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Cantick Sound, from South Walls, with Switha beyond
Cantick Sound, from South Walls, with Switha beyond
Switha is located in Orkney Islands
Switha shown within Orkney
OS grid reference ND365905
Coordinates 58°47′53″N 3°05′53″W / 58.798°N 3.098°W / 58.798; -3.098
Physical geography
Island group Orkney
Area 41 hectares (0.16 sq mi)
Area rank 217= [1]
Highest elevation 28 metres (92 ft)
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Country Scotland
Council area Orkney Islands
Population 0[2]
References [3][4]

Switha is a small uninhabited island towards the south of Orkney, Scotland, approximately 41 hectares in area.

Geography and geology[edit]

Switha lies 2 km to the south of the island of Flotta and 2 km east of the South Walls area of Hoy. South Ronaldsay lies about 5 km further east. The island is roughly rectangular in shape, about 1 km by 0.5 km in size and is aligned in a NE to SW direction. The maximum elevation is 28m, found on the small cliff on the south coast, to the west of which is the only appreciable beach at The Pool. Geologically, the island is wholly of Old Red Sandstone, from the Devonian period, specifically Rousay Flagstones, dating from about 375 mya, laid down by a cyclical series of lakes and containing many fish fossils.[5]


The island is predominantly maritime grassland with small areas of heath and bog.[6]


Switha is very important for wildlife and has been designated both as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)[7] and an EU Special Protection Area.[8][9] The primary reason for this is the wintering population of Greenland barnacle goose. About 1000 of the birds are thought to spend the winter months roosting on the island and feeding on nearby South Walls.[10] This population is not only the most northerly in the UK but also the third largest after Islay and North Uist. Common seabirds known to frequent the rocky coast line include black guillemot, great black-backed gull, Arctic skua and great skua. In addition, Haswell-Smith records that there are many European storm petrel burrows. However, several surveys since the late 1960s have only revealed a small number of pairs on the island, probably never more than 10.[11] The burrows are probably more likely to belong to the puffin, which are reported to be resident on the island in some numbers, with about 250 pairs.[12]



The presence Neolithic standing stones and a cairn show that the island was at least visited in prehistoric times. There are two standing stones, the larger, southerly stone is 147 cm high, by 91 cm wide and 30 cm deep.[13] The northerly stone is 112 cm high, 48 cm wide and just 15 cm deep and is thus somewhat smaller.[14] Further evidence of pre-historic use is provided by the presence of a 9m diameter X 0.5 m high turf covered cairn, near The Ool at the southern tip of the island. When excavated the cairn contained a cist-like structure.[15]

Haswell-Smith (2004) maintains there is no written record of any post-Neolithic habitation,[3] and there are 3 further sources that would support that assertion, at least for the past 350 years. The Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654, states that he island is "neither inhabited nor cultivated",;[16] The Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland, published in 1848, states that the island is uninhabited;[17] Finally the Ordnance survey map of 1882 doesn't indicate any significant building or habitation, although the enclosure mentioned below would seem to be present.[18] Whether the island was uninhabited prior to 1654 is less certain since the "Descriptions of Orkney", written in 1529, states that the entire population of an island, "Southay" presumed to refer to Switha, is said to have died while sailing to a Christmas celebration on a neighboring island, and the island had never been populated since.[19] In addition there are archeological remains that could represent old dwellings, for instance a stone closure at the southern end of the island.[20]

Agricultural use[edit]

The island would seem to have had a long history of use for agriculture, at least for keeping stock. In current times the island is wholly used for sheep grazing, as stated by Haswell-Smith (2004). Older texts support the island's use for other livestock however, for instance it is recorded that in 1747-48, 11 oxen were kept on Switha, part of the Burray inventory.[21]


  1. ^ Area and population ranks: there are c. 300 islands over 20 ha in extent and 93 permanently inhabited islands were listed in the 2011 census.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ a b Haswell-Smith (2004) pp. 339-41
  4. ^ Ordnance Survey: Landranger map sheet 7 Orkney (Southern Isles) (Map). Ordnance Survey. 2008. ISBN 9780319228135. 
  5. ^ "Geology of Orkney". Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  6. ^ "Orkney government SSSI report". Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  7. ^ "SSSI details at Scottish Natural Heritage". Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  8. ^ "JNCC SPA report on Switha". Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  9. ^ "JNCC SPA standard data form for Switha" (PDF). Retrieved 10 February 2014. 
  10. ^ "Greenland Barnacle Geese in Scotland in 2008" (PDF). Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  11. ^ "JNCC report on European Storm Petrel distribution" (PDF). Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  12. ^ Harris, Mike, "The Puffin" in Harris, Mike (2011) p. 49
  13. ^ "Site record for Southerly stone". Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  14. ^ "Site record for northerly stone". Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  15. ^ "Site record for cairn". Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  16. ^ "Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654". Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  17. ^ "Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland, p. 663". Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  18. ^ "1882 six-inch to the mile Ordnance survey map CXXIII". Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  19. ^ Jo Ben (1529) " Jo Ben's 1529 "Descriptions of Orkney: Southay". Orkneyjar. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  20. ^ "Site record for possible enclosure". Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  21. ^ Fenton, Alexander. The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. p. 318. ISBN 1862320586. 


Coordinates: 58°47′50″N 3°06′02″W / 58.79734°N 3.10054°W / 58.79734; -3.10054