Greg Beecroft recalls a memorable sailing in the Northern Isles.
Sometimes one makes elaborate arrangements for an unusual voyage, but there are times when a memorable trip is possible quite by chance. So it was in July 1980 when I spent a week in Orkney, quite unaware, before I arrived, that Monday the 21st was a local holiday in Kirkwall. Especially for that day Orkney Islands Shipping Company was running an excursion to North Ronaldsay. It was an opportunity not to be missed.
Normally, North Ronaldsay was served once or twice each week by the cargo vessel Islander, which could carry no more than 12 passengers. She would leave Kirkwall early in the morning and stay at North Ronaldsay only as long as was necessary to deal with the freight.
The cargo and passenger ship Orcadia served the larger islands, also with an early start most days, though it was possible to book a cabin and go aboard the night before. For the North Ronaldsay excursion, departure was at a more civilised time – it might have been as late as nine. There was still cargo to be dealt with, for which we made calls at Eday and Stronsay.
Built by Hall Russell of Aberdeen in 1962, Orcadia was a favourite ship of mine, but it was hard to believe she was only 18 years old. The design, inside and out, was quite old-fashioned and the cargo, including vehicles, was lifted on and off by derrick. Cattle were carried on many sailings, herded on through an opening in the hull, though not on the North Ronaldsay excursion.
The sun shone, making it most pleasant to sit on deck and admire the scenery. Arrival at North Ronaldsay was early in the afternoon, so I had lunch on board, correctly assuming that facilities on the island would be limited. Despite it being a warm day, there was the traditional Orcadia menu of homemade vegetable soup, roast meat and boiled vegetables, and sponge pudding with custard, all at an extremely modest price. I don’t recall needing to eat very much for the rest of the day.
There was plenty of time to walk round the small island, including to the lighthouse at the far end from the pier. This is the tallest land-based lighthouse in Britain, so plenty of stairs, but a fine view from the top. It was also possible to view the previous, much smaller lighthouse and, of course, the famous seaweed-eating sheep.
There was a late afternoon departure, with arrival in Kirkwall, via Stronsay and Eday, about 8pm. The weather remained fine for the return sailing, but with light cloud in the evening. The Swan Hellenic cruise ship Orpheus, moored in Kirkwall Bay, provided a final feature of interest to a perfect day.
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