The Final NIFA – North Ronaldsay

We have only been on the island for just over 24 hours but what a lot we have packed in!

The first thing one HAS to do on North Ron is to walk down to the rocks to see the sheep.  So once we had settled in and had a coffee, that is what we did.  The sheep obliged:

We watched for a bit, then they took off round the corner, so we walk along the other way to see the Atlantic breakers – which also obliged:

As we returned the sheep were on the rocks once more – but this time they didn’t like the look of us and so they gave us a good demonstration of why they are called ‘short tailed’!

This morning our first stop was the New Kirk where there is an exhibition of photos and documents from the island over the years.  Every time I go I find something new and for those at Ganseyfest it was here that I first saw the photo of Johnny Cutt in his gansey.

We have hired a car, but it only takes 5 and there are 6 of us, so despite the wind, each time some folk started walking.  After the Kirk it was the same system so Maddy and I were taken up to the lighthouse in style and left there while Byron went back for the others.  By now the sun was out and the colours on the grass and water were very intense.  Once we were all there, it was time for our tour of the mini mill.  Jane had very kindly given up her Sunday morning to show us round, and a lot of questions were asked and discussion had!

After wool and roving had been bought it was back to the Bird Observatory for lunch.  And then, still in sun and wind, we set off for Howar to visit June Morris and her animals.

June has several breeds of sheep, from tiny Oussent (a French breed, the smallest breed of sheep in the world) to the huge Herdwicks.  This is one of her North Ronaldsay rams:

He is only 3 years old and his horns will grow even bigger over the next few years!

In another field are the North Ronaldsay ewes, all of whom come running when June appears (she is the one in the red coat):

Then there are the alpaca.  Like the sheep, they come running to June even when she doesn’t have feed bowls in her hand!

Those of you who have been with this blog over the summer will have seen the two babies (crias) born just before we visited in July.  They have now grown considerably:

Tomorrow morning we say goodbye to Anna K, Maddy and Byron.  Anna S, Jane and I fly up to Shetland for Wool Week…..


NIFA – North Ronaldsay

Doesn’t time fly when you are enjoying yourself?  We were only on North Ronaldsay for a couple of seconds…

The Inter-Island part of Kirkwall Airport is pretty laid back, as all small plane flights should be.  You have to be there 10 mins before take off, which gives them time to check ypou in and weight your bags.

Then the pilot asks you to come out to the plane – back two rows of seats use the back door and the front two rows use the front door.  The pilot joins us and gives his safety briefing, then we are off.

North Ronaldsay’s air strip is even smaller, and you select your baggage from the tail of the plane before walking past the fire appliance (fairly recently upgraded from an old tractor to a land rover) to the ‘arrival gate’. And there we were, on the island.

Once on North Ron, the first thing to do is always to walk down to the shore and find sheep.  We had only gone a few yards towards the track when we reached the area where Alison and family clip their sheep.  Jane was delighted with the pickings.

Once on the rocks, the sight of your first sheep is always exciting, especially for a spinner interested in rare breeds.  Jane was in seventh heaven!!  It was low tide, so the sheep were right out feeding on the ‘red weed’ only visible, and therefore eatable, at the very ebb of the tide.

Having picked up a bit of the fibre, and having seen the sheep, Jane’s next task was to take a pic of the Sheep and Fiber Source Book on the rocks with the fibre.  (Brilliant book – review when I get home.)

Then back to the Bird Observatory where we were staying for a meal of – you have guessed it – North Ronaldsay roast mutton!  It is very good, with a taste all of its own…

Sunday was a full day!  Jane Donnelly, who runs the mill, had told me she was clipping, and that Mark would show us round the mill.  I knew where Jane’s croft was and had it on my list to visit later in the day.  But as we travelled up the island towards the mill we came across them clipping in a field by the road.  So we stopped and chatted, chose some fleece on the hoof and arranged to come back later to make the final selection!

Then on up the island to Westness to watch seals watching us, and to watch sheep outside the dyke..

On up to the north of the island for a tour of the mill…

…and the lighthouse for the fit.  While they went up the the 176 stairs to the light, Anita and I stayed in the new cafe testing the new home made lemonade (verdict – excellent!). Then back down the road for Jane to make her final choice of fleeces.  In a recent article for YarnMaker I had talked about the lace curtain effect shown by fleeces suitable for hand spinning, and Jane had a chance to see it in action!

By the time we left, Jane had bought 5 fleeces – and I, who did not intend to buy any, had bought one.  The pile on the right is Jane’s!!  (And note the hurdles over the top of the pen to stop the sheep jumping out!)

Then back to the cafe again for lunch and some more sheep watching….

…before going down to the south of the island again to meet up with June Morris.  June (on the right) had a load of sheep and an alpaca herd – all incredibly friendly.

She also had two alpaca babies (called crias), one of two weeks old and the other a very wobbly two days old:

Finally back to the Bird Observatory for supper.  But before that, Rhinie, the resident Border Collie, had a litter of five three-week old puppies:

Monday moring was an early start as Anita, Nick and I were going on to Fair Isle.  We left Jane and Paul to have their more leisurely breakfast – they were taking a later plane back to Kirkwall for a couple of days doing the main Orkney sights before heading home.

The Native Sheep and Wool Conference

I am now home and recovering.  It was a great few days, packed full of interesting talks and interesting people.  As ever, the Bird Observatory was an excellent venue.

Starting from the beginning…  While many folk were either felting or visiting the mill and lighthouse, I spent Friday in the North Ronaldsay Heritage Centre.  This is housed in the New Kirk near the air strip.  I had been before, and found useful photos, but I knew Kathleen Scott and others had been working on it and wanted to see what else was there.  I was not disappointed!

The main displays were roughly the same, with a few additions and extra captions.  But there were several extra albums of photos both from folk on the island and copies of island photos from the main photographic Archive in Kirkwall.  These were REAL photos, not scans, and so detail was fantastic – David and Colin really do do a good job.  I found lots of  interesting ones I hadn’t seen before, including several that give further evidence for patterns and styles I had seen elsewhere.

And I couldn’t help taking a pic of the road outside, with all the daffs in full flower…

That evening the exhibition opened in Nouster Byre.  This is a converted byre (cattle shed) which has recently been finished (well, nearly finished – the lighting isn’t in yet!!).  It made a great exhibition space, with some of the upright flag stones forming the cattle stalls still in place.  The natural colours of the North Ron sheep’s wool and skins worked so well with the stone of the building.  Unfortunately I was never there with both light and camera at the same time, so don’t have pix.

I did get some of the seals outside though..

On Saturday morning we started an intensive two days of talks etc, with speakers from Orkney, Norway, Iceland and the Faro Islands.  The nature and nurture of the different native sheep breeds was the basis of the programme, as all these places have related, ancient sheep, characterised by their short tails.  I found the photos fascinating, showing the differences and similarities between the breeds – they were so obviously related, but had their own characters.

As well as the sheep talks, we had some North Ronaldsay music, and clips from the audio archive.  This consisted of clips recorded in the 1970s and early 80s, including one where two North Ronaldsay men talk about carding the wool into rowers, and how the wheel had two bands to drive it.  It was great to hear another primary source on these topics.

Between the sessions there were always interesting people to talk to, about sheep and wool and life on small islands.  As someone pointed out near the end, one thing we all seemed to have in common was a similar sense of humour – there was much laughter during the weekend!  I think I can safely say that a good time was had by all…

Back on North Ron!

Val and I are on North Ronaldsay…  We arrived on Saturday in bright sun, and since then have had all seasons in one!  The Bird Observatory is as good as ever, and the sheep and seals as interesting as ever.  I never ever seen so few seals – maybe the many sightings of Orca (killer whales) this year has had some effect…

When we arrived, they were starting the first shearing of the year.  This is quite early, but when you happen to have both the manpower and good weather, you start!

The fleeces are mainly many-coloured….

Being an ancient breed, there is a lot of variety in the fineness of the fibre both between fleeces and within a single fleece.

On Sunday there was a day trip up from Kirkwall on the MV Earl Thorfinn. Three unsuspecting drivers gaily drove their cars on to the ferry in Kirkwall, not realising that here there is no linkspan, and that at this end the cars are lifted off with the crane on the boat:

And the close up:

Last evening the wind suddenly came up very strongly, and the noise when this happens is frightening – it sounds as if the house is about to come down!  It was bad for a few hours, but at dusk (ie 10 or 11 pm) it just as suddenly calmed, and today it has been beautiful.

We went up to see Jane at the mini-mill this morning,where Val thoroughly enjoyed the detail of how the fleece was turned into yarn.

And this afternoon we went over to June and Gerry Morris’ place, Howar, where June was feeding the caddy lambs:

All the alpaca were there, as nosy as ever  videos at some point when I have time to edit them!

Val and I then walked over to the Broch of Burrian.  This is the remains of a 2,000 year old Iron Age settlement on the eastern shore.  It is a magical place, with the sheep running by and the seals hauling out…

Tomorrow we move on to Papa Westray, and no internet contact for a few days.  With another trip to the yarn shop….!

Sunday morning coming down…..

OK – it is my own fault.  On Saturday late afternoon I decided to do some dyeing.  And when I started I just couldn’t stop.  So Sunday was Not Fun – totally my own fault…

But I have a huge heap of coloured skeins drying all over the house to show for my stupidity…  I dye the North Ronaldsay wool, spun on the island from the fleeces of the sheep eating seaweed round the shores.  By putting two shades of grey as well as the ‘white’ in the dye pot I get three shades for each colour.  The ‘white’ (more a cream) wool gives clear colours, while the greys give more muted shades.

The weather has finally turned nice this past week, and I am in tee shirts for the first time this year – I have also had 4 nights without the electric blanket, and the heating has hardly come on at all.  (Up here we don’t turn off heating in summer – just let the thermostat do its job.)  The evening sun on the front of the house looked so good last night I got the camera out:

The Old Harbour Master's House summer

The house has been completely renovated in the past 5 years, after the worst floods for 300 years….  The stonework was done by local builder Hamish Omand, using the old techniques, like lime mortar.  Although the house is finished, the back wall still needs to go up, so the back garden is a mess:

Old Harbour Master's House garden

The large pots are waiting until the autumn, when they will get filled with spring bulbs and shrubs – and a rowan tree to go by the back gate.