North Ronaldsay

North Ronaldsay
Gaelic name N/A
Norse name Rínansey[1]
Meaning of name Old Norse, possibly "Ringa's Isle"[2]

A view of the house and loch at Garso on North Ronaldsay, with the lighthouse in the distance
North Ronaldsay
North Ronaldsay shown within Orkney
OS grid reference HY759542
Physical geography
Island group Orkney
Area 690 hectares (2.7 sq mi)[2]
Area rank 64[3]
Highest elevation 20 metres (66 ft)[2]
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Country Scotland
Council area Orkney Islands
Population 72[4]
Population rank 50[3]
Pop. density 10.4 people/km2[2][4]
Largest settlement Hollandstoun
References [5][6]

North Ronaldsay is the northernmost of the islands of Orkney and, with an area of 690 hectares (2.7 sq mi), is the fourteenth largest.[7] Mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga, in modern times it is known for its historic lighthouse, migratory bird life and unusual breed of sheep.


North Ronaldsay lies around 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) north of its nearest neighbour, Sanday at grid reference HY759542. The island is around 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) long along its length 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. Low-lying and exposed, the island's 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).

Hollandstoun at the south of the island is the most sizable settlement lying roughly equidistant from the airfield and the pier. The island is also home to a bird observatory.

North Ronaldsay has a unique dry stane dyke that surrounds the island whose purpose is to keep the seaweed-eating North Ronaldsay sheep off the arable land.


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]

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, whilst 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]

Holland House was built in 1727 and 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:[11]

Year 1787 1791 1811 1841 188118911931 19611981199120012011
Population 384 [12] 420 384 [13] 481 547 501298161109927072[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 if you stay for at least one night.


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.


Established in 1987, the island's bird observatory's main purpose 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.[14]

The great auk (Alca impennis) was a North Atlantic flightless bird about the size of a goose which became extinct in 1844. North Ronaldsay was one habitat for the great auk which was quite abundant until then. At a Neolithic site, great auk bones make up nearly 14% of bird bones.[15]

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


North Ronaldsay Lighthouse

North Ronaldsay lighthouse lies at the north of the island at Point of Sinsoss
Location North Ronaldsay
United Kingdom
Coordinates 59°23′23″N 2°22′52″W / 59.389656°N 2.381233°W / 59.389656; -2.381233
Year first constructed 1789 (first)
Year first lit 1854 (current)
Automated 1998
Deactivated 1809 (first)
Construction brick tower (current)
stone tower (first)
Tower shape tapered cylindrical tower with balcony and lantern (current)
cylindrical tower and no lantern (first)
Markings / pattern unpainted tower with two white bands, black lantern, ochre trim (current)
unpainted tower
Height 43 metres (141 ft) (current)
21 metres (69 ft) (first)
Focal height 42 metres (138 ft)
Range 24 nautical miles (44 km; 28 mi)
Characteristic Fl W 10s.
Fog signal blast every 60s.
Admiralty number A3722
NGA number 3280
ARLHS number SCO-155 (current)
SCO-154 (first)
Managing agent North Ronaldsay Trust[17] [18]

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 Ezekiel Walker and from his stepson Robert Stevenson.

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 Restoration TV series.

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 is now lying flat on the ground next to the fog signal building. The fog signal is still in service today.

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. Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 400 unless otherwise stated
  12. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791
  13. Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, Frances Groome, 1884
  14. Haswell-Smith (2004) pp. 400-02
  15. 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.
  16. "Trichecodon huxlei (Mammalia: Odobenidae) in the Pleistocene of southeastern United States". Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. 122: 129–142.
  17. North Ronaldsay The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 26 May 2016
  18. North Ronaldsay Northern Lighthouse Board. Retrieved 26 May 2016


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Coordinates: 59°22′24″N 2°25′33″W / 59.37339°N 2.42583°W / 59.37339; -2.42583

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