Under Northern Skies (part eight)

Cranes and Boats and Planes

Jane and I haven’t set foot on an aeroplane since we returned from Thailand in January 2020. So when we were planning our trip to Orkney we decided that it would be a good opportunity to take a short inter-island hop. Just how short was the question. We could have taken a ferry to Westray and then boarded a Loganair flight to Papa Westray. It is the shortest scheduled flight in the world and lasts anything from 90 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on wind direction. And you land on a beach!

Tempting though this was, we actually wanted to visit the most northerly of Orkney’s inhabited islands – North Ronaldsay. We had, after all, landed by ferry on South Ronaldsay at the start of our trip so going to North Ron, as the locals call it, seemed very apt. It would mean taking the longest inter-island flight there is on Orkney – all of 17 minutes. Plus, we wanted to see the sheep. I know, we do get some very strange notions from time to time.

Our flight from Kirkwall airport was scheduled to depart at 07.35 and we were told we should be checked in 20 minutes before hand, though I suspect that you can turn up at virtually the last minute. As it was there were only 4 passengers, us and two large chaps in work overalls. We were in an 8 seater Islander aircraft and the two lads were squeezed into the seats behind us, meaning that we got the best view.

The pilot made quick and well practised adjustments to the switches and dials, asked if we were all strapped in tightly, executed his aileron, brakes and engine checks whilst taxiing, applied full power down the runway and lifted the nose as we hit 120 knots (that’s airspeed not a flock of birds, just in case you think this is about to turn into a disaster movie).

Cleared for Take-off

Being in a small aircraft brought back so many memories from decades ago when I would turn up at the Cotswold Aero Club at Staverton, climb into G-BIVA (a Robin 2112 Alpha, single engined monocoque) and take off to do loops, barrel rolls, chandelles and steep turns. But the aeroplane we were in wasn’t going to do anything but fly straight and level, which I’m sure was reassuring to Jane and the other two passengers. I bet the pilot would just have loved to pull a victory roll though.

The weather wasn’t gin clear but it was nice to see the outer islands rolling by; Shapinsay, Stronsay to starboard, Eday to port, Sanday directly below and finally North Ronaldsay, a tiny island, 1 mile wide by 3 miles long.

Shapinsay at sun rise

No sooner had the engines stopped than we were out of the aircraft following a fireman who also doubled as baggage handler into the ‘terminal’. Well, hut really, but it was recently built and was spick and span. And there waiting for us was our host, Dr June Morris, senior lecturer in Biological Sciences (retired) and world authority on ancient breeds of sheep.

June lets out Nouster Cottage which we had hired and always likes to meet her guests in person. Although the cottage is less than half a mile down the road we accepted her offer of a lift to save us carrying the luggage. There is a one man taxi service and he also hires out the single hire car on the island, though it was just leaving the airport so had obviously been hired already.

Instead, June led us to her car. I’m sure that most of you will have occasionally passed a layby or grass verge with a decrepit car sitting there looking like it had been abandoned. Well, June’s Toyota Avensis, which she proudly told us was registered in 1989, looked, if anything, worse than that. There was moss growing on every available surface, patches of rust and tyres that looked rather treadless. Jane gingerly lowered herself into a back seat which was covered in all manner of animal hair, sweet wrappers and general detritus. The carpet crunched beneath my hiking boots as I got in the front. I didn’t dare look down for fear I might see a collection of animal bones under my size nines. June, after all, lives at Howar Farm with a large collection of animals.

June fired up the engine and it was clear that the exhaust was blown by the racket it was making. ‘There’s a chap on the island who fixes things’, June said above the noise, ‘but he keeps saying he’s going to retire so I must get him to fix the exhaust’. We were about to drive off when Jane announced her door wouldn’t shut. ‘Ah yes’, said June, ‘the catch is broken. You have to shut it from the outside.’ I duly got out to spring the catch up. Jane and I shared a look. If this is the state of the car, we thought, what’s the cottage going to be like?

As it happens Nouster Cottage was wonderful. Exceptionally clean courtesy of the cleaner, well provisioned, tastefully decorated, warm and comfortable. A huge conservatory at the front gave incredible views of the whole sweep of Nouster Bay with its abundant bird life and basking seals. It was a place to relax and unwind and settle into the rhythms of small island life.

Nouster Cottage at dawn
View from the conservatory

‘Call into Howar for coffee and cake anytime’. said June ‘We feed the animals about 8.30 am and 3.30 pm.’ The farm was at the other end of the bay. ‘Oh, and go down to the pier. The ferry is in and one of the farmers is sending cattle off to market.’

The pier was but a couple of minutes walk away and as we got there we could immediately see why June thought the mere loading of some cattle onto it might be of interest. North Ron doesn’t have a harbour – the seabed is just too rocky and the currents too strong to justify building one – and a ro-ro (roll on, roll off) ferry is of no use here. So how do you get a bunch of nervous cattle onto a ferry whose decks are high above them? Well, you put the cattle trailer into a cage, hook it up to a crane and lift them up and over the bulwarks.

Cattle trailer being loaded

Vans, cars and other vehicles have slings put under their wheels and are hoisted high into the air. I’m pleased to report that the drivers got out of their vehicles before this operation took place. And here’s a little fact about life on a very small island. If the local mechanic can’t fix your car you drive it down to the pier and wait for the twice weekly ferry. The car is hoisted aboard as ‘unaccompanied vehicle’ and sails away as you trudge back to your croft. The garage in Kirkwall collect it, do what they need to, drop it back round to the ferry dock with an invoice stuck somewhere prominent, and it is returned on the next available sailing.

Van being loaded

It’s no wonder that June has left a spare set of keys with her garage on the mainland, though I question whether the Avensis has ever had any work done on it. On North Ron if a vehicle is only ever used on the island it is exempt from having an MOT because there’s no means of testing them there. I very much suspect that they don’t have tax or insurance either. There’s certainly no chance of anyone from the DVLA checking up on you.

Nouster was also handy for the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory, again just a couple of minutes walk away. This proved very valuable as it was the only place open for food at the time we were there. We had excellent self catering facilities at Nouster but hadn’t been able to bring much in the way of provisions on the aircraft and the only shop open on the island, also at the Bird Observatory, had a very limited range of food. Thankfully, the cook at the Observatory turned out to be quite good so we ate really well whilst there.

North Ron is a sort of mecca for bird watchers, twitchers and ornithologists. It lies along a migration route for many species and is famous for attracting rare migrant and vagrant birds. At times twitchers will descend on the island in large numbers if a very rare species has been spotted.

The Observatory keeps detailed records of all sightings and volunteer ornithologists spend weeks and months on the island recording everything passing through. Nets and traps (humane) are also put up in various locations so that birds can be weighed, measured and ringed for research.

We are certainly not twitchers and not even that brilliant as birders but we do enjoy getting out and about searching for birds and the chance to see something rare or uncommon is always enticing. On the beach at Nouster Bay there were always a few Hooded Crow hanging about. Infrequently found in England but plentiful in Northern Scotland.

Hooded Crow on the beach

Pecking about in the seaweed were Oystercatcher, Redshank, Turnstone and Ringed Plover and at one stage a flock of Snipe were perched on the garden wall around our cottage.

Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Ringed Plover amongst the seaweed

In the fields there were flocks of Golden Plover, Curlew, Knot and Lapwing, and in the air Greylag Geese and a wonderful aerial battle between a Hen Harrier and a Merlin. We have never seen so many Hen Harrier and Merlin as we have in Scotland. And Wheatear, which you put down as a great spot in our neck of the woods, turned up everywhere as abundant as Robin. Though, strangely enough, Robins are actually quite scarce in Orkney and constitute a good sighting of their own.

Hen Harrier Vs Merlin

We even managed to see a relative rarity for the UK – the Common Rosefinch, admittedly the rather nondescript female rather than the brightly coloured male.

But, birding aside, North Ronaldsay held another big attraction for us – the sheep. And I’ll tell you all about those and much more in the next blog.

Sunset at Nouster

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