By Bernie Bell
Readers of The Orkney News may remember Mike and I walking the South Ronaldsay East Coast Walks https://theorkneynews.scot/?s=south+ronaldsay+East+coast+Walks
At the end of which, we found ourselves in the car park for the Burwick – John O’ Groats ferry, looking at an information board describing a continuation of the walks we’d done, under the heading of …..South Ronaldsay West Coast Walks.
Fast forward some months, to a fine day in December – the wind wasn’t howling, the rain wasn’t lashing, so we decided to go for it. We parked at the ferry terminal again, and headed round behind these concrete blocks .
If you go up the main path, it just takes you to a very conveniently placed sit-ootery, where we ate our sandwiches, last time – but that isn’t the start of the walk. You go round behind the landscape – art – sculpture – concrete – honeycomb – blocks – thing, where you will find a well-defined path, which will take you along the cliff-top walk.
I was a bit disorientated, as I’m so used to looking from the ‘other side’ of Orkney. I realised that the strip of land which I could see across from me, across the Pentland Firth – well – that’s Scotland, that is.
We got talking with a young man, out walking with his little girl, and he pointed out to us, that the white buildings we could see, were in Caithness – really not far away at all, but across treacherous waters.
We got talking about the island of Swona, which we could see, just across the water, with what could be seen as the ‘Old Man of Swona’ looking across, too!
Swona is one the Orkney islands which used to have a surprising number of people living on it, but the last inhabitants left in 1974. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swona
When the people left, they left their cattle behind, which have now become feral. And when they left, they also left some of their furniture and many of their personal possessions too. I’d heard about this, and been fascinated by the idea, but have never visited Swona. https://theorkneynews.scot/2018/12/06/islands/
The young man we were talking with, has been to Swona , once, when he was a lad, and saw the houses, which he said really were as though someone had gone out, meaning to come back again. In one, even the Christmas cards had been left in place. I found this particularly touching – Christmas cards still there – especially as we were looking over to Swona and having this conversation, on the 23rd December, with our Christmas cards in place at home.
He said that this was some years ago, and he has heard that doors have been blown open or off, by the wind, the weather has got in, and there has been damage done, so the houses aren’t quite as eerily ‘empty’ as they were.
We then spoke of what a hard life it must have been on the island, as it was for many folk at that time, and how very different it was, to today’s world, though not that far distant, in time. He told us about how his Grand-dad didn’t like the electric light when he first had it in his house. He was used to the more gentle light of a tilly –lamp, and also missed the accompanying soft hissing sound. I remembered the light of the oil lamps and the fire, in my mother’s family home which we visited when I was a child, which was probably comparable. We imagined the tales which might have been told, in those cosy surroundings, on a winter evening.
Swona really is a scrap of land, not even as big as Eynhallow, yet it had a sizeable population, for its size. We stood and looked across at Swona, and thought about living there, and of how difficult trying to get out fishing, or across to South Ronaldsay, would have sometimes been, in bad weather conditions, or strong tides. They must have been hardy, self-reliant folk.
I’d love to go there, sometime, before the evidence of that past life, so near in time, disappears for good.
We all wished each other ‘Happy Christmas’ and continued on our way.
Mike and I walked out onto a promontory which very much had the feel of somewhere which would have been lived on, and used – location, location, location. It reminded me of the Brough of Windwick ‘fort’, as mentioned, briefly, in this piece……… https://theorkneynews.scot/2017/10/19/bernie-bell-orkney-walks-south-ronaldsay/
So, we got the map out, and, sure enough, it’s labelled ‘Castle of Burwick fort’. A good defensive position, and a good seeing–all–around position.
We carried on to Creara Head, where we ate our sandwiches, as the light began to go, somewhat spectacularly, over Orphir – way over there, across the sea.
A grand place to stand, and look about you.
Before the light went, Mike got a photo of a nice bit of geology in the cliffs there.
I don’t know what’s going on here, but it looks striking, as do many of the cliff-faces along this stretch of coast-line.
And, on the way back – “Call out the Civil Defence – they’ve landed!!” Invasion of the Pod-People?
And then home, by the light of a stunning moon.
All photos by B and M Bell