April 2015 Newsletter

Welcome to the April edition of the orkney.com newsletter. This month, we say hello to Spring with a look at some of the events planned over the coming weeks. We also continue our focus on a different parish and feature the work of a very popular local photographer.

We had an excellent response to last month’s debut feature – thanks to everyone who shared comments, queries and suggestions.

As always, we’re keen to hear from as many folk as possible, you can use Facebook, Twitter, e-mail or contact us via the website. We’d love to hear your news and views, so get in touch! To get underway, let’s turn the clock back to some of the March headlines.

Busy month of March madness

An EV in Orkney

Orcadians head down electric avenue

Orkney’s electric future was under the microscope last month, as part of a new initiative launched by the islands council. A public event was held to look at the potential of increasing the number of electric vehicles locally – which could help consume some of the excess renewable energy generated in Orkney. It’s estimated that around fifty EVs are currently in use here – 5% of the Scottish figure – and there could be more on the horizon. The local authority has been awarded funding for a feasibility study into a large-scale EV demonstration project.

Eclipse draws visitors north

March isn’t usually a busy month for tourism in Orkney, but a very special event helped attract a healthy number of visitors to the islands. Orkney was one of the best places in the UK to see the partial solar eclipse, with around 97% of the sun obscured on the morning of Friday the 20th. The clouds did their best to spoil the event, but many folk managed to catch a glimpse of the eclipse before it disappeared from view. A number of cruise ships used Orkney as a stopping off point for eclipse watchers, with some of the best views taken off the Faroe Islands. One local tour company also reported full bookings for the event, which many visitors wanted to witness from Orkney’s Neolithic sites. Have a look at our eclipse gallery below for images from the event.

Local products excel at London food fair

Three local firms represented Orkney at the largest food and drink trade fair in the UK during March. The Island Smokery, The Orkney Bakery and Stockan’s Oatcakes all travelled to the ExCel Arena in London for the International Food and Drink Event, billed as the best place for buyers from all over the world to find new products. The local companies were just three of more than a thousand exhibitors taking part.

April arrives with a Spring in its step

So, what does April in Orkney bring? It can always be a mixed bag weather-wise - as we write this, it’s snowing outside and the airport is closed! But April is also the month when the cliffs start to fill up with seabirds, lambs can be spotted skipping in the fields and local gardens - eventually - begin to get that little bit greener.

It’s also the calm before the storm in terms of our major events and the start of the tourist season proper, but there is still plenty happening across the islands. This month you can dust off your dancing shoes and take part in the annual Orkney Ceilidh Weekend. It runs between the 10th and 12th of April and includes workshops and plenty of the very best traditional dance music from across Orkney. For more information visit the Orkney Traditional Dance Association website.

Continuing the musical theme and the Orkney Jazz Festival will get underway in the Stromness Hotel on Friday the 17th. It will run over the course of the weekend, with both local and visiting musicians taking to the stage.

And if you want to help give Orkney’s beaches a spring clean, then the annual Bag the Bruck week begins on the 18th and runs through until the 26th. You can help by emailing outdoororkneyweb@gmail.com, before picking up your rubbish bags and gloves and heading to your favourite beach to begin the clear up. It’s a chance to see some scenery and do some good, all in one go!

Walk the wartime trail in Hoy

Some of the wartime relics to view at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum. Image by Mary Harris
Some of the wartime relics to view at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum. Image by Mary Harris

Anyone interested in wartime history should make their way to Lyness in Hoy during their time in Orkney. For the second year running, staff at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum will be leading free guided walks of the remains of the World War Two Naval Base at the site. It’s a fascinating look into Orkney’s past, when thousands of men and women were stationed at Lyness. Nearly two hundred people took part in tours last year, and it’s hoped more will travel across to the island this season. They last for two hours and will run every Tuesday at eleven o’clock until the 27th of October. If you’re interested in learning more about the site and its wartime heritage, you can take part in a geocache trail, installed as part of the island’s Legacies of Conflict project. Visit the Hoy Orkney website too for more information on visiting the island.

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Wild about wildlife in April

Orkney is a real haven for wildlife watchers, and April brings its own delights for enthusiasts. Every month we’ll have a look at just some of sights that visitors can see right across the islands. Here is Alison Nimmo from the local branch of the RSPB with her take on a colourful month ahead...

An inquisitive looking curlew.
An inquisitive looking curlew.

Is April the best of all months in Orkney? With the hours of light stretching longer every day, wildflowers spreading their colour from road verge to cliff, and the air itself seemingly alive with the music of displaying curlews, lapwings, skylarks and more - it can certainly seem so.

Female Hen Harrier. Image by Derren Fox.
Female Hen Harrier. Image by Derren Fox.

Hen harriers are already starting to ‘sky dance’ over the moors, climbing, twisting and rolling in the air to attract a mate. Their beautiful courtship activity usually peaks in mid April, but keep an eye out over the West Mainland moors or in Hoy throughout this month.

In the bays, lookout for gathering eiders, the male birds ducking and courting the females with human-like ‘ah-ooo’s – a personal favourite, best heard floating over Stromness harbour while eating fish and chips in April’s just-warm-enough sunshine! Meanwhile bright dandelions start to colour the road verges, with golden marsh marigolds in the wetter ditches.

Late in the month, the cliff-tops will be turning purple and pink with spring squill and thrift. Noise levels will be mounting here, too, with most fulmars, guillemots, shags, razorbills and gulls having already bagged their nesting spot by the end of the month. Puffin-lovers should take a walk at RSPB Scotland’s Marwick Head reserve or at the Brough of Birsay to catch first sight of these sea clowns, usually back with us just before the start of May.

Featured photographer focuses on far flung places

This month’s local photographer has been producing some of the most eye catching images of Orkney seen anywhere over recent years. Premsyl Fojtu came to the islands in 2009, and has been publishing fantastic shots of Orkney’s most remote islands and buildings. We’ve asked him to share his experiences of his adopted home, seen through his lens...

I started my photography journey ten years ago when I first came to Scotland. I come from the Czech Republic where the landscape is so much different, so it was the beauty of the scenery I saw on daily basis that caught my eye and made me want to record it all.

The Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar

But it was really Orkney that boosted my passion four years later, with its open views and endless horizons. At first, I was mesmerized by the Standing Stones in Stenness and all the sites generally known to visitors.

However, I soon realised that Orkney had so much more to offer. I began to make my way through places that are rarely visited, hard to get to and often forgotten. The days and nights I have spent on uninhabited islands, with the remains of what used to form a vibrant population, leave the strongest impact in my mind.

Twighlight at the Brough of Birsay

As with every place, it is the people who give it a character. In Orkney, this rule is twice as strong. Walking between the empty houses of Cava, Swona or Faray in the north isles and peeking in, I can imagine the ways of life of the long gone communities. Then, just looking around, I can easily understand what made those people settle there, why they decided to make that particular place their home.

Stars over the Lyde Road in Orkney
Stars over the Lyde Road in Orkney

Some of the buildings and their surroundings still carry a strong mark of the personalities of the residents, with even furniture and items of everyday life left in their place. I can't help but feel how emotional it must have been for all the families to get up and go, leaving it all behind, knowing they were not to return.

And now, in my project ‘An island a month’, I aim to visit all of the islands to end up with a relatively complex collection of photographs which would let others explore Orkney wider, to show more than can be seen at first glance.

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Cliffs, coast and community - Birsay takes centre stage

We'll be focusing on a different part of Orkney in each newsletter, and this month we're heading west to the parish of Birsay. It has a rich agricultural heritage, coupled with a strong link to the sea, thanks to its proximity to some of the most spectacular cliffs and coastline in the county. It was also the original centre of Viking power in Orkney, and has played a major role in Orkney’s wartime heritage.

The new Birsay Community Hall.
The new Birsay Community Hall.

For the outsider looking in, Birsay always appears to be a very active, vibrant and forward thinking community. In recent years a new Birsay Hall has been built to host local events – from the monthly lunch club to mother and toddler groups, weddings to the now famous Birsay Drama Club theatre productions and Pantos. It’s also the focal point for the annual Birsay Big Day Out, which sees games and events for all ages of the community. The hall replaced the old facility next door, which is now being given a new lease of life as an antiques centre.

Work underway in the Barony Mills
Work underway in the Barony Mills

Nearby is the Barony Mills – which hosts the only working mill left in Orkney. Operated by the Birsay Heritage Trust, the Mill produces traditional Orcadian beremeal, a type of flour made using an ancient form of Barley. It can be used for bread and bannocks – and now even whisky and beer! The Trust is in the process of gaining protected name status for its beremeal, putting it alongside Orkney Beef, Orkney Cheese and Orkney Lamb. The present Mill dates back to 1873 and has become a visitor attraction in its own right. It’s open to the public during the summer, when present miller Brian Johnston gives tours and demonstrations on how it all works.

Marwick Head and its seabird city. Image by Derren Fox.
Marwick Head and its seabird city. Image by Derren Fox.

Like many other parts of Orkney, wildlife is a major attraction in Birsay. The parish hosts two RSPB reserves, at the Loons and Marwick Head. Both sites provide completely different experiences. The Loons and the Loch of Banks are where you can see wading birds, ducks and geese. They’re the largest remaining wetlands in Orkney and support a variety of species, including wigeons and pintails. There is a hide at The Loons for birdwatchers and, thanks to the Enjoy Wild Orkney project, a brand new ‘listening wall’ is being built, with the aim of amplifying the impressive sounds of the reserve when it is teeming with life. In contrast, the RSPB describes its Marwick Head site as a ‘spectacular curved clifftop walk, above a seabird city’. It’s home to the largest cliff nesting seabird colony on the Orkney mainland, and thousands of breeding seabirds can be seen – with May and June usually the busiest months.

Kitchener Memorial on Marwick Head. Image by Ian Heddle.
Kitchener Memorial on Marwick Head. Image by Ian Heddle.

Also perched on top of Marwick Head is the imposing structure of the Kitchener Memorial. The forty eight foot high stone tower was unveiled in 1926 with a plaque commemorating the loss of Earl Kitchener, who was onboard HMS Hampshire when it struck a mine off the west coast of Orkney in June 1916. More than seven hundred men died in the tragedy – now a local project to better remember them has been launched. Its aim is to build a wall bearing the names of those lost at the memorial. It’s hoped the work will be completed in time for events marking the centenary of the sinking next year. You can find out more about the project here.

There are plenty of other sites to visit in the parish – head in the opposite direction from the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Bay and you’ll come across a number of stone buildings, set above a small geo with a stone shoreline sloping gently into the sea. These Fishermen’s Huts – or Boaty Hooses as they’re known locally - were used as protection from the elements by local fishermen, and were restored in the 1980s.

The Brough of Birsay in the distance. Image by Fionn McArthur
The Brough of Birsay in the distance. Image by Fionn McArthur

Further along the coast lies one of Orkney’s most popular tourist destinations, the Brough of Birsay. The tidal island is only accessible at low water, so make sure you plan your trip in advance. It features the remains of Pictish and Norse settlements – highlighting Birsay’s Viking heritage. A view of the cliffs on the west side of the island are worth the extra walk too. The village close to the Brough has the Earls Palace – built around 1574 – and the St Magnus Church, which has been the site of a place of worship for more than nine hundred years. Both of these buildings have played an important role in Orkney’s history.

And, after your trip across causeways, over clifftops and into Orkney’s Viking past, you might need refuelling...and the village has the perfect stop. The Birsay Bay Tearoom is the place to go for local food and drink and is open for the majority of the week during the summer. The village also has its own shop, Palace Stores, which has recently reopened under new ownership.

Looking across Birsay to Marwick Head
Looking across Birsay to Marwick Head

Birsay is a breeding ground for some of Orkney’s talented craftmakers and artists. You can visit jewellery makers at Fluke Jewellery and the Orkneyinga Silversmiths, and art lovers can view and buy local work at the Yellowbird Gallery and Hundland Gallery. Close to the Hundland Gallery is the Kirbuster Farm Museum – the last un-restored example of a traditional ‘firehoose’ in Northern Europe, complete with stone bed and a central hearth in the heart of the house. It is open all summer for folk keen to have a look into Orkney’s more recent history.

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And finally...

Well, that’s it for this month, we hope you’ve enjoyed catching up on some of the local news in Orkney – and hopefully you’ve been able to glean some inspiration on places to visit and things to do if you’re heading here over the next few weeks or months.

Remember to sign up to our mailing list for regular updates from orkney.com, and explore the site for more information on the islands.

Feel free to get in touch with any questions or queries on Orkney – whether you want to visit or move here, or want to buy something from our local producers – we can help point you in the right direction. And, as always, please share your own experiences of Orkney with us on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to read this, and cheerio from Orkney, for now.

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