Caught by the River

Curious Isles – A Life on Orkney

Amy Liptrot | 6th June 2012

by Amy Liptrot.

Around the north of Scotland lie uninhabited islands, abandoned in the mid-20th century when depopulation reached such strength that the last people could no longer cling on. Now on these lonely isles, left to the elements, empty houses fall into disrepair and farmland is reverting to moor.

Orkney’s abandoned islands include Cava, Faray, Fara, Eynhallow, Swona – where the cattle left by the tenants have become wild – and Copinsay: an island one mile long and half a mile wide to the east of the archipelago. The population reached a peak of 25 in 1931, but the last residents left for the Orkney ‘mainland’ in 1958.

I travel to spend the night on Copinsay with seabird researchers Juliet and Yvan, part of a project studying fulmar, shag, kittiwake and razorbill. The island is now an RSPB reserve, home in the summer to thousands of nesting seabirds. There are no regular ferries and we take the 40-minute journey on a small vessel with local boatsman Sidney.

In an upstairs bedroom of the derelict farmhouse, I pitch my tent, unsure of the ancient bed and mattress. The house is startlingly similar to the one I grew up in – a late 19th century Orkney farmhouse built on the site of previous steadings. The history of people on the island stretches back to the Iron Age and Copinsay was known to the Norsemen as Kolbeinsay – Kolbein’s island – perhaps named after a Viking chief due to its commands of wide ocean views.

The Groats were the last family on the island, and had 13 children. Under the decaying stairs, I find coat pegs named ‘Bessie’, ‘Isobel’, ‘Alice, ‘Eva’, ‘Ethel’. One room of the house was a schoolroom where a teacher was employed for the Groats and the children on the lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse, the other building on the island apart from the farm, was automated in 1990.

There is an underlying sadness that no one lives here anymore but it’s clear what a raw existence it was. This is the minimum you need to survive: the island is a wedge of rock, faced on the north east side with high cliffs, exposed to the wind – the salt-lashed land only enough grazing for a few livestock. There was not enough to keep the children here and, with aging parents, all gradually left. A lot of people in Orkney are now descended from the Groats and the tale of the Copinsay Brownie, an ugly beastie, has gone down in local folklore.

As much as it is bleak, Copinsay is also dizzyingly beautiful. To the north is the even-smaller, inaccessible-looking Horse of Copinsay (the Norse liked to zoomorphise small islands), cliffs rising straight out of the sea. A flock of more than 50 puffins are swimming near the coast, with more perched on the clifftop among the seapinks. The view back towards the mainland, with layers of low-lying islands, a curving tidal causeway and immense skies, is one of the best in Orkney.

Up until around 1914 there was still ‘fowling’ on the island – catching seabirds for their flesh, eggs and feathers. These days the birds are caught only for conservation research. I go out with Juliet and Yvan around cliffs and geos, looking for birds. They catch shags by extending an 8ft fishing pole down the cliff to the nest: Yvan loops the bird and passes it up to Juliet who grapples it – flapping and honking – and puts a bag over its head. A GPS tag is taped to the feathers on its back and, over the next few days, every 100 seconds the tag will communicate with satellites and plot the shag’s location. They will have to catch the same bird again in the next week to collect the data – about how far and where it has been to feed – which will inform government marine policy.

Having a small island to yourself brings a strange mixture of freedom and confinement. I have a pee on the edge of a cliff looking out towards Norway and feel like a Viking conqueror. A year ago I quit my job and was in rehab in London, now I’m lying starshaped in the centre of the helicopter pad built to service the lighthouse, with its light flickering over me and bonxies above, on an uninhabited island in the North Sea. I fall asleep for an hour in a sheltered spot by the bay and dream of being a seabird on a high ledge.

I plan to walk around the whole island but my circumnavigation is thwarted by the birds themselves. Near the cliff edge, bonxies – the Orcadian name for great skuas – launch a divebomb attack, protecting their nearby nests. I hear one repeatedly swishing just above and cover my head with my hands, duck and move swiftly out of the area.

I cross the tidal causeway to Corn Holm and suddenly the cold farmhouse feels relatively civilised. I am the first human here in weeks and flush the gulls and greylag geese into the sky. Huge threatening black back gulls circle above, fulmars shift and squawk on their nests – some expelling foul vomit in my direction. Turning onto Ward Holm, I hear a noise like a sound effect for a B-movie haunted house – echoing moans and ghoulish howls – and it takes a second to realise I have come across a colony of grey seals basking on the rocks. At the sight of me, the huge mammals of mottled greys slide into the water but don’t swim away, every pair of eyes on me.

I start to worry that the tidal window for crossing the causeway will close and I’ll be stranded. I cut my route short and don’t venture to the ominously named Black Holm. Although I haven’t met the Brownie, I feel spooked. When the people left, Copinsay became the birds’ island. I am on their territory and won’t stay too long.

Read Amy’s previous columns here.