Stroma, Scotland

From Academic Kids

The island of Stroma, or Straumsey which in the Norse means ‘Island in the Stream' or Current, is the southern of the two islands situated in the Pentland Firth between the Orkney Islands and Caithness on the Scottish mainland. As such it is part of Caithness while its neighbour, Swona, to the north, is part of the Orkney Islands. The Island is about 2˝ mls long by a mile wide with a maximum elevation of 51 metres.

The island was populated for a number of years, with a maximum population of about 550 reduced to around 375 in 1901. The last two families left around 1962 with the majority having left shortly before to seek employment on the recently started construction of the Dounreay power station. Ironically this was shortly after the construction of the new harbour at the south end of the island. The Lighthouse at the Northern end of the island was automated in 1996 removing the last human presence. The island is owned by a Caithness farmer and being uninhabited is used for the grazing of sheep. The original slipway at the north eastern part of the island is still in use with the boat used for transporting the sheep pulled out of the water for the winter. During the summer months this boat and another one are used to take day visitors to the island from Gills Bay as well as those working with the sheep. Visits can be arranged through the owners or the Pier Master at Gills Bay.

The number of ruined houses show how well populated the island was at one time. In the centre of the island is the church, distinguished by its bell-tower. Situated next to the church is the Manse which is kept habitable for use by those visiting the island to care for the sheep, being used particularly at lambing time. At the south east corner, not far from the new harbour, can be seen the walled graveyard with the mausoleum which is the tomb of the Kennedies who owned the island in the 1600’s. Having been uninhabited for so long Stroma is now a conservation area with an area fenced off from the sheep to protect the rare plants which grow there.

Being situated in the tidal stream in the Pentland Firth a tidal race is present at both the North and South ends of the island being minimal briefly at the turn of the tide. The race at the north end known as ‘The Swilkie’, off Swilkie Point can be particularly violent. The whirlpool of the same name was, according to a Viking legend, caused by a sea-witch turning the mill wheels which ground the salt to keep the seas salty. Between the races is a calm eddy which extends down tide as the tide strengthens. The races are highly visible with over falls and whirlpools. Large swell waves can also be present, especially in bad weather conditions. When entering or leaving the eddies crossing the races even large powerful vessels can be pushed off course, such is the demarcation between the relatively calm eddy and the fast moving tide in the races.

There are about sixty known wrecks around Stroma the latest of which, the Danish coaster ‘Bettina Danica’ occurred in January 1993. Fortunately no lives were lost and the vessel remained relatively intact until 1997. At present (2005) only the stern section can be seen on its side at the foot of the cliffs on the west side of the island near its southern tip.

Being uninhabited there is usually no regular access to the island however the ferry from Gills Bay, near John O’Groats, to St Margaret’s Hope usually passes close to the island. Which side of the island it passes on is dependant on the tidal direction at the time. A boat from John O’Groats also visits the island on wildlife adventure tours during the summer months.

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