“It's a great way of meeting new people and putting yourself forward to experience something unique and rewarding,” says Kate Traill Price, co-ordinator of the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival. “The main appeal is the sense of teamwork and achievement, mixed in with the celebration of all the island has to offer.”
Created by the enterprising North Ronaldsay community in a bid to raise awareness of their ancient breed of shoreline dwelling sheep, and to give people the opportunity to learn practical skills associated with managing the 3,000 strong flock, the fortnight-long festival was first staged last year.
This year’s event gets underway on 31 July, with organisers promising an even more memorable experience for everyone taking part.
North Ronaldsay mutton is exported from the island and much prized as a delicacy, thanks to its distinctive flavour. Wool from the sheep is also processed locally and sold to knitters around the world.
The sheep are contained on the rocky North Ronaldsay shoreline and prevented from grazing on local farmland – the breed is vulnerable to copper poisoning due to its diet - by a 1.8 metre high dry-stone dyke encircling the island. The dyke – originally constructed in the 1800s - also reduces the chance of gene-pool pollution of the flock through cross breeding with other sheep.
Maintenance of the coastal sheep dyke, which gets damaged by winter storms each year, is a continual challenge for the small community on what is Orkney’s most northerly island.
Volunteers taking part in the sheep festival help repair fallen sections of the wall, learning traditional building skills from local experts.
“The success of the first festival did take us a little by surprise,” admits Kate. “Although we appreciated the importance of the project and the fun that could be had in rebuilding an ancient sheep dyke on a remote island, we hadn't realised that so many others would feel the same way and make the effort to come and join us!”
Last year saw 40 people from all over the world attend the festival, with a core of ten subsidised volunteers undertaking the bulk of the dyke repair work.
“Some people stayed for the whole two weeks, while others popped along for a day or two when they heard what we were up to,” continues Kate. “It's a very inclusive and welcoming project. This year we’ve doubled the number of subsidised volunteers to 20 and expect a similar number to come along and help as and when they can. Many of last year's volunteers are making a return trip for the 2017 fortnight, having stayed in contact since last year.”
The boost in the number of subsidised volunteer places has been made possible thanks to funding from Awards for All Scotland and The Orkney Sheep Foundation.
“The funding has also allowed us to hire a minivan to transport volunteers to the rebuilding sites - a real bonus as we were having to do multiple trips in various cars to get everyone there before,” explains Kate. “As this is a volunteer-led, non-profit conservation project, having the funding to cover items such as insurance, flyers, petrol and first aid kits, is an enormous help.”
Volunteers also take part in a North Ronaldsay punding, rounding up the wild sheep from the beach in order to be clipped, in what is the last remaining example of community agriculture in the UK.
Crucially, prior sheep wrangling or dyke building experience isn’t a requirement for volunteers.
“I had no drystone walling or building experience whatsoever before last year's festival and wasn't sure what to expect,” reveals Kate. “Having the island residents - especially those who have been building the sheep dyke since their youth - supervising us, along with the camaraderie of the volunteers, made the work an absolute joy. We'd arrive in the morning at a sorry-looking section of storm-damaged dyke, and within a day have it back up and looking as beautiful as it did when it was first built in 1832.”
And it’s not all about hard work, or just sheep, with a packed programme of community events on offer throughout the festival fortnight.
“The festival celebrates everything about the rich culture and history of North Ronaldsay, and brings together like-minded people – maybe even potential future residents,” says Kate. “We also wanted the festival to be for everyone - visitors and residents alike - so we can all have the opportunity to discover something new. The festival highlights what a wonderfully welcoming and friendly community North Ronaldsay has, as well as passing on the island's walling techniques to a new generation of sheep dyke builders.”
This year’s expanded festival programme will see several guest speakers travelling to the island to present talks on a mix of subjects - from the history of standing stones, to bee-keeping. Workshops covering everything from felting to playing the ukulele are also planned.
Whilst certainly unique, North Ronaldsay’s festival does exist in a world where every month of the year is filled with some kind of event. However, Kate is confident there’s a bright future for this one-of-a-kind celebration of island culture and tradition.
“The beauty of the festival and its location on North Ronaldsay is that it can only ever grow so big in terms of volunteer and visitor capacity, so it won't lose the very essence of what made it such a unique event in the first place,” she says. “And, because it’s a non-profit event, we are able to go down the route of better, rather than bigger.”
She adds: “North Ronaldsay will always be classed as the island that time forgot, which is exactly what makes it so appealing. As long as we stay true to that, I can only see the festival going from strength to strength. The island is a place unlike any other, and people really respond to that. Give it a go, you'll surprise yourself!”
Story by David Flanagan.