Hoy Kirk closed but lots of Hoy to enjoy online

Due to the increasing concerns relating to the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and in compliance with advice from the Government, Hoy Kirk Heritage Centre will be shut for the time being.

The defibrillator can be accessed from the back door, all other areas will be locked.

We look forward to opening the doors once more when times are better, but for now we can bring you Hoy Heritage through the website as we use this time to update our content. Take care of yourselves and your neighbours.

There is plenty to enjoy on the Hoy Heritage website including audios and films. Today we have just uploaded Catherine Grivas’ story of her time at the Hoy Inn. Other recent additions to the website are the highly enjoyable tales of Tommy Moar, Margaret Moar and Frankie Sinclair see here.

In older recordings there are the films of Jack Rendall, Jimmy Moar and Jimmy O The Bu’s Polka among others. See here.

In audios you can hear  Jack Rendall talking about the BBC filming the Old Man of Hoy or Mary Mowatt about collecting peats see here.

And if you can’t get out and about just now, you might enjoy a virtual walk joining John Crossley and others in the Hoy hills in the footsteps of botanist James Sinclair.

We’ll soon be bringing you another virtual walk with archaeologist Dan Lee as he walks in the footsteps of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

Bringing the outside inside for those indoors, here with the kind permission of Raymond Beasant and Orkney.com is Raymond’s recent article on mountain hares in Hoy.

Wild Orkney from Orkney.com

After some recent wintry showers, local wildlife photographer Raymond Besant took the opportunity to focus on one special species in its perfect habitat.

It hasn’t been what you might call a traditional winter this year, though it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what a traditional winter is! With its predominantly maritime climate, heavy snowfall isn’t that common in Orkney, yet we would expect the Hoy hills to at least have a dusting through the winter months.

It’s here that we can find one of my favourite species, the mountain hare. Like most land mammals found in Orkney, it has a somewhat complicated history and was mostly likely introduced by people. In fact, records show there have probably been several introductions, the last being between 1898 and 1914. Unlike the brown hare (also found in Orkney, but not in Hoy!), the mountain hare is indigenous to the UK. The population is now well established in the Hoy hills however and now is the perfect time to see them.


Their coat changes from brown to white from October onwards and with little snow cover at the moment they are very conspicuous amongst the dark heather. In fact, mountain hares actually have three moults through the year; a spring moult from white to brown, an autumn moult from brown to brown, and a winter moult from brown to white. However, the moult to winter white, sometimes with a grey/blueish tint, isn’t always even – the head often being the last to change. On a pure white individual only the tips of their long ears remain black.

So, where do you find them? They are widely distributed in Hoy though not found in South Walls as the heather uplands are their preferred habitat. Even here though the distribution isn’t even, most preferring heights of over 250 metres, which in Hoy means heading for Ward Hill or Cuilags. However, I’ve also seen them foraging at sea level, right near the road at Lyrawa Bay.


My favourite place to see them is on the summit of Cuilags, the westernmost hill in Hoy and, at 433 metres, slightly smaller than its cousin Ward Hill at 481 metres. Granted, as far as Scottish hills go, they aren’t very high, but what they lack in height they make up for in steepness. If you want to see mountain hares on Cuilags or Ward Hill you’re going to have to make your calves work! You could always take the path towards the Old Man of Hoy and carry on northwards until you reach Cuilags but that’s quite a walk. I usually park up just north of Sandy Loch, walk the length of the loch then take a hard right straight up the hill.


If you have the time and the stamina, it’s well worth the effort. The views from the tops of these hills are unparalleled in Orkney, with Scapa Flow, the mainland and the north isles spreading out in front of you as you look north. If this sounds like too much effort then you have a very good second and much easier option; just watch the mountain hares from the main road! The only road running north in Hoy takes you past the small loch called the ‘Water of Hoy’. Slow down as the road runs parallel with the coast and look on the hillside to your left. I was here recently and spotted 8 different individuals, feeding and socialising.

Your challenge really starts now if you want to photograph them. The hares on this hillside have a great vantage point and will definitely have seen you coming, so in some ways there’s little point in trying to creep up on them. The ball is firmly in the hare’s court here. My advice is to move slowly but purposefully, walk five metres, stop, take some pictures, walk five metres, stop and take some pictures. Some hares can be very trusting and allow a close approach, others will stand up straight, ears alert and run off over the hill at the first sight of you.


In my experience there is little success to be had in following hares down the hill in the hope of photographing them. I suspect this is to do with their predator escape strategy. Up until the 1980s a pair of golden eagles nested in Hoy. From then the hares only had the odd great skua to worry about, until our resident pair of white-tailed eagles set up home near the Dwarfie Stane a few years ago. The mountain hares now make up a significant part of the diet (along with fulmars) of these magnificent birds of prey. They aren’t an easy catch though and mountain hares will actually run straight up the hill rather than down it if an eagle approaches, making it far harder for the eagle to successfully catch its prey.

The signs of mountain hares are all around. They don’t utilise burrows the way rabbits do but rather make do with what is known as a ‘form’, a shallow depression in the heather. There are plenty of small, rocky outcrops on this hillside and the forms are often found on the western side of these rocks. Droppings are also conspicuous, being larger and rougher looking than those of the rabbit, whilst the beautiful white fur is often found caught in sprigs of heather.

Screenshot 2020-03-21 at 14.43.27

Spend a day in the Hoy hills and you have a great chance of seeing both mountain hares and white-tailed eagles. Try and catch the hares before they become harder to see again, as the next moult back to brown isn’t far around the corner – though it may help them blend in a bit better and avoid the talons of those eagles who should shortly be nest-building.

Find out more about Raymond’s work via his official website.

His new book, ‘Naturally Orkney Volume 2’ is out now, focusing on Orkney’s coastline and all the sights and species that can be found there. You can order your copy online with the Orcadian or for delivery by Stromness Books & Prints on 01856 850565.

Thank you again to Raymond and to Orkney.com for allowing us to reprint this article.

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