Sheep define North Ronaldsay. The island is built around sheep although the wall that surrounds it is there to keep those very sheep off the land and on the shore. At the same time that wall seems to have detached the people from the sea and kept them on their farms growing crops, on the less than ideal ground, while the sheep stayed out. Now, at least, the sheep come in to lamb and arable agriculture is a thing of the past with more sheep and cattle grazing the fields.
Our journey to the island was on the evening flight out from Kirkwall. The 8-seat Islander aircraft are more of a local minibus service than an air journey. Matter of fact, and barely concerned by the weather the little planes bob back and forth between the northern islands. We took off in a squally shower and flew low over Stronsay, Eday and Sanday. The landing was efficient and effective if a little heavy to account for the awkwardly strong cross winds. Of the four passengers two headed home while we considered our location before walking south to our accommodation at the Bird Observatory. We took a detour to a standing stone and were almost late for our evening meal as a result.
As the evening light faded we took a walk out to the shore, the exiled sheep stood out on the sheltered south side as the sun set through shower laden clouds. The sea rolled in from the Atlantic beyond.
The morning brought no let up from the cold northerly wind. Our plans changed as we had wanted to walk the western shore but the unrelenting headwind made us switch to the slightly more sheltered east. Seals basked on the sands of South Bay but most shuffled into the sea as we tried to creep past, following us inquisitively as we walked on.
We picked our way up the eastern coast on the shore or paths just inland, past the old watermill and onto the forlorn golf course where dunlin fed on the wet scrapes between flagless poles. An abandoned contraption sat on an old barge its engine long seized as rust took over.
At the northern end is the tallest land based lighthouse in the UK built of brick brought in by sea and designed by one of the famous lighthouse designers in the Stevenson family. The former keepers cottages provide holiday accommodation while next door is a welcome tea room, exhibition on the island and lighthouse and a woollen mill.
Here in the woollen mill is a business, designed to help process local wool but now doing the same work for others during their off peak times. In fact the volumes have become so large that it is more efficient for the wool to be shipped elsewhere in the UK for washing and combing and returned so that the rest of the process can be carried out on North Ronaldsay. It’s a modern mill with modern machinery from Canada; it’s about quality in smaller volumes rather than bulk production.
Here too we learned about local community trust attempts to turn around a steady decline of the island by repairing the insidious dereliction of properties and providing new places to live for locals and those wanting to move in. One can only hope there is success here and that the school can eventually reopen to help create a more sustainable community. Without efforts like this the decline may well continue.
Our return took us along the northern coast past where fulmars lifted from the encircling wall, and along old tracks and onto deserted roads, past empty and decaying dwellings and farmsteads and eventually back into more well maintained properties. We called into the New Church to look at the exhibition on the island then on to the airport for out 4:24pm flight. As promised our bag had been kindly delivered up from the Observatory for us along with two neatly wrapped North Ronaldsay mutton sandwiches ordered in the morning but made after we had set off exploring.
The small plane lifted us up off the island and away from a place that left us with conflicting feelings. The island is clearly fighting for survival, loss in population, dereliction and loss of the school has all taken its toll and yet the hope for the future through local produce and business could help turn around the fortunes of the island. It’s a beautiful place on the edge.