The Orkney Islands

Saturday 16th September
Orkney Mainland – Kirkwall and Stromness

After spending Friday recovering, come Saturday I was ready to jump aboard the ferry from John O’Groats to Burwick which is on the south east island of South Ronaldsay. The bus would then take me across 3 more islands to the capital of Kirkwall on the mainland – that would be 5 out of 70 Orkney islands in just 30 minutes, if I keep up this rate I could see them all in one day! To give you an idea of the archipelago; 20 of the 70 islands are inhabited by approx. 21,000 people.

I checked into the hostel, visited the cathedral, the museum, the high street and then hopped on another bus to the other main town of Stromness. It was hosting to the Orkney Blues Festival this weekend so I went to check it out. After exploring the town, including a well established museum of modern art I left the main streets and walked up to the nearest trig point. I have a hill walking habit now and needed a fix.

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Brinkies Brae

The Blues Festival started slowly but by 8pm the hotel was rocking; standing room only. Unfortunately, the last bus back to Kirkwall was at 9pm so I missed the BBC Blues Band but I still had a toe tapping time.

Sunday 17th September
Island of Shapinsay

The pier opposite the hostel was used for trips to Shapinsay (pronounced Shap-say I think), so that is where I went. A few thousand years ago the Orkney Islands would have been covered with trees, but the early farmers tore them down and it’s been that way ever since. Farming is the way of life up here, with its resulting products being the main export and so they use every square meter for this purpose. The vast majority of the island is a network of fields with the occasional track between 2 fences which as a wanderer is a bit frustrating. There was however an RSPB reserve with a hide, kitted out with binoculars and a telescope, bonus! So I spent a couple of hours enjoying lots of twitching firsts; widgeon, shovelers, teal and possibly a hen harrier. Very exciting!
In the afternoon I went down to the beach for some relaxation and a bit of beach art.

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Beach stones

Further along the coast, I took a track that led to the shore and as I got close I could see some seals lying across the rocky shelf that stretched out into the water. They spotted me straight away and started to shift towards to the water in their inelegant manor, so I stopped dead and crouched out of sight. I waited for them to relax, I took my bag off and left it by the path. I then proceeded in a Grandmother’s footsteps-type way creeping towards them and frequently ducking out of sight. There were a few adults and a couple of younger ones – common seals I think, not the really cute furry grey ones – but seals nonetheless. Once I got to within about 50m I went down on my hands and knees to crawl up behind a mound of dirt and popped my head out occasionally to watch them. It was a lovely moment and as I watched them behave very naturally, with others swimming about in the bay.

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Seals

Monday 18th September
Island of Hoy

Another day, another off-island and ferry ride. This time to Hoy, with one of Orkney’s most recognisable natural features sitting just off the west coast – the Old Man of Hoy. As the boat navigated around the island of Graemsay just outside Stromness harbour, the hills of Hoy loomed ahead. Shapinsay and Hoy couldn’t be more different. As I eluded to earlier, the former is flat (a high point of 64m), fertile and one big field system, Hoy on the other hand is home to the highest point on the archipelago (492m), is mostly wild moorland and peat bog, and feels much more like part of the west coast of Scotland.
At the port, a minibus was waiting to take a few of us to Rackwick from where we could walk up and over to the Old Man. We arranged a return time for the bus; 4hrs later. The driver and a sign indicate that it takes 3hrs to walk out and back to the coast to see the sea stack. I needn’t have been cautious about the time, as it turns out I’m a bit quicker than your average tourist these days. I reached the viewpoint within 40mins and admired the geology. It’s an interesting thing, but I thought that the view looking north along the west coast was far more dramatic (they are some of the tallest sea cliffs in Europe). I checked the time and the map. I needed to get my fix for pathless, mossy, boggy peaks so headed off the beaten track to Moor Fea. From here I could see back across to mainland Scotland; Dunnet Head (the most northerly point of mainland Britain) and the mountains in the background. I enjoyed some frivolity on the summit in the company of some mountain hares and then pootled back to the hostel at Rackwick. There was still 90mins to wait so I wandered down to the bothy and the beach.

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Lucy on Hoy!

Tuesday 19th September
Orkney – Western Mainland

The main sites are not accessible by bus, so I hired a car for the day.  I visited; the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, Skaill House, the Kitchener Memorial, the Orkney Brewery and another bird hide. Eventually returning the car in Kirkwall before catching the overnight ferry to Shetland. It was a very busy and educational day, so prepare for a history lesson!

The Orkney landscape is littered with ancient monuments, villages, temples, cairns and burial chambers. Historians believe that Orkney was a centre for the Neolithic people, having found examples of their society and culture that surpass all others in Europe.  Firstly, the standing circle of stones at Stenness is one of the earliest in Britain, having been placed there about 5,000 years ago. The stones are massive and the space they create is evocative, especially if you visit early on a blustery weekday morning and virtually have the place to yourself.

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Stenness

The Ring of Brodgar is another stone circle which has been well documented, but the land it stood within; the Ness of Brodgar had been overlooked. Archaeological digs are currently in progress which are revealing a new ancient wonder of the world which is on a par with or even supersedes the pyramids of Egypt.

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Orkney Traffic Jam!

Next stop was Skara Brae; a settlement occupied from 3180BC to 2500BC.  Unbeknownst to the local laird, the set of 8 neolithic houses was lying beneath sand dunes in the bay of Skaill until 1850 when a huge storm scoured away the sand. It revealed a perfectly preserved world.  The walls and features were so immaculate that I almost didn’t believe the story. I was sceptical because I couldn’t comprehend that something so old could look so new.  I could visualise people (although historians don’t know what they looked like) going about their daily lives; cooking at the hearth, eating from bowls, sleeping in their beds, making tools and playing games with their neighbours who’d come through the underground passages.

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Skara Brae

I then skipped very quickly through time; fast forwarding about 4000 years to when the first part of Skaill House was built.  It’s Orkney’s finest manor house but given how spoilt I was growing up in a National Trust hot spot, it didn’t capture my imagination as much as the neolithic history so I didn’t spend long there.  Next stop was another 300 years forward in time; the Kitchener memorial. It was built in the 1920’s in memory of not only Lord Kitchener (from THAT WWI recruitment poster; “Your country needs you”) but the other 736 lives lost and the 12 survivors of HMS Hampshire.  They had been ordered to sail to Russia for a meeting with the Tsar despite an incoming storm. It is believed the ship struck a German laid mine.  This, along with the atrocious weather is what led to the scale of the disaster.  It’s location upon the cliffs at Marwick Head is poignant but the weather could not have been more different from the day of the catastrophe. I spent some time watching the sea birds (fulmars I think), the bunnies and looking out to sea where, if you took a bearing exactly west, next landfall would be Newfoundland having just bypassed the southern tip of Greenland.

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Kitchener Memorial

The final stop on my whirlwind tour of west Orkney is only 29 years old; the brewery. I found it a hard pill to swallow that I had had to drive to the brewery and therefore couldn’t properly sample their fares. I did however purchase a few bottles of ale to sample at a later date. Once I had returned the car, I put my feet up at the Kirkwall hotel for the evening.  The ferry was at 23:45 and the lovely hotel receptionist who clocked off at around 10pm offered me a lift to the port. She considered 2miles far too far for me to walk and I agreed, not letting on that I had just completed LEJOG. I didn’t want her to rescind her offer!

Next stop Shetland.

Author: lhwood1

I enjoy a good walk and so I decided to go on quite a long walk from Lands End to John O'Groats this summer. You'll be able to keep up with my progress through this blog.

2 thoughts on “The Orkney Islands”

  1. The Orkney Islands – what a lovely way to end your trip. I very much enjoyed reading the final chapter. I shall miss your entertaining and informative blog, Lucy. Thanks for sharing. I’m looking forward to seeing you at Choir on Thursday. x

    Like

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