From Shoreline to Sky
From Nouster Cottage to Dennis Head is a walk of about 3 miles. We could have hired bicycles to explore North Ron but Jane isn’t confident on a bike even on the quiet roads of the island. As often seems to be the case the walk started with a climb, in this case of Hollandstoun Hill. It isn’t one of the Scottish Munroes thankfully since we had left our walking poles, compass and survival bag behind in Kirkwall Airport. In fact, at 75ft (23mtrs) high, it wasn’t even a hill, more of a pimple but it’s still the highest point on the whole of North Ron.
The name of this vertically challenged feature, Hollandstoun, gives a clue to a very different past. ‘Toun’ means town and there are quite a few place names on the island which bear this epithet – Bustatoun, Nesstoun, Linklestoun, Ancumtoun. There’s no sign of any town, village, hamlet or even row of cottages on North Ronaldsay today, just farms, crofts and cottages dotted about. Many of the crofts, in particular, are just ruins, sometimes with the crumbling remains of furniture and assorted household goods lying abandoned inside them.
But it wasn’t always like this. Neolithic people lived here. The Standing Stone on Hollandstoun Hill is 5,000 years old and has a hole drilled into it through which the sun shines during the Winter Solstice. The Broch of Burrian dates from the Iron Age and there have been many invaders and incomers in between times. In the late 1700’s upwards of 500 hundred people lived on this tiny island and it is perhaps then when the ‘toun’ suffix was really justified. Less than 10% of the population of 300 years ago now reside permanently on North Ronaldsay.
Adjacent to the hill is Holland House, ancestral home of the Traill family who became owners and Lairds of the island in 1727. It is still owned by the family and June told us that whenever they are in residence a flag is flown from the tower. I guess they must see themselves as almost Scottish royalty.
A little further down the road, past the old church (812AD), the airfield and war memorial is the ‘new’ kirk dating from 1845. The island no longer has a resident priest and although the kirk has been used for island weddings it now houses a fascinating archive on island life with photos, letters and documents. And when the rain poured down on us we were able to take shelter in the building and spend a pleasant hour reading the history of North Ron.
Once the rain had ceased and the clouds lifted a little we were able to carry on down the road our eyes firmly set on the red and white pillar of the New Lighthouse at Sinsoss Point. Despite its small size North Ron boasts not one but two lighthouses, albeit one now defunct. The Beacon, as it is called, sits at the edge of Dennis Head and its light was first lit in 1789. Unfortunately, the tower is only 70ft high and the light it cast sat so low on the water that, to passing vessels, it looked like the light on a ship anchored in safe waters which made it more of a danger than a help. The lantern was transferred to a newly built lighthouse on the adjacent island of Sanday. Today the building is surrounded by scaffolding to protect it but there are plans to restore it not as a lighthouse but as a visitor attraction
Adjacent to the Beacon are some interesting structures. There are depressions or pits in the ground which were used in North Ronaldsay’s first major industry – kelp processing. The island is surrounded by kelp, or seaweed, ‘forests’ and between 1780 and 1830 a boom developed on the island. The kelp was gathered from the foreshore and slowly burned in the pits to produce a hard, lumpy residue full of potash and soda. This raw material was then shipped out to the glass, soap and dye factories of industrial Britain.
It was at this period that the population of the island rose to more than 500. In order to sustain themselves the workers built small, round enclosures, or crues, out of the plentiful supply of stones. These were used to provide shelter for young vegetable plants before they were planted out into fields. Crues are unique to Orkney, though on other islands they were mainly used for shearing sheep. Some date back to the 1,500s.
Half a mile away from the Beacon is the ‘new’ lighthouse, although new in this context means built in 1854. It’s a rather elegant structure with alternate brown and white brick courses. Perhaps learning from mistakes with the previous light, it was to become the tallest land based lighthouse in the British Isles. It is 140ft tall and has 167 steps up to the top of the tower. On a clear night its beam can be seen 18 miles out to sea. Still in use, it became automated in 1998. The redundant support buildings were handed over to the community and became two holiday cottages, a cafe (unfortunately closed when we visited), an interpretation centre and a wool mill which spins yarn from the wool of the native sheep.
For such a small island North Ron holds a wealth of surprises, not least of which is the 9 hole golf course sited on Linklet Bay. But it’s not a course where you are likely to find Tiger Woods swinging his club. In fact, I can’t believe that any golfer would be able to play a round there. We could only find one hole out of the nine and only then because it had a flag pole leaning drunkenly from it. The ground was pockmarked with rabbit holes, sheep droppings and sand bunkers that hadn’t been dug out by hand but by the scouring wind whipping across the ‘course’. And yet, the North Ronaldsay Trust have ambitions to make an 18 hole golf course out of this patch of barren and uneven ground. Good luck to them is all I can say.
It was at Dennis Head that we first came across the famous North Ronaldsay sheep. When the kelp processing industry collapsed in 1830 a very forward looking Laird, John Traill, came up with a new strategy for ensuring economic survival of the island and turned to agriculture. The native sheep were already supplementing their diet by eating seaweed occasionally but the idea came about to confine them to the foreshore by extending and repairing an existing dyke wall using the plentiful surplus labour available. This enabled the grass land in the centre of the island to be used for rearing cattle and for crops.
North Ronaldsay is the only place where a communal system of domestic sheep rearing still exists and it is carefully controlled by the Sheep Court. This is an elected body of 11 ‘sheepmen’, including the Vet. They are charged with ensuring that the regulations are kept and are responsible for the maintenance of the sheep dyke.
The dyke was built along the whole coast of North Ron, is 6ft high and 12 miles long and is completely unique in the world. So unique that it has Grade A listed status and has a special Dyke Warden whose job it is to ensure upkeep. Every year groups of volunteers arrive on the island to make good the damage wrought by winter storms and gales, though the pandemic has put a stop to this temporarily.
Inset into the wall are several enclosures called punds which are used for gathering sheep when they need to be clipped, counted, sorted for market, dipped, etc. and the gatherings are communal affairs with everyone expected to help. The sheep have the run of the foreshore in a completely mixed flock, although groups of sheep do seem to prefer particular sections of the shoreline so they form distinct mini flocks. Each croft holder has an allocation of the number of sheep he or she can keep so the animals are carefully tagged to ensure the sheep can be reunited with their owner as necessary. It’s quite amazing that a flock of up to 2,500 sheep can thrive on such a small island out on the extremities of Britain but they do.
To get a fuller understanding of these hardy animals we decided to visit our landlady, June, an acknowledged expert in ancient breeds. The walk to her farm took us along Nouster Bay. Our progress along the beach was closely followed by the Common Seals bobbing about in the water just off shore. In fact, closely followed is a very apt description because the seals actually do follow you in the water, disappearing and then bobbing up again. It was like taking a pack of dogs for a walk.
June’s property, Howar Farm, is a rather rambling and slightly disheveled affair. There is an old smithy, still with working bellows, though there was little chance of a smith working in there for all the detritus littering the floor. Many of the old buildings in North Ron have slate roofs. And when I say slate roof I don’t mean the nice, well cut thin pieces of slate which would be used on modern houses. I mean huge slate slabs dragged up from the shore. Some of them are so massive I don’t know how they were handled into position let alone how the joists take their weight.
June doesn’t actually farm sheep for economic gain as she is a vegetarian. But she does have a large herd of rescued animals which stay on the farm until they die of old age or disease or maybe have to be humanely put down because of injury. Some of the sheep will have wandered into June’s flock from a neighbour’s land or may have escaped the sheep dyke. Those that leap the dyke walls or fences are known as loupers (sic) and they are not welcome by the other farmers. They claim that these sheep will teach other animals in the foreshore flock to do the same thing.
The crofters also bring sick or injured sheep, or orphan lambs to June for her to nurse back to health. But once they are in June’s flock they stay there for the rest of their lives because she is passionate about keeping rare breeds of sheep alive so that the gene pool remains strong. June tells us that North Ronaldsay sheep belong to an ancient breed known as short-tailed sheep and it is thought that these sheep were spread throughout Europe by neolithic farmers as much as 6,000 years ago. Modern, long-tailed sheep, the ones you mostly see in fields today, didn’t appear until the 19th century.
The North Ronaldsay sheep exist for most of the time on their diet of laminaria seaweed, a completely unique adaptation and one they share with only one other seaweed eating mammal – the Galapagos Marine Iguana! That makes them very rare indeed and it is no wonder that their rich, gamey flesh is in demand in restaurants around the world. We didn’t tell June, but we had partaken of lovely roast lamb at the Bird Observatory the previous evening.
June keeps not only North Ronaldsays but also other rare breeds – the heavy Icelandic, the Oeussant sheep from Brittany, and Soay which are the most primitive breed of European sheep from the St Kilda archipelago and are closely related to the original wild Moufflon sheep. She also has some Alpaca and rescues the island’s feral cats which, as bird watchers we were not so keen on.
June regaled us with many stories including one about her gravestone which kind of sums her up really. She and her husband, Gerald, bought Nouster Cottage with the intention of doing it up and living there. Unfortunately, Gerald was diagnosed with cancer and for various reasons the couple never moved into the cottage but were able to purchase Howar farm to house their growing collection of animals. When Gerald died in 2011 June had a second gravestone carved for herself for when her time came, apparently not an uncommon thing. But what was unusual was that June insisted on having her gravestone erected on the plot she owned at the old church at the same time as that of her husband.
Unfortunately, this slightly backfired because someone spotted the gravestone, thought that June had died and spread the news on social media. It took quite a time for her to sort that one out.
We returned to Nouster and relaxed in the wonderful conservatory with its panoramic view of Nouster Bay. But all too soon it was time for us to leave this magical isle of North Ronaldsay with its unique and engaging way of life. And, as if to reward us for our visit, a magical dawn greeted us with a spectacular sky which flamed the seashore of Nouster Bay.
We bade farewell to June, boarded the Islander and, on a sparkling morning, took a mere 17 minutes to return to Kirkwall and the modern world. But now when we lie abed and count sheep it will be the ‘loupers’ that we shall see.
If you want to read more about North Ronaldsay and its unique breed of sheep click on the following link : https://www.theorkneysheepfoundation.org.uk/
My grateful thanks to Dr June Morris for her help and anecdotes, to Kristan Harvey and Jeana Leslie of the band FARA for inspiring us with their series of travel videos and, most of all, to my wife Jane for her sterling efforts in proofreading and editing my blogs. All errors and omissions remain mine alone.