My first morning on North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney Isles.
It was touch and go whether I’d get here at all; trying to match up flights and ferries was a major pain in the proverbial and it was only after numerous phone calls, copious amounts of head-scratching and much staring at timetables, turning them upside-down to see if they’d make more sense that way, that I finally got everything to work out.
I flew up in a tiny plane yesterday evening. Everyone and their dog (well, one dog) was squished together with enough leg room for, ooh, maybe one leg. It was only a 15 minute flight so the squish wasn’t a problem. I took some photos of the islands from above, enjoying recognising the ones I’ve been too.
Arriving at the
airport terminal / airfield / toilet with a runway attached, I hoisted my collection of bags as they were passed out of the plane, National Express style, and wandered over to the people waiting to collect passengers. Quickly finding Simon, who it turns out was based at the Fair Isle observatory when I was there in 2010, I piled everything into the Landrover and we drove the few minutes to the bird observatory and hostel where I’m camping for the next 3 nights. I had wanted to stay in the hostel so I wouldn’t need to worry about carrying camping gear on the tiny plane, but it was fully booked with people who are in North Ronaldsay filming a children’s programme for CBeebies. Although I’m camping (£5 a night) I can still use the hostel facilities – fortunate as otherwise I wouldn’t be able to cook as I don’t think I’d have been allowed to carry fuel on the flight (though liquids and sharp objects were no problem).
I got my tent up and retired to the hostel kitchen, which I had to myself, to cook up enough food to last several days and using all the fresh vegetables I’d bought in Kirkwall.
… back to this morning …
I was up, showered and leisurely breakfasted and ready to head out for just after 10am. Just as the electricity went off. It doesn’t usually go off; they’ve had mains electricity here since 1983, but today, and possibly tomorrow, there are workmen here doing something to the powerlines meaning the electicity is off for the whole island until 5pm this evening.
I explored the area around the hostel, spotting a couple of heliogoland traps (used to trap birds for ringing) and trying to get to a gorgeous white beach. But there was no way my brain was ever going to be capable of figuring out the knots tying the gate firmly into position and I couldn’t be bothered climbing over as I wanted to focus on the north part of the island anyway.
I veered off track to check out a standing stone – the only one known to have
a hole in it, and then stuck pretty much to the main road which took me from the bottom to the top of the island. I wanted to get to the north so I could visit the old and new lighthouses.
The old lighthouse was built in 1789 by Thomas Smith and is one of Scotland’s oldest lighthouses. The 70ft stone tower which was topped with oil burning lamps and copper reflectors cost £199 to build. In 1806 the building of Start Point lighthouse on Sanday made the North Ronaldsay beacon redundant and it was decommissioned in 1809, its lantern being replaced with a giant stone ball. It was soon realised that North Ronaldsay did need its own lighthouse and a new, much higher one was built close to the original beacon. At 139ft it was, and still is, the highest land based lighthouse in the British Isles. Originally its red brick exterior was left au naturel, but in 1889 it was painted with a couple of white horizontal bands to aid visibility.
I was going to have a look at the old lighthouse first but as it began to rain heavily I made for the new lighthouse which I knew had a cafe and visitor centre I could shelter in. I paused inside the open door at the bottom of the lighthouse itself and then, as the rain eased slightly, went for a wander round the buildings. The former lighthouse keepers’ cottages are now rented out as holiday lets by the National Trust for Scotland (and very nice they looked too, from the tiny peek I had through the windows).
The cafe was full of lunching BBC film crew and so I had a look round the exhibition rooms. One room had photos and exhibits concerning North Ronaldsay in general and the other was more specifically on the lighthouse and the lives of the keepers. There are a few short films but due to the power cut I wasn’t able to watch them. A smartly uniformed lighthouse keeper popped his head in the door and asked if I was the lady looking for a tour of the lighthouse. I wasn’t the lady he was looking for but I was a lady looking for a tour.
Billy had been keeper of the light for over 40 years and is a native of North Ronaldsay. He lost his full-time job when the light was automated in 1998 but still looks after it when need be and also acts as tour guide. Today he was in the role of TV star as he was the lighthouse keeper the BBC were here to film. The short 15 minute programme involves Billy showing his (real) grandson around the island and telling him about his life as a lighthouse keeper. He told me he would be with the film crew till about 2.30pm and then he’d be able to do my tour. As the crew had finished their lunch and were getting back to their filming, I went into the cafe to have my lunch.
The menu was somewhat limited due to the power cut but I was still able to have a steaming bowl of home-made carrot and coriander soup with home-made wheaten bread followed by home-made tangy lemon drizzle cake and cream and a cafetierre of fresh coffee.
The man running the cafe had time to talk to me as I was now the only person there. He’s originally from Essex and has been on the island for two and a bit years. His wife is a nurse practitioner and got fed up working in a busy surgery with 18,000+ patients on the list. She said she wished she worked on a small island with few people and lo and behold there happened to appear an advert for exactly her job on a small island with few people. Although there aren’t many people on the island, as it is an ageing population she is still kept quite busy. As for the man (let’s call him Mark, as I can’t remember what he was called but think it may have been Mark), he’s got himself settled with his role running the cafe, everything home-made, and giving tours of the adjacent wool mill.
Whilst I waited for Billy to finish up with the film crew Mark offered me a tour of the wool mill. None of the machinery was running of course, due to the lack of power, but he was still able to show me around and explain how everything worked. The mill began when it became unprofitable to send fleeces south to be processed. A chance comment at a science fair in Kirkwall led to a North Ronaldsay couple going on a fact-finding mission to Canada to research small-scale wool mill equipment. It all looked good and the investment was made. Now the islanders can wash, de-hair (North Ronaldsay sheep, like Cumbrian Herdwick sheep, but unlike any others, have wool next to their skin and hair on the outside), card, spin and wind their own wool. The hair, by the way, shows as black threads in the wool and is the part of a jumper that gives it an itch factor. As well as hair being removed, lanolin and large amounts of sand are washed out of the fleeces. This leads to a big reduction in the actual weight of the end product when compared to the fleece at the start of the process.
As my tour finished, Billy appeared and I was straight off on my tour of the new lighthouse. A quick climb up 176 steps (despite being 64 Billy practically skipped up them; I had to stop for a breather) and we were out on the veranda that runs around the top of the lighthouse just below the light.
We stood on the sheltered side, out of the wind whilst he told me the history of the lighthouse. The views looked pretty good today but on a really clear day it’s possible to see Fair Isle, Sumburgh Head and Foula.
Ducking back inside we went up into the light itself. The Fresnel lens is made up of many curved and flat layers. Although these days the light runs off electricity with its own generator in case of power cuts, the old parafin lamp is still there. Looking through the lenses everything shimmered, rainbows flickered and images doubled, tripled and flipped upside-down psychedelically.
Billy covered the light-sensors with cardboard to fool them into thinking it was dark. Over a few minutes the bulb came on and started at first to glow blue, but then to get brighter and brighter. Although the bulb itself has a steady glow and does not flash, the revolving lenses make it appear to flash every 10 seconds. Each lighthouse has its own sequence of flashes meaning they are easily identifiable. The beam can be seen for 24 nautical miles. Once the light-sensors were exposed to the light again the bulb switched off immediately.
Back downstairs, Billy walked me over to the fog horn, no longer used as ships can pick up the lighthouse by radar now when it is foggy. A cone shaped piece of machinery fastened just outside the light recognises when a radar is searching and appears as a dot with initials NR on the ship’s radar monitor. Billy had intended to put the fog horn on so I could hear it, but then realised it wouldn’t work with the power off.
Leaving the new lighthouse I walked over to the old lighthouse which is covered in scaffolding. Funding has been secured via a TV programme to renovate it and the hope is to eventually have a staircase inside so people can also go up inside this one.
I started what I felt would be long walk back to the bird observatory at the other end of the island, but was picked up by Charlie, an ageing local with not too many teeth. He drove me all the way back and seemed like a real character. He had a few funny stories to tell on the short journey. He’s been up the lighthouse many a time himself as he was involved in painting it and told me he’d painted the 176 stairs I’d walked up.
Back at the bird observatory I sat in the lounge, with windows on three sides and enjoyed some evening sun.