SHETLAND & ORKNEY, 21 – 30 June 2009
Guests: Grainne, Margaret, Chris & Rob, Moira, Emily & Peter, Mick, Gordon, Annabelle, Lyn & Dave.
Day 1, Sunday 21 June - travel day
Craig and Steve meet the group at Inverness airport and we are soon airborne and on our way north. After a brief stop at Kirkwall we arrive shortly afterwards at Sumbrugh at the southern end of Shetland. Luggage collected we collect the minibuses and were off north and within the hour we’re checking-in to the Herrislea House Hotel, our home for the week. We meet up for dinner and enjoy the first of the week’s sumptuous home-cooked meals before retiring to our rooms, many of us gazing out of our windows until late eager to enjoy our first simmer dim at this high latitude.
Day 2, Monday 22 June - South Shetland Mainland
After our first hearty Shetland breakfast we head off into a murky, drizzly day. We head south and our first stop is at Easter Quarff where we immediately locate a Little Egret stood on a shoreline rock. We’re all familiar with Little Egret in England as its gotten commoner over the years, but on Shetland it’s still a real rarity. We stay by the little bay and start adding species after species to the trip list. Along the shoreline are Oystercatcher, Redshank and Ringed Plover and a lone male Teal which is already showing signs of turning into its eclipse plumage. Bonxies patrol offshore and sweep overhead as they head inshore on the look out for easy pickings. A Common Tern hovers close by over the bay whilst a party of Artic Terns bounce behind over the open sea. Up to three Red-throated Divers are offshore and the first of our Shetland races, Shetland Starling, is seen quickly followed by a Shetland Wren which flies off across the bay. The Starling is strikingly different to our Starling being plainer with few spots. A couple of Rock Doves wing by flashing their white underwings and rump and a single dark phase Arctic Skua sweeps over the sheep fields before being seen off by a noisy Oystercatcher. A Curlew alights on the beach briefly and three more Teal make a quick splash down in the bay before springing back off. All the while the Little Egret has been sat on a nearby rock. As we retreat to allow the Little Egret back in to the bay to feed, a single Dunlin lands on the shore.
We continue south and arrive at Loch of Spiggie as the cloud begins to lift and the drizzle ceases. Three Mute Swans are feeding near the car park and Craig immediately proclaims that there is eight Red-throated Divers on the loch! Scopes are soon set up and divers, Bonxies, Great Black-baked Gulls and three Whooper Swans are all enjoyed. There is a constant stream of birds coming and going from the nearby sea to bathe in the freshwater loch. Arctic Terns, Herring and Common Gulls, Kittiwakes – all pop in for a quick wash. We find another Common Tern before Craig spies a ‘white-winged’ gull stood on a nearby rock. Its tail end on to us and appears an odd bird. It has grey upperparts but the pale bill with dark tip like a first winter bird. It eventually flies off and its size and structure give it away as an Iceland Gull. Just before we leave, the three Whooper Swans are disturbed form the far shore by fisherman and they give us an excellent fly-by.
We head off around the loch spying a Snipe on a fen post and a couple more Whooper Swans, before arriving at Loch of Hillwell. First scan of the loch reveals some Coot and a Little Grebe before Steve spots a duck in the corner. ‘Wood Duck!’ he shouts just as the bird disappears into the reed edge. For the next half and hour it gives us the run around. Detected movement turns into a Moorhen. Then another movement turns out to be a Mallard. Questions are asked. Did Steve see a Wood Duck? ‘There it is!’ proclaims Mike. But we all miss it. A couple of Ravens appear and start hanging around nearby. ‘Here it is!’ shouts Dave. Bingo! Most of us get on to it at last. Although widely kept in captivity, this bird might just be a genuine vagrant and will at some point be considered as such by the British Ornithologists’ Records Committee who maintain the British List and which Steve runs!
We continue south to our lunch stop at Grutness. Here the busy Arctic Tern colony keeps us entertained whilst we refuel. Any gulls approaching too close are immediately attacked by a constant line of birds until there is a frenzy screaming terns around it. One lucky gull breaks through and snatches a young tern. Ah well, the terns can’t always win. Even the rabbits grazing nearby are soon chased off if they stray beyond the colony lines! A female Eider and three young are found along the shore and there is a procession of Gannets heading south, presumably from the major colony on Noss to their feeding areas.
After lunch we head up to Sumburgh head. A look in one of the quarries strikes lucky with good views of Wheatear, Shetland Wren and a four Twite which are are bouncing around calling their nasal ‘tweeze’ and showing off their forked tails. We park at the bottom of the heard and start to walk up to the lighthouse. We don’t get too far before Puffins, Puffins and some more Puffins stop us in our tracks! They’re everywhere! Sat along the cliff tops, popping in and out of burrows, whizzing past on blurred wings – even sat on walls! Every now and then we look at other things – Shags, Guillemots, Razorbills, Bonxies and Arctic Skuas patrolling the skies – but we always end up returning to the Puffins! Alarmingly though, we don’t see a single Puffin coming in with food. We spend a couple of hours enjoying all the bustle of a seabird colony before heading off back to the hotel via Lerwick for a few provisions.
We all have a relax before dinner and are joined by Albert a local Shetland birder and Speyside regular.
Day 3, Tues 23 June - Fetlar and Mousa
We wake to a fine, sunny day and after breakfast head north. We take the ferry across to Yell and in no time we are on board our second ferry to Fetlar. The 40 minute crossing sails by as we are occupied with Black Guillemots, Fulmars, Gannets, Puffins, Shags and several flocks of Greylag Goose. ‘There’s a fin!’ shouts Chris. Eyes search the see behind the ferry and eventually the distinctive shape of a Harbour Porpoise appears as it breaks the surface.
There’s plenty of visitors heading over to Fetlar today, so once on the island we stop at the ferry terminal to allow all the others to get on their way. We search the surrounding shoreline for Otters and the sea for divers when another porpoise is spotted. Directions are confused but it soon becomes apparent we have two pairs of porpoises in different parts of the sound. Two animals in particular are close and log on the surface for us all to enjoy.
We head off in to the island, but no sooner we are on our way when Craig spots a diver offshore. We climb out of the vans to find a non-breeding plumage Great Northern Diver. A great find. Scopes are soon out and we are enjoying good views when Steve spots a second bird! Wow!
We head off again and again are soon stopping to enjoy some Arctic Skuas cruising around over the moorland chasing one another. One of them is a fabulous pale phase bird, our first, which comes right overhead. Fantastic!
We turn on to the airstrip road and straight away come across a couple of splendid Golden Plover. They stand tall on their tussock mound look-outs showing off their black bellies calling mournfully. Nearby an Arctic Skua sits on it’s own look-out, watching us closely. We head on up to the end of the track where we are met by a pair of Whimbrel right by the vans! They are really close, but don’t mind us and call their delightful seven whistles between bouts of feeding. We get unbelievable views, the best Craig and Steve themselves have ever had! We spend a fabulous hour watching Whimbrel on the moor and Arctic Skuas wheeling around the skies around us. Some of us enjoy some alpine flowers including Alpine Squill, Alpine Speedwell and Thyme-leaved Speedwell.
We follow the main road into the main island village of Houbie when Steve grabs his radio to tell Craig about another Great Northern Diver! This one is much closer than the other two feeding in the little harbour just offshore. We are again out of the vans, but no need for a scope this time as we watch the bird feeding at super close range.
We arrive at Loch Funzie (pronounced Finnie!) and have lunch in the lay-by right by the loch. A Red-throated Diver sits on the water whilst there is a constant procession of terns and gulls coming to the loch to bathe. Occasionally a Snipe jumps up in to the sky to drum as it descends back to earth. Craig spots a female Red-necked Phalarope on the edge of the loch. It’s a scope job but it flies off before everyone can enjoy it. Continually searching the shoreline we find three summer plumaged Dunlin which give excellent views. The occasional Bonxie comes in to bathe in the shallows nearby when a Whimbrel flies past and follows suite.
We move to the other side of the loch in a hope of finding a phalarope. The diver is great from here with the light just right for us to see the delicate black and white lines down the back of its head and its triangle red on the throat. A second diver comes in wailing and lands right in front of us. The first bird wants none of it and dives and aims straight for the intruder which is soon running along the surface and taking to the air to escape the aggressor. Great action!
Several of the group walk down to the hide when Dave spots a phalarope from the road down on the mires in front of the hide. It’s another scope job but at least the light is good and we are able to get fairly good views of a single female. The Mires also hold Teal and Mallard. We then notice that there are a couple of phalaropes on the loch! We walk back to the vans and get fabulous views of two female and a single male phalarope. The male has one of the females in close attendance, intent on mating and to leave him sat on her clutch of eggs. We watch the phalaropes for a further half an hour before heading back to the ferry.
At the ferry terminal we spend half an hour or so watching the sea and shoreline. Another porpoise is seen briefly before Craig spies a stunning summer plumaged Great Northern Diver. Mick’s offering comes in the form of a large pink sea urchin atop a large boulder. Nice.
We arrive back on Yell and with time in hand we stop at West Sandwick. A Red-throated Diver is in the voe and Steve spots a female Red-breasted Merganser. Peter than spots the main attraction, a big dog otter on the beach on the opposite shore. It’s mobbed by angry Arctic Terns as it slips in to the water. It starts to hunt instantly, and in its first dive comes up with a juicy butterfish which it soon scoffs and is back down under the water. We watch for about 20 minutes as it catches butterfish after butterfish, occasionally rolling on its back to handle a larger fish in its paws as it chomps with sharp teeth. Just as we are packing up to leave, it comes back ashore to eat a larger fish. It lies down among the rocks and is busy for only a minute and then it slips effortlessly back into the water. Its time to head for home.
We arrive back at the hotel for a freshen up before another excellent dinner. At 10.30pm we assemble in the car park for our night-time excursion – a trip over to Mousa for Storm-petrels. The sea is calm and there is barely a cloud in the sky. The crossing is straight forward with the usual auks, Fulmar and Gannet seen. We arrive on Mousa and begin our 20 minute walk across the island to the broch. In the first bay we find a family party of Eider and Craig finds a Fulmar skull by the path which is almost certainly left-over from a Bonxie kill. It takes a little while before we hear our first Storm-petrel but one is now singing from one of the dry stall wall. Its churring is interrupted with regular hiccups. We continue to the broch. The boulder beach by the broch is alive with churring Stormies. We go into the broch and sit for a while and soak in the Iron Age essence of this fabulous building. There are several Stormie flying around inside and as we exit one lands at Steve’s feet. Gordon scoops up the bird and hands it to Steve and when outside we gather and Steve shows us all the features of this tiny little seabird.
Its 00.30am and its still bright. Stormies are only now beginning to come in in numbers. Birds are wheeling around broch and over the sea countless birds are streaming in. The light is easily bright enough to use binoculars to watch the Stormies arriving back with food for their single chick.
Its approaching 1.00am and time to head back. The walk is punctuated with shapes flying by and drumming Snipe. Just short of the quay we find an Eider chick right on the path! Its probably part of the Eider brood we saw earlier, but as it is its only going to be a Bonxie snack sat there!
We climb back aboard the Solan and head back to Sandwick where we have a quick look at Jupiter and its moons before heading back to the hotel for some much needed sleep!
Day 4, Weds 24 June - Noss boat trip
We again wake to bright sunshine and little wind. After breakfast we split up and Grainne, Mick, Margaret, Moira, Chris and Rob head off with Craig for a boat trip around Bressay and Noss. Annabelle, Gordon, Emily, Peter, Lynn and Dave head off with Steve down to the Loch of Tingwall. There they learn that Tingwall originates from the old Norse word Ping-Völler which means ‘field of parliament’ and we overlook the small headland running into the loch which held the parliament. The field behind has been cut and the grass is being turned. There are hundreds of gulls and Rooks feeding behind the tractor including several Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We head on further down and see four Whooper Swans on the loch but little else. So we decide to head in to Lerwick for a spot of retail therapy, a coffee and cake! Yum!
We meet up for lunch south of Lerwick at Scarfa Ferry overlooking Brei Wick were we have great views of four Turnstone on the small freshwater pool. We split up again and Craig’s group do the Lerwick and Tingwall route and Steve takes his group on the Bressay and Noss boat trip.
From Lerwick we first head over to Bressay harbour to drop off one of the boat crew! There is a small colony of Arctic terns by the harbour which is busy with birds coming and going. We head off south round the lighthouse enjoying good views of divers, Black Guillemots, Puffins, Guillemots, Fulmars and Bonxies. We stop briefly in a little bay where there are several Common Seals hauled out and a single Roman-nosed Grey Seal bobbing in the sea. We next head in to a little cave where we hold up and the crew send a small submersible camera down in to the depths. The undersea world appears on monitors aboard the boat and we get fabulous views of all sorts of sea vegetation and animals including sea urchin, crabs, coral and things with unpronounceable scientific names!
Undersea exploration brought to a close we head off round the south-eastern corner of Bressay where we get our first view of Noss and the amazing steep headland of the Noup. We charge across the sound and within minutes we’re under the southern seacliffs of Noss which are covered in breeding auks and Gannets. As we move slowly north the density of birds increases and the smell of the guano fills out nostrils. Arriving under the main seabird cliffs which rise up to the Noup, the ledges are thick with birds and the sky like an aerial soup. Every seabird is here! All four species of auk are dotted over the sea with ledges crammed with Guillemots amidst the white-washed rocks of the Gannet rookeries. Adults adorn the breeding ledges whilst young birds congregate at the foot of the cliffs on the rock flats, some even practicing building nests! Between several sections of cliff steep grassy slopes peppered with Puffins cut into the rocks. Kittiwakes call their endless onomatopoeic calls as they to and fro form their ledges in the clefts between cliff faces. Above us the air is thick with giant shapes. Thousands of Gannets fill the air as the stream if birds coming and going from the breeding ledges is seemingly endless. Amidst them the occasional Great Black-baked Gull or Bonxie soars around on the look out for easy pickings – unattended eggs or young! On one of the Gannet flats we find a Bonxie which has been successful in picking out a chick and sit offshore as it tears the little bird apart!
Reluctantly we tear ourselves away from the seabird cliffs and head north around Noss and back down the northern side of Bressay. Here we find a small party of male Eiders before sitting of a small island which was glowing pinky-red as it was covered in Red Campion. We continue around Bressay and find another group of Common Seals hauled up and a single jet black pup in the water. Approaching Lerwick we pass the Shetland Catch which is covered in gulls and Ravens. Suddenly the boat is besieged by Grey Seals, the bulls coming right alongside and almost jumping out of the water hoping for free food to be thrown overboard! Unfortunately for them we aren’t a fishing boat and have no scraps for them so we enjoy their performance for free!
We arrive back in Lerwick and bid the crew thank you and farewell and head back to the hotel for another anticipated dinner and full nights sleep!
Day 5, Thurs 25 June - Unst
After an early breakfast we set off into another fine day. We’re heading north to the most northern habitat island in Britain – Unst.
After two ferry crossings we arrive on Unst and our first port of call is a tiny wooded area at Hannigarth. There is no sign of the reported Crossbills, but Dave finds a Woodpigeon and Lynn spots a female Sparrowhawk rising out of the wood and it circles over our heads giving great views. We move on up the road to Ungirsta and park alongside a couple of fabulous hat meadows. The surrounding damp grassland is chocked with calling Redshank, whickering Snipe and bubbling Curlew. After a little while we hear what we came to hear – the distinctive ‘whet-whet-whet’ of a Quail. Its distant to start with, or facing away from us, but it gets a little louder and several prolonged blasts and everyone gets to hear it well. The local farmer comes down to have a chat and tells us this is the second time he’s had Quail breeding in these meadows and last year he had a Spotted Crake calling by the farmhouse!
We drive up to Hermaness Visitor Centre overlooking the vast Burra Firth. Here a quick search of the ‘gardens’ and Grainne finds a family party of Wrens and a female Eider sat on her downy nest under a thick fern. After some refreshment and a look in the centre, we head off on our moorland trek north across Burn of Winnaswarta Dale to Toolie. The moorland walk is made a whole lot easier by the very recent installation of a new boardwalk made with ‘plastic wood’. The new boardwalk takes us halfway and we follow the old worn moor path through the piles of pre-assembled boardwalk sections. The walk isn’t without birds either. Meadow Pipits are simply everywhere, seep-seeping as they bounce around. Wheatears are dotted about and the odd Snipe and Dunlin rise from the moor to display. But this is the land of the Bonxie. This headland has the highest density of Bonxies anywhere in the world. They sit within meters of the path, watching us menacingly as we walk by. They are completely unconcerned by our presence, but should a rival Bonxie wander into their airspace then they rise to their feet and draw their huge wings out above them to flash their white wing patches whilst extending and lowering their necks. It really is impressive. If that doesn’t work they take to the air to pursue the intruder and escorted it forcibly away from its patch! Bonxies are quite simply everywhere you look. Dotted across the moor and the sky about them is heaving with them.
After an hour we arrive at the sea cliffs at Toolie where we look north to Muckle Flugga and The Stack – the most northerly point of the British Isles! Its wonderfully sunny with a perfect blue sky for us to lunch and spend an hour enjoying the fabulous view and the endless seabirds flying around. Some of us cant seem to get enough of the Puffins and there are plenty of birds around the lunch stop satisfy. Several hardy soles continue up to The Neap and look across to the Saito outcrop gannetery – wow!
We head of back across the moorland for more close encounters with Bonxies, Golden Plover and Snipe. Back at the vans we have a drink before heading back south. Leaving Burra Firth we see another two Woodpigeons then it’s a quick stop at the best-dressed bus shelter in Britain if not the world! The Unst Bus Shelter (ww.unstbusshelter.shetland.-co.uk/) theme this year is ‘pink’! The whole shelter is pink and in the cupboard Grainne and Chris find a pink police woman’s hat and a shocking pink feather boa!
The 'gang'. From left to right: Margaret (nice bag), Rob, Chris (dig the boa), Grainne (nice pink helmet Mrs), Lynn, Dave, Annabelle, Steve (pulling a face as usual!), Gordon, Peter, Emily (behind), Moira, Craig (where's his bins!?). Missing - the photographer, Mick © Mick MacMahon
Our journey home is enlivened when one of our ferries is held up by an advance notice that the police are heading for it and have a criminal in custody to transport to Lerwick! Once the police car is on board we set sail for Yell, and once on Yell the police car blasts past the line of traffic ahead of it with blues blazing and tunes blasting! Well, they can’t get much chance to use their toys on Shetland!
We arrive back at the hotel for another fulsome dinner and evening checklist. Tomorrow is our last day on Shetland.
Day 6, Fri 26 June - Shetland mid-Mainland
Well, we wondered if it could happen four days in a row and it did – waking up to fine, sunny skies! After a leisurely breakfast we bade farewell to the Herrislea House Hotel and headed north to Kergord – the islands largest wooded area. We had been at the first stand of trees for only minutes when a flock of 50+ Crossbills erupted from the treetops. They ‘jipped’ loudly as they bounced around and eventually off down the valley! We knew there had been a handful of birds seen this week, but this easily outnumbered all other flocks reported. We headed off to the main woodland area. In the open glades it was sunny, bright, hot and humid. The air was thick with woodland vegetation smells and flavours. The large Crossbill flock flew over us calling loudly. They didn’t settle but went over to a pine plantation up on the hillside and we could just see them through binoculars bouncing around the treetops. We continued into the wood when Lynn found a small group of Crossbills feeding on the outer pines. We huddled together to look between the trunks and branches as the birds fed, sometimes hanging upside down, before they too took flight and disappeared. We searched for more Crossbills with no joy, but a singing Blackcap and up to four Siskin were found.
We made a brief visit to the Weisdale Mill centre before heading off to South Nesting on the east side of Mainland. On route we chanced upon a pair of Whooper Swans with two small cygnets on one of the lochs. He adults heads were stained an orange-brown from feeding in the peaty waters. On the shore a half-grown Curlew chick walked ungainly around.
We arrived at South Nesting and found a suitable grassy headland to have our lunch and look over the voe and the rocky shorelines either side of us. The voe was full of Black Guillemots and the air busy with gulls and terns. Behind us a pair of Curlew repeatedly chased gulls away from their territory and the occasional wail of a Red-throated Diver drifted up from below us.
‘Otter!’ yelled Craig. Lunches were discarded and we all scrambled together to get instructions. There below us was a large Otter about 30m offshore heading for land. It was carrying a large fish and hauled itself out on a large rock and started to immediately tear at its prey. It sat out in the open eating the fish for several minutes before sliding off the rock and immediately resume feeding. It rose after its first dive with a butterfish, chomped and then submerged once more. It rose again with another fish. It was doing well. Craig and much of the group headed off towards the Otter when it was down, stopping in their tracks when it surfaced. After several dives they were as near as they could get and only 20m from the feeding animal! They all laid down, bums in air as they watched the animal just offshore. Peter approached a wee bit closer along the grassy bank commando-style crawling along on his belly! Steve and the others continued to watch with scopes from higher up. After some minutes the Otter started to swim along the shoreline, diving occasionally and nearly always rising with something to eat. Craig and co. followed on hands and knees. They got some more brief views but when the Otter clocked them it immediately headed for the rocks and out of view. Show over – but what a show! Leaving in the vans Craig spots his second Hedgehog of the week by the roadside, but like the first, its gone to ground by the time Steve’s van pulls up – missed it by minutes again!
We returned to our lunches and continued to watch out for the Otter. A lone Whimbrel flew past calling its distinctive seven-whistle call, and three Harbour Porpoises were seen briefly. But time was running away and we need to make a move and head towards Lerwick. A brief stop at the Loch of Benston for a hoped-for Lesser Scaup left us scaup-less but five Goldeneye were knew for the trip.
We made a brief stop at the hotel to drop off our flasks (and Steve eventually collected the long-expected and much-awaited proofs of his Lesvos book – it’s a long story!) before arriving at the ferry terminal to check-in for our trip down to Orkney. We waved farewell to Shetland as we steamed down its eastern side during the first hour of the journey. Said hello and goodbye to the lone Fair Isle as we passed close by, and after five or so hours many of us were on deck to witness out arrival at the Orkney Isles as we went first past North Ronaldsay and then slowly past the eastern islands. Our Orkney adventure begins in the morning!
Day 7, Sat 27 June - Orkney: Stenness, Skara Brae, Yesneby and Maeshowe
Our first morning on Orkney dawns overcast and breezy, but after our late breakfast following last night’s late arrival, the sky is brightening and the wind beginning to drop by the time we arrive at the Standing Stones of Stenness only a stones throw from the hotel. Erected around 5000 years ago we. The surviving stones form an impressive monument. It is sited on a promontory at the south bank of a stream that joins the southern ends of the sea loch, Loch of Stenness, and the freshwater loch, Loch of Harray. The name, pronounced stane-is, comes from Old Norse and means ‘stone headland’. The stream is now bridged, but at one time was crossed by a stepping stone causeway, leading to the Ring of Bodgar about 3/4 mile to the north-west, across the stream and near the tip of the isthmus formed between the two lochs. Maeshowe chambered cairn lies about 3/4 mile to the east.
The entrance faces towards the Barnhouse settlement which was built adjacent to the Loch of Harray. The Watch Stone stands outside the circle to the north-west and is 5.6 m (18 ft) high. Other smaller stones include a square stone setting in the centre of the circle platform where cremated bone, charcoal and pottery were found, and animal bones were found in the ditch. The pottery links the monument to Skara Brae and Maeshowe.
We walk over to the Barnhouse settlement. The base courses of at least 15 houses have been found. The houses have similarities to those at Skara Brae in that they have central hearths, bed stalls and stone dressers, but differ in that these houses seem to have been free-standing. Pottery of the grooved ware type was found linking it to both the adjacent Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae. Flint and stone tools were also found. The largest building had a room about 7m square with walls 3m thick and an entrance facing towards the north west so that the midsummer sunset shines along the passageway, with similarities to some chambered cairns.
Whilst we are here a Sedge Warbler performs on some nearby willows and Sand Martin is also seen. Arriving back at the vehicles Craig spots a Hobby which most of us just get on before it disappears into the distance.
We move on to The Loons. From the hide we see Little Grebe, a female Tufted Duck with young, a female Shoveler and a female Gadwall with young. The tall reeds now block much of the view from the hide so we relocate to a lay-by above the reserve and have lunch watching the area. From here we have a good vantage point, but the now clear sky and hot sun is causing considerable heat haze so we concentrate on nearer areas. There are loads of Curlew feeding below us and lots of Greylag Geese, some with young. Gordon spots a Hare feeding in one of the fields and one of the cut fields behind us is bustling with feeding Rooks, Jackdaws and Oystercatchers.
Next stop is the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae. Dating back nearly 5000 years, this pre-historic settlement pre-dates both the pyramids and Stone Henge. Brilliantly preserved forthousands of years due to being covered by sand dunes, now excavated we can see intimately how people lived around 3000 BC. The houses are impressively built, with the second phase of the settlement built into the midden of the first. The most amazing aspect o the site is the stone furniture preserved in each of the houses including sleeping stalls and ornate ‘dressers’ at the head of each house in line with the door and hearth. Hearths, quern stones, seats, sunken ‘boxes’ believed to be coolers for food or fish bait – they are all here 5000 years after the settlement was abandoned. We all end up in the café for tea/coffee and cake before departing this fabulous site.
We drive a little south to the coastal area of Yesneby. After looking distantly at the Old Man of Hoy we walk through the grassland area in the slim hope of finding Primula scotica. We are between the flowers two flowering periods but Steve and Craig have occasionally found the odd plant at this time. The first good plant we find is the Grass of Parnassus, when turning round we see a carpet of primroses! Steve has been here once before during the flowers second emergence, but he said it wasn’t half as good as it is today! Soon bums are in the air as many of us switch our cameras to macro and take frame-filling shots of this delicate little dolly-pink flower.
We eventually head off and drive across to our finale – Maeshowe. After some retail therapy in the shop we head over to the chambered tomb itself where we are given an excellent talk by one of the guides. Like Skara Brae, this site is around 5000 years old and is believed to be the chambered tomb, the first of its type, for the settlement of Barnhouses only a short distance from here. The structure is immense with some slabs estimated to weigh over 40 tonnes! Nothing was found in the tomb as Norse graffiti tells us that the tomb was entered more than once so anything left in here by Neolithic man would have been plundered long ago, and long before any records of such things were kept. Still, the graffiti itself is very interesting, the equivalent of ‘I woz ‘ere’ in Nordic runes, and also includes several drawings of a dragon-like creature (the Maeshowe lion), an otter or seal and a couple of entwined snakes.
Day 8, Sun 28 June - Rousay and Ring of Brodgar
Breakfast turned out to be an extended affair this morning, but we eventually got away and headed for Tingwall for our ferry over to the isle of Rousay. Eynhallow Sound was full of auks and terns and reminded us very much of Shetland. Arriving at the pier there is a large flock of Greylag Geese on the sea.
After a visit to the Trumland Heritage Centre we head off around the eastern side of the island. We stop to view across to Egilsay and the impressive sight of St Magnus Kirk. We drive slowly north and turn into Ervedale to look over the shallow valley of Sourin. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and there is little breeze. Curlew bubble endless below us. Its simply fabulous. Craig picks up a raptor above the northern ridge and it begins to hover – Common Buzzard! That’s a real rarity still on Orkney. ‘Harrier!’ shouts Dave. We turn round and following Dave’s directions we find a fantastic male Hen Harrier floating over the moor. Its brilliant white with jet black wing tips in this strong sunlight, not the expected smoky grey shown in the books. Dave then picks out the ghostly shape of a Short-eared Owl across the valley. It can be seen with bins but scopes prove much better as it quarters the moor looking all white in the bright light. The owl continues to perform when Craig picks up a female Hen Harrier crossing the valley. When it reaches the far side it turns across the hillside and flies across the entire length of the hill in front of us, its clean white ring-tail occasionally standing out when it turns. Steve then picks up a second Short-eared Owl right in front of us and much closer than the first. We get stunning views of this bird when it decides to be a real poser and land on a fencepost! Through the scopes you can see its fierce bright yellow eyes! Last up is a Kestrel which has replaced the buzzard hovering over the ridge behind us.
We move off north again, and as we drop down into Wasbister Loch there are loads of Stonechats on the heather, fence posts and wires running through the moor. Some of the males are simply stunning, almost pie-bald with a hint of russet on the chest.
We spend an hour at Nousty Sand having a leisurely lunch in the sun and enjoying the peace and quiet of the place. The nearby abandoned farm is covered in rich yellow-orange lichen which gleams in the bright sun. It provides a great subject for the photographers. We spread out around the beach and rocks and take in this beautiful spot. Arctic Terns fish in the bay with the occasional Gannet causing a major splash as they dive from height after fish. Dozens of Painted Lady butterflies feed on the carpet of clover by the vehicles, and the now familiar gingery bumble bee buzzes noisily between the butterflies. Just offshore an Arctic Skua chases terns, trying to get them to disgorge their fish with frequent success. We move off south-west across the island for an afternoon of archaeology. Out first stop is at Midhowe, a two for one experience with the Neolithic stalled burial cairn and an Iron Age Broch.
Midhowe is a large Neolithic chambered cairn and lies on the shore of Eynhallow Sound separating Rousay from Mainland Orkney.
The tomb is a particularly well preserved ‘stalled’ cairn. Stalled cairns have a central passageway flanked by a series of paired upright stones that separate the sides into 12 compartments along a passageway over 20, long. The original roof is gone and the structure now lies within a modern hangar-like structure that protects the site. The nature of the original roof is unclear. It may have consisted of flat slabs or it may have been vaulted like Maeshowe to a height of as much as 5 metres (16 ft). The cairn appears to have been intentionally filled with debris after hundreds of years of usage beginning early in the third millenium BC and the size and complexity of the interior of the cairn must have exerted a powerful influence on those entering it. The cairn was originally protected by an oval barrow 33m long and 13m wide. Some of the stones in the walls are laid at angles to each other, forming decorative patterns that echo the incised rims found on some Unstan ware bowls, examples of which were found in the tomb. These patterns are clearly part of the architectural design of the walls, meant to be seen. Midhowe is distinguished from other tombs of its type by having a horned forecourt adjacent to the long axis of the barrow on the north side. Extension of the curvature of the surviving ‘horns’ of the structure suggests an original diameter of as much as 70m indicating a ceremonial space capable of holding hundreds of people.
Midhowe represents an excellent example of collective burial common to the Orkney tombs. The remains of at least 25 individuals were discovered in the tomb. The bodies were found in groups of two to four on six of the shelves (seven stalls have shelves). Several of the skeletons were in a crouched position on the shelves, with their backs to the side wall and heads resting against the supporting pillars. Other groups of bones had been heaped into the centers of the shelves or swept under them, suggesting that earlier burials had been moved to accommodate later ones. In a few cases only the skulls were present, in one instance the long bones had been piled together with the skull placed on top.
Bones from a variety of animals were found as well including ox, sheep, skua, cormorant, buzzard, eagle, gannet, and carrion-crow. Fish bones from bream and wrasse were also present. Bream are not found this far north today, evidence that the waters around Orkney during the Neolithic must have been several degrees warmer than today.
We take a walk around the Midhowe broch. Constructed and used some time between 200 BC and 200 AD, this is possible the most impressive of the Orkney brochs. Standing on a promontory formed by two geos, the broch is protected on one side by the sea and on the landward side by a stone rampart and ditch. This massive rampart is built in an arc between the two geos and effectively cuts off access from the land. Although there is no doubt that these outward defences would have looked impressive in their heyday, it may be that they were merely built for dramatic effect. The southern end of the rampart stops short of the geo and leaves a ledge on the rock face by which a "visitor" could easily gain access to the promontory. Like the Broch of Gurness (on the opposite shore of Eynhallow Sound), Midhowe is surrounded by a group of external buildings. These, however, are probably from a later date, a time when the need for defence was not as important. Coastal erosion, a problem for all shore sites such as Midhowe, has greatly damaged the remains of these outhouses. The remains of the broch’s circular wall stand to a height of approximately four metres and within the structure the general layout of the ground floor is remarkably well-preserved. Large slabs of local flagstone were used to divide the interior into two smaller, semi-circular rooms. These were then further divided into smaller cells, each with its own hearth and water-tank. Water was supplied from a spring that flowed up through a crack in the rocks and during the excavations, it was written that the main storage tank retained water which remained clear and drinkable all the years the work of excavation was going on.
The site isn’t without its wildlife interest. Offshore several Grey Seals bob up and down, an Eider family feed along the shoreline and an Arctic Skua patrols the bay. Just as we head back up the steep walk to the vehicles, Craig spots a young male Hen Harrier by the cairn. It comes low across the hay field giving us great views before it heads off in to the island.
We move on to the double-tier tomb of Tavistock Tuick. This is an unique tomb as the lowered stalled level has had at a later date a Maes Howe type chambered tomb placed on top. Also, among the human remains found here were some cremated remains which is unlike any other Orkney tomb.
We arrive back at the Rousay pier for the 5.30pm crossing which again comes with rafts of auks, Black Guillemots sat on buoys and the odd Red-throated Diver before heading back to the hotel.
After dinner most of us head off to the impressive Ring of Brodgar.
The Ring of Brodgar (or Brogar, or Ring o' Brodgar) is a Neolithic henge and stone circle. Most henges don’t contain stone circles, but Brodgar is a striking exception, ranking with Stonehenge among the greatest of such sites. The ring of stones stands on a small isthmus between the lochs of Stenness and Harray and are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain. Unlike similar structures elsewhere there are no (or thought never to have been) any obvious stones inside the circle. The site has so far resisted attempts at scientific dating and the monument’s age remains uncertain although a further excavation in 2008 is hoping to at last date the monument. However, it is generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.
The stone circle is 104m in diameter and is the third largest in the British Isles. The ring originally comprised 60 stones, of which only 27 now remain standing. However, preliminary results from the 2008 excavation suggest there were over 70 standing stones. The stones are set within a circular ditch up to 3m deep, 9m wide and 380m in circumference that was carved out of the solid sandstone bedrock by the ancient residents. Technically, this ditch does not constitute a true henge as there is no sign of an encircling bank of earth and rock.
Ring of Brodgar lies at the heart of an extraordinary concentration of Neolithic sites, making this both a significant settlement and ritual landscape. Within 2 square miles (5.2 km2) there are the two circle-henges, four chambered tombs, groups of standing stones, single stones, barrows, cairns and mounds.
There is now increased speculation about the monument, with the new thought being that it was the building of the stone circle and not the use of it that was important. This is based on the lack of artefacts found in and around the site.
We spend an hour around this incredible site before returning back to the hotel.
Day 9, Mon 29 June - Burray and South Ronaldsay
Some of the group ventured out around the hotel and loch before breakfast. After breakfast we headed south cutting through the wide open moorland valley of Tuskerbister. We hadn’t long been in the valley when Steve spotted a Short-eared Owl up ahead. We pulled up alongside the field. Craig instantly started squeaking and he owl immediately headed for us, coming within meters looking right at the source of the squeaking before deciding it was not potential prey! We continued watching the owl for around 20 minutes as it continually quarters the rough grass field. We move on only when the owl itself decides to take refuge in the long grass once it’s caught itself a big, fat Orkney Vole. We’re just climbing back into our vehicles when Dave spots a ring-tail Hen Harrier coming up right behind us. We get fabulous views s it speeds past. We follow in the vehicles, but it is constantly moving away from us at an angle.
We stop at Scapa Flow and learn about the sinking of the Royal Oak and view out across the bay to the marker buoy of the wreck. We also manage to add House Martin to the trip list.
We head off further south, across the first of the Churchill Barriers and pay a visit to the Italian Chapel. The chapel was built by Italian Prisoners of War who were imprisoned here in order to build the barriers. We walk down to the bay a little and have lunch by the beach, and more importantly, next to the new Orkney Wine shop! A few bottles were bought, but many more ice creams were enjoyed - some of us had two!
We moved on after lunch to the south of South Ronaldsay to Liddle Farm at Isbister. This is home of the Simison family, and it was Ronnie Simison (now retired at 87) who discovered the Tomb of the Eagles in 1953 and excavated it himself in the 1970s. Kathleen, his daughter, gives us a fabulous introduction to the site and the tells us about excarnation, or sky burials, which were believed to have been used, and believed to the corpses believed to have been part-eaten by White-tailed Eagles. Kathleen also shows us artefacts from the tomb including skulls, tools and jewellery. Amazingly we get to handle some of these – 5000 year old items fashioned and used by Neolithic man! Eagle claws, pieces of Grooved Ware pottery and stone tools were all passed around for us to study up close. Unforgettable!
We then walk the mile down through the fields to the sea cliff and the tomb itself. We crawl through the 3m long entrance tunnel (some of us choose to use the trolley) and we are in the tomb were the remains of around 300 Neolithic people were found along with eagle claws, fish and animal bones. The tomb is a stalled and chambered tomb with the human remains found in the various chambers.
One the way back to the car park we look at a Bronze Age burnt mount before heading off back north before our final stop of the day at Furzebrook Pottery home of Andrew Appleby – the original Harray Potter! Andrew shows us the replica Neolithic kilns he has made out outside his studio and has began to commercially make pottery, using materials and techniques as close as possible to how Neolithic man would have done. He has a pot cooking on a small fire and shows us he is melting down animal fat how Neolithic man would have done to rub into the inner walls of the pots to seal and make them stronger and waterproof. It’s fabulous! Andrew shows us some of the larger vessels he has made this way, all decorated in the known Grooved Ware-style.
Inside, Andrew demonstrates the skills of a master potter throwing three pots and a lid for one of them in minutes! Andrew chats away to us genially and passionately about how he thinks Neolithic man did things. It’s a great experience. Several of us buy some pottery before heading back to the hotel for a rest and dinner.
Day 10, Tues 30 June
After breakfast we load up the vans and head into Kirkwall to see St Magnus Cathedral, the museum and shopping. We then relocate to Sheila Fleet’s studio at Tankerness before heading off to the Cleat of Taing for lunch. After lunch we head around to the airport and do our final checklist before heading back to Inverness. We perform the usual Speyside Wildlife end of trip ritual of declaring our personal species of the trip, place of the trip and magic moment. Species of the trip was tied with the South Nesting Otter and the Short-eared Owl at Terkerbister taking joint top billing, with votes also for Red-necked Phalarope, Storm-petrel and Puffin. Place of the trip goes to Mousa broch, with Noss, Sumbrugh Head, sunset at the Ring of Brodgar and the Loch of Stenness all getting vores. Magic moments are either a little more personal or one of those group moments. With so many to choose from its little wonder that the votes are spread and there is no clear winner. The Turkerbister Short-eared Owl, Storm-petrels coming in over the pebble beach on Mousa and the Primula Scotica all shared top spot with three votes each, with the Noss boat trip, the ever-present calls of the Curlew on both Shetland and Orkney, arriving at Hermaness, the Midhowe Hen Harrier and watching the South Nesting Otter swim under water all getting votes.
We arrive at Inverness and after collecting our bags we bid farewell and all head our separate ways.
Great Northern Diver
Quail (heard only)
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Blackcap (heard only)
Chiffchaff (heard only)
Butterflies and moths
Slender Marsh Bedstraw
Yellow Flag (Iris)
Common Spotted Orchid
Heath Spotted Orchid
Northern Marsh Orchid
Purslane - Pink
Slender St John’s Wort
Photos, unless stated, © Steve Dudley