As tour guides go, Orkney’s Tate Norquay is unique. Only three-years-old, he’s got several seasons of energetically shepherding randomly selected visitors to South Ronaldsay’s famous Tomb of the Eagles under his collar, though he never speaks to any of them.
Tate is also partial to the odd bone-shaped treat, and he enjoys chasing rabbits – a habit that occasionally sees him completely desert his charges en-route to the cliff-top Neolithic site. If he really likes you though, he’ll stay by your side and give you the full tour.
Sound like a shaggy dog story? Far from it. Yes, Tate’s a springer spaniel, but he does in fact ‘work’ as a canine tour guide at the Tomb of the Eagles. As jobs go, it’s a well-loved dog’s life. Tate is self-appointed and he picks his own hours and clients.
While the rest of the guides at the family-run Tomb of the Eagles know the history of the 5,000 year-old site inside out - and always deliver a great experience for visitors – a tour under the supervision of Tate is very much seen as an exclusive, VIP bonus.
If you’re lucky enough to be at the visitor centre on a day Tate is there – he’s not a full time fixture - he might well decide you’re a suitable candidate for his personal tour. However, you can’t request his company, nor pay extra for his services. He’s in charge, so it’s his call.
Should Tate be in the mood for running off some energy – or sniffing out the rabbit population along what is a spectacular stretch of the South Ronaldsay coast - then he’ll make sure you’ll have a tale to tell when you get home.
Granted, the route to the tomb is well signposted, but Tate clearly enjoys leading the way and will usually deliver you safely at its entrance – providing he doesn’t encounter any rabbits, of course. He’ll often stick around outside while you enter and explore the tomb, before leading you back to the visitor centre.
Always energetic, Tate appears genuinely proud of his role, which is no surprise when you learn that he belongs to Ingrid Norquay, the granddaughter of the late Ronnie Simison, who discovered the tomb on his farmland in 1958.
A self-taught archaeologist, Ronnie painstakingly excavated the tomb in the 1970s, unearthing some 16,000 human bones, alongside the bones and talons of around 14 white tailed sea eagles. Ronnie, who passed away in 2012, also found a number of polished Neolithic artefacts within the tomb, many of which can be seen within the visitor centre now managed by his daughters, Freda Norquay and Kathleen MacLeod
Tate stays at the visitor centre when Kirkwall based Ingrid is working, with official dog sitting duties passing to her mother, Freda.
“We pride ourselves on this being a family run visitor centre and Tate is very much an extension of that,” says Freda. “He’s been coming out to the tomb with us since he was a pup and one day just decided to set off with a group of tourists on his own. Now he’ll often take one group out there – usually stopping for them to view the Bronze Age site we also have on our land – before taking another group of people back here.”
According to Freda, some visitors were initially concerned about the welfare of this apparently stray dog, which took it upon itself to accompany them to the tomb.
“Tourists would often wonder where the dog had come from, or where he’d gone, so my daughter Ingrid had Tate’s special ‘tour dog’ harness made so people realised he was with the site,” explains Freda. “I tell people not to worry about him though as he’s not their responsibility.”
Tate’s busy personal touring/rabbiting schedule frequently takes him away from the visitor centre for hours on end, but Freda says he always comes home, eventually.
“Sometimes we lose him and then find him upstairs, sleeping,” she says. “He can’t rest if there’s work to do, so he’ll take himself away to nap in peace. He’d run all day, so it saves my legs too!”
Given he’s only three-years-old, it’s perhaps understandable that Tate sometimes can’t contain his enthusiasm for his role.
“When visitors are changing into wellie boots for the walk out to the tomb, Tate runs off with their shoes,” reveals Freda. “He never damages them, but he always needs to have something in his mouth when he is excited about meeting people and a walk is on the cards.”
She adds: “People just love it. They can’t believe how good Tate is, taking and delivering them into the tomb. Sometimes he walks all the way around with them, other times he picks up somebody else and comes back with them instead. He’s a very friendly dog. He’s just lovely.”
So, count yourself very lucky if you turn up at the Tomb of the Eagles on a day Tate is there and he decides you deserve a holiday treat. Just paws (sorry) and contemplate your good fortune. And, if he does happen to vanish for a while, consider how much more unpredictable a tour led by a cat would be.
Find out more about visiting Tomb of the Eagles via the official website.
By David Flanagan.
The Digital Media Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.