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Travel: Viking whispers on the wind: Orkney has terrible weather and a dark reputation. You land there, and you're in a cowpat. But people love the island, says Clare Jenkins

There were just six of us, plus pilot, on the eight-seater plane from Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay. They included the district nurse, the island policeman and the local Episcopalian minister and his wife. 'Don't worry,' said the minister, 'if there's an accident, the policeman can identify you, and I'll bury you.'

Fifteen minutes after leaving Kirkwall airport, the Islander landed safely in a field. Cowpats spattered the windows. We opened the doors and let ourselves out. The nurse was 'in transit' for Sanday. The minister and his wife were met by the Episcopalian congregation - one woman in a minibus. The policeman got in his unmarked car and tootled off to catch villains. A tall task for an island where the grubby, scraggy, seaweed-eating sheep - kept on the pebbly shore by the dry-stone dyke that circles the island - outnumber the 80 inhabitants.

North Ronaldsay is the most northerly of the northern group of islands that make up Orkney. Four miles long, two across, two shops (one does evening meals, if you ask nicely), a post office, a bird observatory-cum-B & B, and two lighthouses. The older lighthouse, a handsome stone column roughly 100 per cent more interesting than the Old Man of Hoy, closed down 150 years ago. The younger, built close by in 1854 and now the last manned lighthouse in Britain, goes automatic in 1998.

The occasion may well go unmarked by the rest of the country - who, thanks to national weather charts, think Orkney is just to the right of Aberdeen. But it will no doubt be seen as a major event in a place where Great Hedgehog Round-Up is splashed on the local paper billboards, and a whole page in the Orcadian is regularly devoted to horticultural show results: Most Outstanding Exhibit in Pot Plants, Dahlias (giant decorative, medium decorative, small decorative, ball, double bedding), and Arrangement in Tea-Pot.

For a year, Orkney was also known round the world as Devil's Island. A place where quarries, rainbows and shepherd's crooks went hand in hand with satanic child abuse. Two years on, and the Orcadians try their best to forget this latter-day witch-hunt. But opinions only need a slight stir to boil over. 'I had to get up at 5am to cook a policeman a full breakfast so he could go and raid one of those houses,' says one landlady. 'If I'd known what he was going to do, I'd have poisoned the meal.'

'The trouble is,' says a hotel manager in Stromness, 'people now, when they think of Orkney, say, 'Oh, isn't that the place . . ?' I'm not sure we want to be put on the map for that reason.' Far from weird goings-on, what Orkney has to offer is a down-to-earth community leading a human-paced existence in a landscape that has nothing of the drama of the Western Isles and little of the romance of southern Ireland but constant whispers on the ever-present wind of a Viking, pagan and early Christian past.

Those whispers are there in the magnificent, rose-coloured St Magnus Cathedral, and in Skara Brae, the prehistoric settlement left in such a hurry that beads were scattered in the narrow passage-ways. They are there in every mound in every field that could prove to be another Maes Howe, 'the finest chambered cairn in Western Europe', with its graffiti about who was sleeping with Ingeborg. And in the mysterious standing stones of Brodgar and Stenness - favourite midsummer spots for New Agers.

They are there in a drink called Skullsplitter and a restaurant called Hamnavoe (the Old Norse name for Stromness, a weird grey film set of a port, with an alley called Khyber Pass, a well that watered the entire Hudson Bay Company, and a museum to the ill-fated Franklin expedition). They are there in the births, marriages and deaths pages of the Orcadian - welcome to Thorfinn, congratulations to Ola, goodbye to Rognvald.

Not everyone is as fascinated by the past as the native poet George Mackay Brown, who has written about it in countless poems and stories as well as in his weekly column in the Orcadian. But you cannot help but be aware of the continuity - of history, landscape and allegiances. When the British government tried to mine for uranium in Orkney, the islanders petitioned the late King Olaf of Norway to take them back under his protection (they were given away in the 13th century as part of Queen Margaret's dowry).

'We're no' Scottish,' says one woman on Shapinsay island, across the water from Kirkwall, 'but we do share a common enemy in the English.' Orkney is, after all, nearer Oslo than London. Maybe that is why southern visitors have been known to bring toilet rolls and food with them. But the islands are not primitive. They have tele-cottage links, hi-tech windmills, salmon farms, Covent Garden- bound lobsters, and jewellery sold in Buckingham Palace.

They also have festivals. We just missed the third annual science festival, with talks on Stone Age Voles and Viking Nice, The Biology of Trout, When Herring Was King - as well as on robots, microtechnology and the latest in agricultural developments. Every June is the St Magnus Festival, brainchild of composer Peter Maxwell Davies. He is just one of many 'ferryloupers' (incomers) to adopt the islands. Others include Lord Jo and Lady Laura Grimond (he represented Orkney and Shetland for more than 30 years), the photographer Gunnie Moberg, artist Matilda Tumin (daughter of the judge), designer Stephane Jaeger, and Liz Forgan. 'She's something high up in the BBC,' says a North Ronaldsay neighbour.

Ms Forgan, like Sir Peter, has converted a croft for second home-ownership. Deserted crofts scatter the landscape, some still complete with (broken) box beds, old stone jugs, cracked 'A Gift From Stronsay' ribbon plates. Most Orcadians prefer new bungalows with central heating and double-glazing - if they can get them. In a population of 20,000, there are 800 names on the council waiting list.

As in the Western Isles, there is a constant ebb and flow of islanders and incomers. Many young Orcadians leave either to find work down south or to go to university - though a high proportion (some say 60 per cent) find it hard to settle elsewhere. Their places are taken by 'white settlers' looking for a better life.

It is certainly not the weather that attracts them. The only word is elemental, and this summer was so bad that many visitors went home early. 'It can get you down,' says Eleanor Morson, wife of the Episcopalian minister.

'What perfect conditions]' exclaims Liz Lea as the rain pelts down on her guided walk up Marwick Cliffs and everyone gets soaked through to their thermals. Liz and her husband David are owners of Go-Orkney, running coach trips round the islands. They moved here 25 years ago, when David worked for the RSPB, and stayed: 'It's the light, the open spaces and the wild life.'

'And the people,' says the Rev John Morson. 'They're warm, friendly, caring.' But it is the great outdoors that initially attracts visitors. Depending on the season, you can watch great skuas de-feather a kittiwake in flight, rescue an abandoned seal pup, check out the aurora borealis, and picnic on bere bannocks and Swannay cheese on a shell-sparkled beach.

The land- sea- and sky- scapes and the blindingly pure colours have always attracted artists. The shops are full of their work, and the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness has permanent works by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Roger Hilton.

Maureen Gray, curator of the centre, an Orcadian born and bred, spent a year in Sheffield. 'I couldn't stand it,' she says. 'The people were nice, but the dirt got into everything, you could never get anything clean. I couldn't settle. I didn't realise it was homesickness. But I had to come back. It was so far from the sea.'

(Photographs and map omitted)