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Early June 2013, Orkney

The RSPB is very active in Orkney with nearly every island having at least one reserve. One of the targeted birds is the elusive Corncrake which raises its young in long grass, and has a very distinctive grating call. Over the years, we have spent several hours using binoculars to scan fields of grass where a male is calling, and have still never seen one. This year we have not even heard one yet, but the long grass is popular with other ground nesting birds, and many of these like the Curlew (right), instead of hiding in the grass, try to chase of the enemy (passing humans, or hungry gulls) with loud calls and aggressive flying displays. The reserve on the island of Egilsay is farmed specifically to encourage the Corncrake, and we visited on grey, windy and cold day. As well as the RSPB reserve, the island is well known through the Orkneying Saga, which describes how Earl Magnus met his cousin Hakon in 1116 to discuss peace terms, and Hakon instead had Magnus murdered. St Magnus Kirk (below) was built in his memory, and is one of only two remaining examples of the distinctive Viking round towered churches.

St Magnus Kirk, Egilsay







Judith in Taversoe TuickThe island of Rousay (pronounced to rhyme with drowsy) can be seen in the background of the picture above. This is an island of very different character, being hilly and dominated by heather moorland. The RSPB reserve here is aimed at Hen Harriers, Short Eared Owl, and Skuas, with Red Throated Divers nesting on the lochans in the hills. The island is also rich in archaeological sites, with a couple of ruined Brochs, and a series of well preserved burial chambers dotted along southern coast. These are open access, protected (from sheep) by a simple fence, and a mesh gate across the entrance. Taversoe Tuick (left) is an unusual two-storied cairn, with an iron ladder for descending to the lower level to see the chambers. The chambers were used to store the bones of the dead, the bodies having first been left out in the open to be picked clean by scavenging birds. The dark chill interior must have been creepy, but thankfully now there is a protective concrete dome with skylight to dispel any lingering ghosts.

There are a few major 'towns' on Mainland, but the rest is scattered farms. There are no regular buses off the main routes, but one service will go anywhere within a specified area if you call before 3pm on the day before. This is perfect for walking because you can be dropped off and picked up exactly Orkney Brewery hand pumpswhere you want, rather than a mile or so from the footpath as is usually the case. On one of our more energetic days, we caught this bus at 0715 to the north west corner of Mainland, and from there walked south along the cliff path to arrive at the Orkney Brewery at lunch time. They have recently opened a 5-star visitor centre to complement the brewery tour. The tour was much like any other brewery tour, but concluded with a beer tasting from special 1/3pt glasses, with 3 samples included in the tour price. With two of us, it meant we could try all five on draft, and one twice. Their summer ale is called "Corncrake" with a donation going to the RSPB for every pint sold, so naturally this was our double sample. The guide claimed that there was a Corncrake calling in the evenings outside the brewery, but that may have just been a story for us gullible tourists! Disappointingly the samples did not include "Skull Splitter" (ABV 8.5%), and as the visitor centre is the only place where this particular beer is served draught (it being normally sold in ½ pt bottles), we had to give it a go... We had organised the service bus to pick us up at the brewery so it was a most enjoyable day out. The brewery guide has also mentioned that two cruise liners were due in the harbour next morning. Sure enough there they were, one at the pier, one at anchor. They left in the evening only to be replaced by another the following morning, (see below).

Cruise linersOn days like these, all the popular sites are heaving with tourists who spend a short time at each, before dashing by coach to the next. In Kirkwall the main shopping street is closed to traffic, and the one-way system in the harbour is altered in order to cope with the crowds arriving on the liner shuttles. The island authorities are obviously used to catering for the large numbers and it must bring a welcome boost to the local economy.Burray Sheep DogsThere are even plans to dredge the area outside the harbour to allow even larger liners, or to allow more at any one time. We prefer to cruise with two, rather than 4000!

It is easy to escape the bustle, and find a walk along a quiet stretch of coast. We were welcomed by two overly friendly collies at one farm (see left), who would sit on you boots in an attempt to prolong the pampering. They seemed keen to join us for the rest of our walk, but the farmer was on hand to discourage them.

Kirkwall marina is a five minute walk from the centre of the town, and so very convenient for the shops, restaurants and pubs. Our neighbours in the marina clearly found the latter most appealing, and more than once were we woken by them returning in the small hours. One such morning they must have had more than usual, and one walked off the end of the pontoon instead of turning right towards their berth, and the other was in no state to fish him out. Instead he called the coastguard on the VHF radio. Radio speakers on yachts are in the cockpit, and so the coastguard responses were played at full volume and woke everyone else up in the marina. The hapless chap was quickly rescued by other boat crews, but not before the coastguard had called out the RNLI lifeboat RIB and an ambulance. The lifeboat was stood down, but the coastguard insisted on maintaining the ambulance. Needless to say our neighbours were not very visible over the next couple of days as they stayed down below to avoid any embarrassing questions. Their late night activities seemed to be curtailed after this incident.

Finally it was time for us to move on, and we set off mid afternoon for Westray. There was little wind, but the favorable tide soon had us rope removed from propapproaching the little harbour at Gill Point. This is the major crab fishing centre in Orkney, and there are many lobster pots in and around the bay. Normally these are marked by basket-ball sized buoys, and are laid clear of the fairway so easy to avoid. If we do not spot them, the shape of Innisfree's keel is such that the lines normally slide harmlessly underneath. Our third line of defense is a rope cutter on the prop shaft, and that day it did it's job, cutting the line with a loud 'thunk' as the line tightened. Unfortunately, the trailing line also got caught on one of the prop blades. The line and buoys then streamed out astern and did not cause any problem until we slowed for the turn into the marina berth (shown below). Then they neatly managed to wrap around the prop as a whole which cut the engine dead as we entered our berth. Thankfully we had enough momentum to glide on and tie up. Ten minutes with one of us fiddling with a boat hook whilst lying flat on the pontoon, whilst the other turned the prop shaft from inside the boat, and the line was free with no harm to anything but our nerves!

Gill Pier, Westray

There is plenty to do in Westray so we'll stay a while. Our next target is Stromness before we decide which way we will go back towards Oban (the way we came or around Cape Wrath and down the north west coast of Scotland). It will no doubt depend on the weather.