Favourite sailings — to North Ronaldsay by Orcadia in July 1980

Unloading cars the old-fashioned way: Orcadia at Stronsay on 21 July 1980. Copyright Greg Beecroft

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.

More information about Orkney from VisitOrkney.com

Orcadia at North Ronaldsay on 21 July 1980. She was the third North Isles vessel to bear the name, and the first diesel ship in the fleet of the Orkney Islands Shipping Company. Copyright Greg Beecroft

North Ronaldsay lighthouse. Copyright VisitOrkney

Orpheus at Kirkwall on the evening of 21 July 1980. Built in 1948 as Munster for the Irish sea service, she was reconstructed as a cruise ship in Greece in 1968 and scrapped in 2000. Copyright Greg Beecroft

The steamship Orcadia of 1868 was the second vessel to bear that name in the North Isles. Built as a replacement for the short-lived first holder of the name, she remained in service until 1931, when she was replaced by Earl Sigurd. Copyright CRSC Archive Collection

The former CalMac ferry Saturn is the fourth North Isles vessel to bear the name Orcadia. Bought by Pentland Ferries in 2015, she is pictured at St Margaret’s Hope in April 2017, with a question-mark hanging over her future. Copyright Iain McPherson

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