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Strange solitude of Stroma

By SPP Reporter

Looking down on the northern cliffs on the uninhabited island of Stroma.
Looking down on the northern cliffs on the uninhabited island of Stroma.

SELF-confidence is one thing, pride is another. And this world is certainly set up so that if you start thinking you’ve really done quite well at something, maybe even feeling a bit pleased with yourself – you’re in for a rude awakening, usually deserved.

My kayak roll was, I thought, just about bombproof – but the other evening with the club, after a lovely paddle out to Holborn Head, I rolled to cool off, failed to come up, failed a second and third time, my sunglasses fell off and disappeared to the bottom of the sea (about the 10th pair I’ve lost that way) and I had to ignominiously exit the boat in front of everyone and clamber back in. Back to the loch practising...

Then the other day, a paddle on my own to Stroma and back when it wasn’t flat calm and the tides were running, that gave a sense of achievement – only to hear of the man who is shortly setting off to row from John O’Groats to Iceland via Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes. We should, of course, know better than to compare ourselves to others.

Until now it’s not been a good season for paddling, at least not at my standard, with too much wind and swell. One of the main reasons I took up kayaking is to have the freedom to get to places like Stroma on a fine day, and an interlude after the recent windy spell looked ideal. The objective was to spend a few hours on the island on a glorious May day, the paddle there and back largely a means to that end.

One has to be patient when taking to the sea, there is so much gear and safety stuff to sort out, put on, pack; there’s the hassle of loading a heavy boat onto the roof of the car, strapping it down, then unloading again at Gills harbour. At long last the boat slides into the sunlit sea and I’m away. One of the hazards of this crossing is the big Pentalina ferry, whose path you have to cross, so I’d waited for it to arrive before setting out.

My aim was to paddle northwards along the shore then use the flood tide to take me across after the ferry had departed for Orkney. A big breaking surf was washing into the bay of Scotland’s Haven so I carried on almost up to St John’s Point and the white surf of the Merry Men of Mey, to land on the pebbly beach at the little sheltered harbour of the Bught, eat a banana, and gather strength for the crossing. The Pentalina was heading east of the island, all was clear.

The Swilkie whirlpool – a mass of white breakers to be avoided by small boats – with the Pentalina heading south.
The Swilkie whirlpool – a mass of white breakers to be avoided by small boats – with the Pentalina heading south.

With a forecast east-going tide of three to four knots, I needed to paddle north, seemingly quite the wrong direction, to end up near the Stroma beacon. It seemed so counter-intuitive, and the tide didn’t seem nearly that strong, so I was tempted to turn a little more easterly – but it wasn’t till halfway across that the current really picked up and I then had to paddle hard or be swept too far south. A bit more work than should have been needed. When you know what you are doing you can “let the tide take you across, and let the tide take you back” as one of the old Stroma residents once told me.

It would have been just a gentle row across for them on a day like this. But soon I was coasting easily along south of Stroma and into the old harbour. I pulled the boat up over the stones, changed out of my kayaking gear, and set off for a jog round the uninhabited island.

STROMA is a strange place to be on one’s own. The island was once densely populated and it would have been almost impossible to get away from other people, indeed the place was first and foremost the community of folk living there.

Most who visit these days are in a group brought across by boat or maybe a gaggle of kayakers, so it’s odd to have the peace and solitude of being the only person on the island, if in the company of a few hundred sheep and lambs!

I prefer the wilder western side of Stroma. This was never farmed and is further from the many derelict houses. The buildings themselves I find sad, even though the folk left out of choice for a better life on the mainland or overseas. The houses are now mostly three feet deep in sheep dung and are the homes of nesting pigeons.

Stroma lambs graze happily on a glorious May day.
Stroma lambs graze happily on a glorious May day.

A big swell was smashing into the western cliffs, the sky a glorious blue, white shower clouds piled over the mainland. Birds were a constant companion: black-backed gulls fussing overhead as I passed their nests and eggs near the cliff tops, fulmars cackling on grassy ledges, terns screeching, larks singing, the squawking of guillemots in their big cliff colonies – and was that a cuckoo? Scents of thrift and bearberry and sea spray, a hot sun and a cold wind. I rounded the big northern geos, peered into the rocky bowl of the gloup and watched the swell washing through the long cave joining this one-time site of an illicit still to the open sea.

The tide had turned west-going now and the Swilkie whirlpool off the lighthouse was picking up, a mass of white breakers to be avoided by small boats. A good place to eat lunch, watching the wild seas from the safety of dry land with the seals swimming past, completely in their element.

Then, with plenty of time, I pottered down to the lighthouse pier, poking around one or two of the rather depressing ruins and wandered back down the main road past the old church and school where a few buildings have been renovated. At the south-east corner of the island are the remains of the one-time Baptist kirk, converted into a barn until the roof fell in. A crow took off from the top of the wall in the old vestry, revealing a nest full of gaping beaks. In one of the nearby ruinous houses were the ancient, dung-encrusted remains of a typewriter and sewing machine.

The treasured contents of a black-backed gull’s nest.
The treasured contents of a black-backed gull’s nest.

BACK at the harbour I changed again into kayaking gear, fastened the hatch covers onto the boat and set off for the mainland.

A little way out from the harbour I could see the west-going stream ahead, with a sharp “eddy-line” to be crossed in the way I’d been taught from river kayaking. Paddling hard in the direction of John O’Groats would bring me to the shore around Canisbay church. Rather like crossing a huge river.

Maybe it will change when all the tidal power stuff is in place, but as things are it’s a lovely crossing on a fine sunny day.

Here and there are the big, glassy upwellings of water characteristic of the Pentland Firth, no hazard to paddle through in a sea kayak. Black guillemots and the occasional puffin were on the sea with fulmars circling, hoping for some fish discards.

The white buildings of Huna and Canisbay drew closer, you can hardly miss the mainland so there’s no need to worry about precise bearings. Then just an easy paddle along the shore, the kelp washing at the surface in the big swell at low tide, and into Gills harbour. An achievement? No. There’s nothing difficult about paddling to Stroma on a fine day of light winds – you just have to take careful heed of the tides. The Stroma folk rowed across without thinking about it, often in boats piled high with goods.

Now Swona – that’s a bit harder, with the main stream of the Pentland Firth to cross. Maybe on another fine day, but I’d better get some more practice first...

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