Dream cycling country- this is what the island of Stronsay is. Flat, lush farmland and uninterrupted views of the sea. There is not much in the way of roads and they are almost traffic-free. The island is 6 miles long and has a population of around 350.
It is somewhat of an adventure to reach Stronsay. First you must get to Orkney which is located off the north-coast of Scotland. This means travelling the length of Scotland to take a boat from Scrabster.
When we rolled off the ferry and started cycling we found roads with nobody. The horizon was mostly light blue sky with a band of deep blue sea underneath. White sandy beaches and green fields added to Stronsay's palette.
Paul (my cycling buddy) and I are not birdwatchers, but we booked a night at a bed and breakfast called Stronsay Bird Reserve. The owner John Holloway was surprised that we were staying with him because usually his guests love birds and watching them. I think it took him a little time to get used to the fact that we would not be able to chat with him about yellow-breasted buntings, but he quickly warmed to us.
We did not do that much cycling on Stronsay, which was okay because there are not that many roads. We were too busy chatting with John and his wife Sue. I can’t remember the specifics of the conversations, but it was one of those occasions where a group of people hit it off with no effort. John had a relaxed and laid back demeanor. He was easy to talk to and conversation flowed naturally.
To Fair Isle and Back
John had moved from Kent to Orkney with a dream of living on a remote island and setting up his own bird reserve. He wrote a book about Stronsay and his reserve called “To Fair Isle and Back”.
The reason that Fair Isle is mentioned in the title of a book about Stronsay is that John also ran the shop on Fair Isle for six years.
“Life on Fair Isle was always interesting- winds up to 150mph, so violent that large fish were literally thrown out of the raging sea and onto the beach; beautiful aurora lighting the whole sky, including one of the best in living memory which could be heard “hissing” its pulsating rhythm as we watched the magnificent display of colours in total awe; huge arrivals of autumn migrants when the whole isle seemed alive with birds…”
The Vat of Kirbister
There is something on Stronsay with a name that I loved so much that I tried to find a way of including it in every conversation just so that I could say it out loud- the Vat of Kirbister. It is a rock arch, carved naturally from the sea. John offered to drive us to it, which was another reason that we did not do much cycling.
Scotland’s coastline is littered with dramatic rock formations, but when it is shaped like something we associate with a manmade structure it induces even more wonder. A stone arch requires planning, an architect and team of builders and masons, so when we see one that has been perfectly sculpted from the random movements of waves it is even more impressive. The Vat of Kirbister looks too precarious to walk across and is best seen from far enough back that you can look through the arch to the sea beyond. I wondered how long it had taken for the waves and tides to create this structure.
That evening John’s wife served us homemade lasagne for dinner. It was so good I had three helpings! We had a few glasses of red wine and chatted until it got dark. John and Sue were really suited to the bed and breakfast business as they were very natural and had a knack of making us feel like we had known them for years. Good company, special location and delicious food make for the best travel memories. Sleep always comes easily in such places where there is no chance of traffic or noisy neighbours.
In the morning John seemed distracted. He kept looking past us to the window, trying his best to continue the conversation. He apologized, but there were interesting birds fluttering around and he could not stand to miss anything. He talked away to us about something non-bird, but would suddenly say the name of a bird he had just seen out of the window. Paul and I shared a giggle about this later on- we had never come across someone who was this focused on feathery creatures.
I must confess that I never read “To Fair Isle and Back” until I started to write this post. It has been on my book shelf for years. At the time Paul read the book on the train journey home, but I did not look at it. I am glad that I have now finally read it as it has brought back very happy travelling memories. As I turned the pages I recalled the yellow fields, endless blue skies and empty roads. Most of all I pictured the cosy evening with homemade lasagna, red wine and good conversation.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.