North Ronaldsay

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North Ronaldsay
Gaelic nameN/A
Norse nameRínansey [1]
Meaning of nameOld Norse, possibly "Ringa's Isle" [2]
Garso, North Ronaldsay - - 341429.jpg
A view of the house and loch at Garso on North Ronaldsay, with the lighthouse in the distance
Orkney Islands UK relief location map.jpg
Red pog.svg
North Ronaldsay
North Ronaldsay shown within Orkney
OS grid reference HY759542
Coordinates 59°22′N2°25′W / 59.37°N 2.42°W / 59.37; -2.42
Physical geography
Island group Orkney
Area690 hectares (2.7 sq mi) [2]
Area rank64 [3]
Highest elevation20 metres (66 ft) [2]
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Country Scotland
Council area Orkney Islands
Population72 [4]
Population rank50 [3]
Population density10.4 people/km2 [2] [4]
Largest settlementHollandstoun
References [5] [6]

North Ronaldsay is the northernmost island in the Orkney archipelago of Scotland. With an area of 690 hectares (2.7 sq mi), it is the fourteenth-largest. [7] It is mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga ; in modern times it is known for its historic lighthouse, migratory bird life and unusual breed of sheep.

Orkney archipelago and council area in northern Scotland

Orkney, also known as the Orkney Islands, is an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland, situated off the north coast of the island of Great Britain. Orkney is 10 miles (16 km) north of the coast of Caithness and has about 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited. The largest island, Mainland, is often referred to as "the Mainland", and has an area of 523 square kilometres (202 sq mi), making it the sixth-largest Scottish island and the tenth-largest island in the British Isles. The largest settlement and administrative centre is Kirkwall.

<i>Orkneyinga saga</i>

The Orkneyinga saga is a historical narrative of the history of the Orkney and Shetland islands and their relationship with other local polities, particularly Norway and Scotland. The saga has "no parallel in the social and literary record of Scotland" and is "the only medieval chronicle to have Orkney as the central place of action". The main focus of the work is the line of jarls who ruled the Earldom of Orkney, which constituted the Norðreyjar or Northern Isles of both Orkney and Shetland and there are frequent references to both archipelagoes throughout.

North Ronaldsay sheep Breed of sheep originating from the Orkney Islands, Scotland.

The North Ronaldsay or Orkney is a breed of sheep from North Ronaldsay, the northernmost island of Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland. It belongs to the Northern European short-tailed sheep group of breeds, and has evolved without much cross-breeding with modern breeds. It is a smaller sheep than most, with the rams (males) horned and ewes (females) mostly hornless. It was formerly kept primarily for wool, but now the two largest flocks are feral, one on North Ronaldsay and another on the Orkney island of Linga Holm. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust lists the breed as "vulnerable", with fewer than 600 registered breeding females in the United Kingdom.



North Ronaldsay lies around 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) north of its nearest neighbour, Sanday, at grid reference HY759542 . It is around 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) long and is defined by two large sandy bays; Linklet Bay on the eastern shoreline and South Bay at the south. The west of the island is very rocky, with many skerries. North Ronaldsay is low-lying and exposed; its climate is extremely changeable and frequently inclement. The surrounding waters are stormy and treacherous, and have been a notorious "graveyard" for ships (hence the unusually early provision of a lighthouse on the island).

Sanday, Orkney island in the north of the Orkney Islands, Scotland

Sanday is one of the inhabited islands of Orkney that lies off the north coast of mainland Scotland. With an area of 50.43 square kilometres (19.5 sq mi), it is the third largest of the Orkney Islands. The main centres of population are Lady Village and Kettletoft. Sanday can be reached by Orkney Ferries or by plane from Kirkwall on the Orkney Mainland.

Ordnance Survey National Grid System of geographic grid references used in Great Britain

The Ordnance Survey National Grid reference system is a system of geographic grid references used in Great Britain, distinct from latitude and longitude. It is often called British National Grid (BNG).

Bay A recessed, coastal body of water connected to an ocean or lake

A bay is a recessed, coastal body of water that directly connects to a larger main body of water, such as an ocean, a lake, or another bay. A large bay is usually called a gulf, sea, sound, or bight. A cove is a type of smaller bay with a circular inlet and narrow entrance. A fjord is a particularly steep bay shaped by glacial activity.

Hollandstoun at the south of the island is the most sizable settlement; it lies roughly equidistant from the airfield and the pier. North Ronaldsay is also home to a bird observatory.

A bird observatory is a centre for the study of bird migration and bird populations. They are usually focused on local birds, but may also include interest in far-flung areas. Most bird observatories are small operations with a limited staff, many volunteers and a not-for-profit educational status. Many bird observatories conduct bird ringing or bird banding.

A dry stone dyke has been built to surround the island, the purpose of which is to keep the seaweed-eating local sheep off the arable land.


Blaeu's Atlas of Scotland, published 1654 North Ronaldshay Blaeu - Atlas of Scotland 1654.jpg
Blaeu's Atlas of Scotland, published 1654

A well-preserved Iron Age broch, known as the Broch of Burrian, is located on the southern tip of the island. [8] Excavations in 1870–1 uncovered a large number of Iron Age and Pictish artefacts, with occupation continuing up to the Norse occupation of the Orkney islands in the 9th century. [8]

The British Iron Age is a conventional name used in the archaeology of Great Britain, referring to the prehistoric and protohistoric phases of the Iron Age culture of the main island and the smaller islands, typically excluding prehistoric Ireland, which had an independent Iron Age culture of its own. The parallel phase of Irish archaeology is termed the Irish Iron Age. The Iron Age is not an archaeological horizon of common artefacts, but is rather a locally diverse cultural phase.

Broch type of Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure

A broch is an Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure found in Scotland. Brochs belong to the classification "complex atlantic roundhouse" devised by Scottish archaeologists in the 1980s. Their origin is a matter of some controversy.

Broch of Burrian archaeological site in Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK

The Broch of Burrian is an Iron Age broch located on North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands, in Scotland.

According to the Orkneyinga saga , Torf-Einarr, the 10th-century Norse Earl of Orkney, killed Hálfdan Longlegs on North Ronaldsay in revenge for Hálfdan and his brother Gudrød Ljome's slaying of Rögnvald Eysteinsson, Torf-Einarr's father. Hálfdan and Gudrød, who were the sons of King Harald Finehair of Norway, had trapped Rögnvald in his house and set it alight. Harald, apparently appalled by his sons' actions, overthrew Gudrød and restored Rögnvald's lands to his son, Thorir Rögnvaldarson, while Hálfdan fled westwards to Orkney and displaced Torf-Einarr. From a base in Caithness, Torf-Einarr resisted Hálfdan's occupation of the islands. After a battle at sea, and a ruthless campaign on land, Torf-Einarr spied Hálfdan hiding on North Ronaldsay. The sagas claim that Hálfdan was captured, and sacrificed to Odin as a blood-eagle. [9] [10]

Einarr Rognvaldarson often referred to by his byname Torf-Einarr, was one of the Norse earls of Orkney. The son of the Norse jarl, Rognvald Eysteinsson and a concubine, his rise to power is related in sagas which apparently draw on verses of Einarr's own composition for inspiration. After battling for control of the Northern Isles of Scotland and a struggle with Norwegian royalty, Einarr founded a dynasty which retained control of the islands for centuries after his death.

Earl of Orkney Norwegian, then Scottish, noble title over the Northern Isles and northern Scotland

The Earl of Orkney was originally a Norse jarl ruling the archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland (Norðreyjar). Originally founded by Norse invaders, the status of the rulers of the Norðreyjar as Norwegian vassals was formalised in 1195. Although the Old Norse term jarl looks similar to "earl", and the jarls were succeeded by earls in the late 15th century, a Norwegian jarl is not the same thing. In the Norse context the distinction between jarls and kings did not become significant until the late 11th century and the early jarls would therefore have had considerable independence of action until that time. The position of Jarl of Orkney was eventually the most senior rank in mediaeval Norway except for the king himself.

Caithness Historic county in Scotland

Caithness is a historic county, registration county and lieutenancy area of Scotland.

The Joseph of King's Lynn was wrecked on Bride's Ness beach in April 1586. The crew salvaged the brass guns but they were confiscated by the Earl of Orkney. [11]

Holland House was built in 1727; the Old Beacon, dating from 1789, was the third lighthouse to be built by Thomas Smith for the Commissioners of the Northern Lights.

Overview of population trends: [12]

Population384 [13] 420384 [14] 481547501298161109927072 [4]


Flights from North Ronaldsay Airport link the island with Kirkwall on the Orkney Mainland, as does a weekly ferry operated by Orkney Ferries. In the summer there are ferries on Tuesdays and Fridays. Flights are subsidized to £36 return, or £21 return for those who stay for at least one night.


The unique local sheep, which eat seaweed North ron sheep.jpg
The unique local sheep, which eat seaweed

The main industries on the island are crofting and sheep farming, where unique North Ronaldsay sheep are mostly farmed collectively. Tourism also plays an important role. The island has a population of 60, roughly half of whom are descended from native islanders, and new islanders who have come to live there. There is great interest in attracting new families with young children in order to keep the school open.


The main purpose of the island's bird observatory, established in 1987, is to conduct long-term monitoring of bird populations and migration. North Ronaldsay is well known as one of the best birdwatching sites in the country during the spring and autumn migration periods. The quantity and variety of birds that can be seen at these times is often spectacular. [15]

The great auk (Alca impennis) was a North Atlantic flightless bird about the size of a goose; it became extinct in 1844. North Ronaldsay was one habitat for the great auk which was quite abundant until then. At one Neolithic site, great auk bones make up nearly 14% of bird bones. [16]

North Ronaldsay was also a habitat for the Atlantic walrus through the mid-16th century. [17]


North Ronaldsay Lighthouse
North Ronaldsay Lighthouse - - 1759322.jpg
North Ronaldsay lighthouse lies at the north of the island at Point of Sinsoss
Orkney Islands UK relief location map.jpg
Lighthouse icon centered.svg
LocationNorth Ronaldsay, Orkney, Scotland
Coordinates 59°23′23″N2°22′52″W / 59.389656°N 2.381233°W / 59.389656; -2.381233
Year first constructed1789 (first)
Year first lit1854 (current)
Deactivated1809 (first)
Constructionbrick tower (current)
stone tower (first)
Tower shapetapered cylindrical tower with balcony and lantern (current)
cylindrical tower and no lantern (first)
Markings / patternunpainted tower with two white bands, black lantern, ochre trim (current)
unpainted tower
Tower height43 metres (141 ft) (current)
21 metres (69 ft) (first)
Focal height42 metres (138 ft)
Range24 nautical miles (44 km; 28 mi)
Characteristic Fl W 10s.
Fog signal blast every 60s.
Admiralty numberA3722
NGA number3280
ARLHS numberSCO-155 (current)
SCO-154 (first)
Managing agentNorth Ronaldsay Trust [18] [19]

Dennis Head, in the northeast of the island, is home to an historic lighthouse known as the Old Beacon. The light was first established in 1789 by Thomas Smith. It was to be the first of many island lighthouses for Smith (he had previously worked on the lights at Kinnaird Head and Mull of Kintyre). Smith received assistance with the North Ronaldsay light from his stepson Robert Stevenson, and from Ezekiel Walker.

The Old Beacon The Old Beacon - - 1759314.jpg
The Old Beacon

In 1809, with the construction of other nearby lighthouses, it was decided that the North Ronaldsay light was no longer required, and it was extinguished. The round stone tower was retained as a sea-mark, however, and the original beacon chamber at the top replaced by a vaulted roof, capped by a remarkable ball finial. The stone spiral staircase which once led to the beacon was demolished. The original keepers' houses, roofless but largely complete, survive below the tower. In 2006, it was one of the neglected buildings selected for the TV series Restoration .

However, a new lighthouse was built nearby just 43 years later in 1852. The modern lighthouse lies at the north of the island at Point of Sinsoss, and boasts Britain's tallest land-based lighthouse tower. The old fog siren with notable red trumpet was replaced by an electric diaphragm-type horn. That horn was discontinued in favour of a Tyfon horn consisting of 8 mini-trumpets installed on the building that once housed the fog siren. The Tyfon horn gives three blasts every 60 seconds. The electric beeper horn now lies flat on the ground next to the fog signal building. The fog signal is still in service today.


The community has a single school, North Ronaldsay Primary School. It had a single student until July 2017, when its sole student graduated. Various organizations use the school building. [20]

See also


  1. Anderson (1873) pdf p. 176
  2. 1 2 3 4 Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 400
  3. 1 2 Area and population ranks: there are c.300 islands over 20ha in extent and 93 permanently inhabited islands were listed in the 2011 census.
  4. 1 2 3 National Records of Scotland (15 August 2013) (pdf) Statistical Bulletin: 2011 Census: First Results on Population and Household Estimates for Scotland - Release 1C (Part Two) . "Appendix 2: Population and households on Scotland’s inhabited islands". Retrieved 17 August 2013.
  5. Orkney Placenames Orkneyjar. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
  6. Ordnance Survey: Landranger map sheet 5 Orkney (Northern Isles) (Map). Ordnance Survey. 2008. ISBN   9780319228111.
  7. Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 334
  8. 1 2 "Site Record for North Ronaldsay, Broch Of Burrian Burrian Broch; Strom Ness; Stromness; Burrian Brough". RCAHMS . Retrieved 4 September 2014.
  9. Pálsson and Edwards (1981) Chapter 8. "Troublemakers from Norway". pp. 29-33.
  10. Heimskringla, Harald Harfager's saga, chapters 30 and 31.
  11. William Boyd, Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 8 (Edinburgh, 1914), p. 354 no. 383.
  12. Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 400 unless otherwise stated
  13. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791
  14. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, Frances Groome, 1884
  15. Haswell-Smith (2004) pp. 400-02
  16. Searjeantson, Dale (2001). "The Great Auk and the Gannet: a Prehistoric Perspective on the Extinction of the Great Auk". International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 11: 43–55. doi:10.1002/oa.545.
  17. "Trichecodon huxlei (Mammalia: Odobenidae) in the Pleistocene of southeastern United States". Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. 122: 129–142.
  18. North Ronaldsay The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 26 May 2016
  19. North Ronaldsay Northern Lighthouse Board. Retrieved 26 May 2016
  20. "North Ronaldsay Primary School loses its only pupil". BBC News. BBC. 28 July 2017. Retrieved 30 July 2017.

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Coordinates: 59°22′24″N2°25′33″W / 59.37339°N 2.42583°W / 59.37339; -2.42583