Orkney reflections

6 Sep

Whalebone at Skiba Geo

Back from our sojourn – mostly on mainland Orkney but with stops off in the Highlands along the way there and back.

My first visit to the islands and it was a very enjoyable break and afforded me a lot of the wildlife I had hoped for as well as a wealth of fascinating historical sites and many of the best ones were the less well known ones.

We were based just outside of Stenness – 5 mins from Stromness and 25 mins from Kirkwall and our fantastic cottage had views across the Bay of Ireland to Graemsay and Hoy (well when it wasn’t raining anyway). We were only 5 minutes from the Stones of Stenness, Ring of Brodgar and Maes Howe – three of the main neolithic sites on the mainland and all well worth a visit.

We were set around 200 yards from the beach and with a conservatory ideally placed for a scope we enjoyed a fair amount of bird life without even leaving the cottage. It took 2 days to say our first hen harrier – a ringtail around 10 yards from the car as we explored the vicinity, but after that we saw at least one a day, and often stunning males in their silver finery. Gannets, fulmars and assorted gulls were continually on show from the cottage at first although the gannets seemed to move on as the weather improved over the week. Bonxies and raven both flew over as we were unloading the car when we first arrived, and six wagtails – four pied and two white were in residence in the front garden. A female wheatear was also hopping around in the field and on the dry stone wall marking the boundary of our temporary home. Curlews, lapwings and starlings all numbered up to 500 at a time in the fields around the place.

My first visit down the short track to the beach was eventful with low flying bonxies and then accidentally flushing a brute of a raven from around 3 feet as I walked past his sheltered spot on the cliff. Common seals joined greys offshore and the head of the inlet looked tailor made for otters.

We initially drew a blank on red throated divers – a trip to Lowrie Water where they breed was devoid of anything on the water except a single tuftie, although spectacular numbers of ravens on the drive up was worth it for that alone. Eventually we did get cracking views of a pair of “raingoose” from the shores at the Broch of Gurness below Lowrie Water. This was also the site of our only view of merlin on the islands.

Aside from birds I was hopeful of seeing otters, seals and cetaceans and was buoyed by news that Orcas had been sighted the weekend before our trip although I knew it was a seriously long shot to see them. Seals were fairly evident all over but porpoises, dolphins, wales and seals were keeping their heads down. Within hours of arrivals I thought I had an otter and if it had been dawn or dusk I’d have no hesitation in claiming it as such but as it was a sunny mid-morning and it had disappeared before I got the bins out it was left as one that got away. It was only on the last evening that I made a determined effort to search out otters and I headed 5 mins up the road from our cottage 20 mins before sunset to a small layby overlooking a narrow inlet where the sea joins the Loch of Stennes via a small channel and within a few moments I was rewarded with the sight of ripples heading into the weeds and then the head and then full body of an otter. I watched for a few minutes and then decided to try risking getting out of the car in the hope of a few photos.

Inevitably the otter disappeared back down the coast but a curious common seal swam up to see me not long after. I watched him head into the loch and then decided being eaten alive by midges wasnt really worth it. I returned to the car and headed back home and just caught a glimpse of (presumably) the same otter on the bank tucking into his tea.

Although I’m used to seals of both british varieties I found the residents of the Orkneys to be even more curious than our locals from England – my daughter Hannah was enjoying plopping stones into the sea and building sandcastles at the Brough of Birsay and common seals were surfacing 15-20 feet away to watch her antics.

Cetaceans remained elusive until the return ferry crossing and then until the last 5 minutes – as we pulled into Gills Bay near John O’Groats I sighted at first four then a total of seven porpoises breaking the surface for a few moments.

It took me a few days to realise that Orkney was not what I expected at all… in my youth I regularly made the drive up the east coast from Inverness to John O’Groats and back and enjoyed the real wilderness feel of Caithness and Sutherland with wind blown moors and tiny lochens and small sandy inlets. For the first few days Orkney seemed subtly more civilized and tidy and cultivated than I expected – it seemed like one giant farm well stocked with cattle and sheep on every square inch. The wind was there and the sandy beaches were there but there was no real feeling of wilderness. Later in the week we encountered the more rugged terrain that I had expected but generally Orkney left me with a feeling of a very comfortable place (except when the “severe gales” hit the islands on our second day, leaving the ferries cancelled and the flight from Edinburgh carrying my mum distinctly lumpy!).

It was a great time though – I’ll definitely be back. It was nice to meet up with Tim Wooton – wildlife artist and local font of nature knowledge – at his gallery in Stromness.

Or maybe Shetland next time, or the western isles (as was our original plan this time).

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