So. You’re on Orkney mainland. You feel that you should really ‘do’ another island in the group, but it’s all a bit difficult to choose. They are all different. Some you need transport. Others are small enough to walk round – but what’s the route? And then browsing through one of the many magazines devoted to helping you make the most of your time on Orkney is a full page advert offering guided walks with the Eday Ranger.
No brainer. A quick exchange of emails and our place is booked on this free guided walk. We order packed lunches, discover how to buy a ferry ticket (c’mon I don’t even use a bus), and with the usual health warnings from the ranger about the the weather we’re ready to experience the island of Eday.
You say tomato and I say tomarto. Well it turns out it’s Edee. We’ve been staying in Birsee. All those little ay endings apparently mean isle or island and are pronounced ee. That’s your lesson for today. Anyhow we get the right ferry and get off on the right island – not a foregone conclusion where we’re concerned – and are met by the Eday Ranger, Jenny Campbell. Much to our surprise, but to our great pleasure, we are the only people on this particular Friday walk so we have Jenny entirely to ourselves. Of course, that may not be so great for Jenny since she has only us to put up with for the next five hours or so.
We are collected from the ferry by Jenny and we drive to the start and end point of our five mile or so circular walk – although let me say at the outset it didn’t seem like five miles. And if there were any people who found the gentle walking too much there were shortcuts a’plenty that would have cut the length in half. The walk is a mixture of archaeological sites and wildlife – history and natural history. The walk concludes with a visit to the heritage centre, more of which later.
So what do you get for your money? Remembering, of course, that the walk is free. Well chuck a rock in pretty much any direction direction on Orkney mainland or islands and you will hit a standing stone, chambered tomb or a neolithic house and the same is true here. The chambered tomb is particularly fine, although a slightly odd skylight has been added to keep the elements out whilst letting the light in, which means that this tomb has a fine crop of ferns hanging from the ceiling.
In terms of wildlife it will depend what decides to show its face when you are there. Great and Arctic Skuas are certain as are breeding Arctic Terns in the summer. We were greeted on arrival by three Red-throated Divers in the glorious summer plumage. The ubiquitous Curlews and Oystercatchers throng the fields, and a Buzzard – almost a rarity on Orkney – circled once overhead before drifting off south, untroubled by birds which, in a southern county, would have launched themselves at this intruder into their breeding territory. We weren’t lucky enough to see the resident Short-eared Owls or Hen Harriers, but a few of the islands Puffins were still bobbing in the bay, building up the final reserves before heading out into the north atlantic for the autumn and winter months.
But the main thing you will get on the this walk – and certainly worth more than free – is the expertise and enthusiasm of the Ranger. Most people will have come across the idea of a wildlife ranger – primarily a conservationist with a bit of education work thrown in. On Eday and apparently on the Orkney islands more widely, the Ranger is much more embedded in the community, and works with all their private and public partners to encourage a greater understanding of the natural environment throughout the whole community. The local primary school is about to almost double in size with the arrival of a large family just moving to the island. Whilst that primary school may not have all the facilities of a fully populated school in mainland Scotland, you can be guaranteed that the involvement of the Ranger will ensure they start with an understanding of their natural environment that many children never discover.
However you get to Eday, and whatever you do whilst you are there, you must pay a visit to the Heritage Centre. A cursory inspection of some the material suggests that many of the historical exhibits have been put together by one person and that is surely a labour of love. In addition there is a small salt water aquarium where some of the specimens from the shoreline spend a week or two before being released back to the ocean to be replaced by some of their neighbours from the Eday coast. Topped off with a DIY cuppa – chuck a quid in the box – makes this heritage centre definitely worth a visit.
Everyone should take the opportunity to get closer to nature. It is a privilege that I will never get tired of, and it is even more of privilege to do so in the company of a person who is as passionate about seeing a newly fledged Arctic Tern taking its first flight, as finding a deflated helium party balloon which may deny that tern’s chick their own fledgling flight.
So when you’re in Orkney and wondering which other island to visit, pick up your iPad and email [email protected] – visit www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/edayranger/ for more information. And if you think wildlife and history isn’t your thing then Eday has still more to offer – just check out “the real Michael Knight” on YouTube.