North Ronaldsay is the furthest most island of Orkney. I’ve been there for a day but it’s definitely on my list to go there for longer at some point as I loved it. It has the tallest land based lighthouse on the British Isles and has the famous seaweed eating sheep that live on the beach.
The last fortnight North Ronaldsay hosted its sheep festival. According to the website ”Recent storms have caused catastrophic damage to the historic sheepdyke that surrounds the island of North Ronaldsay, leaving the island’s unique seaweed-eating sheep vulnerable to copper poisoning and polluting their gene-pool through cross-breeding” They were asking for people to go and help rebuild the walls or dykes as Orcadians call them.
My good friend Danger Mouse went out to take part in the first week. She’s amazing fun, extremely resourceful, a highly talented artist and has raised £1000s for MS society after being diagnosed herself with MS at the age of 21. That was 5 years ago and she didn’t let that stop her at all. She didn’t want me drawing too much attention to this as she’s also very modest, but I wanted people to know how all round brilliant she is. Danger Mouse very kindly agreed to be interviewed about her time in North Ronaldsay. (also she’s not actually a mouse but most people want a blog name when they feature on here and she knows why I chose this one)
So Danger Mouse, tell us a little about what you’ve been doing in North Ron and your connection to it?
I, along with a wonderful bunch of volunteers from throughout the country, have been out biggin’ the sheep dyke. In other words, we’ve been helping to repair the 13 mile long dry stone dyke that encircles the whole island. The building of the original dyke was completed in 1832 with the purpose of keeping the sheep on the foreshore. This is how the rare-breed seaweed-eating North Ronaldsay sheep came about. Up until 6 years ago my Granny still lived on the island, which now only has a population of about 50 people (but 2500 sheep), and my Mum grew up there so I spent numerous school holidays in Ronaldsay with the family.
It sounds brilliant fun, I’m pretty gutted I only heard about it after the event as I’d love to be involved in something like that. How often does this event take place?
Everyone that I’ve told about my time in North Ron has said that they would love to have taken part too. This was the very first time that the sheep festival has taken place. As it was such a success with both the organisation of it and the willingness of the volunteers I’m hoping it will be on again next year. Perhaps you can join us then?
Yes I will definitely ear mark it, I’d love to be involved. And when your work was done what else was there to do on the island.
During the festival there were activities planned for folk to take part in if they wished, such as spinning and felting with the North Ronaldsay yarn which is all produced in the island’s wool mill, treasure hunting and a quiz evening with a traditional dance afterwards. It had the biggest and best Palais Glide I’ve ever seen at a dance anywhere. All year round there are tours available of the wool mill and lighthouse – the tallest land-based lighthouse in the British Isles. I won’t tell you any more about it though, you’ll just have to make sure to go out to North Ron for a visit to find out more. There’s a lovely shop there too with handcrafted items and even delicious chocolates made on the island. Trying the rare-breed, seaweed-eating sheeps’ mutton is a must at either or the two island cafes. And of course the wildlife… People come from all over the world for the bird watching and the beach is home to loads of seals and the famous sheep as well.
It sounds like a brilliant place to visit, I certainly loved my day there and would love to go back for a longer visit. I know you came home after rebuilding the dyke but what happened the following week?
After I left, the punding was due to start. It involves the islanders, and their family and friends, rounding up all of the sheep from the beach into stone wall enclosures (called punds) to enable them to be clipped. A couple of sections of dyke that we helped rebuild were actually one of the punds. This is real community farming. It’s not as easy as it sounds though. The island’s circumference is 13 miles and the sheep are particularly adept at running over the rocks.
Thanks so much for telling me about your time there. Having moved up from England I can certainly vouch for how unique a place like North Ronaldsay is and I think it’s great you and others have been so involved in helping this special island retain its heritage. I certainly hope to be along to the next one.