Although North Ronaldsay is further north than the southern tip of Norway, its climate is far less severe, having winter temperatures which are usually some 10 deg. Fahr. higher than most places on this latitude. This is due to the influence of the warm Gulf Stream. Since North Ronaldsay is the most remote of Orkney's North Isles, life is in many ways different from the other islands. Old traditions prevail. Orcadian surnames predominate and the custom of communal sheep grazing on the seashore is still pursued. It is in North Ronaldsay that the Orkney Norn language survived in use the longest.
Though only a small island with a low profile North Ronaldsay supports an extremely rich and diverse population of wild flowers, mammals and birds. It lies on the migration crossroads with birds heading north towards Iceland and Greenland as well as into Scandinavia pausing or being grounded.
Thus from late March to early June and middle August to early November there are large concentrations of migrant birds visiting the island. All classes of birds are represented and several national rarities recorded annually. In summer the island is alive with the calls of breeding birds. Areas of land are left uncultivated and corncrake may call from the hayfield.
Common and Grey Seals are numerous, both breed around the island and are easily seen and have become quite tame since culling was banned. Other sea mammals are seen offshore and porpoises occasionally accompany the local lobster boats.
Inland the island can broadly be divided into four distinct habitat types: foreshore, grazed links, marshland and agricultural land which together provide a wealth of opportunities for wildlife.
Standing Stone - This lone sentinel stone ‘Stan
Stane’ over 13 feet high is unlike most standing stones in Orkney
as it has a hole through its upper part. The hole may have been a sighting
hole for some other standing stone or according to folklore, was made
by a giant woman who stuck her finger through it!
Holland House - Originally built by the Traill
family who purchased the island in 1727, the house is still owned by
their direct descendants. Adjoining gardens have the only sizeable
concentration of trees and shrubs on the island and attract many birds
during migration time.
Old Kirk - This church from the early 1800s predates
its manse which was built in 1829.
Muckle Gersty - According to legend, one of two ‘dykes’ built
of earth and stone by three brothers who built the walls to divide
the island into 3 parts. The dykes probably date from before 1000BC.
The Old School - Evidence of education dates back
to the late 18th century, although formal education, with a resident
schoolmaster is only documented from 1837 onwards.
Stone Burial Cists - A number of burial cists have
been found on the island, the most accessible can be seen at Antabreck
Matches Dyke - The most northerly of the two dykes
described in 4.
Tor Ness - It is probable that at one time a stone
circle stood on this plateau. Dotted over the plain are some 15 circular
depressions measuring some nine feet in diameter. They have been identified
as either barrow cemeteries or kelp burning pits.
Store House - This may have been used as a grain
store up to the l9th century when grain was exported from the island
as part of the tenant's rent payment. It is also associated with the
rendering of whale blubber and the storage of kelp.
Senness - Near this spot a stone cist containing
human remains was excavated in 1872. There is evidence of a burial
ground and chapel known as St Giles in the area.
Pier of Bewan Store - Standing west of the pier
this former dwellinghouse once used for curing fish.
Old Beacon - In 1786 an Act of Parliament was passed
to erect 4 lighthouses in Scotland, one being located in North Ronalday,
at Kirk Taing. It was built by Robert Stevenson (the grandfather of Robert
Louis Stevenson, future author of Treasure Island), under the supervision
of his stepfather, the engineer Thomas Smith, an Edinburgh light maker
and prolific lighthouse builder. The completed beacon was first lit on
October 10 1789. remained the only light in the North Isles until the
Start Point was built in 1806 in Sanday.
In 2006, the Old Beacon came 3rd place in the BBC’s ‘Restoration
The New Lighthouse - Lit in 1854 this is the tallest
land based lighthouse in the British Isles measuring 109 feet.
Water Mill - Ruins of a mill driven by an undershot
weir, which ran concurrently with the mill near Peckhole, until they
were replaced by the new mill in 1907.
Knowe o' Samilands - One of several mounds made
by the dumping of burnt stones used to heat water for cooking in ancient
Mill and Wind Mill - The new mill was provided
by Mr Traill, the laird in 1907, and was used for grinding corn It
was reputedly one of the last working windmills in Scotland. A mill
at Verhouse Brae, which has now disappeared, predates the windmill
and water mill. It fell into disuse after its unhooped grinding stone
split and killed the miller.
Brae of Stennabreck - The Brae is a small steep
hill containing a cluster of small stone huts on its summit. Relics
found at this settlement and at Howmae (21) and Burrian (19) are housed
in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.
Burial Ground and Kirk of St. Brides - Sparse traces
remain of this kirk which was contemporary with the kirk at Senness
and St Olafs, near old kirk.
Broch of Burrian - The Broch tower (excavated in
the 1880s) is the centre piece of a very extensive Iron Age settlement
which stood on the shore of Strom Ness at the southern tip of the island.
The settlement was evidently occupied into the Pictish period - to
800AD or later. The Burrian Cross found inscribed on a piece of flat
stone has been adopted as a motif in modern Orkney jewellery.
Store-House at Noust of Howar - Used as a grain
store pending shipment to Kirkwall when grain was part of the rental
payment in the 18th century. It was also used as a hiding place for
young men seeking to evade the Press Gang.
Howmae Brae - Similar to 17 but excavated a few
years earlier. Like Burrian, Stennabreck and the Standing Stone, Howmae
is in the guardianship of the Secretary of State for Scotland.
13 mile Sheep Dyke/North Ronaldsay sheep
- This drystone dyke was built about 1832 to keep the sheep
off the agricultural land. The sheep live on a diet of seaweed which
gives the meat its distinctive flavour.
Bird Observatory - Built in 1987, the Observatory
monitors the migrations through and populations on the island. Accommodation
available, B&B or hostel style lodgings.