Where to Stay: South Ronaldsay

Fourth largest of the Orkney Islands, South Ronaldsay (not to be confused with its far more Northern counterpart) serves as a perfect introduction to the Orkneys.

Regular ferries connect the village of Burwick with John o’ Groats on the mainland, from there you can explore the islands of Burray and the hulking mass of Mainland Orkney, but simply passing through South Ronaldsay would do this beautiful area a real disservice.

Much like the rest of the Orkneys there’s a multitude of stunning natural sights to take in, including rugged coastlines, plenty of wildlife and ancient history.

St. Margaret’s Hope is South Ronaldsay’s village and with around 550 people living there, it’s also Orkney’s third largest settlement. There are a few restaurants to eat at, as well as a handful of shops to buy your goods from. The Murray Arms Hotel is the place to stay in St. Margaret’s Hope, the traditional pub has 6 en suite bedrooms to stay in and a lively bar downstairs should you wish to get to know the locals. But if you want to get the true Orkney experience then you should try to stay somewhere a bit more remote.

When you choose to stay at one of these far-flung places you can really immerse yourself into the peaceful seclusion that only island life on the Orkneys can offer:

Wheems Organic Farm

Mike set up shop at Wheems Organic Farm over 30 years ago with his wife Christina. They’ve spent their time developing their 5 hectare holding, renovating the 200 year old farm buildings on the site and welcoming hundreds of visitors to their campsite which includes bell tents, camping pods, yurts, a loft space and a self-catering cottage. Just a stone’s throw away from the coast, you might be sharing the site with a handful of other people, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling truly remote and special.

Banks of Orkney

South Ronaldsay is the last place you’d expect to see a modern building, just the thought of how much a topographical survey of the land would cost is enough to put off any investor! But that didn’t deter Carole and Hamish who built the chic glass-clad Skerries Bistro. They run the restaurant along with managing a trio of self-catering accommodations. Sat right on the coastline, you’ll be able to watch the sunset each night and with zero light pollution you have an even greater chance of seeing The Merry Dancers (the Northern Lights).

West Shaird

Three miles outside of St. Margaret’s Hope, this good-sized farmhouse is ideal for families looking for a rural break with plenty of space to run around. A double bedroom, twin, and small room with a bunk bed can sleep 6 whilst a large lawn provides ample space for kids to run around in. No Wi-Fi guarantees that your family will be spending time with each other, rather than their phones and the kitchen is fitted with all the amenities that you’d ever need to cook some hearty Orcadian grub.

Bankburn House B&B

Mick and Wilma run this tidy Bed and Breakfast just on the outskirts of St. Margaret’s Hope and pride themselves on providing visitors with a comfortable stay and excellent service. Their Full Orcadian Breakfast is truly something to behold and, should you choose to, you can order an evening meal from the too. High-speed Wi-Fi runs throughout the B&B and the accommodation is well situated for travellers looking to visit the Tomb of the Eagles or play a round at South Ronaldsay Golf Course.

6 Interesting Facts About Our Seals

Come and see our huge population of Seals!

Although you’d be lucky to catch a glimpse of some of the more elusive Orkney creatures, such as the Orkney Vole or the Hen Harrier, there’s one particular animal that you’re almost guaranteed to see when you visit the Orkneys.

15% of the world’s population of seals call the Orkneys home, however only two species (out of 33 known to science) breed, birth and bask on the Britain’s beaches. Although a full count has not been done for over a decade, in 2007 it was estimated that there somewhere between 25,000 and 27,000 seals living in and around the Orkneys (for comparison the standing population of people is around 20,000).

Grey seals are the dominant species and although their numbers were rising year-on-year for a long time, they have dropped significantly in the last 10 years to 50% of their previous numbers. Despite this they are far from being endangered, unlike many of their fellow marine creatures. With an approximate number of 7,000 making their home around the Orkneys there are plenty of sighting opportunities for wildlife fanatics who love nothing more than spending a day hiding out on a sand dune with a thermos flask, binoculars and camera.

We’ve scoured the internet for some interesting facts about our seals – we hope you enjoy them!

Seals, both common and grey, love to bask on the beaches of Orkney for a number of reasons: our beaches are mercifully free of predators, apart from a scattering of tourists the beaches are usually very quiet, giving them enough peace to go about their business. Although they’re generally considered to be friendly, inquisitive creatures it’s still best to keep your distance as their behaviour is unpredictable.

The common seal (also known as the ‘Harbor seal‘) is one the most populous of its species, there are somewhere between 350,00 and 500,00 around the world. You’ll be able to recognise them by their V-shaped nostrils, but each seal will still look completely different from the next one. Their colours can vary from grey to a dark brown, or even tan.

The seals’ lifecycle is an interesting one. During most of the year seals are solitary creatures, they only gather in larger numbers to breed and to give birth. The gestation period of a seal is the same as a human being: 9 months. Baby seals mature very quickly, born at around 16kg they take on weight very quickly whilst feeding from their mothers’ fatty milk, often weighing twice as much within a month. They can also swim and dive within hours of being born!

Seals are known as ‘selkies‘ in the Orcadian dialect and come with their own strange and unique folklore. Similar to the naval stories of mermaids, selkies have been described as both gentle creatures as well as malicious trouble-makers. According to the tales selkies have the ability to ‘shapeshift’ from their seal form into human bodies, this transformation is described as them casting off their seal skins. It’s unclear as to when or how often this transformation can take place, with some sources suggesting it only happens at Midsummer’s Eve or simply whenever the selkie-folk choose.

Orkney Specialities: North Ronaldsay Sheep

Trying the local produce is advisable when you visit any new place, but it’s particularly necessary when you visit island communities.

Much like the endemic species of Orkney Vole that live on five of our islands, the food produced here by artisan craftsmen and chip-shop owners alike has been allowed to evolve over the years – isolated from the rest of the world. Although you could argue that Orcadian food has a distinct Scottish bent to it, you’ll find many ingredients and dishes here that you simply won’t be able to eat anywhere else on Earth.

One such example is a breed of sheep unlike any other in the world:

The North Ronaldsay Sheep

Probably the most instantly recognisable animal from Orkney; North Ronaldsay Sheep have a look, temperament and flavour all to themselves. They take their name from the region that they are reared. Each and every North Ronaldsay Sheep is a descendant of the sheep that were natives of the island. They roamed freely for over 5000 years until 1832 when the ruling Laird decided to banish them to the Northern-most shores of the island.

Whilst other breeds of sheep can be used as a way of getting rid of Japanese knotweed, the North Ronaldsay herd have developed a particular taste for another kind of vegetation. Kept at bay by a dyke, the sheep had nothing else to graze on other than seaweed, which has now become their only source of sustenance. They are one of only two animals in the world known to be able to do this and in doing so they have irrevocably altered their genetic makeup.

Their digestive systems extract copper far more efficiently than their mainland counterparts, as seaweed is so low in that particular mineral; if fed on grass they run the risk of developing copper toxicity. Their fleece also appears in a wide range of colours including reds, browns and greys. Perhaps most significantly, their meat is distinctly flavoured by their unique diet which lends it a rich, gamey flavour despite having a tougher texture than your average sheep.

Whilst other sheep varieties on Orkney have come and gone, the North Ronaldsay flock has been able to prevail thanks to their self-sufficiency and ingenuity. They’re such independent creatures, in fact, that they’re considered to be technically semi-feral. Whilst they’re hardly dangerous, their wild nature is indicative of their undomesticated pedigree. In order to keep the herd healthy and to ensure their numbers are well controlled a group of Orcadians, known as the North Ronaldsay Sheep court preside over their care and the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival takes place each year to mend the drystone dyke, said to be the longest of its kind in the world.

Orkney-local and food expert Rosemary Moon suggests stewing North Ronaldsay Shoulder with Seville oranges, whilst chef Cyrus Todiwala OBE incorporates the meat into his unique take on a classic Shepherd’s Pie which he calls ‘Country Captain’. Although joints are limited, you should have no trouble procuring some North Ronaldsay Mutton from butchers on the Orkney Mainland, if that fails you should be able to find it served in a number of Orkney’s stellar restaurants.

Despite its popularity amongst foodies and chefs, the North Ronaldsay Sheep was classified as a ‘vulnerable’ breed in 2017 by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust – a cautionary reminder that regardless of how tasty a creature is, it might still need protecting.

5 Facts About the Orkney Vole

The Orkney Isles are home to huge number of different creatures.

However, it could be argued that none are quite as interesting as the Orkney Vole.

We’re rather proud of this special little rodent. It’s a cunning survivor, a cheeky napper and is also full of surprises! A great deal of research has been undertaken on this tiny critter, with biologists as far back as the 19th Century. John Guille Millais is credited with ‘discovering’ the Orkney Vole back in 1886. He first spotted the creature whilst on his way back from a fishing trip on Mainland Orkney. At first he mistook what he saw for a darker coloured Water Vole, but after requesting for specimens of that animal he soon became convinced that what he had seen was a completely different beast.

Millais’ discovery of the Orkney Vole, along with G. E. H Barrett-Hamilton’s publication on the finding of the Skomer Vole (on the island of the same name), kick-started a vole-based discussion that snowballed into a full-blown mania. Soon taxonomists and biologists alike were racing to the Orkney Isles, as well as other British island communities, to make the next big discovery. Unfortunately, this flurry of interest led to many over-excited would-be scientists ‘discovering’ their own sub-species of Orkney Vole on each island. Thankfully, this mess was cleared up by a series of genetic studies in 1951 which proved that, despite the significant distance between each island, the Orkney Vole was a single sub-species of vole.

However, as much as these studies have helped us understand more about these furry creatures, they’ve also raised even more questions about where they come from, how they behave and what they get up to.

Here are a few of the facts that we’ve discovered along the way:

They’re not as local as you might think!

It can be easy to get misled by the name, but it’s recently been found that the Orkney Vole, although endemic to the Orkney Isles, has some striking similarities to many voles found on continental Europe. Original theories suggested that the Vole could have travelled from the continent via giant glaciers that would have bridged the landmasses, but it has since been proved that the vole could not have survived such cold extremities. More recent research claims that the vole would have travelled here some 5000 years ago via early trade routes.

You can only find them on 5 of the Orkney Isles

Despite its name you’ll only only be able to spot the Orkney Vole on five of the islands: the Mainland, South Ronaldsay, Rousay, Westray, Eday and Sanday.

Other species of voles might well exist on the neighbouring isles, but these won’t have the trademark features of the Orkney Vole!

If you’re keen on spotting one for yourself then your best bet is to head out to one of the aforementioned isles and tread carefully around the underbrush.

Our ancient ancestors loved them more than us.

A great deal of the information that we have on the Orkney Vole today is thanks to research conducted by archaeologists who have been digging up settlements sites all across the Isles. A common feature that they use to identify these settlements is a concentration of animal bones, such as those of the Orkney Vole. It’s thought that our Orkney ancestors buried many of the bones of the animals that they hunted or farmed as a form of ritual. Hundreds of bones have been discovered on the mainland suggesting either a well-fed settlement or one big party!

Bigger than your average vole

One of the easiest ways of setting the Orkney Vole apart from other Voles is by its size. Thanks to its isolation on the Orkney Isles our Vole has remained more or less the same size since it first came here over 5000 years ago. To make an quick comparison, the common vole (a direct relative of the Orkney Vole) has a much larger population in the UK and has significantly diminished in stature to around half the size.

Struggling in numbers thanks to a certain predator…

Despite having prospered for thousands of years, the Orkney Vole has most recently come under threat from a new threat. Traditionally prey of the Short-eared Owl and the Hen Harrier (a bird that is fast becoming endangered itself in the UK), numerous sightings of Stoat have been reported since 2010 who have proved particularly adept at cutting down Vole numbers. The source of these stoats is still unknown, but action will need to be taken in order to protect the Orkney Isles’ longest inhabitants.