Orkney – The South Islands
Having toured some of West Mainland we decided it was time to take a look at the South Isles. As mentioned in an earlier blog these are all connected to the Mainland by causeways which makes visiting them easy.
The southern most island is also the largest. South Ronaldsy has a ferry port at St Margaret’s Hope connecting Orkney to mainland Scotland at Gills Bay. Much further south is another ferry port at Burwick which apparently runs a ferry to John O’Groats for foot passengers only. A little further along the coast, at the very southernmost tip of South Ronaldsay, are two burial chambers, the Tomb of the Eagle and the Tomb of the Otters. Unfortunately, Covid reared its ugly head again because both are closed for health reasons. However, there was a lovely cafe which did a good line in hot chocolate and cake. From here you could just about make out John O’Groats in the distance.
Just a few miles up the eastern side of the island is Windwick bay. In the sheltered waters of the bay both Common and Grey Seal come to pup around September and October. We were hoping to see the snow white pups but it seems that we were too early in the year as there were no seals to be seen. The cliffs here are well worth a short visit, though.
Travelling on up the length of South Ronaldsay we reached the first of the ‘Churchill Barriers’ and crossed over into the island of Bursay. These barriers link the four South Islands with the mainland but they were not built for the convenience of the tourist nor, indeed, for Orcadians. They have a much darker purpose which will take us back to wars of the 20th Century.
To the east of the barriers lies the wild Atlantic Ocean, to the west the vast, safe anchorage that is Scapa Flow. Deep and safe from storms Scapa makes for a haven in which you should be able to safeguard a whole fleet of ships so it is of vital strategic importance. At the end of the First World War the whole of the German High Seas Fleet was impounded in Scapa with its crews on board whilst the victorious Allies argued about who was going to get which ships.
In June 1919 the Germans scuttled all of their ships in the bay sending most of them to the bottom in a matter of minutes. Of the 74 ships anchored there 52 were sunk though many were later salvaged in the intervening decades. Diving these wrecks is now a very popular pastime for they provide an accessible link to the past.
During the Second World War the British Royal Navy was based at Scapa Flow and its many entrances from the Atlantic were blocked by the deliberate sinking of many old vessels which were no longer seaworthy. But over time the wrecks moved leaving gaps left in the defences. On the night of 13 October 1939 German U-boat U-47 entered the Flow through one of these gaps and torpedoed HMS Royal Oak. 834 lives were lost making it one of the biggest wartime tragedies in Home waters.
Realising that Scapa was no longer such a safe haven Churchill ordered the construction of the present day concrete barriers cutting off entrance to the Flow from the East but also coincidentally linking what were previously islands with the mainland.
The bay between Bursay and Glimpse Holm is particularly interesting because you can see the remains of some of the original blockade ships which are very gradually succumbing to waves and weather.
The barriers between Glimpse Holm and Lamb Holm complete the linking of Mainland to South Islands but just a few miles east there is a peninsula called Deerness which only just misses out on being an island by dint of having a narrow strip of sand dunes connecting it to the Mainland proper. These dunes are quite impressive and the bay of Dingieshowe is simply glorious. Beautiful soft sand, some gorgeous sculptured rocks and pretty little Sanderlings running about the shore made it an ideal lunch stop.
The big attraction of Deerness for us was to be found in the far north-east corner – the Mull Head Nature Reserve. Parking our car we initially followed the wrong track and ended up on farmland. But it was a fortuitous mistake because we suddenly caught sight of our first Short-eared Owl sitting on a post. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a photo of it but it was a great way to start our walk.
Once on the right track we came first of all to The Gloup – a deep gash in the ground, probably formed by the collapse of a cave, which opened up to the sea at one end. We could hear waves rushing up the narrow channel and booming in the cave beneath our feet.
A coastal walk then took us past the Brough of Deernes. There is a rough path which takes you onto the brough but this has been closed by a rockfall. There are the remains of a chapel on the brough, possibly dating from the Norse period and it seems it was a place of pilgrimage for Orcadians into the 16th Century.
We continued walking along the cliff edge with more magnificent seascapes opening up to us until we reached Mull Head, the most easterly point of Mainland Orkney.
Arriving back at our apartment in Stromness we decided to take a walk up the hill behind where we were staying. In the distance we could make out the island of Hoy which was to be our destination the following day. And this time we would need to cross open water to get there.