South Ronaldsay is the most southerly of the Orkney Islands, with its main settlement being St Margaret's Hope. It's always been joined by a sandy spit to the island just north, Burray. But during the Second World War a series of causeways, the "Churchill Barriers", was built by Italian POWs to protect Scapa Flow from seaborne attack; so South Ronaldsay, Burray and the two little islands of Lamb Holm and Glims Holm effectively became part of Orkney Mainland.
Mostly these islands are just sheep farms. But such vital sheep! Churchill knew it was illegal to use POW labour for military construction, even if purely defensive. So the official line was that the causeways were just to help farmers move their sheep around, nothing military. And, since they were only completed by the end of the war, and have only served as peacetime roadways, the great man was vindicated.
A961 is the good road along the causeways to Mainland, which has the main town of Kirkwall, the airport, and the ferry port for Aberdeen and Shetland. Bus X1 runs down this road every couple of hours from Stromness and Kirkwall, as far as St Margaret's Hope; it doesn't reach Burwick. Two ferries from the Scottish mainland arrive in South Ronaldsay.
- The car ferry from Gill's Bay lands at St Margaret's Hope 1 . It's operated by Pentland Ferries, runs three times every day, and takes an hour. St Margaret's Hope is 30 min by car or bus X1 to Kirkwall.
- The ferry from John O'Groats lands at Burwick 2 on the south tip of the island. This service, for foot passengers and cyclists only, is operated by Jogferry. It takes only 40 mins and runs May-Sept, three times a day June July & Aug and twice daily in May and Sept; no winter service. A connecting coach runs between Inverness and John O'Groats, then another coach runs on between Burwick and Kirkwall.
Another car ferry runs between Scrabster and Stromness. See "Orkney Islands: Get in" for these and other transport options.
You need your own wheels. Cycling is ideal.
- 1 Tomb of the Eagles (Isbister Chambered Cairn), Liddel KW17 2RW (At south tip of island take B9041). Mar 10:00-12:00, Apr-Sep 09:30-17:30, Oct 09:30-12:30; closed winter. Neolithic remains discovered by Farmer Simison on his land, dating to around 3000 BC. You approach along a scenic clifftop path, passing a Bronze Age site, "Liddel Burnt Mound". The tomb is entered by a low 3m passage: you crawl in or scoot in on a trolley, into the tall burial chamber. Here were found over two dozen human skeletons, and some dozen white-tailed sea-eagles. The eagles date to circa 2000 BC: what was their significance in the lives and rites-of-passage of those people? The mystery remains. Adults £7.50.
- Tomb of the Otters or "Banks Chambered Cairn" lies just south. It's also from circa 3000 BC, and so far is only partially explored. It wasn't sealed, so over the centuries many otters lived and died within, to mingle with the human remains. Open May-Sept 11:00-17:00, adult £6.
- Walk Hoxa Head, the headland 3 miles west of St Margaret's Hope. Follow School Road (B9043) west out of the village to Sands of Wright. A long walk starts here, up along the quiet lane, or drive / cycle to the lane end for a shorter walk. This follows the cliff-top, past the ruins of a WW2 gun battery. It used to be possible to short-cut back across the fields, but this path is nowadays closed off.
Best bet is the two hotels in St Margaret's Hope, see "Sleep". There's nothing in Burray or Burwick.
- Most accommodation on South Ronaldsay is in and around St Margaret's Hope, where there's a collection of small B&Bs.
- 1 The Murray Arms Hotel, Back Rd, St Margaret's Hope KW17 2SP, ☏ . 3-star handy for Gill's Bay ferry.
- The Creel, Front Rd, St. Margaret's Hope KW17 2SL, ☏ . B&B and restaurant on sea-front.
- 2 Wheems Organic Farm, East Side KW17 2TJ, ☏ . Open Apr-Oct, this farm has a campsite, campervan pitches, glamping pods, and the inevitable yurt (Kyrgyzstani style, if you're a connoisseur of these). Also a self-catering loft and cottage. Dogs allowed in some areas. Tent £15.
It's either back along the causeway towards Kirkwall and other parts of Orkney, or take the ferry south to the Scottish mainland.