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Late May 2013, Orkney

OrcaOn a sunny windless day, we motored around from Wick to Kirkwall. Between mainland Scotland and Orkney is the Pentland Firth, a short stretch of water with a fearsome reputation due to the strong tides that empty and fill the North Sea twice a day. In conditions with strong winds against the tide this is a dangerous passage, so we waited for a near perfect conditions and motor-sailed the 50NM to Kirkwall. It was good conditions for dolphin spotting with a flat sea and bright sunshine, so it was rather a shock when a large pod of Orca (Killer Whales) came over to inspect us. Some dived under the boat, and others bobbed out of the water, fixing us with a beady eye. These beautiful creatures are roughly the same size as Innisfree so we were glad when they decided not to investigate further and cruised on their way. We have never heard of them attacking yachts, but your heart does beat faster when you are surrounded by circling tall black fins.

Tim and Eday Ranger at the Setter stoneKirkwall has a small marina, many shops, and is the hub for most of the bus and ferry services on Orkney. This makes it an excellent base from which to explore the rest of the islands. When we were here in June and July 2010, we visited many of the spectacular historic sites on Mainland, but as we were based in Stromness, visiting the outlying northern islands was not easy. This year, our first excursion was to Eday for a guided walk given by the permanent ranger of the island. She is an engaging lass from the Isle of Arran, and kept us entertained with an informative and wide ranging discourse as we walked around the northern end of the island. The party was just us and a couple from Brisbane Australia, who were more used to temperatures over 25°C so found the typical Orkney conditions of 10°C and strong Lynesswinds a bit on the chilly side. While we ate our lunch sitting on the heather clad hillside basking in the sunshine, they sat and shivered, but enjoyed it anyway as the ranger brought the history, flora and fauna of the island to life. (She is on the right of the Setter Stone pictured left).

A completly different excursion was to Lyness on the island of Hoy. This is on the southern side of Scapa Flow and was a major naval base during both WWI and WWII. There is not much left of the original infrastructure, just a few low buildings, and one of the large oil tanks (right). The visitor's centre does a great job showing how it used to be with films, pictures, descriptions and artifacts ranging from ration books to a German launch (see More Pictures). They also have an excellent cafe, which was greatly appreciated on the cold drizzly day. Typically Tim found one of the few bits of standard gauge railway in Orkney and he can be seen (right) measuring the sharpness (radius) of the points. The tracks were home to four steam cranes in WWII that were used to maintain the boom defenses against enemy ships and submarines.

North Ronaldsay car ferryThe third island we visited was North Ronaldsay, the most remote of all the islands, and is further north than the southern tip of Norway. It was a long day with a 3 hour ferry ride each way, allowing 3 hours on the island. Unlike the other islands, there is no Ro-Ro pier, instead the cars are craned off the ferry onto the pier in slings (left). It was a calm sea on the day we visited, but this would clearly be quite exciting if there was any significant swell, or a strongNorth Ronsaldsay Sheepwind.

North Ronaldsay is famous for its seaweed eating sheep. The island is fertile grasslands, but this is reserved for the cattle, and the sheep are banished to a narrow bit of foreshore, outside of a 13 mile stone wall that runs around the entire perimeter of the island. These days much of the wall has been replaced by wire fence, but what remains is still an impressive sight. The sheep are small and hardy, and at this time of year have tiny little lambs. The rocks on the shore are criss-crossed by sheep tracks, where their tough Grey Sealhooves have warn away the black lichen.

The coast is also the home for common and grey (left) seals. These have become relatively tame now that culling has been banned. They certainly did not pay us much attention as we wandered by only a few meters away. The seals just raised a head to watch as we passed, and then returned to basking in the sunshine.

The one historic site on Mainland that we wanted to revisit was the Ness of Brodgar (below) which is home to the huge stone circle -The Ring of Brodgar, and to the Stones of Stenness (see Late June 2010 for pictures). There are spectacular views of the whole site (see below) from Ward Hill, the highest point on Mainland. The southern end of the peninsular is guarded by the Stones of Stenness, and is bounded by the salt water Loch Stenness, and the fresh water Loch Harray. In the middle are some recent archeological excavations which are unfortunately only open in August when they continue the dig. These new excavations have revealed some substantial new buildings and features dating back 4000-5000 years. Then at the northern end is the Ring of Brodgar.

With several more islands still to visit we are planning to stay in Kirkwall for a while, and then eventually move on to the island of Westray for a few days but the weather is currently fine so there is no rush.