Orkney 2014 17th – 24th May

Group plant list ( excel spreadsheet ) Orkney Plant list 17-24 May 2014 final

Friday 23rd May

Poor weather again today, what have we done to deserve this?


En-route to Tingwall ferry terminal we took a short diversion to look at Rendell Doo’cot (dovecote to those in the south). The place was still full of nesting pigeons, but the squabs are no longer destined for the tables of Rendell Hall.


The ferry over to Rousay only takes 30mins, and we passed very close to a great northern diver – it was actually looking back over its shoulder at us as it swam out of the way. Luckily our planned walk, the Westness Heritage Walk, was on the sheltered side of the island, so we ended up having a better day than we expected. the walk is only about a mike long, but is a walk through history, layer upon layer of occupation. Most impressive is the huge Midhowe stalled cairn, now protected from the elements in its own ‘hangar’. There are 4 brochs, a Norse Hall and burials, C18/19th farms, an abandoned parish church and, of course, plenty of wildlife – including a very brief sighting of Orkney vole, found nowhere else in the UK.


Before leaving Rousay we called in at another couple of Neolithic tombs – Blackhammer and the unusual ‘double-decker’ Taversoe Tuick.


We passed close by the same great northern diver on the return ferry trip.


After another plate full of tasty Scapa Flow prawns, some of us nipped out to the hide overlooking the Loons reserve. The light was fading fast, but the natural soundscape was tremendous – curlew, lapwing, redshank, snipe, black headed gull, sedge warbler, squabbling coots, a grunting shoveler, gadwall, mallard and squealing water rail. A great end to the day, and, sadly, we leave the islands tomorrow.

Rendell Doo'cot

Rendell Doo’cot

nesting pigeon 1

Nesting Pigeon

Taversoe Tuick 3 blog

Taversoe Tuick

Taversoe Tuick 2 blog

Taversoe Tuick

Taversoe Tuick 1 blog

Taversoe Tuick

St Mary's Church wetness Walk blog

St Mary’s Church , Wetness Walk

  Ancient pict merging from blackhammer cairn 2 blog

Ancient Pict emerging from Blackhammer Cairn

Ancient pict merging from blackhammer cairn 1 blog

Blackhammer Cairn

Midhowe cairn blog

Midhowe  Cairn

Thursday 22nd May

Well, the weather isn’t being kind to us – like a winter’s day today. Cold, wet and windy, so it was all the layers and waterproofs on from the off.


The tide was out this morning, so we were able to cross the newly repaired causeway to the tidal island of Brough of Birsay, an important centre of activity throughout the Pictish, Norse and early Scottish eras. Reports of a corncrake calling turned out to be starling – an easy mistake to make.


We stopped for good views of a hunting male hen harrier at the Loch of Hundland, then lunch in the shelter of the minibus. Eventually we had to brave the elements, and walked along the sands of Evie. Great black-backed gulls were feasting on a dead seal, with both great northern and red-throated diver  in the bay, but the highlight was certainly really good close views of a drake red-breasted merganser. What a beautiful bird.


The small Visitor Centre at the Broch of Gurness gave welcome shelter, and the broch itself was very impressive. Brochs, the ultimate in dry-stone walling, are over 2000 years old, and have been re-occupied many times over the centuries – leaving a very complicated story for archaeologists to interpret.


Dounby Mill is an example of a click or ‘Norse’ mill, and we were struck by the simplicity of the horizontal as opposed to the better known and far more complicated vertical wheel design.


Final stop before returning to our Hotel was at the Stones of Stenness, part of the complex of sites in the Maes Howe/Brodgar area. The stones are huge, about 18ft high, and nearby ‘digs’ are changing our thinking on life in the Neolithic.


After another wonderful evening meal a few of us headed out to have a look inside Unstan, another Neolithic stalled cairn (burial chamber about 4500 years old).

** an unexpected bonus during evening meal was a male hen harrier landing briefly on the lawn outside.

Aeolianite 22nd May blog

Examining aeolianite, a very young type of sandstone (formed since the last ice age).

Broch of Gurness 1 22nd May blog

Broch of Gurness 

Broch of Gurness 2 22nd May blog

Broch of Gurness 

Brough of Birsay 2 22nd May blog

Brough of Birsay

Brough of Birsay 22nd May blog

Brough of Birsay

Stones of Stenness 1 22nd May blog

Stones of Stenness

Stones of Stenness 2 22nd May blog

 Stones of Stenness

Wednesday 21st May

Bit of a cold wet day today.

First stop was the Italian Chapel on Lamb’s Holm. The chapel was constructed by Italian prisoners-of-war from two Nissen huts, scrap and waste, something positive to occupy them during their internment on Orkney; they were helping to build the ‘Churchill Barriers’, a chain of causeways to protect the fleet in Scapa Flow following the sinking of the ‘Royal Oak’ (with the loss of 600 men) at the start of WWII.

Stopping by one of the barriers to look at a modern sculpture of a Viking (we thought it looked more like Captain America), we were treated to another close view of a great northern diver fishing just offshore. A while later we were able to watch a couple of red-throated divers, so it was good to be able to compare the two species.

One of our target species for today was oyster plant. It is quite a rare plant, but we know a good location on a South Ronaldsay beach. However, winter storms had obviously altered the beach profile considerably, and there were far fewer plants than previously. Eventually we did find a plant in flower. Only as we moved away did we find the ring plover nest nearby, so we left the birds in peace as quickly as possible.

Finally today we visited ‘The Tomb of the Eagles’, an undisturbed stone age (Neolithic) burial cairn discovered accidentally by an Orkney farmer and excavated in the 1970’s. It must have been quite a shock when the farmer came face to face with a row of human skulls. The tomb also contained grave goods, including sea eagle talons – hence the name.

Italian Chapel on Lamb's Holm 1 blog

Inside the Italian Chapel on Lamb’s Holm

Italian Chapel on Lamb's Holm 2 blog

Italian Chapel on Lamb’s Holm

oyster plant 21st May blog

Oyster Plant

Ring plover nest 2 21st May blog

Ring Plover Nest

tomb of the eagles 1 21st May blog

‘The Tomb of the Eagles’

tomb of the eagles 2 21st May blog

Outside the ‘The Tomb of the Eagles’

20th May

Ferry from Orkney Mainland over to Hoy today in thick Haa. Luckily, when we drove across the island we emerged in to bright sunshine, and enjoyed a walk along dramatic cliffs to the Old Man of Hoy. In addition to the breath-taking scenery, plenty of fulmars and great skuas to watch, and specialist Arctic/Alpine plants to excite the botanists.


The Dwarfie Stane is the only tomb of its type in the UK, so well worth a visit. It is a hollowed out sandstone block, and you have to wonder how (and why) they did this 5000 years ago.


Looking at the photos of Lyness during WWII gave us an idea of just how important Scapa Flow was as a Naval base. 


We had great views of 6 great northern divers from the ferry on the return crossing to Houton on Mainland.

Dwarfie Stane 20th May blog

Dwarfie Stane

Hoy  20th May blog

The Old Man of Hoy

St Johns Head 20th May blog

St Johns Head


18th – 19th  May

Another good day today, a mixture of wildlife and archaeology.


This morning we headed out to the cliffs at Yesnaby in search of the elusive Scottish primrose, a plant with a pretty restrictive distribution. We quickly found several very fresh specimens, a first for most of the group. Out to sea there were black guillemots, kittiwakes, gannets, a couple of puffins (one very close on a cliff ledge), great and Arctic skuas. A couple of large dolphins put in a brief appearance, Risso’s dolphin we think.


After lunch we explored the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, Maes Howe (a 5000 year old burial cairn) and the Ring of Brodgar stone circle. It is obvious that the ancient Orcadians were master builders, and there must have been quite a few of them – in fact, probably the population was similar to that of today (20,000).

Cliffs and Yesnaby  1  20.05  blog

Cliffs at  Yesnaby

Cliffs and Yesnaby 2 20.05  blog

Cliffs at  Yesnaby

Orkney Mon 19.05 blog

Scottish Primrose

Ring of Brodgar 20.05 blog

Ring of Brodgar

Skara Brae 20.05  blog

Skara Brae


2 thoughts on “Orkney 2014 17th – 24th May”

  1. The Old Man of Hoy photo also includes another old man in a blue waterproof! That’s me!

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