Veterinary work takes place in a wide range of settings, each with their own challenges. We’ve invited Cassandra Longhi to give us an insight into being a vet in the Orkney islands. Here’s her account of working in the uniquely rugged and beautiful part of the world and why she chose Orkney.

Where it all began

When I qualified as a vet in Italy back in 2010, I knew I wanted to be a farm vet and work in Scotland for a while, but I would have never guessed that my career path would have taken me back for good. Having spent a year studying in Edinburgh before my planned return to Italy, I fell in love with this Country and vowed I’d be back. Little did I know that after a convoluted path involving a PhD (also in Scotland) and farm vetting in South West England, we’d make another move across the country a good 700 miles from our little Devon village to the Orkney Isles. What a move!

Trying to organise a removal company, never mind involving ferries, with two children under 4 and my husband working 6-days weeks, through a pandemic – I wouldn’t like to repeat the experience any time soon! Luckily, I have found that Orkney has the most welcoming people anyone could ask to meet and given the fantastic scenery that meets you at every corner, the wild and exhilarating weather and the interesting farm work, I know I’ve found this vet’s final home.

Where is Orkney?

Orkney is an archipelago of several larger islands and many smaller, craggy ones just off the northern tip of mainland Scotland. Easily connected to the rest of the UK by ferries and planes (though travel has been very restricted in the last year for obvious reasons), Orkney is a paradise in disguise. Probably for the best, as some locals like to keep reminding me in jest, otherwise there would soon be no space left!

When you look at photos of the endless blue sky over white sandy beaches, with the sea a sparkling turquoise (the water is so clean) you can’t help but think of a tropical paradise. Perhaps the seals and the lack of palm trees should give away the fact that the temperatures are less than tropical; at the time of writing we are enjoying “balmy” 10°C days and I still haven’t taken my winter duvet off the bed.

Vet work in Orkney

So what enticed me to seek veterinary work in this beautiful yet somewhat remote area, far from family and friends? I must admit that the possibility of boat and plane trips have had some weight in the decision – what a way to commute to work! Orkney also has a thriving beef cattle population (the highest density in Europe, according to one of the directors in my practice) – certainly more cows than people – and plenty sheep to keep me happy too. Most of these animals will give birth in spring, ensuring a flush of babies to keep farmers and vets very busy.

The practice where I work at is based on Orkney Mainland, which is the largest island of the archipelago; we spend most of the time with clients here and on the linked Isles (linked to mainland by the Churchill barriers – these are causeways that tend not to get flooded with the tides). The practice is mixed, so we’ll see any type of animal, but I chose to be mainly a farm vet so I spend most of my time out and about.

We also have a number of clients on the other islands, which means at more or less regular intervals a vet is shipped off on a ferry or plane to carry out routine or emergency work. We all try to take turns to keep things fair, though the super-efficient iron lady who runs the bookings system usually has the final say over who goes where – it pays to keep on her good side!

A Jet setter life style

Last week I had what I thought had to be the best example of a day as an island vet yet. After dropping off my children at daycare, I started off with a bull castration not far from the main surgery in Kirkwall, soon to head over the Churchill barriers to one of the furthest farms in the South Isles, at the very southern tip of South Ronaldsay. It occurred to me as I was driving there that on that day I would be going to both the islands of South and North Ronaldsay.

The trick here is that South Ronaldsay is one of the linked isles so you can drive there and back, and North Ronaldsay is the furthest north of all the Orkney Isles, usually connected by plane as the boat only goes once or twice a week. How to mark this special occasion? For lack of a celebratory glass of prosecco (which would be frowned upon when on duty, plus driving), I thought that it would be fun to make a point of going to take photos at both ends of the country – for Orkney that is! 

So here I was…

Before finishing work in South Ronaldsay I stepped out of my car and went to take a photo looking South towards mainland Scotland, before heading back to Kirkwall airport and board my flight to North Ronaldsay. I had to prepare a holdall bag to carry equipment and wellies, as one of the things I am still trying to learn is how to predict what might be needed when you are a long way away from your car and the rest of all your kit!

When we board a ferry to another island we usually take our car across, so there is a certain degree of security in having every trusted piece of equipment. Not so when you go on the plane. Especially considering that the Islander planes in use to connect the Orkney isles are at most 8 seaters so space is at a premium.

It is quite exciting to sit right behind the pilot where you can see everything that happens in front of you and the beautiful coast lines taking shape below. On this particular day, I was mesmerised by the fuel gauges of the twin engines. One appeared to be ever so slightly lower than the other, and occasionally flickering, but as the pilot seemed totally unphased by this, I decided to sit back and enjoy the (noisy) 20 minutes flight.

One of the furthest islands

North Ronaldsay proved to be as stunning as I hoped. I was really lucky to chance a trip there on a lovely, bright and sunny day, with not too much wind. The practice had hired me a little island car to get about, so once I completed my two farm visits, I had half an hour to kill before returning to the airfield. It’s not always this quiet, as another time I was on the island of Stronsay I finished the last (unplanned) call of the day with only 10 minutes to spare before pelting down the lanes back to the pier; that would have been interesting to explain if I didn’t make it home the night! 

However, this day I had a little spare time and so this was my chance to drive to the lighthouse and set foot on the most northerly point in Orkney. I went past several groups of North Ronaldsay sheep that were off the shore for lambing, a few derelict but still beautiful croft houses, the old Beacon dating back to the 1700s and finally, the newer lighthouse and the cliffs at Sinsoss Point. I could not visit the tourist attraction at the base of the lighthouse as it was by now 5pm and was closing for the day.

I look forward to returning another day though, and spend more time walking around this beautiful island. So after taking my photo of the North Atlantic, it was time to return to the fields of the airstrip and wait to board the little plane once again. Upon my return to Kirkwall however, it wasn’t home straight away as I had to unpack my kit and samples and make sure everything was back in place for the next vet to get on a plane. 

It had been a long day, but I went home happy having spent a great time island hopping and I hope the thrill of a boat or plane trip to work on the other islands will never fade. 

Further reading