To celebrate Our Lass's recent birthday, I had planned a romantic weekend away. Peaceful surroundings, good food, azure seas, much wildlife, lots of walking and white sand beaches. Mind you, if asked, Our Lass would be equally enthusiastic about the sticky toffee pudding option on offer for the evening meal. Well, all that fresh air and exercise works up an appetite.
OK, I'd booked a room at the bird observatory on North Ronaldsay.
Friday arrived, as did much rain and low cloud. When we booked in at the inter-island desk of Kirkwall Airport, I couldn't help but notice that the previous island flight, to Papa Westray, had been cancelled. Signs weren't great. Whilst instrument landings are possible at Kirkwall, the same isn't true for the small island airfields, where visual flight rules apply. Believe me, descending blind through cloud in a little eight-seater plane is not for this faint-hearted passenger.
As departure time came and went, we began to tentatively discuss alternative plans, just in case. We surmised that seats on the following morning's flight to North Ronaldsay would be quickly filled, and we could see that the other 6 passengers on our flight were all residents of the island (I'm not saying that everybody up here knows everybody else, but...). This meant that when the bad news eventually came, we were ahead of the curve. Five seats were already booked for Saturday so, rather than prevent anyone returning home for the weekend, we removed ourselves from the 'eight into three doesn't go' equation and cancelled our planned trip. As I collected our rucksacks and arranged a refund on flights, Our Lass booked an evening meal at a local hotel, where we could discuss options for her birthday festivities at our leisure and ease.
Over a pleasant meal, we hatched a plan to visit the RSPB Trumland reserve on the island of Rousay. We could park the car at the Tingwall pier in West Mainland, hop on the ferry as foot passengers (no need to book) and walk our chosen route from the pier on Rousay. One small fly in the ointment was that we didn't have much choice for picnic ingredients, as I'd planned on not being at home all weekend. To solve this, we decided to catch the mid-morning boat, rather than the stupid o'clock one (it's someone's birthday, remember!) and so had time to nip into Kirkwall to visit a supermarket for provender.
As a slight aside here, for the last week there has been much cetacean activity around Orkney waters. Several small pods of Orca have been seen in Scapa Flow and around the coastline, a dead Sperm Whale washed up on North Ronaldsay (I know!), another dead whale, a Humpback, washed up in Caithness, across the Pentland Firth, and two pods of Pilot Whales have been close inshore around Stronsay and Sanday. The Stronsay pod caused some concern, as one of the whales looked to be either sick or injured, with the rest of the animals in close attendance, prompting fears that the whole pod might strand on a beach. After a few days, volunteers from the BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue) organised a small flotilla of kayaks and local boats to move the whales out into open waters. Everyone involved, and those following on various news feeds, were delighted with the result, until the pod then turned up in Kirkwall harbour.
So... with about five minutes to spare before we needed to be heading to Tingwall to catch our ferry, we drove along the harbour front, just in case there was a possibility of a sighting.
Later in the day, we learnt that the pod had again been moved on. Pilot Whales do not feed in shallow waters, and as the sick individual had disappeared (presumed dead), the BDMLR team took the decision to shepherd the whales into deeper, safer water.
The forecast for the day wasn't overly great, we anticipated some wet stuff by early afternoon, so once the ferry reached Rousay, we didn't waste any time before setting off on our walk (I should explain that there's a tearoom at the pier, but not to imply that cake is time wasted, obvs). With cloud overhead and a stiff breeze, we were pleasantly surprised to find plenty of insects in the roadside verges.
|Green-veined White butterfly and friend
|A hoverfly, Leucozona lucorum
As we reached the RSPB sign which marks the beginning of the path through the reserve, we heard some tantalisingly familiar birdsong. It was a warbler, I remembered that much, but couldn't be sure whether it was a Whitethroat or not. Views were very distant and brief, as the bird performed song flights over a widespread thicket of Gorse, but recourse to the RSPB website confirmed it to be indeed a Whitethroat.
Climbing steadily through the gorse, the path underfoot was awash with water flowing from the hills. The previous day's rain had rewetted the ground and then some. Our route was a loop across the hilltops of Knitchen Hill (227m) and Blotchnie Fiold (250m) and back, giving a wide berth to the Loch of Knitchen, which is a breeding site for a Schedule 1 species, the Red-throated Diver.
Climbing up to Knitchen Hill, we passed several inland cliffs which, slightly bizarrely, have nesting Fulmars. It was just plain weird to see a bird so associated with sea cliffs and wild oceans, so far from the coast.
Atop the hill was a trig point, one of sixty such pillars in Orkney. I'm not a fully paid up member of the trig bagging community, but perhaps predictably, I do love a good trig.
But I'm guessing you'd figured that out by now!
We now set about crossing the saddle between the two hills, so a little respite from climbing. The flatter ground had many pools, most of which were probably a result of the recent deluge. However, one or two looked like they may be permanent features, so I tried to commit their locations to memory for future odonatological research.
Our Lass spotted a few orchids, only a few inches high, just beginning to bloom. As we looked closer, there were also several tiny mushrooms visible.
One of the more promising pools showed signs of insect life, with several Pond Skaters jostling to prey upon an unfortunate fly.
After our picnic lunch, eaten in the shelter of a peat bank, we pushed on to the summit of Blotchnie Fiold. Here a view opened up westwards, across Muckle (Big) Water and Peerie (Little) Water, and to the island of Eynhallow, then Costa Head on West Mainland.
Initially retracing our steps to the saddle, we then headed off downhill around the southern side of the Loch of Knitchen, following the marked footpath which still had high hopes of becoming a burn. The sun had finally broken through the cloud, and in small pockets of shelter, insects were rousing themselves to be about their business.
|A tiny caterpillar hangs on to a Tormentil flower after chasing off a fly
|A bonny wee moth, which I've been advised is Phiaris schulziana
Everywhere was Sphagnum moss, which had soaked up all that rain, and if gravity denied it the chance to hang on to the moisture, then it sure as Hell wasn't going to let it go quickly. A natural flood defence.
Just below the RSPB reserve is Trumland House. The property isn't open to the public yet, as it requires much more work, but the accompanying gardens can be wandered around.
|Rhododendrons, eh? The environment pays a price for this beauty.
|One upside of the recent rain was this waterfall.
|The only dragon I saw all day.
|This is what it feels like to be a bumblebee with a sugar rush.
A mental note was made to return to Trumland during the Summer, with reasonable hopes of dragons and damsels on the wing. Then we hightailed it to the tearoom to squeeze in a pot of tea for two and some cake. But you knew that too, huh?