Sunday, 17 May 2009
The ladder down to the boat felt precarious, despite being firmly bolted to the side of the pier. Stomach lurched and knee ligaments tugged hard as I stepped aboard.
Passengers loaded (five of us), Roy fired up the Golden Way's engine and we rumbled away from Rapness in the warm Orkney sunshine into Weatherness Sound, water smacking gently an arm's reach away against the side of the boat, towards the island of Faray.
"It's my last year in Faray," said Marcus last March as we cut up a leg of pork. " Why don't you come over and have a look round for a day."
Faray lies tucked neatly between Westray and Eday, about a mile from each. The island was noted in the 16th century as being excellent for grazing cattle and supported a population of nearly 90 in the late 1800s, but declined rapidly in the 20th century.
By the end of the Second World War, the school had closed, families had deserted and the last inhabitant left - not without some persuasion from the authorities - in 1947. Faray was left to seabirds, seals and an increasingly wild flock of sheep.
In 1971, Marcus took up the lease and has knocked the sheep side of things into shape. He has 600 ewes on Faray and Faray Holm (connected by a causeway at low tide) and he spends the whole of May there each year seeing to the lambing. His daughter Ruth and some Westray folk go out to help, many leaving their mark on the sheep sheds - "JHS was here May '07".
Back on the Golden Way in May 2009, we found our way around the north end of Faray Holm, chugging down the rocky east coast, past shags, black guillemots and a large grey seal colony in Lavey Sound between the islands. The seals not hauled out on the rocks bob up in the water to get a view of us as we pass. The binoculars were out.
Ten minutes later the boat turned and we headed for what seemed to be a cave, stopping just short as the Golden Way crept up to a rocky outcrop. . .
The pig "farmer" stumbled ashore and took some time to regain his balance, earning a mild reprimand from Marcus for not helping Sal off the boat. We clambered up the rocks and trudged a few hundred yards to the old school. . .
. . . re-roofed and kitted out as a basic home for one month a year, where we were offered coffee, home-made biscuits and a potted history of Faray.
A tour of the sheep pens later, we headed south to the far end of the island, pausing at this perfect, sandy beach to admire the arctic terns and a lone arctic skua. . .
. . . before wandering off up the west coast where fulmars clung to the ledges and tussocks and shags stood guard over eggs laid in nests made of seaweed and marine scraps. . .
A couple of hours was enough to take us round most of the island and back to the schoolhouse where we arrived as Marcus and Ruth were hurrying in with two ewes in the trailer. One was ready to lamb and the other was right in the middle of lambing, the youngster's head sticking out, but its legs tucked back, preventing any further progress.
Not long after, the lambs appeared. . .
. . . a bit messy, but healthy. . .
A conversation between Marcus and the pig "farmer" is much like an encounter between university professor and first-year primary school pupil, and it's impossible not to admire his knowledge and his passion for the animals.
He also knows the pig "farmer" well enough now to realise he's just a big kid and, as I admired his ATV (quad bike), he said "ever been on one? Get on."
Perfect. Guess what I want for Christmas.
Thanks to Marcus, Ruth and Roy for a fantastic day. Sometimes one outing is worth two weeks' holiday. It's good to know the farmers from Eday taking over Faray next year will continue much the same way as Marcus has for the last 38 years.