Land up in the Hills of Orkney

Harray Christmas

We met at the Merkister lay-bys in deepest Harray at 10am.


The Merkister Hotel is a Mecca for fishing devotees and pub lunch aficionados, perched on the banks of Loch Harray. This picture was taken on a better day in the summer. The mild (10c) morning greeted us with grey overcast skies and a breezy south westerly wind. The official forecast was optimistic however so we divided the cars and set off in half of them for our walk starting point at Harray Community Hall, a few miles to the south.

Before departing we had time to spot a flock of 30 Widgeon, a Mute Swan and a lone female Long tailed duck. On the road we passed a half a dozen Moorhens, the first of many Greylag Geese and a Grey Heron swung slowly overhead. From here we made our way to Bosqouy Loch, using the network of green lanes and rights of way which interlace the whole area between Harray Loch and Twatt.

If you are here for a while then this walk is well worth the effort; you can probably go six or seven miles through beautiful countryside without touching a main road and only using metalled surfaces very occasionally.


Bosqouy Loch is a lesser known birding gem overshadowed by its larger neighbour. It is hidden from view by surrounding land but is easily found just off the main Dounby Rd opposite Harray Stores.

As we made our way a Peregrin Falcon flashed across our bows. The Grey Heron reappeared with its lazy powerful wings beating westward. We took refuge at the farmstead of Runas which sits high in the surrounding landscape as a westerly squall which soon turned into a front passed through.

Below the farm a flock of Greylags grazed. Tim demanded we counted all the geese flocks we found on the ground (you can’t include flocks in flight to avoid double counting). By the end of the day this total came to 506, give or take a dozen, which actually is not that great as some 40,000 Greylags winter in Orkney.

Three Redwings popped into view as did a couple of Pheasants. A Blackbird flew away toward the Netherbrough burn valley and ludicrously named Falls of Mananeeban. Though bonnie enough these Falls comprise of a twenty foot wide burn and a six foot drop down over a 60 foot spread. You could walk down it. Niagara need be in no fear.

From Runas Farm we squelched our way to Bosqouy Loch, about half a mile north. We took shelter again as the rain set in but we still managed to see some female Long Tailed Ducks, a nearby Little Grebe, flocks of Lapwings, Wigeon and Teal on the far shore. Also spotted some Tufted Ducks and six more Redwings. Normally Bosqouy is a first class viewing point but with the strengthening south westerly and hard rain our sights were limited today. Retreating lunchward we made our way back up gorse grown lanes to the lee side of St.Michaels Kirk.


As far as we had gone we had actually simply circled as the Kirk is only a few hundred yards from our original starting point back at the community Hall.

We unpacked our prepared grub and tucked in while overlooking the magnificent vista of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney”, or would have been overlooking if not for shrouds of low cloud grey mist and rain. Our fearless leader pointed out a distant farmstead through the gloom and cheerily informed us that would be out post-lunch destination.

While this less than joyous prospect digested two extraordinary things occurred. Out of his cunningly parked vehicle Tim produced a veritable festive feast including warm Mulled wine, hot mince pies and Stolen. We only lacked party hats and crackers. Then as we contemplated the great wisdom and sagacity of our leader the wind shifted to Northerly and blue skies appeared to the Northwest. Emboldened with the prospect of a better afternoon and stuffed with festive fare we set out for distant Ballerat.

The route was via the farmstead of Furso, a clearly wealthy kai farm with a number of huge modern byres. Furso is an oasis for Moorhens and the place to go if you want some quality time with this handsome fowl. Twenty or more scuttled about close by.

As we turned the corner we stopped to count a large flock of Greylags who had been infiltrated by a number of Pink Footed cousins. As we moved on we saw more Greylags, some Snipe overhead and a flock of 30 or so Jackdaws noisily elbowed there way past. We also saw a number of Brown Hares lolloping through nearby fields.

We arrived at Ballerat which is at the South end of Harray Loch to muse on the works of Bard of Ballerat, Geordie Corrigall. West of Ballerat we struck northward and began the last leg of this walk back to the Merkister. By the lochside we saw a flock of tweny five tufted ducks accompanied by a lone Pochard. A clearly homealone Meadow Pipit popped out of the undergrowth probably wondering where everyone else had gone (sooth you fool, for the winter).

At Nistaben we found a flock of 40 or so House Sparrows who clearly enjoyed the food and shelter provided by the farm. As we walked on past Beboran a silent short billed Snipe popped up and landed 100 meters away. This was a Jack Snipe, the smaller cousin to the common Snipe. As we made our passage through a little used and overgrown right of way a tiny and very seasonal Wren refused to give ground or take flight and led us a few feet ahead for the entire length of the path.


We emerged on the road near Bigging Farm and found that the Lyemira Bay in Harray Loch was awash with waterfowl, mostly Wigeon but surprisingly very substantial numbers of Coots, probably in excess of 300. We were now on the west side of Bosquouy where flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwings were roosting. A single Raven kept a watchful eye as the Sun began to set. Our return to the Lay-bys caused some Moorhens to scuttle to cover, and it was time for us to do the same.

The Wren: King of Birds and Christmas Folklore


The wren, the wren the king of all birds
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the firs.
Although he is little, his honour is great
Jump up me lads and give us a treat!

All the wise Winter Wrens in the Medieval British Isles did their best to spend the day after Christmas, the feast of St. Stephen, still and quiet, deep in their favourite hedgerow for the “Wrenboys” were out to get them. Each year, on the morning of December 26th, a mob of boys chased the first Winter Wren they found through ditches and hedges, over hill and dale, until the bird dropped dead from exhaustion and fright or one of the boys got close enough to deliver a good smack with a stick.

Once they had their wren, the bird was stuck on a pole and paraded around town while the Wrenboys sang the Wren Song. If the people of the town knew what was good for them, when the Wrenboys appeared on their doorstep, they gave them a treat of food or drink in exchange for a feather plucked from the body of the wren.

This ritual called “Hunting the Wren” or sometimes just “The Wren,” was held in honour of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. According to Irish folklore, when St. Stephen was running for his life from the mob intent on killing him, he saw a holly bush that he figured would make a perfect hiding place. Sure enough, the mob ran past the holly bush and Stephen breathed a sigh of relief. Just then, a Winter Wren began flapping his wings and calling noisily. The mob turned on its heels, found Stephen, and ensured his martyrdom.

Celtic tribes hunted the wren for centuries before the first Christian missionaries arrived on Ireland’s shores. But their motivations were a little different from those of their descendants. Like many of our aspiring politicians today, the Celts were in favour of time limits for their leaders.

Every seven years the Celtic king was ritually sacrificed at a public ceremony in order to make way for the new king. The wren, as king of the birds, was a protected creature, but on the day the king was killed, a wren would also be sacrificed and put on parade. If you couldn’t get close enough to see the real sacrifice, you could at least take part in the symbolic sacrifice.

As was the case with many pre-Christian rituals, The Wren was modified in order to comply with the new religious codes. Rather than celebrating the ritual sacrifice of a pagan king, the Christian Saint Stephen became the core around which The Wren practice revolved.

Even further back mythologists conject that the concept arrived in the British Isles during the Bronze age through prehistoric trade routes from the Mediterranean and reflected the death of dark earth powers and the beginning of a new season of light. As the timing coincides with the general midwinter solstice this seems a likely starting point to the tradition.

To discover how the wren became King of the Birds according to folklore, the bird world decided to hold a congress at which they would choose a King. It was put to a vote and agreed that the bird who could fly the highest for the longest amount of time would be crowned King. Off they went, each bird trying to out fly the other.

All the birds but the Eagle had soon given up, and the Eagle, too, though triumphant, finally tired and started his descent. At that very moment the Wren leapt from his hiding place in the Eagle’s tail, circled up just a little bit higher than his raptor carriage, and stole the crown. Thus the Wrenboys sing,

“Although he is little, his honour is great.”

In a version of the story that echoes the St. Stephen myth, a band of Irish warriors sneaking up on a camp of sleeping Vikings were betrayed by a wren that beat its wings on their shields. Likewise, there are numerous versions of the song “Hunting the Wren.”

Since the wren is a symbol of royalty, singing The Wren song was a safe way for peasants to express their unhappiness with their king without being drawn and quartered. In one particularly bloody version called “Cutty Wren,” the wren is killed “With great guns and great cannon,” carried away “On four strong men’s shoulders,” its wings and ribs divided up and given to the people.

The revolutionary versions of the wren songs can be traced back to periods of English history marked by social unrest and peasant revolts. Often, characters such as Robin Hood are central figures.

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