The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Rackwick, Hoy

Rackwick, on the island of Hoy, sits in a hollow between three hills and faces the wild Atlantic Ocean on the other side.

In Old Norse it means 'wreck bay' and, looking over the sea from the beautiful boulder beach, it is not hard to see why so many ships should founder here.

Looking down on Rackwick. (c) Alistair Holmes.

Rackwick was once a small but thriving fishing and farming community. The men went out to fish in small Orkney yoles.

The houses were typical one-storey buildings with flagstone floors, central hearths and box beds. Roofs were flagged and some of the houses had kilns built next to them.

Most of the crofts had small plantecrues built next to the house. These were enclosures made from beach stones, about waist-high to keep out the wind and salt spray, and used to grow vegetables.

People owned an acre or two of land, and hay, oats and bere were grown on reclaimed land. Most owned a milking cow and a few sheep.

The fishing season was from March to the end of October and some very large fish were caught. These were salted, smoked and preserved, and eaten throughout the winter.

When the boats were spotted returning to the boulder beach, the women would go and meet their men. They waded out waist-deep to help haul the boats up the stony beach.

Lobsters were caught in creels which people carried home on their backs.

Fish were caught on baited lines and birds' eggs were collected from the cliffs. The men of Rackwick were described as 'cragsmen par excellence', known for their daring and bravery. They would be lowered down the cliff on a simmans rope (a rope made from twisted heather or straw). They would collect the eggs in a basket and, when it was full, be pulled up again.

As might be expected, the people living here were self-reliant and administered their own remedies. Rowan berries grow in abundance and a jelly was made from these which was said to have rare medicinal properties.

The Muckle Spring, by the side of the old road to Rackwick, was also believed to have curative qualities for many diseases and it was drunk by the young brides of the parish to ensure fertility. Indeed, Rev JD Anderson, a well-loved minister for over 40 years, was known to carry bottles of it to his manse 'for medicine'.

Long ago, the most common family name locally was Ritch. Local tradition stated that two brothers of the name Ritchie had managed to escape the Crown, the ship wrecked off Deerness in 1679 while transporting Covenanters to America. They made their way to Hoy and changed their name to Ritch to throw the officials off the scent.

As the years progressed, some of the men left for the whaling, others joined the Hudson's Bay Company. Some left the community for good.

At the beginning of the 20th century between 70 and 80 people were living in Rackwick. Nineteen of the houses were inhabited, four were empty. Although small, the hamlet produced two school teachers, a customs officer and seven master mariners.

A Post Office was operated at the north end of Hoy from 1879 and, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an ox-drawn cart was used for postal deliveries in Rackwick.

The community began to decline as people left to find work. In the 1950s the school was closed in tragic circumstances. The only two pupils, two brothers, were travelling down the burn on their home-made raft but, when it reached the site where the burn meets the open sea, it overturned and the boys drowned. The parents left the island soon afterwards.

The school, which had opened in 1872, is now the Rackwick Hostel. Nearby is a small stone building, which was the first school. It is little more than a hut yet, in around 1837, more than 40 pupils were taught here by just one teacher.

It looked very much as if the township would become totally abandoned but in the late 1950s people began to buy up some of the old crofts to create holiday homes. Of the 28 crofts, 18 are now holiday homes and the area is enjoying a new lease of life.

The area is popular with birdwatchers and hill walkers, and residents of Orkney Mainland often pop over to spend a day at Rackwick beach.