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Issue 15 - Going green to keep it clean

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 15
July 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Going green to keep it clean

The remote island of Orkney is leading the way when it comes to conserving the landscape for future generations. Graham Holliday reports

You recycle your empties, you’ve dabbled in organic apples and you ease your conscience with recycled toilet paper occasionally, and that’s as far as it goes. But now you can take a holiday with a conscience – by visiting Orkney.

The British based ‘Green tourism business scheme’, launched in 1998, allows tourists to make informed decisions about where to stay and what to do to make a good holiday a greener one too. The scheme encourages hotels, B&Bs and tourist attractions to run themselves in a more environmentally friendly manner.

The Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, scream wild isolation at every turn and yet boast more members of the green tourism scheme than any other part of Britain. An easily identifiable green plaque in a window or on a wall denotes membership, which makes plotting an environmentally friendly path across the 70 island archipelago painless.

Keith and Kathy Bichan have been operating their unique boat tours out of the small port of Orphir, which overlooks Scapa Flow, since 1997. On a daily basis, Keith chucks the cash equivalent of a top of the range BMW 5 Series overboard only to watch it sink into the depths.

The £40,000 submersible camera, known as the ‘Roving Eye’, is attached to the boat by an umbilical cord and skipper Keith steers it through the depths via the onboard Playstation-like controller.

“It’s normally used in the oil and gas exploration industry,” explains Kathy. “We’re the only place in the world where it is used for tourism.”

It is also the only boat tour in Britain recognised by the green tourism scheme.

And it soon becomes clear why the couple chose Scapa Flow for the venture. As the camera gently whirrs into the abyss, the S.M.S. Dresden looms into view on the live onboard video relay. Visitors sit in front of a television below deck as Keith, a local marine expert and historian, guides ‘the eye’ along the bows of the German battleship now resting on its side.

For wannabe divers who don’t want to get wet the boat trip is a boon.

The seabed is littered with rusting ships torpedoed or scuttled by the German Navy during the first and second world wars. Each year some 3000 divers come to Orkney to dive among the conger eels, seals – known as ‘selkies’ in Orkney – crabs and sea urchins.

Back on dry land and conscious of not burning any more fossil fuel than is absolutely necessary on a ‘green’ holiday, I hire a mountain bike and take the 25 minute ferry from Orkney’s capital Kirkwall over to the low-lying island of Shapinsay.

At only six miles long and three miles wide, the island makes an ideal day out for cyclists. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds manages 13 reserves on seven different Orkney islands, including Mill Dam on Shapinsay. The small, well-equipped hide overlooking the dam is just 10 minutes bike ride from the ferry terminal and home to whooper swans, hen harriers, water rail and the rare pintail.

The figure I meet lugging a large telescope down to the hide is Louise Hollinrake. Louise and husband Paul moved to Shapinsay from England 17 years ago to run a farm before starting their wildlife and archaeology tourism company, ‘Orkney Island Holidays’ in 1996.

“Visitors like to come in the summer for the weather and in October because the seals are pupping,” says the keen naturalist. “It’s good for birds all year round, but the best time is between May and July, the breeding months.”

Orkney is one of the last retreats of the corncrake.

“We had one here some time ago,” says Louise pointing to the southern end of the dam where a family of shoveler ducks are paddling among the reeds. “But it just sat on the edges of the reserve without entering.” Once a common summer visitor to Britain, modern farming methods destroy nesting sites and habitat. The bird is now threatened not only in Scotland but also globally. A locally developed ‘Corncrake Action Plan’ aims to help the bird establish a foothold on neighbouring Egilsay Island.

A short cycle ride further south on Shapinsay finds another natural rarity. “We don’t know what kind they are,” the Lady Laird of Balfour Castle, Patricia Lidderdale explains pointing to a plethora of different apple trees, some of which are 150 years old, growing in her stunning Victorian
kitchen garden.

“We can’t find anything recorded anywhere, but we think there could be one or more very rare species here.” She hopes a recent visit by a British apple expert will help procure funding to research the mysterious green fruit further. “It would be great to discover we have a native Shapinsay apple in our very own garden,” she adds.

Balfour Castle is the world’s most northerly castle hotel and was completed in 1848. It oozes clannish charm from its prominent position with views over to Kirkwall.

It isn’t part of the green tourism scheme yet, however the kitchen has a head start as it is self sufficient in gooseberries, beetroot, lettuce and all manner of other produce from the castle gardens. At Balfour, carrots taste like carrots and the home-made raspberry jam is to die for.

“The only thing we can’t grow is tomatoes,” says Lidderdale. “Most guests relish the fact that much of their dinner is picked from the garden only hours earlier.”

The six guest rooms, including ‘The Laird’s room’ complete with family crest and four-poster bed, are a hodgepodge of creaking, panelled floors, ancestral knick-knacks, stuffed salmon and deer antlers. New York City high-fliers and Austrian heart surgeons are among the guests who return year upon year to shed stress.

Yet to overdose on history I arrive back on the mainland in time to visit Maeshowe. Historic Scotland, a governmental organisation set up to preserve Scotland’s ancient heritage, has almost all of its sites and visitor centres accredited under the green scheme, including Maeshowe.

The ancient sarcophagus of Maeshowe was built in 2,700 BC, and is one of the finest chambered tombs in Europe. It is also home to the largest collection of runic inscriptions anywhere in the world.

The Vikings arrived in the 12th century and left their mark on the walls of the chamber. Translation by the Historic Scotland guide reveals that neither Norse humour, nor primordial poetry was particularly sophisticated back then. A sample of some of the 30 inscriptions read, “Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes” and “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women”.

Graffiti might not have evolved much in the intervening 1,000 years, but the responsible tourism sector has. And, in Scotland at least, it’s Orkney with its historical and natural attractions, with the help of an innovative scheme, that is setting the standard.


Roving Eye Enterprises
Westrow Lodge. Orphir
Tel: +44 (0)1856 811 360
£25 per person approx. 3 hours

Maeshowe, Stenness
Tel: +44 (0)1856 761 606
Admission £3.00

Orkney Island Holidays operate wildlife and archaeology tours
Tel: +44 (0)1856 711 373

Wildabout Orkney History Tours
Tel: +44 (0)1856 850 583


Green Tourism Business Scheme:
Tel: +44 (0)1463 723 040
There are 20 members of the scheme in Orkney. For a Scotland-wide listing email:

Foveran Hotel, Nr Kirkwall, St. Ola
Tel: +44 (0)1856 872 389

Lav’rockha Guest House, Kirkwall
Tel: +44 (0)1856 876103

Girnigoe, Shapinsay B&B
Tel: +44 (0)1856 711 256

Balfour Castle, Shapinsay
Tel: +44 (0)1856 711 282


Creel Inn & Restaurant
Front Road, St. Margaret’s Hope
Superb seaweed-fed lamb dishes, hand-dived scallops, divine roasted monkfish tails in a chervil sauce and more.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 831 311

Foveran Hotel
Nr Kirkwall, St. Ola
Prime Orkney beef and lamb, vegetarian dishes. Ala carte menu. Lobster is available with prior notice.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 872 389


Getting there:

Flights to/from Orkney are operated by Loganair
Tel: +44 (0)845 773 3377

From US and Canada, try
Tel: +1-0800-airways

Regular ferry services operate from mainland Scotland:

Scrabster Harbour, near Thurso to Stromness
Tel: +44 (0)1856 885 500

John O’ Groats to Burwick
(passengers only)
Tel: +44 (0)1955 611 353

Gills Bay Harbour to St. Margarets Hope
Tel: +44 (0)1856 831 226

More information:
Orkney Tourist Board:
Tel: +44 (0)1856 872 856