THE ferryman on the pier at Kirkwall on mainland Orkney had a sense of humour, or so I thought. He took a long look at my campervan, my pride and joy, checked his notes and asked if I really intended taking it on the ferry to North Ronaldsay, the most northern of the islands in the Orkney archipelago.
“You do realise there’s no slipway at the pier on North Ronaldsay,” he said, eyebrows furrowed. “They’ll lift the van oot o’ the ferry on some auld fishin’ nets.”
I was convinced he was joking, but he wasn’t. Three hours later I stood trembling on the North Ronaldsay pier as my beloved campervan was lifted by crane and dumped unceremoniously on the pier. It was hardly an auspicious introduction to Orkney’s most northerly island, but my producer assured me it would make good television.
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The campervan and I were on a journey between Dornoch, north of Inverness, to the most northerly of the Orkney islands, exploring the lesser-known byways of the far north-east Highlands of Scotland for a television programme.
Every Christmas for the past eight years I have made two hour-long television shows for BBC Scotland. Generally they have been long walks – the Sutherland Trail, the Skye Trail, a coast-to-coast across Scotland and even a 470-mile trip from the Scottish Borders to Cape Wrath, which we called the Scottish National Trail.
Two years ago I had run out of ideas for further big walks so we decided to change the format and came up with the idea of a campervan journey in which I would carry my hiking gear, a mountain bike and an inflatable packraft. I could then, from time to time, leave the van behind and climb a hill or two, enjoy a mountain bike ride or blow up the inflatable packraft and visit an island or paddle down a river. We called the programmes Roads Less Travelled, with a nod to Robert Frost’s poem: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.
Our first television campervan adventure started just south of Oban and we travelled north to Ullapool, climbing hills, interviewing geologists, mountain guides, traditional musicians and artists – anyone with a good story to tell. And the hero of the show? The campervan. Our audience figures shot sky high and I was inundated with enquiries about the vehicle, a Wellhouse Leisure converted Hyundai i800.
I’ve been using a campervan for my work as an outdoor writer for as long as I can remember, starting off with a VW T3 Westfalia and working my way through at least 10 vans in my 40 years in the business, but this was the first time I had used one on television.
Such was the positive response to the shows from the viewing public that we were immediately commissioned again, and we decided to visit the north-east Highlands of Scotland and Orkney.
The campervan was my accommodation, my transport and my television companion and we journeyed from Dornoch Point to Orkney following some of the north-east’s quieter and lesser known byways.
We travelled through some of the delightful little towns of Sutherland, the cathedral town of Dornoch, Brora, Golspie, Embo and Helmsdale before heading for the very heart of the Flow Country peatlands. I had enjoyed the wide-open spaces and the domed skies of Caithness before heading across the Pentland Firth to Orkney and visits to South Ronaldsay, Burray, Mainland, Rousay, Sanday and North Ronaldsay. The whole journey had been an eye-opener.
I hadn’t quite realised that Dornoch itself had been a flourishing Victorian holiday resort; I didn’t know that shepherding families from Caithness had once emigrated to Patagonia, where they became successful large-scale sheep farmers; and I hadn’t quite realised that the Caithness Flow Country was the UK’s largest peat-sink, holding huge amounts of CO2 in its oily morass. I even spent some time panning for gold near Helmsdale, where there had been a “gold rush” in 1868. No luck, though.
I had travelled to Orkney before, some years ago, when my wife Gina and I had cycle-toured between the main archeological sites on Orkney’s Mainland and the island of Hoy, and this time I visited six different islands: South Ronaldsay, Burray, Mainland, Rousay, Stronsay and North Ronaldsay, diverse islands and all well served by ferries – only the last of which lacks a slipway. North Ronaldsay is a lonely and remote outpost, the most northern island in the Orkney archipelago and three hours distant by ferry from Kirkwall.
When you arrive there you can’t help but feel nature has done everything in her power to erode the place. The coastline, especially on the west side, is rugged and jagged, the hinterland is flat and worn down almost to the bare bones and the ever-present wind feels as though it has a personal grudge against the island. Many of the houses are empty and ruinous, the Rousay flagstone roofs sagging and on the verge of collapse, and the newer houses appear to huddle together for protection from the harsh elements.
The interior of the island is sectioned by ancient drystone walls, dykes that are thought to be ancient, and probably date from before 1000BC – legend has it that three brothers shared the island between themselves. Today, less ancient drystone dykes separate the various crofts into a complex pattern of fields and, encircling the entire island, a six-foot tall dyke runs for a total distance of more than 13 miles. This is the Sheep Dyke and it’s intended to keep the 3000 unique seaweed-eating North Ronaldsay sheep out of the various crofts.
These sheep are allowed to come inland during the lambing season but for the rest of the year they are banished beyond the wall, where they appear to thrive on the algae of the sea. Their mutton is prized by top chefs and a mutton run, using the idea of the Beaujolais run, once took carcasses to Edinburgh and London restaurants. Sadly, mutton doesn’t appear to be fashionable anymore, although the mutton I tasted on the island was superb. You can’t beat a good plate of fresh mutton, gravy and mashed tatties.
I met several people from other northern islands, like Papa Westray, South Ronaldsay and Mainland, who had just popped over to Northern Ronaldsay for a short break at the bird observatory. It was easy to understand why. The accommodation is warm and clean, the food is absolutely first class, with local mutton from seaweed-eating sheep as the house speciality, there is a well stocked bar and a very warm welcome. The staff are all keen ornithologists and take part in bird surveys, ringing and birding as well as looking after the guests. I was given my own hardstanding patch for my campervan in a lovely green stretch of grass that is the observatory’s camping area.
In many ways the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory is a lifeline for this remote island. When the local shop closed down recently the observatory took on the responsibilities of providing the small population with those provisions that are essential for daily life.
Most of the visitors who come to North Ronaldsay stay at the observatory, although I did overhear one local suggest that today North Ronaldsay is nothing but “auld bones and birds”. Don’t let that put you off. These northern islands of Orkney are fascinating places to visit and a stay at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory could make a fabulous get-away-from-it-all weekend, whether you’re a birder or not.