We were due to take a small boat to the island of Swona this morning (Monday 18th August), but unfortunately the weather was not on our side and the dangerous high swells meant we couldn’t sail. We are hoping to try again tomorrow morning but the local skipper Magnus does not look hopeful. The weather gets better later in the week so I’m hopeful we will set foot on Swona soon!
Swona is a tiny island positioned in the notoriously dangerous section of waters called the Pentland Firth. To get to the island you must pass over tidal races, swells and whirlpools, so it has to be a relatively calm day to cross to Swona. The island is just over a mile in length and has high craggy cliffs surrounding it, with a small pier at the ‘Haven’. The island’s name comes from the Norse words, Svíney or Swefney, meaning either Swine or Whale island. Now uninhabited, apart from a herd of feral cattle, the island was populated from Neolithic times until 1974. Rose Cottage was the home of the last two inhabitants. The are around 10 dwellings marked on the OS map, two chapels and one neolithic burial cairn.
Not being able to visit Swona today turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to meet with Cyril Annal this afternoon (who along with his brother is joint owner of the island of Swona). He sat with me for a couple of hours and told me many stories about the islands inhabitants and ways of life. Cyril has an amazing memory for the stories that have been passed down the generations. His grandmother Eva Margaret Rosie grew up on the island and I was shown many photographs of island life from that time. Eva married and moved to nearby South Ronaldsay, but went to stay on Swona each summer. This was to become a family tradition, that carried on so Cyril also enjoyed 6 weeks annual summer holiday on Swona as a boy. I heard tales of survival, love, shipwrecks, hiding away, impatient pastors, a naughty school master and a banished governess. Cyril’s stories are too countless to describe here, but they will bring Swona alive with memories as I finally set foot on it this week. Perhaps some of those rich stories will spill into this blog and my work. If we can’t catch the boat again tomorrow, I’m looking forward to a day in the dusty local archives at Kirkwall Library, discovering more about this gem of a place.