One of the great attractions of island life is the almost permanent proximity to a beach. Whether you want to savour the peace and quiet on a sunny day, or have your senses blasted by the wind and waves during the winter, somewhere in Orkney there is the perfect beach for you.
But there are also local residents that travel to beaches here for a very different reason.
A hardy group of dedicated beachcombers spend hours scouring the sand and surf for unique finds from distant shores - perhaps helping to maintain a link with days gone by in Orkney, when the coastline provided bounty beyond imagination from shipwrecks and severe weather further out to sea.
Wildlife expert and naturalist Martin Gray is one of them.
“I’ve been doing this for forty odd years – I’ve always been fascinated by beaches.” said Martin, as he braved the September wind and rain at the bay of Skaill on Orkney’s exposed west coast.
“There are always things to see and look at. Even as a young child I started to become interested in what was washing up. It just really got under my skin.”
There isn’t much skin on show during this expedition to the beach. Wellies and waterproofs are in order as the skies darken and the sea roars towards the shore.
“In Orkney we have big weather and a strong tidal flow offshore.” said Martin through the wind.
“Out there to the west we’ve got the Gulf Stream and that’s basically a river in the ocean that transports things from places like Canada, the USA, the Caribbean and even further. I just find that completely mesmerising.”
Those ‘things’ can come in many shapes or sizes. From great strips of driftwood, smooth and slippery from months in the sea, to tiny pieces of fishing gear dislodged from small vessels in the Atlantic.
There are rarer finds too.
“Messages in a bottle are always good fun as generally there is something to uncover and a connection to make. Finding tropical things, like sea beans, happens very rarely, maybe once every five years – and believe me, I’m looking the whole time! But just a bonny bit of driftwood can make a couple of hours beachcombing worthwhile for me.”
As luck would have it, we stumble across a couple of interesting finds ourselves. A bright green bit of plastic catches our eyes amidst the seaweed at Skaill. It’s a tag from a Newfoundland lobster pot, better known as a creel in Orkney. It could have been in the ocean for as long as eighteen months, making its way east. It’s not a rare find – Martin has handfuls of them at home, along with examples of larger floats from east coast USA ports like Gloucester and Salem.
Martin’s keen eye also spots a handy looking length of driftwood that could be a new arrival, sitting in the ebb. “I’m making a bench at home, and this is just perfect for that.” he said, heaving it up onto his shoulder for the walk back to the car.
We pass the carcasses of a number of birds, which Martin stops to inspect briefly, and numerous bits of rubbish, which are collected in a bag for dumping later. We eventually clamber over the boulders and rocks to the sheltered sanctuary of the Skaill car park, and head to the large wheelie bin.
“It’s not just interesting bits and pieces you can find on the beaches. It’s litter too. If we had been here earlier this year, the corner of the car park was a mountain of rubbish that had been taken off the shore by volunteers.” said Martin.
That operation was part of the annual ‘Bag the Bruck’ clear up, held across Orkney’s beaches. Tonnes of rubbish and detritus are collected over a weekend by groups of determined volunteers to keep Orkney’s beaches beautiful for the summer months. It’s something Martin knows has to be done, but it still frustrates him.
“A lot of the rubbish you find here is from North America, and while I find that fascinating, I also find it very annoying that we have to clean up after another culture’s carelessness and thoughtlessness. We are just as bad and our marine litter has a knock on effect elsewhere.”
“I’m often upset by what I find – birds or seals tangled up in nets, that kind of thing. It’s just so needless and everyone, at sea or on land, needs to think about how we treat our oceans and start caring for them better.”
Depressing finds don’t put Martin off though. His beachcombing days are set to run and run. In fact, he’s only getting back into the swing of things.
“I’ve just come home to Orkney after a decade of living outside London. My nearest beach was thirty odd miles away and I’ve been deprived! I’m down on the shore here every chance I can get now.”
You can understand why. Even during an early September storm, the Bay of Skaill is a stunning place. In the distance a dog enjoys its morning walk, kicking sand and sea up behind it as it runs, and you can see cars pulling into the Skara Brae Visitor Centre with tourists ready for their trip back in time.
Other haunts of Martin’s include Marwick, Billia Croo and Warbeth – and they all have their own magical quality.
“Beaches and the coastline are iconic Orkney scenery. Deep down, they’re part of what makes Orkney special. I would recommend them to everyone, from visitors to new residents and folk who have been here forever.
Just go down to the beach, and care for it a little bit. It’s so special.”
Follow Martin on Facebook at Orkney Beachcombing to see what he uncovers on Orkney’s beaches, and share your own finds with him.