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Travel: Far from the madding crowd; Mary Murtagh gives her 'seal' of approval to a tiny island chain off the coast of Scotland.

I DON'T mind admitting that I panicked as eight stone of wild-eyed ramran straight at me on a North Ronaldsay beach.

I was supposed to be helping with the annual sheep punding on this tiny, fascinating and most northernly island of the Orkney archipelago.

But my city slicker's contribution to rounding up this unique breed was, frankly, laughable.

I was lousy at corralling them but I was good at eating them.

The mutton from the hardy semi-wild sheep is melt-in-the-mouth.

I spent only 48 hours on North Ronald say but those two days will stay with me forever.

To spend some time here is to enjoy an increasingly rare slower pace of life where strangers always say hello, cars and houses are left unlocked, and where the weather rules.

We walked around the island in a day, strolling on beautiful empty beaches with white sand and clear turquoise waters, meeting curious seals and startling sheep.

Our base was the Bird Observatory, one of the best places in the UK to watch our feathered friends but also a friendly hostel with fantastic home-cooked food.

The 15-minute flight here is part of the experience. I've driven cars bigger than the compact eight-seater Loganair Islander plane that got us there. The pilot held the door open for me as we left the terminal and made our way across the tarmac. And the view from the air on a clear day is spectacular with the archipelago stretching out ahead of you.

Back on the Orkney mainland our two bases were the lovely Hildeval B&B run by the even lovelier Gerry and Shirley Mc Guinness.

We also stayed at the Shore Hotel on the water front, with its modern rooms, charming staff and yummy bar food.

From there we used the Orkney Ferries, hopping on and off their reliable vessels all week.

We went aboard the tiny ferry Graem say to travel to the tiny island (pop 22!) of the same name.

We'd been told seals love whistling and will follow you if you play them a tune.

And I can confirm that they do, indeed, love an out-of-tune rendition of Green sleeves. At one point we had eight in tow just a few metres out from the beach.

Magical.

Westray was next. The island is crisscrossed with spectacular walks taking you past fantastic sea stacks and caves. At certain times of the year there are puffins galore swirling around just off-shore.

Our base here was No 1 Broughton B&B.

It sits on the water's edge and has a dining room view of fabulous sunsets Hosts Sheila and Jerry use the fruit and vegetables from their amazing plot to dish up mouthwatering food for every meal.

Westray's little sister is Papa Westray - another tiny island that can be conquered in a day.

It is travel writer Bill Bryson's favourite spot in Britain and it's not hard to see why.

It lies roughly on the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway and its attractions include the Knap of Howar - still regarded as the oldest standing house in northwest Europe - and the North Hill bird sanctuary with its terns, puffins and great skuas plus a rare colony of the beautiful Primula scotica flower.

Finally, we had to leave Orkney but travelling home on the North Link Ferries took the sting out of the tail.

The giant ferries that ply the challenging waters between Aberdeen and Kirkwall are cruise-liner like.

In the summer months I've stood on deck for almost the entire journey watching Aberdeen disappear before finally spotting the lit buoys and shadowy outlines of islands that tell me I've reached the magical isles of Orkney.

In fact the only thing that really draws me indoors is the outstanding on-board restaurant, with much of the island's fantastic fish on the menu, and the gorgeous Orkney beer in the bar.

I'm already planning my return. Now where have I put my shepherd's crook?

Travel Tips

Contact North link Ferries on 0845 6000 449 or www.northlinkferries.co.uk.

To find out more about Orkney, log on to www.visitorkney.com where all the accommodation mentioned can be booked.

CAPTION(S):

TOP VIEW: A sea stack off the northern coast of Westray; SEA LINK: The ferry to the Orkneys; NORTHERN EXPOSURE: The view from the island of Graemsay (pop 22)
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Oct 14, 2008
Words:723
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