Hello and welcome to our final newsletter of the year from Orkney.
2021 brought another challenging twelve months, but it was fantastic to see so many visitors enjoy everything the islands have to offer during the summer, and it was lovely to have such a buzz about the place once again.
Hopefully next year will bring more of the same, and we’ll make sure our newsletters continue to bring some Orcadian inspiration into your inbox every month.
And who knows, we could be welcoming you to Orkney in 2022.
Orkney is home to some of the most talented food, drinks and crafts makers in the country, producing everything from beer, gin and fudge, to jewellery, ceramics and knitwear. If you’re looking for Christmas gift ideas, there’s no better place to start. Check out our special Shop Online section to browse products handmade here in the islands, and all available to buy at the click of a button. It’s the perfect opportunity to gift something unique that has been made with love and with skills passed down through generations - and support our independent makers at the same time.
We’ve also picked out some new and exciting gift ideas from a selection of Orkney businesses. Take a look at our blog to seek out some stocking fillers, including Orkney marshmallows, limited edition gins, exclusive artworks and much more.
Orkney’s birdlife attracts visitors from around the world to the islands, keen to get a glimpse of a special species on its migratory path. But did you know you can also see incredible owls, hawks and falcons in the islands too? Skaill House Falconry offers plenty of fun for all the family at its daily displays, and even gives visitors the chance to handle its incredible avian array too.
An expansion project is underway at the Orkney Brewery which will create new jobs and enhance its green credentials. Sinclair Breweries, which operates the award-winning brewery, is investing £300,000 to expand the kitchen in the Orkney Brewery’s Quoyloo visitor centre, install an on-site kegging plant and set up an improved temperature control system. It’s hoped the developments will help the business become more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, and expand the range of beer it can supply in kegs to customers across the country.
After a wild week of weather as November drew to a close, it definitely feels as if winter is here. It’s perhaps the perfect time to take a look back at the autumn months, which can bring such beautiful light and atmosphere to the islands. We asked local photographer Rachel Eunson to document the season with a special blog featuring images from around Orkney.
Orkney is set to bring some extra festive cheer to Glasgow this week, when local businesses take part in a major Christmas retail show being staged in the city. The Country Living Magazine Christmas Fair, running between 2 and 5 December, will see eight Orkney Food & Drink firms and six Creative Orkney businesses travelling south, with several making a debut appearance at the fair.
When Storm Arwen arrived in the islands in late November, local wildlife filmmaker Raymond Besant decided it was time to test his camera skills in the wildest weather.
I love photographing storms and big waves in particular, and over the years I have worked out where to go for the best ‘kind’ of wave given the prevailing conditions. Storm Arwen provided a good opportunity to test out some of that experience gathered, but as always nothing is straightforward.
Arwen was the first proper storm of the season, though even she was pretty short lived. We get a lot of NW wind over the winter with low pressure systems rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean. To get the really big waves, those worthy of breaking right over the top of the Hole o’Rowe on the left-hand corner of the Bay of Skaill, then two days of sustained 40mph winds is usually required.
It’s amazing how flat the sea can turn having been a boiling rage the day before if we see a change in wind direction. My absolute favourite conditions are sustained winds from one direction for several days followed by a calm day. The seas and swell are still huge but the conditions allow you to get images or footage from places you wouldn’t normally be able to work. Let’s face it, if the sea is coming over the top of the cliff at Yesnaby and drenching your car then the conditions are going to be so poor that not only will you get soaked, but your equipment is at serious risk of being damaged.
Often, I’m thinking about where I can get out of the wind to allow me to work safely yet still get the most dramatic images possible. Arwen was forecast to hit us properly on the Friday afternoon, with schools closing at midday as a precaution and ferries cancelled as a result. But she was early and I got a taste of what she was offering as I dropped my daughter off at Orkney College - sideways heavy rain and already 45mph winds, gusting 65mph. Those winds were making the 3C feel like -5C.
If it stayed like that then getting any images was going to be unworkable. Yet there was a little light to the north and I figured that, with the wind coming straight from that direction, the north facing shores of Birsay would already be taking a battering, so that’s where I headed.
If I saw any wildlife, it would have been a bonus but Friday was all about the elements. As I looked across the Bay of Firth the sky seemed enormous, brooding, and a filthy grey. I made the decision to turn tail and head towards the Old Finstown Road so I could go to the top of Wideford Hill to capture the angry vista. A rainbow appeared out of the gloom and as I parked at the top the scene before me looked amazing, with the sea streaked white with wisps of water ripped from the surface. But the wall of grey was almost at the shore and I realised I’d been beaten. The storm was upon me before I could even take a picture. I jumped back in the car and I wasn’t a moment too soon, as it felt like I’d been swallowed up, the wind violently rocking the car.
I felt like I’d made a mistake and I was a little uncomfortable but knew I just had to sit it out. Ten minutes later and the rain stopped, so I started to drive back down the hill when I saw a dramatic skyline to the south. The yellow light was fading fast but the south end of Holm, the holms and Burray were still lit with some rapidly fading highlights bouncing off the sea. I compressed the image using a 500mm lens and worked quickly to capture the scene, the wind buffeting me while I pressed myself into the car resting the long lens on the roof.
Then the sun was gone and I couldn’t help feeling a sense of foreboding that I wasn’t going to see it again for the rest of the day! I picked my daughter up at midday and did a loop from Weyland to Kirkwall harbour. The sea was really whipping into the bay, topping the pier and releasing its spray over the yachts stacked in the marina. But the angle I wanted meant standing right out in the open and there was nowhere to park.
It was really wild now and I made sure my settings were already dialled in before leaving the car. I used a 150-600mm zoom lens so I could get a range of shot sizes but this lens, although quite heavy, gave me the flexibility of hand-holding. To do this successfully without camera shake meant using slightly higher ISOs than I would normally. I realised how dark it was when I was shooting at f4 and ISO 1250, and my shutter seeds were still relatively slow.
I punched the ISO up to 2000 whilst shooting and just kept shooting! I was getting a serious battering from the wind and soon realised that zooming in anything past 400mm was pointless. The camera was moving around so much that I couldn’t even see what I was looking at through the viewfinder. I couldn’t stay here for long; I had multiple layers on but the wind still found a way through and one side of my body was soaked through from the sea spray. The gusts were strong enough now to potentially knock me off my feet so I made a hasty retreat.
I wanted to see what the weather was like at Inganess though and what the wreck of the Juniata looked like in these conditions. She’s favoured by swimmers and snorkelers as somewhere calm and benign to swim, but not on this Friday! My daughter has already had enough of staying in the car and has requested to be dropped off at home first - fair enough!
I came over the top of the hill to what looked like some kind of an illusion. With the white waves crashing into the rear of the now skeleton of a wreck she almost looked afloat again! I knew instinctively it was going to be difficult; the road means I’m completely side on to the wind and I was going to have to work quickly. I stopped directly in front of the wreck and lowered the passenger window halfway. This was definitely a mistake as I immediately got a face full of sand and the lens was completely covered in sea spray. I dried off the lens and reversed back slightly so I’m at a slight angle and the driving wind at least won’t hit me head on. I had the camera on continuous drive and fired off as many shots as I could before I had to close the window again. The wind had changed slightly to NE and if anything, the gusts were even higher at around 70mph.
This wasn’t somewhere I wanted to linger and as I drove off back up the hill, I realised how much sand was in the car. It was getting really dark now so I called it a day.
It was wild through the night and I feared for my roof tiles but Saturday was an altogether brighter day, and with the wind back in the north I knew that the Birsay coastline - from the Brough of Birsay to Northside - would be really dramatic. The wind had eased too, gusting 35 to 40 instead of 65, so working conditions would be easier.
But I was wrong! If anything, it was even colder than the previous day. I had my Labrador Lyra with me and she couldn’t have been happier in the conditions, working off a quick case of the ‘zoomies’ before settling into walking by my side. Beautiful turquoise waves were breaking just offshore but I could see that familiar grey wall and knew that before long it the wild weather would hit us. And hit us it did, with snow and hail. There’s no shelter in this part of the world so we simply sat down together, backs to the freezing blast and hoped it wouldn’t last too long.
Huge waves were breaking at the base of the cliffs further to the east. A huge chunk of the face fell off here earlier in the year and it reminded me what the sea would be doing to the sea caves at the base of the cliffs, ever so slightly weakening the rock with each pounding hit.
My gloves weren’t warm enough and I felt the strength drain from my hands, but on heading back to the car a beautiful scene opened up before me towards the Brough of Birsay. The frame in my camera was almost split into two, the now bright white waves and sea foam, and a blue sky with dramatic clouds scudding southwards on that frigid wind. This felt like ‘classic’ Orkney to me, a familiar scene but not a boring one. It had been an exciting hour and Lyra looked happy, so it was time for one last picture before heading back to Kirkwall. As we approached Quoyloo a heavy blanket of black cloud was trying to smother the Hoy hills, with a warm yellow band of light doing its best to fend it off. It made for a dramatic scene and was something to warm my frozen spirits.
A kestrel hovered above, with its head squarely focused on the ground, no doubt in hope of seeing an Orkney vole. It could have probably done with a good meal, the high winds and slashing rain would have meant this ‘wind-cuffer’ would have spent the previous day hunkered down in amongst cover, denied its mastery of the air until Arwen did her worst and made her way south.
Focus on photography
We’ve been able to share some incredible Orkney imagery thanks to our featured photographers over the last year. We’ve picked our favourite shots to enjoy once more.
We had such a fantastic selection of photographers in 2021 with beautiful imagery submitted each month. Dave Neil got things underway back in January with this stunning shot, looking down the west coast of the Orkney mainland towards Hoy in the distance.
Orkney’s wildlife is always a popular subject for our featured photographers. Dawn Underhill managed to capture this spectacular shot of a puffin during a summer visit to the islands.
Just out of shot in Luke’s image is the Old Man of Hoy. John Stoddard – our July contributor – submitted this shot looking south along that special stretch of coast towards the famous sea stack. It showcases the rugged nature of the coastline here perfectly.
In August the focus was on Laura Cogle’s gallery of photos. Laura runs the Capturing Orkney Instagram account and this drone image from the Brough of Birsay really highlights her eye for a photo opportunity.
St Magnus Cathedral took centre stage in Leslie Burgher’s selection of images in September. Taken at dusk, just as the cathedral’s lights come on, the shot picks out the red and yellow sandstone of the ‘light in the north’, as well as the stillness of an Orkney evening.
Our final contributor was November’s Mandy Sykes. She captured this image of one of Orkney’s most spectacular locations, Marwick Head. With blue skies and sea pinks, it brings back thoughts of summer and something to look forward to in 2022.
Thank you for taking the time to read our latest newsletter. Remember, if you’re planning to visit the islands over the festive season, take a look at our COVID-19 section to make sure you’re up-to-date with all the latest news and advice.
In the meantime, we hope you've enjoyed finding out all about life in Orkney with us over the past twelve months. Stay safe, and have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year wherever you are.