North Ronaldsay: Wild and woolly

North Ronaldsay is remote and best known for its sheep. But there are other good reasons to go. Rhiannon Batten explains

Thanks to the Armada, most of the islands off Scotland's north-east coast have a good tale to tell about the Spanish.

In 1588, when the broken Spanish flotilla headed into the North Sea, survivors of one wrecked ship are said to have stayed on the Orcadian island of Westray and founded a mixed-race community dubbed The Dons. The Armada flagship, El Gran Grifon, was not so lucky. Wrecked off nearby Fair Isle, its crew so exhausted local supplies that the islanders finally threw them over the cliffs.

An even better Orcadian Armada story, however, concerns the small island of North Ronaldsay, in the far north of this wind-beaten archipelago. Local lore here has it that, although a straggler from the Armada was sighted offshore, its sailors never made land. They mistook the vast numbers of sheep moving about on the shore for hostile humans and took off again.

It's not hard to understand their mistake. Fly in to the four-mile-long island and the first thing you notice - apart from huge arcs of white sand - are what appear to be groups of children milling about on the shore. If this seems odd on a chilly winter day, it is. You are looking at a rare breed: North Ronaldsay sheep.

This wild and wily breed has a double-layered fleece and a knack for untying shoelaces with their teeth. One of their most appealing characteristics - especially for those who produce North Ronaldsay knitwear - is their colour, which ranges from cream through pale grey and café au lait to chocolate brown and black. They are also the only animals in the world, aside from a certain Galapagon lizard, to be able to subsist entirely on seaweed.

"Other animals eat seaweed but not seaweed alone," says Dr June Morris, the world authority on the breed and, for the past two years, a North Ronaldsay local. "There has to be a metabolic change if an animal is going to survive on it and, apart from that, animals usually have problems dealing with so much salt." Dr Morris laughs when I ask if it's true, as aficionados believe, that the seaweed diet affects the taste of the meat. But apparently the Savoy, Skibo Castle and chef Gary Rhodes are all fans of North Ronaldsay mutton.

Fortunately for the fleecy North Ronaldsay expats she kept in Derbyshire before she moved north, Dr Morris knows almost as much about seaweed as she does about sheep. There, she kept her flock healthy by buying rolls of Laminaria digitata from Manchester's Chinese supermarkets.

Though Dr Morris now lives within pebble-skimming distance of the North Sea, the seaweed-gathering persists. The 70 or so in her flock are either too old or too weak to fend for themselves, so she keeps them in her fields instead, going dutifully down to the shore to fetch their food. "I couldn't part with them. They've all got a story," she says. "Banksy I rescued from a rock in the sea. When I got to her, her lungs were full of seawater. Then there's Helga, who was caught in a storm and was nearly dead when I found her."

As Billy Muir, another sheep farmer and the island's lighthouse-keeper, puts it, Dr Morris is "in the sheep-mad category with me". Which is a good thing, given that she is a member of the local sheep "court". An old North Ronaldsay tradition, the court dates from the 1830s, when a 6ft wall was built round the island to keep the sheep on the shore and free up grassland for cattle and domesticated sheep. A "court" of 11 locals was formed to establish the ground rules for managing them; it continues to share responsibility for the flocks.

You do not have to love sheep to visit North Ronaldsay, but it helps. With the pale sun piercing through sea mist and the wind rattling in over its scattered crofts, this small, flat island has much more atmosphere than your average Robert Louis Stevenson story. Which is appropriate since it was one of Stevenson's engineering relations, his uncle Alan, who built the island's lighthouse - at 109ft, the UK's highest land-based - in 1854. The lighthouse isn't open to visitors at set times but if you call Billy he'll usually open it for you.

Past the tiny pub are more attractions: the remains of the Broch of Burrian Iron Age settlement, innumerable seals wallowing beside the sheep on the shore, and North Ronaldsay's bird observatory. The island is one of the best places to see migrating birds and the well-run observatory functions both as a monitoring facility and as a hostel.

There is one other reason why most visitors to the island tend to book in here. If you ask nicely, they'll happily include North Ronaldsay mutton on the dinner menu. Washed down with a bottle of Northern Light beer and served with gravy, potatoes and carrots, it makes the perfect, slightly chewy, end to a day out in the chilly Orcadian air. Does it taste of seaweed? Take a trip up north and find out.

Half board at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory (01857 633200; nrbo.f2s.com) costs from £23 per person per night. Tours of the lighthouse are available on Sunday sailing days throughout the summer or by arrangement with Billy Muir (01857 633257). These cost £4 for adults or £2 for children. Loganair (01856 872494; loganair.co.uk) flies daily from Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay from £12 return. The journey takes around 15 minutes. Orkney Ferries (01856 872044; orkneyferries.co.uk) operates a weekly ferry from Kirkwall on Fridays in summer, depending on the weather, and costs from £12.80 return. For general information, as well as details on how to get there, go to visitorkney.com

Five more Scottish isles

EILEAN SHONA

This privately owned island in Argyll was where JM Barrie spent his holidays. Now it's owned by Sir Richard Branson's sister. The main house caters for parties (01967 431249; eileanshona. com) but there are cottages for rent (01835 822277; uniquecottages.co.uk).

FAIR ISLE

It hit the headlines when 94 families applied to rent two houses. If you want to stay, options include a bird observatory (01595 760258; fairislebirdobs. co.uk) and B&B (01595 760248).

HARRIS

One for the luxury-seeking outcast, it is home to a small hotel, Scarista House (01859 550238; scaristahouse.com), and Blue Reef's five-star, self-catering cottages (01859 550370; stay-hebrides.com).

ST KILDA

This is the most remote island in the British Isles, and home mainly to sea birds. To visit, try joining a National Trust for Scotland Thistle Camp (0131 243 9470; thistlecamps.org.uk).

PAPA WESTRAY

This is home to white-sand beaches, an RSPB reserve and neolithic remains. There is the Beltane guest house and youth hostel and a self-catering cottage, Holm View (papawestray.co.uk).

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