North Ronaldsay is a unique little island in the most northern reaches off Orkney. Although it is only around 30 miles from mainland Orkney, it has a level of isolation to it. With only 1 ferry a week in the winter and 2 in the summer, the islanders rely on the 3x a day Islander plane service run by Loganair.
The island is around 5 miles long by 4 miles wide and is home to proximally 40 people. Many people on the island, as is not uncommon on small islands, hold multiple jobs, from firefighter, sheep/cattle farmer, to road maintenance, or in my case – home carer, baggage handler/fire fighter at the airport.
North Ronaldsay is probably best known for its rare, native seaweed eating sheep. The sheep are a primitive breed of northern short-tails and have lived on this island for around 5,000 years.
The sheep survive purely on a diet of seaweed brought in by the winter storms; they are brought in land onto fields during lambing time by an ancient method of farming known as ‘punding’. Every crofter on the island heads down to the foreshore to lead the sheep into a dry stone pen, called a pund, where the sheep are then sorted and released into the fields to raise their lambs.
Come October time, the ewe’s and their lambs are sent back onto the shore. They are a hardy breed of sheep and over the many thousands of years have adapted their digestive system to thrive on seaweed – as a result, they tend to suffer from copper poisoning, if left on grass too long.
The island’s place of interest is of course our 2 lighthouses. It was clear that British waters were incredibly dangerous for shipping so the British government approached Thomas Smith. A specialist in ship supplies and equipment in Edinburgh. Smith had an extensive knowledge of lanterns and close links with a well standing firm of builders.
With his son-in-law Robert Stevenson, Smith got to work designing 4 new lighthouses on Scotland’s coast. The 70ft tower at Kirk Taing, the north-east coast of Dennis Head on North Ronaldsay, was his second lighthouse. It was built from un-treated stones found nearby and held together by burning sea shells found on the beach, to make mortar.
This combination produced an incredibly strong structure which nearly 200 years of punishing elements could not break down.
In 1806, the lighthouse at Start Point on Sanday was lit and North Ronaldsay was considered redundant. However, the Swedish East India Company merchantman Svecia ran aground on the reefdyke, leading to the commission of the 139ft marvel as seen today.
The red brick lighthouse was lit in 1854 and 2 white bands were painted to act as a daymark in 1889. Finally the lighthouse was automated on 30 March 1998.
For an isolated island, it still has its own airport, pier, clinic, post office, school, community centre, shop, bird observatory, and cafe.
We have a resident nurse practitioner that can be found in the clinic during clinic hours every morning or zooming around the island visiting patients.
The post office is open every day and all day, except Sunday’s of course.
The community centre, a massive building attached to the school is large enough for a badminton court, pool table, kitchen, and a cosy meeting room. Sadly, by the summer holidays next year the school will likely close when the only remaining pupil graduates and moves onto high school on mainland.
The island shop can be found in the Bird Observatory, just about the first thing you see when stepping off the boat. They sell a variety of basic items as well as some souvenirs. You can also get a meal, have a drink, or book a room upstairs or in the hostel.
The cafe, open in the summer is part of the lighthouse complex. There you have the option to sit indoors or enjoy the sunshine (hopefully) on a park bench outside, with a coffee and a cake. You can also book a stay in one of the old lighthouse keeper’s cottages. Stylishly refurbished and a taste of another way of life.
If you’re still looking for places to stay on the island, there is a stunning holiday-let just off Nouster Bay with a breath taking view of the beach. Nouster can be seen from the pier at the South end of the island and is the first house you come to before the Bird Observatory.
The island also has not one but two kirk’s. Sadly only one is structurally sound and unless the minister is on island for his monthly sermon, the kirk houses the island’s archives. I and many visitors before me have spent hours looking though the history of the island and its people. It is open all year round and admission is free.