Up Costa Hill – Before It’s Too Late!

By Bernie Bell

Pics by B&M Bell

There is a plan afoot, to place some large wind turbines on Costa Hill, in Swannay  https://theorkneynews.scot/2019/04/19/costa-hesta-wind-farms-successful-appeals/

So, we thought that we’d better have our walk there, before it’s too late!

Wind turbines are a thorny issue.  Personally, I don’t mind the big ones, when they are far away from people. In fact they can have a certain majesty, standing there, turning, in a stately sort to manner, and producing ‘clean‘ electricity.  It’s the little, skittery ones I object to  – they disturb the still landscape of Orkney. We can see a few from our windows, and….they do disturb the landscape.  Yes, I know – I know, they produce ‘clean‘ electricity, but – this is a personal view, and my personal view, from my living room window, is….of skittery  turbines,  which, in turn, make me feel …skittery.

The big ones, far away from folk, are a different matter – but, well – the access roads, the excavations needed for the base, and the lines to transport the energy – they disrupt the land they’re placed in, and…the blades are said to bother birds. Still…..better than a nuclear power station  by a long way!!!!!!!  I’d rather some big wind turbines, than another Chernobyl.  Remember Chernobyl?  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster

People forget.

And also, re. the large wind turbines –  for me, the exception is when there are folk living near to them, who have these things imposed on them willy-nilly, as will happen if  they are placed on Costa Hill. There were objections from folk living near there, which have been over-ridden by…….not OIC, who actually listened to the people, for a change, but by the Scottish Government – who don’t have to live near the dratted things!

If the plan goes ahead – and I don’t see why it wouldn’t, now, the turbines will change the place – they just….will.  And so, having ranted on a bit about why we felt we should  go to Costa Hill, sooner rather than later,  I’ll now proceed to take you there………………..

To get to Costa Hill, you go along the A966, by the Loch of Swannay.  An O.S. map would be a good idea, not only to help you to find your way there, but also, when you’re at the top, to be able to work out what you are seeing from that vantage point, which is intriguingly named Ernie Tower.  I tried to find out who Ernie was, but with no luck.  This is the clearest bit of information I could find about what you will find at the top of Costa Hill………..    https://canmore.org.uk/site/157903/costa-hill-ernie-tower

But I’m getting ahead of myself –  if you go there by car, you could park on a grassy bit by the road,  just along from the slipway to the loch, and, looking across to the side of the hill, with wind turbines in the background, you can see the track which you will need to follow.

Swannay loch  B Bell

Setting off to your right along the road, you will come to a kissing gate, on your left, where you will see a sign to show that you will now be following the St. Magnus Way https://www.stmagnusway.com/route/evie-to-birsay

ST Magnus Way Swannay Bell

The track is usually muddy, as it is crossed by many little rills, flowing down the hill – but it is a good track, and the walk is do-able, even for a slightly wonky person, like me!

As we walked up, we were watched by the sheep on the lower hill, and had a wonderful view – over a hillside pool, across the Loch of Swannay, through the hills to the Lochs of Stenness and Harray, and Hoy – way over there, in  the distance.

Turning a curve in the track, we had wonderful views over to Rousey and Eynhallow….

panorama above Swannay Bell

……and, in the far distance, Westray

view from Swannay over to Westray Bell

Another curve in the track, and you get a vista across to the Kitchener Memorial on Marwick Head https://theorkneynews.scot/2017/05/23/remembering-the-737-men-lost-on-hms-hampshire/

from Costa over to Kitchener Memorial Marwick Head Bell

The track leads to the very top of the hill, and a structure which has a stone leaning against it, on which the words ’View Point’ are just about discernible…

viewpoint Costa Hill Bell

A bit of a case of stating the bleedin’ obvious! Looking out from the top of Costa Hill is as good a place as any, for seeing a whole sweep of Orkney countryside – lochs, hills, coast, and history – including some of the outer islands, too.  This is why I strongly advise taking a map with you – so that you can work out what’s what.

The structure, is one of those places of appealing decrepitude –

There is also a concrete Trig. point, for the Ordnance Survey to take readings – or, is it a landing pad for spaceships?

trig point Costa Hill Bell

The St. Magnus Way  continues, crossing the brow of the hill, and passing another interesting piece of decrepitude – but – what is it???

On the way back down the track, we were accompanied by a Raven, cronking and tumbling. Some say that the tumbling is a mating display, but I can’t help thinking this one was doing it just for the hell of it!  It was using an up-draft from the side of the hill, to just – roll and tumble and….enjoy!

Another thing we noticed on the way down, was a traditional Orkney field boundary, made of upright flag-stones. This type of field boundary is fast disappearing from the Orkney countryside, as wire fencing is so much easier to maintain.  It was good to see quite a long stretch of flag-fencing – and, what’s more, protected on both sides by wire fencing, so’s the sheep won’t rub on it and knock the stones over.

Flag stone fencing Costa Hill Bell

Have you noticed, how you notice different things, when setting out on a walk, and when returning by the same path, but in the opposite direction?

Back on the main road, we noticed, over to our right, on the side of the hill, what looked like a cairn…

possible Cairn Swannay Bell

Not noticed on the way up the road, and, once past it on the way down, hard to see, even though we knew it was there.  It wasn’t marked on our OS map, but, checking with the ever reliable Canmore when we got home, we found this entry for it………..


It’s described as a barrow. What’s the difference between a barrow and a cairn?  I’m never quite sure, but a barrow is usually Bronze Age, and a cairn is usually Neolithic.

Then, back to the car, and to Birsay Bay Tearoom for lunch – a very good way to spend the day –!

Birsay Bay tearoom Bell

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6 replies »

  1. Ernie Tower or Erne Tower doesn’t refer to a person, but a bird. The White-tailed Sea Eagle recently recolonised Orkney as a breeding bird but was widespread in the county for centuries – Tomb of the Eagles and other erne placenames.

    • Thanks Andy – that had never occurred to me – I was being guilty of relating everything to humans – and had never heard of eagles being referred to as Ernes.
      It suddenly makes sense, especially when you consider the place.
      We might see eagles there, again – that would be something.
      Though, hang on, what would the eagles make of the wind turbines?


  2. Erne is a common old name for sea eagles – and much beloved of crossword compilers! There is an Erne Tower on Rousay although it’s not shown on the online map, oddly. It’s on my old green Pathfinder map of Rousay – North no. 26 between Twelve Hour Tower and the Loch of Loomachun. I used to be up there regularly when I was the RSPB warden and there are fine views to be had.

  3. Nice post Bernie – found this through the link you left on Canmore. I saw that the name existed in the 1800s map, so was obviously earlier than the radio station. Did some digging for what the name represented (but not the eponymous individual), and found this in the trusty OS Name Book for the 1800s OS map entry. https://scotlandsplaces.gov.uk/digital-volumes/ordnance-survey-name-books/orkney-os-name-books-1879-1880/orkney-volume-05/5

    “Erne/Ernie tower:

    This name is applied to a small mound situate in the summit of ‘Costa Hill’ 38 ch. S.N. from ‘Verron’
    It is the site of a Trig station”

    Whether that mound exists anymore, or was destroyed, who knows!


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