North Ronaldsay

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.

North Ronaldsay
Gaelic nameN/A
Norse nameRínansey[1]
Meaning of nameOld 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 referenceHY759542
Coordinates59.37°N 2.42°W / 59.37; -2.42
Physical geography
Island groupOrkney
Area690 hectares (2.7 sq mi)[2]
Area rank64[3]
Highest elevation20 metres (66 ft)[2]
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Council areaOrkney Islands
Population rank50[3]
Population density10.4 people/km2[2][4]
Largest settlementHollandstoun


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).

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 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.


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, 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]

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]

Year 178717911811184118811891193119611981199120012011
Population 384 [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 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 lies at the north of the island at Point of Sinsoss
LocationNorth Ronaldsay, Orkney, Scotland
Coordinates59.389656°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)
CharacteristicFl W 10s.
Fog signalblast 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.

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. Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 400
  3. 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. 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. "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.


  • Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 978-1-84195-454-7.
  • Anderson, Joseph (ed.) (1873) The Orkneyinga Saga. Translated by Jón A. Hjaltalin & Gilbert Goudie. Edinburgh. Edmonston and Douglas. The Internet Archive. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
  • Pálsson, Hermann and Edwards, Paul Geoffrey (1981). Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044383-5

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