“I wasn’t really keen on birds at all,” explains Andrea Austen, laughing. “Like many people, I didn’t like the flapping wings.”
It may seem like a less than promising start, but along with her partner Keith, she now runs Skaill House Falconry, in the grounds of this historic building, just a stone’s throw from Skara Brae. For Keith, falconry has been a lifelong passion. Like many of his generation it was an interest sparked by the film Kes – the story of a teenage lad from a tough industrial town in the north of England who finds escape in training a young kestrel.
“I was quite obsessed by it as a kid and hung around people who were doing stuff with birds. Then as I grew up, I took jobs that generally allowed me to have the weekend to myself so I could do falconry.”
It’s perhaps inevitable that this passion would eventually rub-off on Andrea. As we arrive, she’s giving the tour to a family of three generations, introducing them to the owls. Gauntlets are donned as all ages are given the chance to hold these beautiful birds. The star attraction among them is undoubtedly Odin. The enormous Eurasian eagle-owl is a huge presence, looking slightly surreal in its scale – every movement seemingly magnified.
“Andrea trained Odin,” says Keith. “To have him flying free like that is amazing.” There’s some justifiable pride in his voice as the massive wings swoop up and over the high stone walls, talons outstretched as he lands on Andrea’s gauntleted hand, devouring the meat held between forefinger and thumb.
Skaill House Falconry was set-up six years ago and has seen visitor numbers increase year-on-year. Harris hawks, a lanner falcon, a crested caracara, a barn owl, and the gorgeously-named boobook owl all compete with Odin for the attention of tourists and locals alike. Keith and Andrea also now have a young volunteer, Eddie, who helps look after the wide range of birds of prey. It’s a year-round attraction, though weather-dependant, to a degree.
Skaill House itself, which dates back to the 17th century, feels like the perfect backdrop to the falconry. And for Keith, whose ancestors farmed nearby for generations, the long history of human interaction with birds of prey is a big part of his own fascination with the art of the falconer.
“Man has had a relationship with birds for a very long time. You have to look back to the pyramids for the first recorded interactions," he says. "In Orkney, we know that the Vikings were hugely experienced in hunting with birds of prey. I think people have forgotten over time that there is this relationship. It’s something we’re keen to get across to visitors – that there’s something really very special there.”
Being a small operation allows Skaill House Falconry to tailor the visitor experience to suit individuals.
“A lot of people just want to come and watch,” says Andrea. “They want to see the birds but not be too close. But for those that do want to get that more hands-on experience we can offer that, and I think people really appreciate that they’re getting something that is quite bespoke.
“Because we are quite small-scale it means we have a really strong relationship with our birds. We’re completely focused on their welfare, and I think because they get that level of attention, we get a lot more back from them in return.”
While it is primarily an outdoor activity, various COVID-safe protocols have been introduced to keep visitors safe, including wearing disposable gloves underneath the heavy leather gauntlets.
As Odin swoops low across the wide lawns of Skaill House, Keith gives a rueful grin. “I could be flying a falcon at 3000ft and nobody notices, but as soon as you bring out the owls that’s it.” True to form, the family sit transfixed as he flies between the hands of Andrea and Eddie. “From a falconry point of view, it’s a bit frustrating!” Keith laughs.
“Everybody loves the owls,” replies Andrea.
Good-natured rivalry has clearly replaced her initial ambivalence. It feels like a healthy basis on which to keep this business flying high for years to come.
Find out more about Skaill House Falconry.
Visit the official website to plan your trip.