles, Inner Isles and South Isles – one imagines local children are tested on this at an early age.

For us, the cancellation was but a minor inconvenience as on this occasion we were able to re-book for the following day when we are confident that the puffins will be just as pleased to see us.  However, we met a lady who was in the process of moving to Westray and her freezer was slowly thawing-out in the back of a removal van.  Another passenger was a frustrated electrical engineer due to carry out some work on the island.

m.v. Earl Thorfinn – one of the ferries serving the ‘North Isles’ – reaches Westray in 90 mins (pic courtesy


An attractive alternative is the inter-island air service provided by Loganair. There are drawbacks however: seats are limited – eight passengers max at a complete squeeze and often fully-booked days or weeks ahead; freight payload is minimal; you will need to have arranged transport at the other end, or be prepared to walk; weather cancellations are more likely; seats on some services are reserved for schoolchildren – how cool is that?  We were frustrated on one occasion trying to fly into Papa Westray – two seats were available on the outbound flight but only one seat on the return later that day!  We are flying into North Ronaldsay at the end of July so more about air services then.

Loganair Britten-Norman Islander Delta-Victor shown here in “Highland Park” livery.       Pic by Jim Hodkinson copyright Flight1 File Library


A maritime crossroads

Queen Elizabeth visits Kirkwall, 27 June 2016

Orkney is now the most popular cruise ship destination in the UK, having experienced exponential growth in the last five years.  In 2016 113 ships are booked to call, carrying around 100,000 passengers and 30,000 crew, mostly between April and September.

As well as being ideally located for round-Britain cruises, Orkney sits at a maritime crossroads between Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Greenland and Iceland.  Intriguingly, this is most likely the exact same reason that Orkney had such huge cultural, ceremonial and trading importance during the Neolithic and ensuing periods when overland travel must have been extraordinarily difficult.

Hatston pier, situated just outside Kirkwall town, offers the largest deep water berth in Scotland at 385m length and 10.5m draft. This berth is frequently occupied and roughly 50% of visiting cruise ships anchor in the Bay and tender into Kirkwall pier.  Orkney Islands Council, who operate a berthing policy restricting the total number of passengers arriving in one day, estimate that the business is worth more than £4m to the local economy.

The pressures on the islands are not inconsiderable however as visitor attractions such as the World Heritage sites and Kirkwall town are swamped by cruise ship passengers.  The Cunard ship Queen Elizabeth this week disgorged 2068 passengers for the day, while the typical overall range is from Caribbean Princess (3599 passengers) to Hebridean Princess (50 passengers). Whenever more than one large ship is due to call, key roads in the town centre are closed to traffic for safety reasons and stewards are employed to direct the visitors.

When we first visited Orkney in 2012, cruise ships were a very new phenomenon and fleets of coaches were shipped over from Scotland to meet each arrival, causing chaos on the ferries. Five years on, resident coach businesses now appears to thrive on the basis of six months peak demand.  A host of private tour guides operating small minibuses have also sprung up to meet the demand for personalised tours of Orkney Mainland during the passengers eight hours shore-leave.

Interestingly, Tish and I have just spent a few days in tour-guide mode ourselves, showing off the highlights to a friend who was visiting Orkney for the first time.  With the luxury of three full days rather than just eight hours at our disposal we devised a busy programme taking in, inter alia, the World Heritage sites (see a recent post), other Neolithic sites, both of the Earl’s Palaces, St Magnus Cathedral, the Orkney Brewery, shops, restaurants, and not least the “GlastonBurray” music festival.  Our friend has now returned home for a well-earned rest!