John O’Groats

After a short ride in sea haar, I arrived at John O’Groats. In the same way as Land’s End, I am not quite sure why it has gained its popularity – all a bit tawdry – however the compulsory photo at the signpost was required – no professional photographers here and you’ll note the post is covered in stickers. John O’Groats harbour is rather fine though – geared for crustacean fishing in the extreme conditions of the Pentland Firth.

John O’Groats harbour

John O’Groats is named after a Dutchman, Jan de Groot (John the large!) who used to run the ferry service to Orkney from here. Jan would have needed to be large to handle the fast flowing Pentland Firth tidestreams just offshore here. I took the modern ferry across – spending the whole trip on deck watching seabirds. The fog was pretty bad, nevertheless there were many auks (mostly guillemots) in the southern part of the Firth. I was very pleased to spot my first black guillemot (or tysties) – and knew at that point that Burwick on South Ronaldsay must be close; tysties really only occur very coastally. Sure enough, Orkney came out of the mist a few second later.

Tysties (black guillemots) – probably my favourite northern hemisphere seabird
The Churchill Barriers were constructed between the islands on the east of Scapa Flow, Orkney to deter further U-boat incursions to this important naval base. They will have changed the tidal flow between the North Sea and the Atlantic. To me they now make the perfect opportunity to harness tidal power if they were to be partially re-opened. Note the haar conditions that persisted on eastern Orkney all day yesterday
There should be more roadside verges like this everywhere – well done Orkney
Lunch was eaten opposite the St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall – constructed of red sandstone

I came to Orkney in 1983 during a slight hiatus in the work on seabirds at sea. I got a small grant initially to count black guillemots around Orkney. My friend, Pete Ewins, working in Shetland had suggested that the most reliable time to count this well-dispersed species was early morning during April. At this time the adults gather to display on or on the water just off their breeding sites. I took my bike (an earlier Dawes) and tent, along with the Seabirds at Sea Team inflatable boat and went to Orkney. Coastal sections of Mainland were counted by walking (often running) before about 0900, after which I would return to the tent, strike camp and cycle to the next section to be counted. If I could find a volunteer, we would take the inflatable and either count a longer section of coast, or visit an offshore island.

My bike (an earlier Dawes) and tent, in this case pitched without permission on an RSPB reserve
Brian Ribbands, who worked for the RSPB in Orkney, in the Seabirds at Sea Team inflatable boat. Many adventures were had in this craft!
A small concentration of tysties in Scapa Flow

It soon became pretty obvious that the nesting grounds of black guillemots were controlled by the presence or absence of rats. They would only nest where rats could not get to them. They also would not nest where other auks were nesting. This left them offshore islets, cliffs above c10 m high and certain man-made structures such as harbour jetties. Finding these charming birds in numbers considerably above those previously thought to occur, during idyllic early morning April conditions, still remains one of my favourite surveys.

Some of the thousands of seabirds that I had to count – guillemots, kittiwakes and a few razorbills here.

Later in summer 1983, I returned to Orkney to carry out what was then an annual monitoring programme of cliff-nesting seabirds. This had been established following concerns about the impact of the North Sea oil developments on seabirds. As it turned out, these concerns proved reasonably unfounded and the monitoring programme, both here and UK wide, has instead proven to be a good way of monitoring the changes in seabird populations linked to food supply, and in turn with ocean and climate change. My job in 1983 was though to visit each of five colonies ten times in the first three weeks of June. and to count pre-defined plots. There were daily time limits on this (to try to avoid known diurnal rhythms) so I would drive and hike hectically about to get the job done. One of the main colonies visited was Marwick Head, with some iconic views that contained the monitoring plots (there are at least seven plots in the main picture above).

A classic view of Orkney, wide shallow seas surrounded by farmland interspersed with farms and backed by upland moorland.
Another classic scene, with the haar rolling in over eastern hills driven by a strong south-easterly wind
The upland farmhouse of Overabist, where my friend Ruth used to live
In 1983, peat cutting was widespread in the uplands, with each house having its own bank to dig. Cutting occurred in spring, with the peat being left to dry in the wind over the summer and then brought in as winter fuel. The characteristic smell of burning peat was common in 1983. Now I could only find limited evidence that the practice continues, perhaps a good thing from the point of particulate pollution and keeping carbon out of the atmosphere, but a bit sad from the tradition point of view. The cutting tool is called a Tusker – I have one!
One definition of Orcadians is that they are crofters with a boat, while Shetlanders are fishermen with a croft. I saw ample evidence to support the former on my visit (Farm with fishing gear everywhere, and an old boat parked on stilts.

In 1983, I stayed in a static caravan in the village of Evie in north Mainland. An inspection of Google Earth revealed the caravan was no longer there, and I discovered during my visit that it had blown away during a winter storm some years ago. This did not surprise me – it was fairly rickety during gales when I was there. I had though to visit the site of the caravan to complete my mission.

My static caravan was at the end of this fence in front of the farmhouse

My friend Liz was kind enough to agree to come a photograph me finishing my mission. I had knocked on the farmhouse door to see if it would be ok to take a few pictures, but no-one was in. I wanted a few pictures taken, and we took so long that the farmer, who lives on the other side of the valley had her suspicions raised and came to see what was happening. We had a good chat and update. Needless-to-say for the small community of Orkney, she and Liz knew many people in common. After that it was a short ride, and latterly a lift, back to Liz’s for a most welcome shower, beer and barbeque.

Mission complete (Alzheimer’s Research UK version)
Mission complete (Spinal Injuries Association version)

6 thoughts on “Orkney

  1. Many congratulations Mark. You seem to have been cycling for ages. Seems weeks ago that you were eating cream tea in Charmouth! So many places to have lived and so many people to visit. All the photographs both new and old brought the trip to life for all of us who have enjoyed your daily postings. I don’t know if you remember the McAdoos friend Elmer Storey, he lived on a boat in the estuary in Currabinny for many years then eventually settled in Orkney, in the old school house in Kirkwall. Peg and I visited him A few years ago, it is such a lovely place. Perfect to end your trip. Hope you have raised lots of money and now deserve a good rest. Anne x


    1. Thanks Anne, yes I remember Elmer but never bumped into him on Orkney. The rest might have to wait a bit, quite a lot of tidying up needed – but not so much bicycling for a while! xxx


  2. Absolutely fantastic, Mark, very well done, and in what seems to me like an amazingly short time (though probably not to you!)
    Your daily updates have been so interesting, I have learnt a lot, so good to hear about someone who has followed his passion in life and got so much enjoyment from it.


  3. St. Magnus Community Cafe was the place you ate? Was it any good?

    Love your definitions of people who live on Orkney & Shetland. I’ve had so much fun with your trip, Mark. Thanks for making a blog.

    hope to see you next time we’re over there.

    ~ pat

    Patricia Baird, Ph.D. Vancouver, BC, Canada Fax 604-689-1051



  4. Hi Pat, thanks for your comments – yes, that I where I ate and it was fine. I am working on a blog as you suggested on places to stay/eat. To be honest, I did not find anywhere bad, some could be improved, and of course I did not do any local comparisons


  5. Congratulations on completing your epic journey. I feel very proud of you. Come and see me soon. Much love. Mumxx


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