The plans for a visit to Orkney were originally drawn up in August 2021 and after such a long gestation period it was a relief to actually arrive in Kirkwall ready for our adventure.
There was such a demand that the two trips in consecutive weeks were both fully booked from the outset. In the week before our arrival there, our boat company, Northerly Marine Services, had bought a boat in Norway and this was used for our trips. I is a very useful work vessel with a fully enclosed cabin, comfortable seating, toilet, hot water boiler for coffee etc and this proved ideal. The passenger capacity was slightly higher, so on the first week, we were able to take to sea with one additional RHSoc Member who happened to be in Orkney at the time. If only we had known we could have offered the extra places to those on the Reserve list.
Week 1 - 2nd to 4th August - Co-ordinator Norman Wares
The intention had been to visit 18 islands which are not served by regular ferry, but Avian Flu resulted in 3 islands being out of bounds, and a fourth one where the owner was unwilling to accept visitors for the same reason. Our skipper Mark knows these waters, where wind and tides can be a real problem. In charge of the tender which we would use for most landings was Sean, a jovial Irishman with a wealth of amusing stories of the sea. Wearing a drysuit he happily leapt into the water to tow us ashore when needed.
On Day 1 we visited Helliar Holm, Gairsay, Eynhallow, Holm of Faray, and Faray where Dave Chapman celebrated his 3000th Tump and showed skill in pouring Scapa Malt Whisky in what was a Force 6 gale. To make up for the deleted islands we also landed on Wyre and Egilsay where the ferry timetables are problematical. Later on Dave would also celebrate his 80th Sib, whilst Jenny Hatfield also provided cookies after breaking through the 160 mark.
Day 2 consisted of Muckle Green Holm, Linga Holm and Papa Stronsay, which is inhabited by monks at the Golgotha Monastery. We tried not to disturb them. Then on to Stronsay, and finally Copinsay with its impressive lighthouse perched on the cliff edge.
Our final day involved a long trip across the Pentland Firth to the uninhabited island of Stroma, again with the intention of making up for the “lost” islands. We all disembarked at the harbour entrance and after visiting the high point we spent another half-hour viewing some of the abandoned buildings. However as we were about to leave, the island owner, a sheep farmer arrived in his boat and was quite aggressive, suggesting that we should not be there without his permission. It didn’t look hopeful for those due the following week.
Our day was due to finish at Stromness where we had placed two cars the night before, and on the way we bagged Switha, Fara, Rysa Little, Cava and Graemsay. Also we visited the rocky skerry known as Barrel of Butter in the middle of Scapa Flow and although not a SIB, a sizeable party landed by tender for photographs, which was one of the highlights for some.
Despite Avian Flu disrupting our plans we still managed to bag 18 Sibs, as well as lighthouses and trig pillars, and although the weather was mixed with some wind, occasional rain, but often periods of sunshine everyone enjoyed the experience, helped in no small measure by the cheerful crew. A farewell dinner was held in the bar of the St Ola Hotel in Kirkwall before everyone dispersed – some to continue bagging in the Orkneys and beyond.
Week 2 - 9th – 11th August – Co-ordinator Steve Gillions
Our itinerary and weather was much the same as Week 1, but Norman’s doubts about Stroma were confirmed when the owner refused us permission to land. We did add Flotta to the day 3 itinerary by way of minor compensation. The boat, skipper and crew were superb throughout. Sean, whose work with the tender was second to none, is now signed up to Hillbagging and accompanied us to a number of summits. His drone photos of Copinsay and the Barrel of Butter were a welcome addition to our own collections, although the Arctic Terns took exception to the intruder flying in their midst.
Much bagging was undertaken before and after our boat trips with all of us ‘enjoying’ the challenges posed by Orkney gates, feisty cattle, BWFs and electric fences. Tim got a real belt on Hill of Miffia as did Jim on Stronsay.
I accompanied Tony Smith to his 80th SIB, Hunda, on the weekend before the boat trip. He claims not to be a Sibber but may well be on the road to conversion. Unlike the first crew we had no milestone celebrations on the boat but a number of the party could usually be relied on to liven up proceedings. Rather than repeat the itinerary, I’ll just mention a few highlights.
Faray and Holm of Faray were thought by many to be the finest islands of day 1. But there was also a sad note: the sight of a very sick gannet on the jetty at Wyre was a poignant reminder of the realities of avian flu. The indications are that gannets and bonxies are the worst affected species.
Stronsay and Papa Stronsay made for interesting times on day 2. We landed at the Stronsay jetty with plenty of time in hand. A quick call to Don’s taxis resulted in Don himself taking a group of four on what turned out to be an island completion, thanks in part to his off-roading skills. Julie took the rest of us on a shorter journey (no off-roading but Jill had to travel in the luggage space so that we could all fit in) to bag the SIB. We then drank tea in the sunshine outside the Stronsay Fishmart Café whilst waiting for the others to return, and Jill asked Father Dominic who was visiting from the monastery if he knew where the benchmark was on the church. He didn’t. Papa Stronsay is a delightful island. If you go, remember to respect the monks and make time to visit the lighthouse.
Green Muckle Holm proved to be the most problematic island of our trip. A combination of high winds and a fast running tide meant we left it until the end of the day. Even then the swell looked likely to defeat us until we found a more sheltered landing spot on the far south east corner. Sean thought it marginal but got us ashore despite kelp fouling the propellor a few times. A shortish day but wonderful cloudscapes, blue skies and some lively seas throughout.
We began day 3 with a visit to Copinsay and its impressive lighthouse before motoring into Scapa Flow on flat water under grey skies. The Barrel of Butter may not be a SIB but it’s well worth a visit. Jim dismissed it as ’just a pile of rocks’ but nevertheless landed and so was able to witness Margaret striking a Titanic pose, arms outstretched, on the very top of the beacon. And it later transpired that when he checked his logs, Tim bagged his 80th SIB on Rysa Little.
With Charles on board it was never going to be plain sailing. Thanks to Jim and Bill for going out to rescue him after he flattened his car battery overnight whilst parked up on top of Wideford Hill.
So, just as Norman’s boat, we managed to bag 18 SIBs along with some fine lighthouses - much to Doug’s satisfaction - and trig pillars. All enjoyed the trips and we had some fun along the way. We too had a farewell dinner in the St Ola before everyone went their separate ways. As for the islands we couldn’t land on I’m sure we’ll be back: Paul at Northerly Marine just said to give him a call when we’re ready.