March 2020 Newsletter

Find out all about life in Orkney this month.

Hello and welcome to the March newsletter from

It was a wild and wonderful February, with high seas and plenty of stormy weather – just what you’d expect at 59 degrees north! Hopefully this month will be slightly calmer as we head towards spring.

Keep reading for plenty of features all focused on island life, including our news and events round-ups and more from our wildlife and photography contributors.

As always, we’d love to hear from you - stay in touch on social media by following the links at the top of the page.

March's headlines

Orkney in 2020

Snorkelling at the 2019 Orkney International Science Festival

Are you busy planning your holidays for 2020? Well, if you’re looking for some special events and activities to enjoy this year, then Orkney could be the perfect place for you. The islands are a destination for all seasons, with a busy calendar full of festivals and fun all year round. We’ve picked out 11 events you won’t want to miss in Orkney during 2020. Take a look and let us know which ones you’ll be enjoying!

Step forward for ReFLEX Orkney

ReFLEX Orkney partners in Stromness

A new local energy company, the launch of a special electricity tariff and more electric vehicles could all be on the horizon for Orkney in 2020, after the ReFLEX Orkney project officially progressed to its second stage. The ground-breaking scheme’s first phase has been approved by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), with the focus now moving from feasibility studies to demonstration. The project aims to help Orkney maximise the potential of its renewable energy production by using excess energy created here and reducing the reliance on electricity imported from the UK mainland.

Celebrating Orkney’s food and drink

Some of Orkney's food and drink products

The inaugural Taste of Orkney Food Festival will showcase everything that's great about the finest Orkney food and drink. The event will take place between 25-27 September and aims to put Orkney on the map as a top destination for quality food and drink produce. There’s a packed programme planned so far, filled with workshops from culinary experts, chef demonstrations, a drinks fayre, food marketplace, and much more. Keep your eye on the Orkney Food and Drink website for the latest updates.

Time to get out and about

The Vat of Kirbister in Stronsay

With spring approaching and summer on the horizon, there is no better time to get outside and experience the Orkney elements. Across the islands there are walks, viewpoints and new locations just ready to be explored. We’ve picked nine of our favourites for extra inspiration – featuring beautiful beaches, ancient buildings and sea stacks!

Join us on Instagram

Follow Visit Orkney on Instagram to see some beautiful images of the islands. We publish shots from around Orkney every week and you can join in too. Tag your own images so we can share your Orkney journey. Use #VisitOrkney and #LoveOrkney to keep in touch.

March in Orkney

With spring set to arrive soon, the Orkney events calendar is certainly starting to fill up.

North Ronaldsay will be hosting a special weekend this month to continue its plans to become an official International Dark Sky Place. Orkney’s most northerly community is the perfect place to see the night sky, and its Dark Skies Weekend on the 7th and 8th will be a chance to find out more about the process and benefits of a dark skies designation. There will be guest speakers and events throughout the weekend, including a night time trip to the island’s lighthouse. Find out how to book your place.

The North Ronaldsay Lighthouse

Music fans are in for a treat this month. The Sound Archive at the Old Library in Kirkwall hosts singer and songwriter Horse McDonald on the 13th from 8pm. With a successful career spanning three decades, she’ll be making her debut in Orkney and it’s sure to be a performance not to be missed. Tickets are available at Grooves or online.

The following evening, local favourites Saltfishforty will be back at the Orkney Distillery for a Spring Session. The duo bring the best in traditional and original tunes and will be taking to the stage on the 14th at 7pm for a 7.30pm start. Book your tickets online, buy them at the Orkney Distillery or order on 01856 875338.

The Orkney Distillery in Kirkwall

Orkney’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions will be the focus of a special event between the 21st and 22nd this month. The Sustainable Orkney Conference will bring together local experts and residents to map out what the islands are already doing to de-carbonise and be sustainable. It’s hoped the conference will help inform future discussions, both locally and nationally, on the issue of sustainability. The event is free and tickets are available on Eventbrite.

There’s plenty to take in on the silver screen this month. The Pickaquoy Centre cinema has a real mix of showings planned, including ‘Dolittle’, ‘Birds of Prey’, ‘Parasite’ and ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’. Check out the full programme online. Meanwhile, the West Side Cinema in Stromness has ‘Gaza’ on the 8th and ‘The Chambermaid’ on the 22nd – doors open at the Town Hall at 7.15pm for a 7.45pm start. There’s also a special ‘North Side Cinema’ event this month in Papa Westray. ‘Last Breath’ will be shown at the Beltane Hostel at 7pm on the 14th.

If you want to get out and embrace the elements as we move into the spring, why not join one of the excellent guided tours available in Orkney’s World Heritage Site? You can visit the Standing Stones of Stenness with our Historic Environment Scotland Rangers every Wednesday at 10am, and the Ring of Brodgar every Thursday at 1pm. Both walks are free and come highly recommended. Remember too that you can take a tour of the upper levels of St Magnus Cathedral throughout the year. Find out when the next tour is planned by calling the custodians on 01856 874894. Booking is essential.

Tour the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney this March

There’s always lots to see in Orkney’s museums, too. The Stromness Museum’s winter exhibition – ‘Carry on Collecting - New Acquisitions’ – is open until the 27th, featuring more than 30 objects donated to the museum since 2017.

Finally, to celebrate British Science Week, Robert Gordon University is bringing together organisations from across Orkney for pupils to take part in an interactive exhibition of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The STEM Open Evening will feature an exciting showcase of hands-on activities for school pupils to learn about careers in STEM. It’s free to attend and pupils will get involved in blood-smear analysis techniques, creating stamp rockets, and even extracting DNA from strawberries.

That’s just a taste of events in Orkney during March. There’s always lots more happening around the islands – keep up to date with our events page, pick up a copy of local newspaper ‘The Orcadian’ every Thursday or tune into BBC Radio Orkney every weekday morning from 0730 on 93.7FM or on Facebook.

Wild Orkney

After some recent wintry showers, local wildlife photographer Raymond Besant took the opportunity to focus on one special species in its perfect habitat.

It hasn't been what you might call a traditional winter this year, though it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what a traditional winter is! With its predominantly maritime climate, heavy snowfall isn’t that common in Orkney, yet we would expect the Hoy hills to at least have a dusting through the winter months.

It’s here that we can find one of my favourite species, the mountain hare. Like most land mammals found in Orkney, it has a somewhat complicated history and was mostly likely introduced by people. In fact, records show there have probably been several introductions, the last being between 1898 and 1914. Unlike the brown hare (also found in Orkney, but not in Hoy!), the mountain hare is indigenous to the UK. The population is now well established in the Hoy hills however and now is the perfect time to see them.

Snow-capped Ward Hill in Hoy - image by Raymond Besant

Their coat changes from brown to white from October onwards and with little snow cover at the moment they are very conspicuous amongst the dark heather. In fact, mountain hares actually have three moults through the year; a spring moult from white to brown, an autumn moult from brown to brown, and a winter moult from brown to white. However, the moult to winter white, sometimes with a grey/blueish tint, isn’t always even - the head often being the last to change. On a pure white individual only the tips of their long ears remain black.

So, where do you find them? They are widely distributed in Hoy though not found in South Walls as the heather uplands are their preferred habitat. Even here though the distribution isn’t even, most preferring heights of over 250 metres, which in Hoy means heading for Ward Hill or Cuilags. However, I’ve also seen them foraging at sea level, right near the road at Lyrawa Bay.

My favourite place to see them is on the summit of Cuilags, the westernmost hill in Hoy and, at 433 metres, slightly smaller than its cousin Ward Hill at 481 metres. Granted, as far as Scottish hills go, they aren’t very high, but what they lack in height they make up for in steepness. If you want to see mountain hares on Cuilags or Ward Hill you’re going to have to make your calves work! You could always take the path towards the Old Man of Hoy and carry on northwards until you reach Cuilags but that’s quite a walk. I usually park up just north of Sandy Loch, walk the length of the loch then take a hard right straight up the hill.

Cuilags in Hoy - image by Raymond Besant

If you have the time and the stamina, it’s well worth the effort. The views from the tops of these hills are unparalleled in Orkney, with Scapa Flow, the mainland and the north isles spreading out in front of you as you look north. If this sounds like too much effort then you have a very good second and much easier option; just watch the mountain hares from the main road! The only road running north in Hoy takes you past the small loch called the ‘Water of Hoy’. Slow down as the road runs parallel with the coast and look on the hillside to your left. I was here recently and spotted 8 different individuals, feeding and socialising.

Your challenge really starts now if you want to photograph them. The hares on this hillside have a great vantage point and will definitely have seen you coming, so in some ways there’s little point in trying to creep up on them. The ball is firmly in the hare’s court here. My advice is to move slowly but purposefully, walk five metres, stop, take some pictures, walk five metres, stop and take some pictures. Some hares can be very trusting and allow a close approach, others will stand up straight, ears alert and run off over the hill at the first sight of you.

Mountain hare in Hoy - image by Raymond Besant

In my experience there is little success to be had in following hares down the hill in the hope of photographing them. I suspect this is to do with their predator escape strategy. Up until the 1980s a pair of golden eagles nested in Hoy. From then the hares only had the odd great skua to worry about, until our resident pair of white-tailed eagles set up home near the Dwarfie Stane a few years ago. The mountain hares now make up a significant part of the diet (along with fulmars) of these magnificent birds of prey. They aren’t an easy catch though and mountain hares will actually run straight up the hill rather than down it if an eagle approaches, making it far harder for the eagle to successfully catch its prey.

The signs of mountain hares are all around. They don’t utilise burrows the way rabbits do but rather make do with what is known as a ‘form’, a shallow depression in the heather. There are plenty of small, rocky outcrops on this hillside and the forms are often found on the western side of these rocks. Droppings are also conspicuous, being larger and rougher looking than those of the rabbit, whilst the beautiful white fur is often found caught in sprigs of heather.

Spend a day in the Hoy hills and you have a great chance of seeing both mountain hares and white-tailed eagles. Try and catch the hares before they become harder to see again, as the next moult back to brown isn’t far around the corner - though it may help them blend in a bit better and avoid the talons of those eagles who should shortly be nest-building.

Find out more about Raymond’s work via his official website. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

His new book, 'Naturally Orkney Volume 2' is out now, focusing on Orkney's coastline and all the sights and species that can be found there. You can order your copy online.

Focus on photography

Our featured photographer of the month is Scott Oxford, who has been captivated by the historical and natural beauty of Orkney.

I’m relatively new to digital photography, having only really started taking images over the last three or four years. I tend to lean towards landscape photography and Orkney is the perfect place to do that.

At first, I found it a bit challenging as the landscape here is quite low lying, but the closer you look the more you see. I like to use the different light – like the low sun reflecting off the water. Orkney also has amazing big skies and you can always use this to your advantage, as the light is constantly changing and throwing up pleasant surprises.

I’m regularly out walking and exploring, never without a camera and a couple of different lenses to cover most situations. You never know what will spring up in Orkney - nowhere is the same two days running! Even on dull, wet, windy days there is always something to capture, and that’s when I like to shoot in black and white, whether that be focusing on an old phone box or even old boats and slipways.

My favourite places in Orkney are Hoxa in South Ronaldsay, Rackwick in Hoy and the Atlantic coastline of the West Mainland at Yesnaby and Skaill, towards Birsay. There is so much history and many interesting places to visit. Walk the coastal paths and you will always find something spectacular, whether that be a geo or just a quiet place to sit and watch the wildlife. In summer the cliffs are full of guillemots, razorbills and puffins, which are all very photogenic.

I would highly recommend Orkney as a destination for photographers to visit, the opportunity for various styles and subjects for photography are broad and varied. From the spectacular wildlife, birdlife and beautiful coastline, to the well-known historical sites, Orkney truly is the perfect place for photography.

You can see more of Scott’s images on his Instagram page.

Explore hidden Orkney

Our featured Orkney attraction of the month for March truly is off the beaten track, and found in the most unexpected place.

It’s no secret that you can find an ancient site in most places and parishes across Orkney. But you'd imagine an industrial estate on the outskirts of Kirkwall isn't exactly a hotbed of historical attractions.

Well, think again! In amongst fishmongers, agricultural suppliers and garages, you’ll find the Grain Earth House, the definition of a hidden gem.

Grain Earth House is in the heart of the Hatston Industrial Estate

This Iron Age subterranean structure is a simple grassy bump from the outside. Once you step inside, however, you get the sense of being transported back in time. The earth house lies around two metres underground at the end of a five-metre-long curving passage. It was built during the first millennium BC and it’s thought it was used to store food.

The entrance to Grain Earth House

It was first discovered in the 1820s and features four huge stone pillars, supporting the weight of the main chamber’s roof. During later excavations, shards of pottery, antler and animal remains were found.

There have been other excavations and finds nearby, so it doesn’t appear the earth house existed in isolation and it could have been part of a larger settlement.

It’s a beautifully-built structure and a fascinating site to visit. Be prepared to get your knees dirty as it’s a tight fit, but it’s one of those special Orkney experiences where you can explore ancient history with no restrictions, barriers or no-entry signs. Just remember to bring a torch!

To visit, you must pick up a key from the Judith Glue shop on Broad Street in Kirkwall. Find out more about Grain Earth House from the Orkneyjar website.

See more of our hidden Orkney attractions via our interactive map.

And finally...

Thank you for taking the time to read our latest newsletter – hopefully there has been something to inspire you to make a visit to Orkney, for a short trip or a more permanent stay.

We’re always keen to hear from you too - share your news, views and comments on the newsletter, and your Orkney experiences with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or E-mail.

In the meantime, it's cheerio from Orkney, for now.

The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Newsletter

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