Frequently Asked Questions
1. When is the Festival and how long can I stay?
The 2020 Festival dates are: Monday 27th July - Friday 7th August
2. How do I book a place?
We will have a sign-up form on this site. Some subsidized volunteer places may be available
3. How do I get in touch?
You can fill in the enquiry form - click here
You can call the Festival Phone (a dedicated number) on 07762 285 0500. We answer the phones from 6pm-8pm weekdays only before the festival.
You can go to the Facebook page for the Festival, search for North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival and message us there.
N.B. Please do not call the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory for Sheep Festival enquiries- only for booking accommodation.
4. How can I get to the island?
There are daily flights and a twice-weekly ferry service to North Ronaldsay from mainland Orkney.
There are various ways to get to mainland Orkney. There are frequent flights from major cities to Kirkwall airport (Mainland Orkney) and a ferry service from Thurso or Gills Bay or Aberdeen, again to Mainland Orkney.
The following links will help you plan your journey:
5. Where can I stay?
There are a number of accommodation options on North Ronaldsay.
For a full list of private rental properties click here: www.northronaldsay.co.uk/accomodation.html
The Bird Observatory 01857 633 200
There will be beds available at the Bird Observatory, located either in the main Guesthouse as en-suite bedrooms or in the Observatory Hostel, where bunk beds allow 4 people or 2 people to share a room. The Hostel has two separate shower and toilet rooms and a well-appointed kitchen. You can either self-cater or join those staying in the Observatory Guesthouse for breakfast and dinner (at additional cost). The Observatory has a grass camping area and two areas of hard standing, with power hook-up, for motorised homes and caravans.
The Lighthouse Cottages 01857 633 257
The island also has accommodation available at the Lighthouse (located at the north end of the island and therefore about 3.5 miles distant from the Observatory)
6. What, exactly, is the Dyke? What is its purpose and why does it need repairing?
The North Ronaldsay Sheepdyke is a Grade A listed structure (equivalent to English Grade 1 listing). It is thought to be the longest drystone wall in the world, measuring over 13 miles. Constructed by hand in 1832, the Sheepdyke is essential in the traditional day to day management of the native sheep, allowing a unique management system by keeping the communal flock on the foreshore to graze on seaweed. The North Ronaldsay breed has evolved to extract everything they need from the seaweed and in the process developed a susceptibility to copper poisoning if returned to a grass diet for an extended period. The Sheepdyke is an essential barrier to maintain this centuries-old system, as well as ensuring genetic purity from other sheep breeds kept on inland pastures.
The Dyke is often weakened by wave and wind action during the stormy winter months and by sheep trying to jump and scramble over it. Even a small gap can grow quickly as the stones around it no longer have their neighbours for support. Our work is to close up gaps of any size and to re-build weak sections of the Dyke that are vulnerable. Traditionally, this work is done by coastal landowners and shepherds, but with an ageing island population, there are no longer sufficient numbers to maintain the structure. The community now urgently needs outside help.
7. Will I be shown what to do when building the Dyke?
You certainly will! You do not need any previous experience- just a willingness to listen, to look and to understand that every job is important in the smooth running of the build. Each year there is a mix of experienced builders, returning volunteers and new faces that all bring their time and effort to the Dyke. You can choose to work alone, or in a small group of builders, or to spend your time sourcing and carrying stone to the wall, or to help in clearing the rough ground on the proposed route of the wall.
Just work to your ability and don’t hesitate to ask for help and guidance if you need it. Every expert started as a beginner once!
The most prevalent stone found on the shore is a hard sandstone which, over time and with wave action, splits into useful slabs and pieces- perfect for dry stone Dyking.
The traditional building technique means that there is no need for any mortar or cement, as it relies on the careful placement of interlocking and overlapping stones for its strength. A well-built section of wall can last many, many years, serving as both a barrier to the sheep and as a haven for wildlife, who use its many gaps and cracks to make a home and as a protective shelter.
8. What will I be expected to do?
Each day, before you start work, you will need to check in for the day and be given important news and to sign up for trips and events. It is important that you attend so we know how many volunteers will be with us that day. There will also be a contact person in each Dyke work party who can help with general enquiries.
The festival provides transport which will take you to that day's chosen site. Sometimes the group is split up to work on separate projects or to collect stone from another part of the shore.
The workday itself is divided into two sessions of approximately 3 hours each. If you hold a subsidised place then you are expected to work for the full day (total 6 hours) and for the number of days for which you are subsidised. If not, you can join either or both sessions as you choose
9. What do I need to bring?
It's a working holiday, so you need to bring clothes that can get dirty and that can take possibly rough use. Boots or shoes with steel toe caps are essential, to protect your feet. The Festival will provide all volunteers with essential safety gloves (the Observatory shop also stock them). Feel free to bring your own if you wish, in a style that suits you. Good gloves are a very important item of safety equipment as the stones can have sharp edges and you'll be lifting a lot of them!
In the evenings and for 'time off', it's casual clothes. Bring books, a guitar, a fiddle, money for the bar and the shop (debit cards and major credit cards are accepted as well). Binoculars for the wildlife…
North Ronaldsay has poorer mobile reception and a slower internet connection than you may be used to! Big picture files and videos may not send as quickly as on mainland UK.
10. Do I need insurance?
The Sheep Festival has Public Liability insurance in place for all staff and volunteers. You should make your own arrangements for travel insurance, personal belongings insurance, etc.
11. How do I travel around the island?
You can, if you wish, get to all parts of the island on foot. However, bikes can be hired on the island and there is a minibus taxi that can be booked by phone.
Bike hire: Alex 07809 770 082 or email
Minibus taxi: Tommy Muir 01857 633 244
12. I have special dietary requirements. Will this be a problem?
If you have any specific dietary requirements it is essential that you inform your place of stay, if you are being catered for. If you hold a subsidised place, it is important that you let us know in advance so that suitable supplies can be shipped to the island. In addition, you will be able to record your dietary needs on the required medical form.
In the unlikely event that your needs cannot be met, there are self-catering options available on the island and the shop can order supplies of your behalf in advance of your trip.
13. Is there a shop where I can buy provisions?
The Island shop is located at the Observatory and is open daily at the following times:
Every day, 12pm-2pm.
Tuesdays, 12pm-4pm (because of the ferry arriving)
There is a wide selection of tinned and packet goods, sweets and biscuits, dairy products, meat and fresh vegetables (which arrive on the ferry twice a week), household items and branded NRBO clothing including hats, T-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts and more!
14. What do I do in the evenings?
There is plenty to do during the festival. We have just released the programme for 2019 and you can find it here.
Activities include knitting and felting workshops, evening talks, traditional music sessions (open mic nights), film nights, chocolate workshops, wildlife walks, bake-off competition, and the infamous island football match.
15. What else is there to do on the island?
There is plenty to do and see on North Ronaldsay. At the north end of the island is the tallest land-based lighthouse in the UK. In the same complex, there is a café, visitor centre and wool mill. Tours can be arranged of the lighthouse and the wool mill. In the New Kirk, near the airport is an archive exhibition about the history of the island and its people. There are numerous archaeological sites on North Ronaldsay. For more information please visit www.northronaldsay.co.uk
16. Where can I get a cup of tea and a bite to eat on the island?
Both the Bird Observatory and the Lighthouse café serve tea and light snacks throughout the day.
17. What will the weather be like? How should I dress?
Be prepared for all weather conditions as Orkney is well known for having changeable weather. Be prepared by bringing sunscreen as we have had warm, glorious sunshine during the last three festivals.
18. What are the medical facilities on the island?
Firstly, please make all necessary staff aware of any medical conditions and allergies that you may have so that they can plan accordingly. The island has a full-time Nurse Practitioner, who can be reached by phone, and who can carry out First Aid before deciding whether or not a trip to the Mainland is required. In a real emergency, an airlift is arranged via Air Ambulance or Coastguard.
A First Aid kit accompanies each group of volunteers during Dyke work.
Surgery 01857 633 226 (Landline)
Mobile 07876 651 885 (Bernie. Nurse Practitioner)
19. Where can I share pictures of the Festival?
Festival goers can join the Sheep Festival Community Group on Facebook and share pictures there. Please be sure that you have the permission of persons photographed before you share them. If you have some brilliant shots you are happy to share with us, please send them to the festival.