Swona, viewed from South Ronaldsay
|OS grid reference||ND387844|
|Norse name||Svíney; Swefney|
|Meaning of name||Pig/whale island; Sweyn's Island|
|Area and summit|
|Area||92 hectares (0.36 sq mi)|
|Highest elevation||Warbister Hill 41 metres (135 ft)|
|Local Authority||Orkney Islands|
Geography and geology
Swona is the more northerly of two islands in the Pentland Firth between the Orkney Islands and Caithness on the Scottish mainland. It lies in the southern approach to Scapa Flow, west of South Ronaldsay.
Situated in the tidal stream of 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. 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.
Swona is about 1.25 miles (2.0 km) long by about 0.5 miles (0.8 km) wide, with a maximum height of approximately 41 metres (135 ft) and an area of about 92 hectares (0.36 sq mi). It is made up of Old Red Sandstone with cliffs on the east coast.
It is administered as part of the Orkney Islands, while Stroma, to the south, is part of the Highland Region (although traditionally part of Caithness). There is no regular access to the island, however, the Pentland Ferries sailing from Gills Bay, near John o' Groats, to St Margaret's Hope usually passes close to the island, dependent on the tidal direction at the time.
There are prehistoric, pre-Norse and Norse remains on the island. as well as the remains of more recent crofting settlement including a herd of feral cattle. The island was populated from around 500 BC until 1974.
Boats were built on the island for a number of years. The last of these, the Hood can be seen pulled well up the shingle beach by the landing stage. It is no longer seaworthy, having a hole in it caused by the feral cows using it as a rubbing post. The landing stage and boat can be seen briefly in passing through a gap in the rocks near the north end of the island on the east side. The last house to be occupied can also be seen in this area.
The island was the site of many shipwrecks caused by the strong currents in the Pentland Firth. In 1931, a 6,000 ton Danish freighter called Pennsylvania was wrecked on the island. The Orkney newspaper of the time said that it was one of the most richly-laden ships that was ever wrecked in the area. After some salvaging, the wreck was finally bought by a syndicate of Stroma and Swona men.
The Swona Minor light was built in 1906 on the south west tip of Swona. It was originally a cast iron tower but was replaced by a reinforced concrete square tower sometime in the 1980s. The earlier Stroma Lighthouse was built in 1896 and stands at the northern end of Stroma island.
In summer 1973 Arthur Rosie left the island and died shortly afterwards. James and Violet Rosie (brother and sister) left in March 1974. James had Parkinsons Disease and died c. 1976 of a perforated stomach ulcer. Violet died c. 1984 in South Ronaldsay. They did not return to the island after they left it. Many of the houses, while in a state of dilapidation, are as they were left, with various possessions still to be seen where they were abandoned.
When the population departed they left a herd of beef cattle - 8 cows and 1 bull (Shorthorn - Aberdeen-Angus cross). Five generations later, in 2004, the herd which had turned feral was still going strong, and is now classified as a new breed in the World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds. It then consisted of ten bulls, four cows, and two calves. Two calves are born each spring, although not all live to maturity. The herd gets no additional feed, although it is checked by a vet each year. The animals are self-selecting for hardiness, easy calving, and low-maintenance, feeding off the grass and seaweed. Having been separated from the mainland for so long, they are completely disease-free, and have reverted to wild behaviour. Because of this, DNA samples have been taken, from the ears of some of the cattle that died. In the summer the main herd is usually in the centre of the island.
By 2012 the herd had settled to an average of 17 animals. This appears to be around the maximum number that the island can support.
- Area and population ranks: there are c. 300 islands >20ha in extent and 93 permanently inhabited islands were listed in the 2011 census.
- National Records of Scotland (15 August 2013) (pdf) Statistical Bulletin: 2011 Census: First Results on Population and Household Estimates for Scotland - Release 1C (Part Two). "Appendix 2: Population and households on Scotland’s inhabited islands". Retrieved 17 August 2013.
- Ordnance Survey. Get-a-map (Map). 1:25,000. Leisure. http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/oswebsite/getamap/. Retrieved 21 August 2013.
- Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 978-1-84195-454-7.
- Anderson, Joseph (Ed.) (1893) Orkneyinga Saga. Translated by Jón A. Hjaltalin & Gilbert Goudie. Edinburgh. James Thin and Mercat Press (1990 reprint). ISBN 0-901824-25-9
- Pedersen, Roy (January 1992) Orkneyjar ok Katanes (map, Inverness, Nevis Print)
- Overview of Swona
- "The Orkney Vikings". Retrieved 2007-12-16.
- "Back to the herd instinct". The Scotsman. 14 June 2003. Retrieved 20 February 2011.
- Mason's World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds, Types and Varieties edited by Valerie Porter, p111
- "A breed apart on Swona" website of BBC Countryfile Magazine, Friday 16th November 2012
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