I HAD often gazed across the Pentland Firth at the low-lying island of Stroma and been met by the blank stare of its windowless, long-abandoned cottages. I'd had close-up views of its coastline on wildlife cruises from John O'Groats. Now, at last, I was getting a chance to step ashore and explore the place.
The Norsemen called it Straumey, "island in the stream", and in earlier times it may have been a base for Pictish seafarers. From more recent history there are colourful tales of smuggling and illicit distilling, and even the macabre presence of mummified bodies. Stroma's population peaked at 375 around the beginning of the 20th century, but by the 1950s it was in serious decline and the last islanders left in 1962.
Although it's only a couple of miles from the north Caithness coast, opportunities to visit Stroma are rare. Highland Council's countryside ranger service organises an annual trip in early summer, with the co-operation of the island's owner, and this year I managed to book a space.
Two boatloads made the crossing from Gills harbour, a dozen of us at a time, on an overcast but mild morning. The firth, notoriously turbulent, was blissfully calm. As we drew closer to Stroma, the air was filled with the frenzied calling of terns and this was to be a constant backdrop throughout the day.
Countryside ranger Katie was leading the walk, and before we set off up the slope from the pier she gathered us round for a brief chat. The harbour itself is a key part of the Stroma story: it was upgraded in the '50s, with the islanders themselves raising some of the money and doing a lot of the manual work, but by then it was too late to halt the exodus. Now the island is used by the owner and his family for grazing sheep.
Most of us were making the trip out of sheer curiosity rather than any direct attachment, but one lady was on a more personal quest: she was visiting Stroma for the first time to see her mother's childhood home.
Our first stop was the Kennedy mausoleum, a gaunt, roofless structure above an inlet on the south-eastern edge of the island. It was built by the Kennedy family after they gained possession of Stroma from the Sinclairs in the 17th century. Bodies were laid to rest above ground here, and apparently the salty air had the effect of mummifying them.
We hiked up past isolated ruined houses to the church. It was built in the 1870s, as was a Baptist chapel, but earlier generations had been rather neglected by the clergy. Certain ungodly habits took root – until they came to the attention of the kirk session on the mainland. In one case, three Stroma women had to do penance for dancing on the Sabbath.
Bearing in mind it would have been a focal point for the island community, the church is a forlorn sight now. A few fragments of stained glass still cling to the upper part of a window frame, while the area outside is cluttered with containers and trailers and fishing equipment. Stroma's lone telephone box stands nearby, rusting away.
After a look at the war memorial we crossed a boggy expanse flecked with cottongrass and full of wild flowers; Katie stopped to point out orchids, lousewort, milkwort, bird's-foot trefoil, tormentil and squill.
Looming ahead on the island's northern tip was the lighthouse, built in the 1890s, and we stopped for lunch on a grassy slope with views to Hoy and Swona. The nearby Swilkie whirlpool – created by an enchanted quernstone turned by two giantesses, if you believe the folklore – has been feared by mariners through the ages. It takes its name from the Norse svelgr, or "swallower".
We were deep in bonxie territory as we made our way over to the west side of the island so we kept our heads down as the great skuas swooped and dived ever closer.
The coastline here is much more rugged. Ledges jutting out from spectacular steep-sided geos were packed with guillemots, razorbills and fulmars.
Little Gloup is a natural feature where the land has been slashed open to leave a deep, potentially treacherous gap several feet wide. Then comes the big one: the Gloup, a gigantic collapsed sea cave, connected to the sea by a high, narrow tunnel. Wily and intrepid islanders kept their distilling equipment away from the prying eyes of the excisemen by hiding it in a secret recess within the Gloup known as the Malt Barn.
On Stroma's south-western extremity we encountered another prominent landmark – a mighty stack on which the Norse stronghold of Castle Mestag once stood, possibly linked to the island by a drawbridge. There's not much left of Mestag, unfortunately. With my binoculars I could make out some remnants of what would have been a south-facing wall.
I broke off from the other walkers and strode up a field to look inside one of the empty houses – exposed to the elements and rotting away, but still with some traces of family life. There were two fireplaces where the last embers had died out well over half a century ago. A wooden dresser remained upright and on its middle shelf were a few jars and tins, encrusted in ever thickening layers of muck. A rusted-up sewing machine sat on the floor. It was sad to see, and it felt almost intrusive to be there.
Time was getting on and the boat was coming in as we skirted the southern coastline, groups of seals watching warily from just offshore.
Warm sunshine had broken through for a while in the afternoon but, as we returned across the firth, low cloud was descending again. Restless waves were rising halfway up the cliffs of Mell Head and the island was slowly fading into a grey haze. We'd had the best of the day.
Perhaps there are too many visible scars of the past for it to be called completely idyllic, but there is a stark beauty to Stroma that makes me determined to go back.
Distance Walk of about 7.5 miles / 12km anticlockwise around the island
Terrain Mostly pathless; boggy in places
Start/finish Gills harbour
Map OS Landranger 12
Getting there There are no regular sailings to Stroma. This was an annual outing run by Highland Council's countryside ranger service in conjunction with the owner of the island. The fare for the boat trip and guided walk was £29
A rare chance to sail across the Pentland Firth to the uninhabited island of Stroma