The North Ronaldsay Lighthouse is a prominent landmark across much of the northern half of the island. The Old Beacon at Dennis Head on the northeast coast is also an important feature in the landscape, representing the remains of the earliest surviving purpose-built lighthouse tower in Scotland.
Much of the land is enclosed within drystane dykes and predominantly grazed by cattle and sheep. Deposits of wind-blown sand cover extensive areas of the coast, particularly on the southern and eastern parts. Settlement is scattered across the island.
North Ronaldsay is renowned for its unique breed of sheep and the dyke that circles the island, keeping the sheep to the foreshore. This structure is of international significance. Historic Environment Scotland describes it as ‘‘probably the largest drystone construction conceived of as a single entity in the world’. The sheep are a key part of the island economy. The meat is highly prized for its unique flavour, while wool from the breed is processed at a mill within the lighthouse complex.
Pre-historic sites on the island include bronze age field dykes, the iron age settlements of Howmae Brae and the Broch of Burrian, and the Norse settlement mound of Howar, Strom Ness.
The soils of North Ronaldsay are light and free draining due to the high shell sand content,and wildlife-rich machair grassland areas have developed beside the coast. The island’s habitats include rocky and sandy shores, grazed links, machair, wetlands and agricultural land.
Ornithological interest is particularly high and species of importance include breeding and wintering wildfowl and waders, in addition to Arctic Tern colonies. The island is a stopping off place for birds on their spring and autumn journeys to and from lands beyond the Arctic Circle. The North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory was set up to record and study the visiting migrant birds.
The island’s remoteness has enabled many traditional features to persist, giving it a unique character within the archipelago.