Stronsay, in the North Isles of Orkney, has three great sandy bays curving around the coast, shaping the island into three broad peninsulas. Flying over the island by place, the view below is of rich green fields of grass, where cattle graze, and then the three great sweeps of sand. In summer, the sea is blue and the sand is glittering-bright. In winter, the sea is steely-grey, with white-topped waves falling in spray on the beaches and breaking into spray and foam on black rocks.
On the east is Mill Bay, with Whitehall village in its arc. The village grew up with the herring fishing, from the 1880s onwards, and the boom continued after the First World War, when there was an annual influx of 300 drifters, mainly from Banff and Buckie, and the island’s population was boosted by an extra 4,000 people during the twelve-week season.
Whenever the wind was strong there was always the slapping of halyards against the masts of the sailing boats,’ was one man's memory of a Stronsay childhood.
Today the old fish mart has been put to good use as a visitor centre, combined with a hostel and café; many fascinating items from island attics and sheds are displayed and described. The village itself, with its houses and piers, still has some smaller fishing boats in its harbour and fishing gear on the shore, and its long street is a reminder of the scale of the activity in the bygone herring days.
Papa Stronsay, just across the harbour, was also a centre of activity in the herring days. In recent years it has become the home of an order of monks who follow traditional Catholic teachings; they have a flock of sheep, and cattle for milk and cheese, and their building renovations include skilled work in wood.
Above Mill Bay is a five-acre bird reserve created by the bird artist John Holloway and looked after by him and his family. Nestling in between open farmland and sandy beach, it provides food and shelter for migrants.
Out on the east coast there are cliffs which pounding seas have shaped into spectacular forms, such as the arch of the Vat of Kirbuster.
By Lamb Head is the Danes’ Pier, a great ridge of stones running out to sea and curving as if to provide shelter. The stones are mixed in size and shape, none of them looking cut; yet somehow they lie so well together that nothing seems to wash them away.
To the west, the peninsula of Rothiesholm (pronounced ‘rowzem’) is between St Catherine’s Bay and the Bay of Holland, both rich in shells. The shelldrift on the Sand of Rothiesholm can sometimes include the spindle shell and the rare canoe shell.
Rothiesholm begins with a very narrow isthmus and then opens up, and the ground rises into sea-cliffs, with the edge often sheer. Birds nest in convenient corners on the grassy cliff-tops. On a bar of rock below, the Stronsay beast was washed up in the year 1808.