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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Clock stops on Stroma after lumpy paddle across Pentland Firth

By Ben MacGregor

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The Gloup.
The Gloup.

The Gloup on the Isle of Stroma is a huge, cliff-lined basin in the moor with an entrance from the sea through a long, narrow cave. The story goes that the islanders had an illicit still in there, although getting in from the sea would not have been easy in the usual swells.

Waves wash up a sloping slab of rock to the side then surge back across the passage, likely capsizing any small boat or kayak as there is no room for support strokes. I was happy just to sit in the sunshine at the top of the cliffs, watching the sloshing water. I’ve only twice managed to paddle through that cave.

It is over 40 years since I first visited Stroma and 14 years since my first solo paddle across. Since then I’ve usually managed a couple of trips a year, sometimes in early spring as the first sea-birds arrive, sometimes in late autumn to see the grey seals which almost take over the island at that time of year.

Taking the east-going tide from St John’s Point you need to cross a fast and lumpy current of water near the Stroma beacon, as you paddle hard towards the shore there is a weird illusion that the church, and the other houses, are racing eastward across the island.

You are being swept east at a rate of knots as you aim north and the foreground is rushing past as on a train.

The island is a working farm – and it’s polite to let the owner know if you are planning a visit – but the rush of modern life simply vanishes for someone who doesn’t farm when you step ashore.

Tankers may pass in the Pentland Firth, a helicopter may cross overhead, the Pentalina car ferry sails past on the way to Gills, giving Swona and Stroma a wide berth. But on the island itself, the clock has stopped, reading 1965, and I have the whole 1000 acres to myself.

Even before I’d paddled into the harbour I was greeted with the mooing of seals, lying out on the rocky shore. Terns and gulls fussed as I walked up onto the island to follow the old road across to the lighthouse at the northern end.

The lighthouse on Stroma.
The lighthouse on Stroma.

More than ever, the island seems to be in a time-warp. Little has changed in the last 40 years other than a gradual encroaching of the wildlife.

Another of the empty houses may have a hole in the roof, the old box-beds are deeper in pigeon and sheep-dung, the road a little-more grass-grown. Sheep roam the fields and cliff-tops as they have for the last 60 years.

A little weather station mast, put up years ago by the Environmental Research Institute, now lies fallen and rusting – it’s about time they removed it! There are plenty of other items and bits of old farm machinery scattered around simply left from when they were last used 60 or more years ago.

Open doorways and window-frames breathe in the fresh Pentland Firth air, day and night, summer and winter. Year on year the swallows return to nest on a rafter, and another decade has gone. Push through the nettles into one of the old buildings and know that it is your brief visit that is the aberration.

Stroma bunnies run in a gleam of sun. Bonxies dive near the old church. Terns with chicks scream at me by the lighthouse. Many of the cliff-nesting birds have now left but there are still a few guillemots on their cliff ledges.

Old houses on Stroma.
Old houses on Stroma.

Grazing sheep keep the grass and vegetation short, giving for easy walking, or the island would be deep in tussocky grass as on Copinsay. There are pink ragged robin flowers, growing as a dwarf plant among short heather, and angelica umbrels on the steeper, inaccessible slopes. A bank of blue thistles buzzes with flies but I don’t see many bees.

It would be good to spend more time on the island rather than just a rushed day trip. A couple I knew used to stay in their old house for two weeks every summer but have now passed away. There aren’t many original islanders left.

At the harbour the tide has turned and is now racing back westward. A narrow, turbulent ribbon of fast water, like a river flows, round Scarton Point. I just have to punch through this and then point south for the rest of the paddle and the whole Inner Sound of smooth, moving water carries me westwards back to Gills.

View from a Stroma window.
View from a Stroma window.

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