Three miles long, two miles wide, the remote island of North Ronaldsay is perched on the northern periphery of the Orkney islands archipelago – the final frontier before a vast and featureless ocean. Despite its small size, the island has a distinct character with rich heritage, wild landscapes and an incredible community spirit.
For most travellers, the journey to North Ronaldsay commences by hopping into the 6-seater Loganair islander aircraft and taking the 15- minute flight from Kirkwall airport. The flight is quite an experience in itself, and on a clear day the views are simply stunning as you fly over some of Orkneys other Northern isles. Touching down at the North Ronaldsay airfield, you are greeted by a remarkably flat landscape and a sense that you have just arrived at the edge of the earth, I was hooked immediately!
The northern tip of the island is particularly barren and is dominated by the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse. The red-brick lighthouse is the tallest land-based building of its kind in the UK and towers over the surrounding low-lying landscape. The complex of buildings at the lighthouse have been put to good use, including self-catering accommodation, visitor centre, an amazing café and even a bakery! Tours of the lighthouse are also available, boasting incredible views from the top.
The island is perhaps most well-known for its rare breed of seaweed eating sheep. The North Ronaldsay sheep belong to the ancient northern short-tailed group of breeds and bones of similar animals dating from the Neolithic period have been found at Skara Brae on the Orkney Mainland. These hardy and endearing characters spend most of their time wandering the exposed, rocky coastlines and are kept off the grassland by the Grade A listed dry stone wall known as the ‘Sheep Dyke’, which spans over 13 miles encircling the entire island.
The sheep dyke was completed in 1832 to confine the native sheep to the foreshore, protecting the cultivated land and crops from their wanderings and since then the breed has evolved to survive primarily on seaweed! Because of this diet, their mutton has a unique gamely flavour and is highly prized by chefs across the country.
During the winter the sheep dyke suffers greatly from the exposure to the elements, with large portions of it being destroyed by storms each winter. To help keep on top of maintenance, the island trust employed a full time ‘sheep dyke warden’ in 2019 to carry out repairs and restoration. The island also hosts the annual North Ronaldsay Sheep festival where the community and visitors come together to help rebuild the dyke and celebrate the rare breed.
There is no doubt that North Ronaldsay possesses its own unique kind of magic. The relaxed pace of island life encourages you to slow down, unwind and truly appreciate your surroundings. You can easily walk round the island in a day, taking your time to enjoy the views, stroll along the white sandy beaches and watch the seals hauled up on the rocky skerries.
Words by Rachel Eunson