MistyNites

My Life in Motion

North Coast 500 – Sutherland

Northlink’s MV Hamnavoe ploughed through the morning sea fog, finally breaking free as the north coast of Scotland’s mainland grew near. Approaching the Scottish north coast on the MV HamnavoeI was sad to leave the Orkney Islands behind, but excited for the next part of my road trip. It was another brilliantly sunny day away from the fog, and as with each day before, there was so much to see. Thurso seen from ScrabsterDocking at Scrabster, near Thurso on the Caithness coast, it was just a short drive to rejoin the main road which has been branded the North Coast 500. A week had passed since I was last on this route, and heading west from here, I was covering new territory for me, having never been further west of Thurso or further north than Ullapool before.

 

 

I took a wee nosy at Dounreay, Scotland’s only nuclear power plant. Having been decomissioned in 1994, it is undergoing the long clean-up process necessitated of a nuclear reactor, and I paused to look at it before heading on. I was keen to enjoy the coastline that I would be following, and it is littered with coves, beaches and cliffs to ogle over. Melvich BeachCrossing into the region of Sutherland, I stopped first at the stunning Melvich beach. The sand had a slight red tinge to it, and I had the place to myself, listening to the surf as I walked its length and back whilst sipping on an iced coffee. It was an utter pleasure.

West of there was a turnoff to Strathy Point, a promontory of coastline jutting north, and a recognised spot for watching sea life. It is a long and windy road that terminates at a farm, from where the farm track allows foot access across grazing land to the lighthouse. Strathy Point lighthouseI reached the lighthouse, and after walking around it, saw with dismay a thick wall of fog moving towards the shore: the sea fog from Orkney had caught up with me. It wasn’t long before the temperature dropped and the coastline was completely shrouded, my visibility dropping dramatically. Fog rolling in at Strathy PointI wandered around the site, trying to kill time in the hopes that it would lift again, but after sitting for 20 mins listening to the silence and getting cold, I decided to cut my losses and move on. There would be no dolphin spotting there that day. I was dismayed by the change in weather given that the rest of my drive for that day was following the coastline. Thankfully, by the time I’d driven back to the North Coast 500, I was back in the sunshine again, and most of my drive remained so, with the fog hugging the coastline just to my right as I worked my way west.

Moorland in SutherlandLike my drive north to John O’Groats the week prior, large sections of the road were dominated with the bright yellow flowers of gorse bushes before the terrain became wilder and the hills of the west began to come into view. Gorse in bloom above BettyhillThe road (the A836 in this section) climbed up over wild rolling hills before dropping back down to near sea level at Bettyhill, a small settlement with another beautiful beach. Sections of the road around here are single track, and following the North Coast 500 from here in an anti-clockwise direction, the road regularly switches from dual direction to single track. Entrance to Bettyhill beachOn such a sunny summer’s day, there was a steady stream of traffic in both directions, as well as plenty of distracting scenery so concentration is definitely required when following this route. Bettyhill beachThere were a few more people at Bettyhill’s beach than there had been at Melvich, but it was still easy to get peace and quiet and soak up the rural vibe despite this.

 

As the beach was within a deep cove, it was easy to forget the fog, and especially as the road cut inland for the next section, winding its way through the countryside. Fog broaching inland at TongueBy the time I reached the village of Tongue, I was eager for lunch, and up on a hillside as it was, I could see large fingers of fog nearby, trying to creep its way inland. I stopped for refreshments at one of the two hotels in Tongue before following the road down the hillside to where a causeway crossed a large estuary. Causeway near TongueLooking out to sea, the fog threatened to come closer, hiding the entrance to the estuary, and inland some mountains were visible in the distance, whilst Tongue itself was hidden amongst the trees and a finger of fog.

After driving across some stunningly barren landscapes, I was taken aback on coming around a headland to be presented with the beauty of Loch Eriboll. Loch EribollA sea loch, the road joins its banks near a small peninsula that juts into the loch where a handy pull-in allows a safe place to stop and take photographs. There was a regular flow of traffic but yet it was still easy to feel a million miles away from anywhere, and I couldn’t believe that I was seeing these places for the first time despite spending most of my life in this country. Further round the loch, the scenery continued to distract, although there wasn’t always the opportunity to stop, especially on the far bank where, after looping around the head of the loch, the road became a single track road as it wound its way along the far side. There were plenty of cyclists to negotiate, but as I was in no hurry, they were a good excuse to slow down and enjoy the scenery.

My bed for the next couple of nights was at the basic YHA hostel in Durness next to Smoo Cave. The village of Durness is quite spread out along the road in sections, and I reached here mid-afternoon to discover it was blanketed in the fog that had been chasing me all day. It felt so much colder in the fog, but this didn’t stop me from exploring the cave which is one of the region’s most famous attractions. The entrance to Smoo CaveIts largest main chamber has been eroded by the actions of the sea, making it the largest sea cave entrance in Britain, however the smaller chambers to the rear have been created by freshwater running through. Looking out from the insideIt is a steep descent via a lot of stairs to reach the sea level where a river trickles out of the cavernous mouth. The fog enveloped everything giving an eerie feel to the scene. It was a busy place though with people wandering around inside the cave and the paths around it.

 

 

 

Inside the second chamberI stood in the large cavern for a while looking around before following the wooden constructed pathway into a second chamber where a pool of water sits at the base of a waterfall. Walking deep inside the caveFrom here, a local man named Colin runs a short trip on a dinghy across this pool and out the other side where a walk up a small stream leads to a limestone waterfall, a feature of caves that is always impressive to see, no matter how big or small. On the way back across the pool on the dinghy, we pulled up near the base of the waterfall where it was possible to look upwards to the hole in the roof where the river entered. Limestone waterfall deep within Smoo CaveColin told us about his theories regarding hidden chambers and passages behind the wall of rock, and he has now been given permission to do some digging where he is hopeful to find another chamber. Afterwards, I climbed up the other side of the gully, and wandered around the clifftop paths before returning to the hostel for the evening.

I had an early rise next morning to make the short drive to Keoldale to the west of Durness to catch the first boat trip of the day. With booking not an option, it was first come, first served, and with only one chance to do it, I was determined to make sure I made it in time. Keoldale with the Cape Wrath boatIn the end, I was the first one there, with the boat being later than I’d thought due to the tide times. But there was quite a queue when it came time to climb aboard, and with a bit of disorganised chaos, there was a few disgruntled people who got turned away. Whilst the fog was gone, it was a cloudy day, and the little tin boat took us across the Kyle of Durness whilst a drizzle started. We loaded onto the minibuses at the other side, and after a bit more disorganised chaos, we set off on the hour-long 11 mile (18km) trundle to Cape Wrath, the most north-western tip of mainland Britain.

Cape Wrath MOD land107 square miles of barren moorland straddles the cape, most of which is owned by the Ministry of Defence and regularly used for bombing target practice. The only road here was built in 1828 and has seen little maintenance since, so the bus rarely made it out of 2nd gear. It is a wild place, boggy off the track and pockmarked with holes from target practice. During its use, the skies of nearby Sutherland ring out with the sound of high speed fighter jets. The sole inhabitants of the region are the couple that run the cafe at the lighthouse, which marks the end of a hiking trail, the Cape Wrath Trail, a 200 mile walk from Fort William to the south.

Cape Wrath coastlineEventually we trundled into the parking zone next to the lighthouse and were given an hour to have a look around and be back on board for the return journey. Cape Wrath lighthouseThe wild weather meant there wasn’t a lot of bird activity, but the cliffs were still steep and dramatic none-the-less. Cape Wrath coastlineThe lighthouse itself is of a similar style to others on this coastline, and like many was built by Robert Stevenson of the famous Stevenson family (which includes the author Robert Louis Stevenson). There was enough to look at to fill the hour, and then it was time to make the slow trundle back to the pier and the waiting boat back to Keoldale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hot chocolate from Cocoa MountainWhilst still cloudy, it was only early afternoon. I took respite from the wind at Cocoa Mountain, a chocolatier in the unlikely location of Balnakeil. Their hot chocolate was made from pure liquid chocolate, and it was just what I needed to warm me up and fuel me for the afternoon’s walk. Church ruins at Faraid HeadNear here, by the ruins of a small church, a car park denotes the pedestrian entrance onto Faraid Head, a peninsula with some stunning beaches and dunes. One of the beaches at Faraid HeadIt is fantastic territory for walking with a path leading up the western beach and cutting through the dunes and eventually reaching cliffs to the north and east. Beach panorama at Faraid HeadIn the north-eastern corner, another Ministry of Defence area is fenced off out of bounds, but near here, the landscape rises into dramatic cliffs which turned out to be prime puffin watching territory. Sand dunes on Faraid Head

Looking back over the peninsula or Faraid Head

 

Faraid Head coastline with Cape Wrath behindI’d by now had ample chance to spot puffins on cliffs at Westray and the Brough of Birsay but this was the first time I’d seen them on the water’s surface, and there were lots of them. Atlantic puffinI never tire of seeing these birds, to me they are just stunning, and I had all the hours of the day to sit lying on the cliff edge watching their lives unfold below me.

I took my time walking back, enjoying the view over to Cape Wrath and the beautiful beaches and dunes which by now were getting quiet. Faraid Head across to Cape WrathI stopped at the tourist centre in Durness where a path leads down to Sango Sands, another beach, where I had an evening wander before dinner at the nearby pub.Sango Sands, Durness

Distance marker, Durness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smoo Cave sits below the North Coast 500The following morning, I made the short walk back to Smoo Cave which I was able to enjoy both fog free and people free. Standing above the entrance of Smoo CaveWithout the fog, it was easier to get a sense of perspective which had been slightly misleading with the reduced visibility the day I had arrived. The sheer size of the cave entrance was impressive when compared to the buildings that sat above it. I followed the path to where the river meets the sea, then back up and around to where the river flows across the moorland and down into the cave. Keoldale looking across to Cape WrathOnly as I was leaving were other people starting to arrive, and I set off on the long drive south, stopping first at Keoldale where, without the rush of catching the boat, I had the time to take in the stunning view.

Passing lochs and crossing rolling hills and moorland, the North Coast 500 turns south towards Ullapool in Wester Ross. I had a deadline to meet with a boat tour booked at lunchtime, but that still left me plenty of time to take a few side roads off the main road. On the road to KinlochbervieFirstly, I headed off to Kinlochbervie, a fishing village at the head of Loch Inchard. On the drive to KinlochbervieThere’s not much to the village itself other than the large harbour, but it’s a scenic drive there and back. Soon, the road enters the North West Geopark, a region of geological significance. Driving through the North West GeoparkA mountainous region with interesting rock formations and full of lochans, there is constantly something to catch the eye. Tarbet looking out to Handa IslandI took another detour to Tarbet, a cute little village at the end of the road where the boat to Handa island leaves. With a bit better forward planning, I would have had time to go out to the island which is a Scottish Wildlife Trust nature reserve. As it was, I simply sat on the shore in the sunshine and watched the boat leave before returning to the main road.

Stony beach at ScourieStopping briefly at Scourie, the road continued through the geopark before dropping down to the bridge that splits Loch a’Chairn Bhain and Loch Gleann Dubh at Kylesku. ScouriePreviously this crossing could only be made by boat, but in 1984 the bridge was opened and it’s quite distinctive. Gorse in bloom north of Kylesku bridgePulling in at the Kylesku hotel, I was just in time for the 1pm trip that goes up Loch Gleann Dubh to a view point of Britain’s tallest waterfall. Kylesku bridge spanning the two lochsAlong the way, we got the closest to wild seals that I’ve ever gotten, as there were several hauled up on the banks and dotted amongst the small islands within the loch. Common sealHeading back up the loch, the sunlight created the most amazing reflections on the water of the surrounding mountain sides until we reached a large red scar in the cliff which denotes a fault line in the earth’s crust. Common sealsWe sailed under the Kylesku bridge whilst jellyfish floating around us, before heading back to the pier.Britain's highest waterfall, Eas a' Chual Aluinn

Loch Gleann Dubh

Reflections on Loch Gleann Dubh

Visible fault line on the banks of Loch Gleann Dubh

Sailing under Kylesku bridge

Moon jellyfish

Panorama from Kylesku

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ardvreck CastleI was excited to stumble across the ruins of Ardvreck castle on the bank of Loch Assynt, as I didn’t know of its existence and wasn’t expecting it. Loch Assynt panoramaNearby a group of European tourists practiced sword fighting, and along the road a group of geology students were studying some rocks near the road. Ardvreck Castle on the banks of Loch AssyntThe whole day had been packed with glorious scenery, and Loch Assynt was no different. Ruins of Ardvreck CastleBuilt around 1590, it is in quite a state of disrepair with only the remnants of one tower remaining which belies its originally large size. I hung around for as long as I had peace before an ever increasing crowd of people trickled in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The North Coast 500 continues south on the A837 before turning onto the A835, signposted for Ullapool. Lochan an Ais viewed from Knockan CragMy last stop in Sutherland was Knockan Crag, one of the main stops within the North West Geopark. Sculpture at Knockan CragHere, the Moine Thrust fault line runs through, and it was the first thrust fault to be discovered in the world, initially confusing scientists. An interpretation building gives information on the studies in the late 19th and early 20th century, and from here a walk zig zags up the cliff face past the Moine Thrust and some sculptures, up to the top where you can walk along the clifftop and back down again at the other end. Unfortunately, the bus load of geology students arrived immediately after me and I was given little peace or space to read the information boards or view the sculptures on the way up. They didn’t follow me all the way to the top though, so I was able to admire the view over Lochan An Ais in silence. From here, there was just another section of road to complete before crossing into Wester Ross, and reaching Ullapool where a nice cold cider awaited.

Mainland Orkney

It had been an ideal base for my first few days, but now I was happy to leave Kirkwall behind. I hadn’t been particularly enamoured with the place, every evening filled with the noise of youngsters driving round and round in their cars chasing each other, and a distinct lack of available places to eat dinner with what few options there were, always packed. Highland cow & calfThe rest of my holiday was to be spent in the west, but I took a brief detour south to visit some Highland cattle that I’d seen by the roadside the day before. Highland cattleDistinctly Scottish, I always love to see them and photograph them when the opportunity arises. This time they were at the far side of the field, but eventually their curiosity brought them a little closer.

 

 

 

 

Cutting back towards Kirkwall, then veering west along the southern coast, I spotted some turn-offs to come back to later, but ploughed on, eager to get to Maeshowe as early as possible. Accessed by timed tours, this site is recommended to be booked in advance, but I had decided to take my chances as I was on my own, hoping to sneak onto an early tour if I got there on time. As it was, when I got there, I still had to wait a few hours before they could fit me in. This gave me the chance to back-track slightly to the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness, one of Orkney’s most famous attractions, and one of a handful of henges in the British Isles. Dated to neolithic times, it is estimated to be the oldest henge in Britain, with an estimated date of 3100 BC. Artifacts and positioning link this site with other neolithic sites around the island, namely Maeshowe and Skara Brae.Watch stone by Loch of Stenness

Standing stones of StennessStanding on a promontory between Loch of Stenness and Loch of Harray, the remnants of a collection of standing stones towers above the grass. Standing stones of StennessGuided tours occur here occasionally in the summer months, but otherwise aside from a small information board at the gate, there is limited information about the use of this site, and that is in part because the experts aren’t completely sure what occurred here. Standing stones of StennessIn the past, one farmer knocked some of the stones down to make way for pasture, but was stopped before he completely demolished the site. Standing stones of StennessOne stone was even moved due to differing opinion about the original layout of the stones, and now what is left, stands in a field that is still grazed by sheep, constantly scurrying from the regular arrival of tourists.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barnhouse settlementBehind the standing stones is the remnants of a barnhouse settlement, a collection of 15 buildings of varying sizes dated to 3000 BC. Flagstones of the barnhouse settlementThe largest of the buildings has an alignment with nearby Maeshowe, a chambered cairn, and the entrance to the standing stones faces this settlement. Small building, Barnhouse settlementBehind this, is the peaceful setting of Loch of Harray where a bird hide sits hidden amongst some trees. Standing stone on the shore of Loch of HarrayIt was a scorching day, perfect for a walk, and I managed to find some peace away from the groups of bus-driven tourists that were arriving with regularity. Loch of StennessThere were plenty of mute swans floating around, and dragonflies danced along the shore.Bridge between Loch of Stenness and Loch of Harray

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing stone at Ring of BrodgarJust a few minutes drive across the bridge is Ring of Brodgar, another stone henge, built later between 2500BC – 2000BC. 27 of the original 60 stones remain, standing to attention in a circle at a diameter of 104 metres. Stone split by lightning at Ring of BrodgarAgain, its purpose is not completely understood, but this, along with many other neolithic sites on Orkney are World Heritage protected sites. Ring of BrodgarI’d been to all these sites before as a girl, but didn’t really remember them, and on this occasion, half of the Ring of Brodgar was fenced off to allow for path maintenance and stone preservation works. A new footpath has been put in to try and limit the damage caused by foot traffic in the area, and as is sadly often the case these days, there were people ignoring the signs about which parts of the ground to keep off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ring of Brodgar panoramaThere’s something mesmerising about the unknown with these places, particularly how they came to be, in the days before machines and wheels were invented to lift such incredibly large structures into such specific places. After wandering around the half circle that was still open to the public, I took a side path down to the shore of Loch of Stenness, where an RSPB reserve is marked out, and a walk follows the shoreline for a while. Loch of Stenness panoramaI’ve become a bit of a twitcher since moving to the other side of the world, often on the lookout for different bird species, trying to photograph them, and particularly just being more observant than I used to be. Birds become a lot more interesting when the species you take for granted at home are different to your new normal when you move abroad. The scenery was gorgeous in the sunshine, the humps of the island of Hoy visible in the distance, and other individual standing stones were found at various locations along the way.

Ring of BrodgarAfter following the circuit back to the Ring of Brodgar, it was time to head back to Maeshowe for my scheduled tour time. Maeshowe chambered cairnA large chambered cairn built around 2800BC, it is one of the largest tombs in Orkney, and is aligned so that the sun on the winter solstice shines directly into the entrance passageway and illuminates the back wall. Entrance to MaeshoweThrough an entrance tunnel made of large single-piece flagstones weighing up to 30 tonnes, you need to crouch to enter the cairn, and as a large group we followed our guide inside. From start to end I was fascinated as I listened to the story of this tomb from its inception in neolithic times to its discovery and plunder by Norse Vikings in the 12th century. Whilst there is still a lot of unknowns about its original significance, incredibly it has a large collection of runic graffiti from the Viking invaders who describe treasure, beautiful woman and versions of the modern-day ‘I woz here’. Photos weren’t allowed to be taken inside, but the information from the guide made the tour totally worth-while, as it also offered insights into the nearby stone circles too.

 

 

Narrow street of StromnessBy now mid-afternoon, it was time to head to Stromness, my base for the next couple of nights. Down narrow, cobbled streets in what felt like a ghost town, I found my hostel but nobody was around to check me in, so I headed off for a late lunch before a bit more exploring. StromnessFrom here the ferry leaves to go to the Scottish mainland, and it sat moored in the harbour, patiently waiting for its departure. This place comes alive with the arrival of the ferry, but in between times, it feels like a sleepy little fishing village, and the quiet was just what I loved about it.

 

 

 

 

 

Northlink ferry leaving StromnessAfter filling my stomach, I crossed to the far side of the harbour to watch the ferry leave, then headed off for a drive around the coast to find some side tracks that I’d skipped earlier in the day. Waulkmill BayNear Hobbister a turn-off is signposted for Waulkmill Bay and this is a must-visit. Beach at Waulkmill BayJust a short drive down the road, a beautiful sandy beach nestled in a deep cove comes into view, and at a pull-up, some steps take you down the cliff face onto the sand. Orphir Round KirkOn such a gorgeous evening, the parking was packed, but the the beach was so big that the many groups of people down there still didn’t feel overcrowded and I wandered along the water’s edge, the blue sea clear and glistening in the sunshine. Orphir cemeteryIn the distance, the expanse of Scapa Flow with its oil rig was visible. West of here, in Orphir is the remains of a round church built in the late 11th/early 12th centuries. Only part of it remains, and it is within the grounds of the local cemetery which overlooks the coastline.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesnaby cliffsThe next day was my favourite day of my Orkney trip and also my last. Another beautiful day, I set off early from Stromness with a lot to pack in. Yesnaby CastleThe west coast of Orkney’s mainland constitutes tall dramatic sea cliffs littered with inlets and stacks. Yesnaby coastlineIn the heart of the breeding season, it wasn’t hard to find sea birds either, and several routes offer access to clifftop walks and view points. Yesnaby cliffsI started at Yesnaby where one sea stack has been named the Yesnaby Castle. It was a pleasant walk south along the clifftop for 20 minutes to reach it and I managed a good bit of bird spotting along the way. In the far distance I could just make out the Old Man of Hoy shrouded in haze on the horizon, but aside from the distant cloud, I was accompanied by sunshine for the rest of the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here, I took the back road to Skara Brae, arriving to a packed car park. I had a vague memory of chasing my brother through the excavated ruins of Skara Brae as a young girl, but understandably, preservation has taken precedence and things here have changed since then. Bay of SkaillA UNESCO World Heritage site, it is a collection of 8 adjoining buildings on the hillside overlooking the gorgeous Bay of Skaill. Occupied between 3180BC – 2800BC it is the best preserved Neolithic settlement in Europe. Discovered by chance following a storm which stripped the earth, it has provided large amounts of grooved ware pottery and gives an incredible insight into the farmers who lived here, with furniture and tools still evident.

Skara BraeIn a change to my visit as a child, a pathway has been raised above the buildings to create a circuit overlooking the settlement, keeping visitors out of the buildings themselves. House 4, Skara BraeFrom a height, there was a great view into those buildings that are exposed, but one building, house 7, has been kept covered to preserve it in as natural a state as possible. A mock-up of this building can be entered just through the visitor centre to give an idea of how the buildings would have looked. Skara Brae PanoramaThe site was busy, and after a couple of tours round it taking photographs from every conceivable angle, I had to force myself to put my camera away and actually focus on what I was looking at, and absorb it all with my own eyes. It is incredible to see how people lived 5000 years ago in the past.

A gate at the back corner of the site leads out onto the beach, and it was a stunning place to take a walk along the shoreline. Beach at Bay of SkaillAway from the bustle of people jostling along the pathway, the beach was deserted and peaceful. Most people seemed to visit Skara Brae and leave again, but only a few people ventured down to the beach. I would have happily stayed here longer but there was so much to see. Skaill HouseAs part of the entrance fee for Skara Brae, the manor house of Skaill House is also open in the summer to visitors. Just a short walk from the neolithic site, I wasn’t really fussed about seeing this 17th century building but I duly wandered around it before pressing on.

 

Following lunch at the packed visitor’s centre, I reached Birsay on the north-western corner of Mainland. Here a tidal causeway links to the Brough of Birsay, an island just off shore with historical remnants, a lighthouse and some incredible sea cliffs. It is really important to check the tide tables to reach this island, but if it is timed right, there is plenty of time to explore it within a few hours each side of low tide. The tide was in the process of receeding when I arrived, and already there was plenty of people across the uncovered causeway. A myriad of tidal pools had been exposed and the seaweed and algae made it slippery underfoot in places. There is supposed to be an entrance fee to enter the historical site on the island, but despite the sign stating this at the car park, the office on the island was locked and nobody was around to take payments.

Replica Pictish stoneA well and a replica stone are all that remain of the Picts from the Iron Age (about 100 BC). Norse church, Brough of BirsayThe rest of the site is from the Viking era, with a settlement and church dating to the 12th century. Viking remnants with the causeway exposed behindIn those days, the Brough of Birsay was the centre of power in Orkney. Brough of Birsay lighthouseThe church is the most intact, but most of the site is just the wall remnants of the various buildings. Brough of Birsay panoramaUp the hill from here the island rises steeply to the top of the cliffs where the lighthouse, built by David Alan Stevenson, cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, stands proud. PuffinWhere the ground was lush with grass and meadow flowers, the cliffs drop dramatically into the sea, and peppered amongst them were nesting seabirds. Clan of puffinsI was on the hunt for puffins, my favourite sea bird, and I had read that this was a good spot to spy them. Puffin at Brough of BirsayI looked to the southern cliffs first and found none, but on the northern cliffs as I circled back to the causeway, I spotted a few spread out across a few locations. I joined the other twitchers with their jumbo cameras and tripods, and lay down on my belly with my wee digital camera, and watched them for a while as they preened and huddled and took flight. Aside from the lone puffins I’d seen on Westray, I hadn’t seen puffins for over two decades and I was delighted to be seeing them again, their colourful beaks standing out in the sunshine.

Ever conscious of closing times, I felt a little rushed to get to the Broch of Gurness near Evie. I got there an hour before closing time and tried to read and make sense of the information at the entrance office. Broch of GurnessBuilt between 500 and 200 BC, it is an Iron Age broch village made of drystone and shaped into a roundhouse. Inside the wall of the brochThe site is an extensive maze of wall remnants and outlines of buildings. Doorway to the brochThe broch itself at the centre, has retained some of its suggested 10 metre height, and it is possible to actually walk into the walls of the building. Broch of GurnessLike Skara Brae, it is a beautiful spot, on a hillside overlooking the coast. Panorama across to RousayIn this case, it looks directly across to the neighbouring island of Rousay, and the small island of Eynhallow. I wandered around until I was the only one left, with closing time approaching, and now, with only the countryside to visit, I was no longer tied to opening hours, and had all the remaining hours of the long summer day to utilise.

I took a bit of a road trip to form a loop through Finstown, Harray and Dounby to go back to Birsay to visit Earl’s Palace, the ruins of a castle from the 16th century. Earl's PalaceBy now the tide had turned and the evening was drawing in, so Birsay was quiet compared to the crowds that had been there a few hours before. Earl's Palace doorwayThe high walls of the palace threw long shadows across the grounds which felt cold out of the sunlight, and I had the place mostly to myself as I wandered around. Earl's Palace ruinsBuilt by the illegitimate son of King James V, Robert Stewart, it was used for less than two centuries, falling into disrepair at the turn of the 18th century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

West coast cliffsMy last stop on the west coast was a clifftop walk that I had spotted on the drive from Skara Brae to Birsay. Kitchener Memorial on the clifftopsThe Kitchener memorial was erected in 1926 to commemorate those onboard the HMS Hampshire (which included Lord Kitchener) who perished when the ship hit a mine in 1926 off shore at that spot. Kitchener MemorialOnly 12 of the 600 on board survived, and the names of those who died are listed on a wall next to the tower. BunnyAside from the memorial, this is another fantastic spot to watch birds, and the noise was incredible as the birds thermalled off shore. Standing stone near Kirchener Memorial; Brough of Birsay in backgroundAmongst the razorbills, fulmars and pigeons, I spotted a few more puffins, and on the grass on the clifftop, young rabbits raced around as I approached. West coast cliffsI sat for a while watching the activity below and lapping up the fresh air.

With the sun finally starting to lower, I took the opportunity to head back to the Standing Stones of Stenness to capture some photos in the changing light. Standing Stones of Stenness panoramaI had the place nearly to myself this time, and I played around with angles and lighting until my stomach pushed me to head back to Stromness. Standing Stones of Stenness panoramaI had an early rise the next morning to catch the ferry back to the Scottish mainland. Standing Stones of StennessI stepped out of the hostel and into a thick fog. My car was parked up the hill and when I got there, I couldn’t see the street below, never mind the ferry. Lego model of North Link ferryI duly checked in and waited to board, and once on deck I gave in to the fact that there would be no view on the sailing. Sailing past the island of HoyEven after eating breakfast there was still little to see. Sailing into the sea fogOnly on coming out of the shelter in the lee of the island of Hoy did the fog break slightly. Excited to sail past the famous Old Man of Hoy, I was quickly disappointed again as the ferry changed course and the fog came back into view and once again enveloped us, hiding the Old Man behind it’s cloak. And so we sailed blindly onwards, with the silent whisp of clouds around us, pushing towards the Caithness coast.

Orkney’s Southern Isles

It was a beautiful summer’s evening to take the 13 minute flight from Westray back to Kirkwall on Orkney’s mainland. We flew over several of the outer Orkney islands on route, and the sun sparkled on the calm sea below us.

Kirkwall’s airport is a little out of the town, so I jumped on a bus to take me back to the harbour where my car was waiting for me. This time around I was staying in a B&B, and it took a bit of going around in circles to find the narrow road that it was hidden down. I hadn’t stayed in a B&B since I was a kid, as I usually stay in hostels or cheap hotels when I’m on my own, but even back in January, I had struggled to get accommodation for Kirkwall on this first weekend in June and couldn’t understand why. It turned out that my trip coincided with the centenary events to commemorate the Battle of Jutland, a significant battle involving the navy in the first world war. The Orkney Islands played a strategic role in ship and submarine movements due to its location near the north of the British mainland, and its gateway for vessels to move from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, there is as much evidence of early 20th century history in the archipelago, as there is from the Neolithic and Viking eras.

I set off early the next morning after a hearty breakfast, heading south down Mainland to the southern coast and reaching the first of the causeways that links a chain of islands together. Crossing to Lamb Holm, then Glims Holm, then Burray and finally on to South Ronaldsay, I continued south until the road nearly reached as far south as it could go. Following the large and obvious signage, I found my way to the Tomb of the Eagles (also known as Isbister Chambered Cairn), where shortly after opening time, I was the only person in sight. Discovered in 1958 by the local farmer, he unearthed the remains of a neolithic chambered tomb, estimated to have been built around 5000 years ago. Containing 16,000 human bones and 725 avian bones (predominantly sea eagles, hence the name), this is one of Orkney’s most famous tourist attractions. I’d been here before with my family when I was little, and I had a vague memory in my head of looking at a skull there, but that was all I could remember.

Part of the experience involves an introductory talk by some guides at the visitor centre by the farm, where artefacts and human remains from the site are on display. As much as science understands, the guides give information on what is thought to have happened here, and how the site was used over time. Evidence suggests the tomb was in use for over 1000 years, and the timeline in history is just staggering to comprehend. The set up at the visitor centre was different than I remembered, and whilst a few artifacts were handed round for inspection, the skull that I remember my brother holding in his hands, is no longer available to touch in an effort to preserve it better. Still on display in a case, it was interesting to see the bone cyst that the skull had, an affliction that would likely have caused a lot of pain and problems for the lady who’s skull it was.

Incredibly, the same farmer also uncovered a Bronze Age site on the same property, built 3000 years ago. The remains of a building with a hearth and a trough have both answered and asked a lot of questions about how people from that era lived. Both the Bronze Age site and the Stone Age (neolithic) site can be visited by taking a walk from the visitor’s centre. Bronze Age buildingThe tomb is a 1 mile (1.5km) walk, passing the Bronze Age building on the way. The return can either be made via the same route, or by taking a coastal clifftop walk back. Stone grinding tool found at the Bronze Age siteAs I was leaving the visitor centre, other tourists were starting to arrive, so I was keen to get to the sites to have the place to myself before a lot of other people showed up. It was a hazy day but blowy and I reached the Bronze Age site in no time at all. I was a little underwhelmed by it, despite appreciating the significance of the place, but I duly studied it from every possible angle, trying to picture people living in the tiny space, before continuing on the track to the cliff top.

Coastline at the tombThe coastline was dramatic with angular flagstone slabs compressed together as they disappeared into the sea, and just a little along the clifftop was the entrance to the tomb. Entrance tunnelA volunteer sitting there took some photos of me at the entrance, before leaving me to it, taking herself off to watch the bird life. Inside the tombIt’s a unique way in: a low tunnel that would require crawling on hands and knees if it wasn’t for the trolley and rope system that has been set up. Inside the tombOnce inside, torches been have provided to look into the side chambers, although the main chamber has been artificially lit up and sports a modern roof to protect it from the elements. The outside of the tombAfter a nosey around inside, I exited in time to see the other tourists arriving. Clifftop walkI followed the coastal path back to the visitor’s centre, watching the sea birds fight the wind as they flew from the cliffs out to sea and back.Fulmar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mute swans on the farmlandLeaving the visitor’s centre behind, I headed back through the farming land to return to the main road to head north up through South Ronaldsay. Rooftops of St Margaret's HopeI stopped at St Margaret’s Hope where the ferry arrives from the Scottish mainland, and had a wander round the old narrow streets down to the harbour and up through the park at the back of town. It was a sleepy little place and there was little activity to see so I pressed on north.

 

 

 

 

Beach at barrier 4 between Burray and South RonaldsayLinking South Ronaldsay through Burray, Glims Holm, Lambs Holm and Mainland are a series of 4 causeways known as the Churchill barriers. Beach at barrier 4 between Burray and South RonaldsayBuilt in the 1940s as a means of defending Scapa Flow in the second world war, they came about in response to the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak by a German U-boat that had sneaked through the passage between Lambs Holm and Mainland. Winston Churchill was the man who commissioned them, and thus they bare his name. View from Lambs Holm across to the MainlandDriving across the barriers today, the remains of sunken vessels, deliberately scuppered to prevent German ships passing through, are still visible jutting above the sea, playing out the slow crumble of time. Scuppered shipAlso evident along the coast of these islands are other remnants of the wars: abandoned military outposts that stand somberly to attention. Churchill barrier 2Contrasting this is the beauty of the little beaches that exist because of the causeways.Scuppered ship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War memorial at Lambs HolmThe barriers were built by prisoners of war, and a notable camp of these were the Italian POWs who were housed on Lambs Holm, an otherwise uninhabited island. Italian Chapel550 detainees, captured abroad, were brought to Orkney, 200 of which were housed at Camp 60. Facade of the Italian ChapelAmong the men of this camp, it was decided that a chapel should be constructed, and using the materials on hand, the now-famous Italian Chapel of Lambs Holm was created. Detail of Jesus Christ on the facadeThe frontage is a beautiful white facade in the style of Italian churches in rural villages, but it is attached to a corrugated iron arc resembling a large shed. The altar in the chapelStep to the side or the back and it looks indistinct and cold, but from the front and the inside, it looks and feels so very different. Inside the Italian chapelWhen I came here with my family as a child, it was free to enter, but now there is a fee to go inside. The detail that has been put into the decoration inside is just beautiful, and a real testament to the men who created it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wedding carriage in KirkwallReturning to Kirkwall, there was a wedding taking place in St Magnus Cathedral so I ate lunch in an outdoor seating area nearby and watched both the wedding party pass by, but also a bride-to-be and her hens out on a blackening. Orcadians still follow the traditional blackening process where the groom (but these days often the bride too) are stripped down, chained to a post outside the Cathedral and doused in treacle, flour and feathers, as well as paraded noisily around on the back of a truck. Versions of this process occur elsewhere in Scotland, but here it is very much an understanding that this will happen to you before you wed. It made for a noisy lunch stop.

Font inside the cathedralOnce the wedding was over, the cathedral was reopened to the public and I took a wander around inside. The navel of St Magnus CathedralIt is a striking cathedral inside and out, made of distinctive red sandstone intermixed with yellow sandstone, and dating back to the 12th century. Inside St Magnus CathedralNearby is the Bishop’s Palace which was built around the same time, and next to this is the Earl’s Palace, both of which are open to the public for a fee. Stained glass in St Magnus CathedralBeing a Saturday, there were plenty of people milling around, and I wandered around the main street of Kirkwall, having a nosey around the tourist shops before heading onwards.St Magnus Cathedral and grounds

St Magnus Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral

Poppies at St Magnus Cathedral

Earl's Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beach near BurwickWith it being June, the month with the longest days of the year, there was still many hours of daylight ahead even although it was already mid-afternoon by this stage. Coastline near RSPB reserveI drove south then east past Burwick to an RSPB reserve where a cliff-top walk provided more dramatic coastal scenery, again with the flagstone slabs packed together and a myriad of birds nesting on the cliffs. Coastal cliffsFollowing the trail north for a while, some steps were cut down the side of the cliff and back up the other side, eventually leading to the remains of a small church. Steps in the cliffIt is possible to hike further round the cliff, but it would need several hours to make the circular trip, something which I wasn’t willing to do that day. Church ruinsI took the scenic drive back to Kirkwall via Tankerness, driving rural single track roads through farmland until I reached the airport outside of Kirkwall. Church ruins on the clifftop walkThen it was just a short drive back to town to dump my car before heading out for the evening’s entertainment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kirkwall Pipe bandOn a few occasions throughout the tourist season, the local pipe band perform live in the main street of Kirkwall, marching outside St Magnus Cathedral. Locals and tourists alike lined the roadside to listen to them and support them. As Orkney’s history lies more in Norse settlement than under Scottish charge, the tradition of bagpipes and tartans isn’t really part of Orkney’s heritage.

Nonetheless, they were still more than happy to entertain the tourists, and I as ever listened with a swollen heart, always transfixed and emotional when the sound of bagpipes reaches my ears. This was my last night in Kirkwall, and a fitting end to my stay in the east. Ahead, lay the western Mainland, and an exploration of the Neolithic Stone Age.

Papa Westray Trail

To the north of Orkney’s mainland, and to the east of the northern tip of Westray, lies the small island of Papa Westray. Known locally as Papay, it has a population of only about 90 people, and is almost completely flat, the highest point sitting at just 49 metres above sea level. Reachable by both land and sea, it is a lovely place to go for a day trip, with both wildlife and history to draw interest. Many people take the World’s shortest commercial flight from Westray to Papay but then leave again straight away to go back to Kirkwall, but when planned right, the morning flight in, and evening flight out provides plenty of time to get around the island.

I’d come across a suggested walking route on the Walk Highlands website, a really useful resource when researching an area in Scotland for hikes. Handily, it started at the airfield which I’d reached from Westray, and prepared for a day of cloud and showers, I followed the main road north until, just as it changes direction, the entrance gate to the North Hill RSPB reserve is found. From the gate, there’s not an obvious path but the bird hide sits atop the island’s highest point, so is easy to see. The ground was boggy under foot thanks to the previous day’s downpours, and the place felt deserted. By the time I reached the hide I was roasting in all my layers, and after a quick walk around the perimeter wall, spotting a nesting fulmar in the undergrowth, I ensured the coast was clear to head inside and strip off a little. There was a large binocular set on a tripod and I made use of it to watch the surrounding grassland and clifftops. To the naked eye, the place looked deserted, but with the aid of the telescope, I spotted great skuas, geese and more fulmars.

Papay airfield

Fulmar on its nest

Bird hide, North Hill RSPB reserve

North Hill RSPB Reserve

There was the first hint of better weather whilst I sat inside the hut, and after quite some time had passed, I figured it was time to get going. The sign by the gate of the reserve states that you can only walk round the cliff top at the edge of the reserve, or go between the gate and the hide. The rest of the walled-off reserve is out of bounds to protect the wildlife. This did not fit in with the recommended walking route on the Walks Highland website which suggests cutting across the grass to the east and shadowing the wall until a stile is reached. I could see that not only was the ground boggy but there was some geese in the distance, and I was torn between taking the direct route versus heeding the signs to keep off this part of the land. Part of me figured that if there was a stile set up, then maybe it was a recognised access, but from the hide I could see no trodden path, and I opted to return to the gate and follow the road to its end.

The road continued down to two properties, and an RSPB sign dictated that this was an access point for another walk, the Fowl Craig walk, roughly half the length of the clifftop circuit. This path appeared to cut right through one of the properties and then came to a gate, across which was open pasture with a lot of roaming stock. The Right to Roam Act allows pedestrian access through farmland subject to rules, which mainly relate to not worrying stock, and leaving gates as you find them. Normally I would just take this as a given and head in, but on this occasion, when again the ongoing track was unclear, I decided against proceeding without the farmer’s permission. With no-one in sight, I was left with the last option of cutting down to the coast and cutting up to the point where the Papa Westray trail joins the coast, which meant then having to back-track this section again.

This wasn’t actually a bad thing in the end, because the sun had come out and the coastline was beautiful. Passing a wetland, then some old ruins, it cut up hill onto the clifftop where the end of the perimeter clifftop walk appeared, and the stile over the wall that the website had mentioned could be found. Here there were pairs of fulmars on the grassy top and the cliffs below, and some shags stood with their wings wide, drying themselves in the sun. While most of the nests appeared to be in the egg phase, there was one nest with some shags that were not only hatched but already a decent size, fluffy as they were. With the grass in bloom also, it was a beautiful spot to sit and watch the waves crash on the rocks.

Wetland next to the farmland

Cliffs at Fowl Craig

Shags on the rocks at Fowl Craig

Fulmar pair and a shag

Shag parent with chicks

Returning via the route I just came, instead of cutting back to the road, I stayed down at the beach of North Wick Bay. Partly covered in seaweed, it was covered in shore birds picking food from the flotsam, and ducks swam lazily in the shallows. Wandering down the beach I met one of the few people I saw that day, another tourist, and passed the rocky promontory, I continued round into South Wick Bay. Across the blue water to my left was Holm of Papa, a small island with a neolithic chambered cairn. It is reached by boat which can be arranged, but despite being a beautiful day, I didn’t feel that I had the time to go over. So I stuck to the beach for a while, eventually cutting back up to the road to look for an easily missed track back towards the airfield. It was so easily missed in fact, that I missed it. None-the-less, it wasn’t a case of being lost, more that I just had to follow the road past Mayback to the pier, and then continue to follow the road as it cut up to the main street of Papay where the post-office, village shop and school were. With the windsock and airfield building in view the whole time, it was easy to follow the road back here.

North Wick Bay

North Wick Bay looking over to Holm of Papa

South Wick Bay

Holm of Papa from South Wick Bay

By now nearing lunchtime, the airfield was deserted. Passing it by, I followed the road north again towards the RSPB reserve, this time turning off west at the sign for St Boniface Kirk. It wasn’t far to reach the grounds where a local was tending to the weeds and plants within the graveyard. With nothing obstructing the view, it was a beautiful sight west over to nearby Westray. Built in the 12th century, the kirk had only recently been restored and re-opened to the public. The grounds were very well maintained, and I wandered around the headstones for a while, admiring the daisies on the lawn, and looking at the lichen growing on the marble. Inside, the church was compact though it served its purpose, and is still used as a parish church today.

West coast near St Boniface Kirk

Graveyard at St Boniface Kirk

Inside St Boniface Kirk

St Boniface Kirk

St Boniface Kirk

Heading out the church gate and over the stile immediately next to it, I cut down to the western shoreline, picking my way south through cattle-trodden grass to the fence which surrounded the historical site of Knap of Howar. Situated in the middle of farmland, there was good reason for the fence, protecting it from the destructive forces of hooves and careless stock. For within the protected area is a homestead dating from 3700BC, and is the oldest preserved house in northern Europe. It was known to still be in use over a thousand years later, and it even predates Skara Brae, one of Scotland’s most famous historical sites.

Set into the slight hillside, the site consists of two buildings adjoining each other, with the entrance doors facing the coast. Relatively well preserved, the walls and doorways are untouched, with a few vertical slabs held in place artificially to demonstrate how the dividing room walls would have looked. The doors and adjoining corridor required a crouch position to pass through them, and after a wander around them both, I parked up against the outer wall, sheltered from the wind for a spot of lunch. The sun was still beating down from above, and I had an unspoiled view of Westray and the sea in between. Partway through my lunch, my reverie was broken by the arrival of a couple of tourists with their guide, a few of only a handful of people I saw all day. After a brief exchange of chat, they left me to it, and I sat for a little longer before heading on.

Knap of Howar - large house

Knap of Howar - small house

Doorway into the small house

Inside the small house at Knap of Howar

Passage between the two houses

Inside looking out

Crossing the field up to the farm track, the farm road led past the buildings of Holland farm and back to the main north-south road that transects the island. Crossing diagonally, I was back at the road with the post-office and school, and cut back to the east coast of the island, before again following the coast south. A small burn trickled past some old farm buildings and on the rocks by the shore I could see some seals hauled up to dry. Inland, the large loch of St Tredwell sparkled in the sunshine and there was plenty of bird activity going on in the vicinity.

Looking across Papa Sound to Westray

Seals on the east coast of Papay

Loch of St Tredwell

Past some ruined buildings, it wasn’t much further till the track divided a little. It was easy enough to pick the right track to follow south, but finding the correct path to cut down to the ruins of St Tredwell’s chapel was a bit of a guessing game. With a few possible options, in the end I just picked the most well trodden one, and picked my way through the plants where necessary, until I made it to the right spot. There’s barely any of the building left, and what is there is heavily overgrown, but having been built in the 8th century, it’s not surprising that it has fared so poorly. It is believed that the chapel was built over a structure even older, from the iron age, but being on an artificial island, it provided enough elevation to act as a good lookout spot over the loch and its surrounds. Then it was just a matter of picking a way back to the main path and continuing onwards.

Ruins on the east coast track

Ruins of St Tredwell chapel on the island

Remains next to Loch of St Tredwell

Loch of St Tredwell

Further south, the track curves towards a farm, at the gate of which, a sign points the direction to follow round the coast. Here, sea birds became a fixture again, and the waves crashed on the flagstone rocks of the shore, and after a short while, the southern coast was reached at Bay of Moclett. The pier for the ferry is here, and the Walk Highlands website assumes this is how you are leaving. If you are like me though, and flying out, then you need to make your way back to the airfield again. There was no activity at the pier, and passing here, the road reached a beautiful white sandy beach. Had I had more time, I would have happily lingered here in the warm sunshine. But by now it was mid-afternoon and I had a flight to catch, so I pushed on.

Fulmars nesting

Flagstone rock coastline

Great skua - tyrant of the skies

Bay of Moclett

Beach at Bay of Moclett

Passing the opposite side of the loch to previous, I could see some white swans paddling away. I spent most of my life in Scotland where the swans are white, but after over 4 years in New Zealand where the swans are black, it’s now a novelty to see white swans again. Beyond the loch was more farmland where the year’s lambs grazed and played by their watchful mothers. I seemed to be an unusual creature for them, on foot, walking along the road. When the road from the pier hits a T-junction, turning right takes you north, and after a couple of bends, gets you back to Holland Farm, from where there is just a little more road to travel to be back at the airfield.

Lambs near loch of St Tredwell

At just under 9.2 square kilometers, this is a fantastic size of island to get around on foot in a day. This walk does a very rough figure of 8 around the island, taking you to the best sites. With more time, I would have loved to do the coastal walk round the northern end of the RSPB reserve, but on such a beautiful sunny day, I was more than pleased with what I had achieved over the course of the 6.5 hours that I had on Papay. After a bit of waiting around, it was soon time to board the Loganair flight to make the short jump back across to Westray (recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the World’s shortest commercial flight) before heading back to Kirkwall. With the sun still high in the sky, the flight was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Loganair inter-island plane at Papay airfield

Orkney Islands – Westray

Sitting just 10 miles (16km) to the north of the Caithness coast, the Orkney Islands are visible from the Scottish mainland (on a clear day), and boast an incredible 8500 years of known habitation. The history of this archipelago is incredible, varied and fascinating: spanning neolithic tribes, Picts, and Norse Vikings before eventually coming under the rule of the Scottish crown in the 15th century. When I was a young girl, my family visited these islands for a 2 week holiday, but my memories are patchy and vague. Despite living in Aberdeen for nearly 6 years after university, where one of the Orkney-bound ferries leaves the Scottish mainland, I never got round to heading back as an adult. It took a move to the other side of the world to heighten my desire to get back there, and I knew that a trip back to Scotland would not be complete without making some time to do so.

On the PentalinaAt the start of June, the evening sailing of Pentland Ferries’ Pentalina set off from Gill’s Bay to the west of John O’Groats, the sun still high overhead. On route to OrkneyThe sea was calm as we passed the Scottish islands of Stroma and Swona, and as we neared the southern coast of Hoy, the mixing currents of the seas as we rounded the various island promontories resulted in some interesting swells. HoyLike Caithness, the Orkney Islands appear barren. Arriving at St Margaret's Hope on South RonaldsayThere are few trees out here where the weather extremes batter the islands, keeping the shrubbery low. In the distance, an oil rig was visible across Scapa Flow, and we turned into the sheltered harbour created by South Ronaldsay and Burray islands, and berthed at St Margaret’s Hope an hour and a half after leaving Gill’s Bay behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I headed off, like most of the ferry traffic, north to Kirkwall. Island hopping via man-made causeways, it was just a half hour drive to reach the islands’ largest settlement and capital. St Magnus Cathedral, KirkwallI was staying the night at what turned out to be an awesome hostel near the sports centre, and from here I headed down to the harbour front to wander around the boats and through the back streets to St Magnus Cathedral, one of the town’s iconic buildings. St Magnus Cathedral, KirkwallAt the time, there was a display of poppies spilling out of a front window, similar to that done in London, as part of the WW1 centenary events. There was a constant audio of young Orcadians driving their cars round and round the streets, as they showed off to their mates. Spilling out of most of the bars in town were groups of young men and it felt like every late teen/early twenty-something was either driving round the streets or standing in a pub doorstep. It was a little off-putting, and despite my hostel seeming quiet, the restaurants and pubs in town were all busy and I couldn’t find anywhere to eat. In the end, I had to suffice with a trip to the supermarket before preparing myself for the next day.

Kirkwall harbourLeaving my car at the harbour car park the next morning, I experienced my first day of poor weather since arriving in Scotland. Fishing boats on route to WestrayThe cloud was grey and thick, and the wind was cold, so on boarding the ferry I headed straight inside where I spent most of the trip. Normally I love standing on deck watching the world go by, but every time I gave it a go, even all wrapped up in layers, the cold was biting and I quickly gave up. Heading north for nearly 1.5hrs, the ferry passed by the islands of Shapinsay, Rousay, and Eday before arriving at the island of Westray. With rain visible on the horizon, I was met on the pier by my guide, and we set off to explore.

I had vague recollections of Rousay from my childhood, but I hadn’t visited Westray before, and I chose it for various reasons as one of the islands I had to visit on this trip. At 47 square kilometres, it is only the sixth largest of the island chain, but it was just too big to explore on my own two feet, so I hadn’t hung around with booking a tour in the planning stages of my trip. I’m a terrible introvert at times despite all my foreign travels. Happy in my own company, I’m not the best at conversing with strangers, so when it transpired that I was the only person booked on the tour that day, I was a little apprehensive as to how it would be with just me and the guide. Normally as one of a group, I’d never experienced a one to one tour before. I needn’t have worried. Apart from the fact that I’d told myself in advance that I would need to actually make an effort with social skills, my guide Graham and his wife Kathy who run Westraak tours, were both lovely and great company. Whilst Kathy provided a delicious morning tea and lunch, it was Graham who drove me round the island and told me the tales of its history.

Despite the weather not being in my favour, we still managed to cover a lot of the island’s best sites. The main settlement of Pierowall has a small heritage centre which was a handy place to keep dry when the inevitable rain showers hit. Viking era diceAlthough small, it has some interesting artifacts from local archaeological digs, and I was astonished to see a dice carved from bone that was dated to the time of the Vikings. There are active dig sites on Westray where both bronze age and neolithic buildings and artifacts have been uncovered. When the rain allowed, Graham took me to a couple of these, where shifting dunes had started the process of uncovering these ancient sites.

One of the most famous pieces to be uncovered there has been nicknamed the Westray Wife. The Westray WifeA small figurine, also on display at the heritage centre, it was the first Neolithic carving of a human figure to be found in Scotland, and it is the earliest known depiction of a human face found in the United Kingdom. There is quite some debate as to whether it is a male form or a female form (I personally think it is a male), but I was mostly amused by how much emphasis was placed on this figurine by the locals, especially when it was so small in real life. The amusement was as much because the souvenir fridge magnets made to replicate it were bigger than the figurine itself (it amused me so much that I bought one). But it did make me wonder about the pain-staking work that must go into an archaeological dig when such small pieces are found without being overlooked.

Quoygrew Viking building siteNot far from the Neolithic dig is Quoygrew, a Viking settlement from the 10th century that was exposed as the coastline shifted over time. The weather was wild when we went there, and we sat in Graham’s van whilst he told me all about it whilst the rain lashed down around us. Thankfully, the bad weather eased as the day wore on. Noltland CastleWhilst remaining cloudy, there were enough breaks in the rain to see the rest of the places on the itinerary without getting too wet, although by this point I was kitted out head to foot in waterproofs. Noltland CastleOut the back of Pierowall is the remains of Noltland Castle, built in the 16th century by the lover of Mary Queen of Scots, a man so paranoid about being murdered that he fitted the castle with an incredible number of weaponry holes. Noltland CastleIronically the man, Gilbert Balfour was indeed murdered, but not at his castle which was never finished, nor seen by Mary Queen of Scots despite being intended for her. This is the sort of scandalous history I love about the royals and gentry of the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before arriving, I had made a request to Graham that he find me some puffins whilst I was there. There are two spots on Westray to try and spot these colourful little seabirds, and he took me to Noup Head on the west coast. Noup Head lighthouseThe road there was unsealed and steep and even in his van it needed to be taken carefully. We passed some tourists who changed their mind about following the route in their small car early on, and reached the lighthouse on the Head with not another soul to be seen. It wasn’t overly surprising given the biting wind and grey skies that surrounded us, but from the lighthouse, it wasn’t far to walk to witness the towering sea cliffs that give home to thousands of breeding sea birds.

 

Noup Head cliffsThis was the perfect time of year to go bird watching as the breeding season was well under way. Sea cliffs at Noup HeadOn the cliffs below us and flying around us were gannets, guillemots, razorbills and fulmars. Razorbill and puffinThe noise was incredible, and the movement from sea to cliff and back again was constant. With the aid of binoculars, Graham found me a lone puffin quite early on, and after spotting another couple, I was satisfied. Two razorbills and a puffinI vaguely remember seeing these birds in the Shetland Islands further north when I was a little girl but I hadn’t seen them since. Known as the clowns of the sky because of their white faces, black eyeliner and colourful beak, they are small comical-looking birds with orange feet, and they are one of the smallest sea birds in Scotland. Astonishingly though given their small size, they only come to shore to breed, spending the rest of their lives at sea. Their numbers in Scotland have been in decline for some time as they specialise in feeding on sand eels. With these small fish in decline due to fishing and changes to sea temperature, it is only inevitable that the puffins are also struggling, so any sighting felt even more special.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lady Kirk in PierowallBack in Pierowall village lies the ruins of Lady Kirk, a church built in the 17th century. Graveyard at Lady KirkRight on the waterfront it, like the village itself, is immensely peaceful although the graveyard hid some sad tales of infant and juvenile mortality. Lady KirkThis was the last stop on our trip before I was dropped off at my hostel at the far end of the bay. Again I had the room to myself, and being only early evening, I headed upstairs to the lovely attic living room where I promptly and unintentionally fell asleep on the couch. It seemed that all the fresh air, and probably a little bit of jet lag having crossed the world just 4 days prior, had caught up with me. When I eventually woke up, I simply headed to my bed and slept like a baby.

 

 

 

 

I was disappointed to wake up to more rain. I had some time to kill and had hoped for a wander around the bay, so bracing myself for a day of getting soaked, I donned my waterproofs again and headed out anyway. Thankfully, the rain eased quite quickly as I wandered along the shoreline into the village which was still and quiet, then out the back road to Noltland Castle again. I had hoped for better weather than the day before to take better pictures, but although it was now dry, it was far from fine. Baby birdAfter a brief wander around the perimeter watching nearby birds feeding their young, I retraced my steps back to Lady Kirk again and then past the heritage centre where the skeleton of a beached whale is laid out on the grounds. Bedraggled starling parentReturning to the hostel, I awaited my pre-arranged lift to the airfield which never arrived. Whale skeleton, PierowallIt wasn’t far to drive there, but it was an hour long walk, and I started to panic that I was going to miss my flight. Whale vertebrae and ribsThankfully, the owner of the hostel saved the day and drove me there, getting me there with a few minutes to spare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The flight was one of the main reasons I was there, so missing it would have been rather upsetting. Aside from the main airport in Kirkwall, the outer islands have airfields: small huts with a wind sock, and either a grass or tarmac runway. Every incoming and outgoing flight requires the local farmers or volunteers to man the radio and staff the fire truck. The day before, Graham had taken me to watch the plane from Kirkwall arrive at the Westray airfield, and it was interesting to see the place come alive 10 minutes before it arrived, and then desert again less than 10 minutes after it took off. Operated by Loganair who serves the Orkney inter-island flights, these flights carry school children, teachers, doctors and goods between the outlying islands and Orkney’s mainland and are a vital and seemingly well-used part of the community. What also drives the popularity of the flight I was there to take, is that the flight from Westray to the next-door island of Papa Westray (or Papay as it is known locally), is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the World’s shortest commercial flight. The record is 53 seconds, although it averages a minute and a half. If the wind is blowing in a bad direction, it may even take nearer 2 minutes.

Loganair plane at Papa Westray airfieldIt was a very brief wait from my arrival at the airfield to the plane’s arrival from Kirkwall. It was a quick and efficient boarding before the plane was back on the runway, and without pause we lifted off the tarmac and headed east. No sooner had we climbed than the pilot was revving back the engine and turning us into approach, and we touched down on Papay 1 minute 27 seconds after leaving Westray behind.

It was another efficient unloading and loading before the plane was back on the runway once more to head back to Kirkwall. I waited by the gate of Papay airfield watching it leave and shortly after, the locals who had staffed the airfield for those brief but important moments, got back in their cars and drove off, leaving me to explore this new island. Still kitted in my waterproofs with just my hiking boots and day pack for company, I set off to follow the unofficial Papa Westray Trail.

North Coast 500 – Reaching Caithness

For many years of my life, every March, for one enjoyable week, my family decamped to Aviemore in the Cairngorm National Park. Always falling within a few weeks of my birthday, and meaning a week out of school, I always looked forward to it, and it signalled the transition from winter into spring. Over the years, we experienced blizzards, unseasonably hot weather, and everything in between. It was a good base for hiking and exploring not just the park itself, but further afield to the Moray coast and occasionally popping further north to Sutherland and Caithness. Throughout the later years of high school and university when exams took precedence, I skipped this holiday, returning back for long weekends when I moved to Aberdeen following graduation. I have so many happy memories from this region, so I was eager to pop back there on my trip home to Scotland.

Aside from those brief forays to the eastern Caithness coastline, I had never visited the most north-western portion of the Scottish mainland. A few years ago, a rebranding for tourism promotion, saw the birth of the North Coast 500, a destination route that circles from Inverness north to John O’Groats, west to Cape Wrath, south to Applecross and back east to Inverness. It seemed the perfect route to make a road trip out of revisiting some old favourites as well as exploring some new places.

I left Glasgow early to make headway north to Aviemore, which was the inevitable first stop on my trip. I could have stayed here for days but there was too much to see and too little time so I had to suffice with just a few glorious hours in the middle of the day. I headed first to Rothiemurchus estate for lunch, then popped down to the shores of Loch Morlich for the view that I have witnessed a hundred times over. Loch Morlich from the western shoreIt never grows old: the ducks waddling along the shoreline whilst the Cairngorm Mountain Range dominates the skyline across the shore. Loch Morlich from the southern shoreOn this occasion, I couldn’t actually see the summits as the clouds were low, but I lingered here just long enough to feel satisfied, before heading off to another favourite spot: Loch An Eilein.

Loch An EileinThe name literally means loch with an island, and in this case, the small island contains the ruins of a 15th century castle. There is a circular walk around the loch which I’ve done previously, but again I just didn’t have the time. Beautiful Scots Pine forestI had to be satisfied with walking along the south-eastern bank, through the beautiful pine forest until level with the island, where I looked hopefully for red squirrels, listened to the bird life and then headed back to my car for the drive north. Castle on the island, Loch An EileinI drove slowly through Aviemore centre, noting what had changed in the 5 years since I’d last been there, and then, back on the A9, I pushed on to Inverness and the Kessock bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kessock bridge across the Moray FirthInverness was always a regular visit on those Aviemore vacations, but I bypassed it, crossing the expanse of the Moray Firth to Kessock, and continued to count the miles down to my next stop: Dornoch. If I’d been here before, I had no memory of the place. Made famous because of the visit of singer Madonna and Guy Ritchie prior to their wedding, it was quiet and almost deserted when I got there. Dornoch Castle hotelI was still finding it strange seeing historic buildings again, and the main square was surrounded by them. Dornoch CathedralThe cathedral itself is 13th century, and what is now the town’s main hotel was built in 1500. Dornoch Cathedral and graveyardThese both pre-date the European settlement of New Zealand where I now live, and boy have I missed old buildings!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dornoch beachAfter wandering around the town square, I headed down to the beach which was blustery but otherwise peaceful. Seals at Loch FleetThen it was time to mosey on, and keeping close to the coast, I stayed off the main road, and travelled down single-track road past Embo and up towards Loch Fleet where I spied a group of seals on a sand bar. Finding my way back to the main road, it wasn’t much further to my first night’s stay in Golspie. Normally a hostel or hotel kind of girl, I had booked a B&B, and what a delightful place it was. Set back from the road in well-maintained grounds, my room was not only delightful but my hosts were lovely. It is a shame that this is to be their last season as a B&B as it was a fantastic place to stay.

Carpet of flowers on Big Burn walkOn the recommendation of my host, I headed to Big Burn walk on the north end of the village, where the evening sun pierced through the trees, illuminating the carpet of blue bells and white flowers under foot. The waterfall at the end of the Big Burn trailAn easy walk led through the woodland to a small gorge where a waterfall spilled its way down the rock face. Fish and chips by the beachBack in the village centre, I located the fish and chip shop, and partook in some good old Scottish cuisine of fried food washed down with the legendary Irn Bru whilst sitting on a bench by the beach. It was a gorgeous evening, and this far north at the height of summer, there was daylight till after 11pm, so I was in no hurry to go back inside, choosing to soak up the rays until the shadow from the nearby hill made me cold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had an early start the next morning, heading behind the village to the start of the hike up the notable hill behind Golspie. For miles around, the large statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland can be seen where it stands atop this hill. It is a highly controversial structure, given that this particular Duke and his wife played a pivotal role in the instigation of the Highland Clearances, an event in the 18th and 19th centuries when large numbers of crofters and their families were forced off their land with little notice, to be replaced by sheep which were deemed to be of greater economic use of the land. Brutality was common, and it was an event that saw large emigrations of Scots to other countries across the world, as well as playing a part in the decline of the Gaelic culture. The Duke of Sutherland is a title that is bandied around with distaste when discussing the regional history, and with statues normally being erected for heroes, this one is much disapproved of, and I wondered who came up with the idea in the first place.

Roe deerNevertheless, it is an enjoyable hike to see it. Following mountain bike trails in the forest below, my early start meant I had the place to myself and I was startled by a deer jumping out the foliage in front of me and running away, pausing briefly to eyeball me before disappearing out of sight. Duke of Sutherland statueWhen out of the forest on the other side, the path climbs up the hillside until eventually reaching the base of the statue. Golspie from near the summitThere was a swirling low cloud, so the statue repeatedly disappeared out of view on route, and at the summit, the air felt cold. The view changed as the cloud lifted and fell, and by the time I’d returned back to my B&B, I felt I deserved the cooked breakfast I was presented with.

 

 

 

The best local attraction is Dunrobin Castle, immediately north of Golspie, and I think it is probably one of Scotland’s most beautiful castles. Golspie from the pierWhen I reached there after first taking a walk along Golspie beach, the cloud had completely gone and the whole coastline was basking in glorious sunshine, making the pale exterior stand out against the blue sky. Dunrobin CastleThe exterior as seen today is from the 19th century and inside are artifacts from the Sutherland Clan who owns it. Dunrobin CastleI walked around it with due awe but it was really out in the gardens, looking back at the castle above that its beauty shone out. An outbuilding in the grounds housed one of the most macabre yet interesting collections of taxidermy that I have ever seen, and after wandering around the grounds for a while, I joined the gathering crowd for a falconry display that was included in the entry price, and well worth seeing.

 

 

Gorse in flower at HelmsdaleI couldn’t believe my eyes on the drive north where the gorse was plentiful and in full bloom. The yellow flowered bushes sprawled across the hillsides in every direction and in the sunshine, it was just stunning. This view went on for mile after mile after mile, until eventually, turning off the main road north in favour of the road to Wick, the countryside became sparser and the clouds started to roll in. Here, it seemed more wild and desolate, with the effects of the weather extremes becoming evident the further north-east I went. I had planned on visiting the ruins of Sinclair castle near Wick but missed the turn-off and opted to plough on instead of turning back. End to End at John O'GroatsFinally reaching John O’Groats in time for a late lunch, it was blustery and cloudy. This didn’t deter the steady stream of people who posed by the directional marker which marks the end of the Lands End to John O’Groats route. It had been a long time since I was last here, and now there are a few more developments in the vicinity with a choice of eateries, accommodation and tourist shops. It is also possible to take a day trip to the Orkney Islands from here, so there is enough to hold tourists here for an hour or two at least.

 

The obligatory photoI had a lovely lunch before posing for my obligatory photo, and then I headed east to Duncansby Head, the north-eastern tip of Caithness. Coastline at Duncansby HeadFrom the car park by the lighthouse, not only can you see the Orkney Islands, but a roughly-defined walk takes you south along the coastline, home of hundreds of breeding seabirds, to the distinctive Duncansby Stacks, Scotlands answer to Australia’s 12 Apostles. Coastline at Duncansby HeadsYou can walk as far south as you want. Duncansby StacksThe Right to Roam Act means that as long as you don’t worry livestock and leave gates as you find them, you are not limited by the pasture fence line when exploring the outdoors in Scotland. Duncansby StackThe coastline cut in and out in steep gullies where fulmars were the dominant seabird nesting on the cliffs. There was plenty of movement to watch as these birds, related to the albatross, glided on the wind, and squawked noisily at each other as they landed. Once at the Stacks, I could see a few seals hauled up on the rocks near their base, even spotting one swimming in the surf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lamb at Duncansby HeadBeing summertime, the lambs were aplenty and when I returned to my car a sheep was using one of the cars in the car park to scratch an itch on its butt which looked highly amusing. But it was time to head off as I had a ferry to catch. Not far to the west of John O’Groats is the unassuming Gill’s Bay which is little more than a pier and a scattering of buildings. Pentalina at Gill's Bay ferry terminalBack in the sunshine, I watched as the Pentalina, the Pentland Ferries owned vessel, backed into its berth and unloaded. Waiting my turn, I boarded, ready for my return to the land of the Vikings, a place that I had such vague memories of from my childhood. It had been a long time coming, but finally I was heading back to the Orkney Islands.

Glasgow’s Miles Better

When I was a kid growing up in the 80s in the suburbs of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, there was a well known advertising campaign to promote the city as a tourist and commerce destination. Featuring Mr Happy (from the Mr Men) and the slogan ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ it epitomises the feeling of many residents when it comes to comparing themselves to that other city in the central belt – you know the one: the capital city that is Edinburgh. If you speak to the people of Edinburgh, they protest having no such superiority against Glasgow, but speak to any Glaswegian and most of them will jokingly wit about Edinburgh’s shortcomings and all the things that make Glasgow so much better. I’m a proud Glaswegian, born and raised, and have spent many a trip abroad regaling to people why they need to step away from the enticing vista of Edinburgh’s Castle and Princess Street Gardens, and come explore Glasgow and further afield. It seems from speaking to a lot of travellers, that Scotland draws many people to the capital city and Loch Ness (home of the mythical monster), and little else, which is a constant frustration.

I lived, grew up and studied in Glasgow until an employment opportunity took me away in my 20s. It is now 10 years since I have lived there, but I’m still a Glaswegian at heart and was excited at the prospect of playing tourist in my home city on my return there at the end of May. Armed with a walking tour outline on my phone, and hitting it off with the weather, I set off to see some spots I’d not visited before, as well as revisit some old haunts from my youth.

Arriving by bus into Buchanan bus station, I found my way to the top of Buchanan Street where a busker was playing the bagpipes, which immediately made my heart swell. It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, I always feel immensely patriotic and emotional when I hear the bagpipes. Glasgow Royal Concert HallThe sound of even badly played pipes, always takes me to a place where I feel at home and connected to my past. I sat for a while on the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall which sits at the top of the street, and from here there is a view both down the slope of Buchanan Street and along Sauchiehall Street, 2 of Glasgow’s shopping streets. I had all day and was in no hurry, and having been devoid of one of my favourite clothes shops for many years, it was only right to do a little bit of shopping in H&M. Who knows when I’ll be in one again.

Glasgow City ChambersIn part following the Mural Trail, and adapting it for sightseeing purposes, Buildings around George SquareI passed George Square, the large expanse in front of the City Chambers, which is often used for seasonal events. Buildings around George SquareThe sun was out, and so were the pigeons and people enjoying a morning coffee and catch-up on what was a public holiday. Buildings around George SquarePast the University of Strathclyde, I followed High Street, passing my favourite mural of a man with a bird on his hand, and continuing up to Glasgow Cathedral, a building I’d never visited before. ManFree to enter, there was a lot of tourists milling around, and I took my time admiring the stained glass windows, Glasgow Cathedralsomething which I always love to look at inside churches. Stained glass window, Glasgow CathedralIt’s a beautiful cathedral inside and out, and sits next to the entrance to the Necropolis.Stained glass window, Glasgow Cathedral

Inside Glasgow Cathedral

Inside Glasgow Cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cathedral and Royal Infirmary from the NeropolisThe Glasgow Necropolis is reached by crossing over the bridge behind the cathedral and then picking a route up the hill. Pushing up daisies in the NecropolisIt has a reputation for an area of crime, with people being robbed and beaten here, but on such a sunny day on a public holiday, it was full of locals and tourists alike sunning themselves on picnic rugs or wandering around the gravestones. Glasgow Cathedral from the NecropolisIt is a green space within the city and known as a deer-spotting location, as well as being elevated enough to act as a natural viewing spot for a panorama over the city and suburbs beyond. Royal Infirmary from the NecropolisI felt perfectly safe wandering around, absorbing the sun’s rays and soaking in the view. Behind the Cathedral, the large Royal Infirmary nestled beside it, and in the far distance, the hills beyond the southern suburbs with their windmills atop were evident through the haze on the horizon.

 

 

 

Gravestones in Glasgow NecropolisI meandered around for a while, looking at the various prominent and distinct headstones and monuments, before heading back to the Cathedral. Monuments in Glasgow NecropolisOpposite here is the St Mungo Museum and adorning the immediate area is the symbol of Glasgow from the city’s coat of arms: Glasgow Necropolis‘Here’s the bird that never flew, here’s the bell that never rang, here’s the tree that never grew, here’s the fish that never swam’. Glasgow SymbolsNot far from here there is a juxtaposition between the old buildings of Glasgow and modern architecture, particularly around Strathclyde University.St Mungo Museum

Modern Architecture - Strathclyde University

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church in Merchant CityThe Merchant City is a well known area for socialising, rife with bars, cafes and restaurants. Merchant SquareIt is a popular part of the city but an area that I rarely frequented when I lived there. I went to university in the west end, and lived in a suburb to the south, so there was little reason to go there. I wandered through it, admiring the buildings, but didn’t linger long. While searching for a mural down an alley way, I stumbled across an old fashioned sweet shop which sold many of my favourites from my childhood. I stocked up on soor plooms, cola cubes, rhubarb rock and more, and continued on my happy way.

 

 

 

 

 

St Andrew's CathedralWandering along the Clyde walkway, the good weather had brought many people out to the riverside. River ClydeIt’s not the prettiest of rivers, being rather discoloured and often the river banks are littered with rubbish and trolleys, but turning a blind eye to all that, Road bridge crossing the river Clydethere was much to see from bridges and churches to buildings and murals, and now, the walkway extends all the way to the relatively new transport museum further down the Clyde.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lighthouse signageAfter a while, I left the river behind and cut north back into the city, finding myself at the Lighthouse on Mitchel Lane. Glasgow rooftopsAnother one of the city’s free attractions, I’d never been here before and decided to head in to go to the viewing platform. Glasgow rooftopsA centre for design and architecture, it acts as an exhibition and gallery space and was originally designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I was starving by this point, not satiated by sugary treats, and stopped in the cafe for lunch. I had followed the signs to the viewing platform on the sixth floor, accessible only via lift. Indoors, it was a small space, a little cramped with the amount of people there, but it was an interesting view over the city rooftops that isn’t normally seen. I noticed some people in another outdoor viewing platform another floor up in an older looking building, but didn’t know how they’d gotten there. I later discovered that it was another part of the Lighthouse, and was a little annoyed that I’d missed out on this.

 

 

 

 

Central StationBack outside in the glorious sunshine, I made a convoluted path back to the Clyde walkway, passing the beautiful exterior of Central Station, a familiar site from my many years of commuting in and out of the city during my late teens and early twenties. BT BlobsI was sidetracked by some strange colourful blobs outside of the BT offices, before I found myself at a bridge that had appeared in the years after I had left the city and was living to the north in Aberdeen. Tradeston BridgeThe promenade felt lively and inviting, and was decorated with bright pink banners declaring ‘People Make Glasgow’. Clyde walkwayI felt Glaswegian and I felt like I was at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corner of Sauchiehall StreetHeading up to Sauchiehall Street and on to Cowcaddens underground to complete the mural trail, I hopped on the underground to head west. Glasgow UniversityThe underground had been upgraded since I last was on it, and I had a brief moment of feeling stupid as I couldn’t work out what to do with my ticket at the barrier, whilst the staff in the booth waved frantically at me trying to give me silent direction. Kelvingrove Art Gallery & MuseumEmbarrassed, I breathed a sigh of relief when it let me through, and I headed to Hillhead, another regular haunt from my youth. I crossed University Avenue, looking up towards the tower of the building where many of my exams were held, and continued down the hill past the restaurant I ate with my family on the day of my graduation, and round the corner, crossing the River Kelvin, and onto Argyle Street, sidling through the crowds to reach Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SpitfireThis was a place where I’d last visited as a kid with my mum and my brother. Kelvingrove HeadSince then it had been closed down, completely renovated and reopened a few years ago. Kelvingrove headsYet another free attraction in Glasgow, I’d heard good things about it, and was particularly keen to see the ‘Heads’ installation. Like many museums, it has its set exhibits and a changing exhibit, but there are a few key pieces that the museum is famous for, including an Asian elephant and a spitfire. I was quite hot and just a little sunburnt by this point in the day, so I wasn’t really fussed about spending a lot of time here. I just wanted an overview, so wandered round admiring and looking at the displays, but didn’t particularly spend much time reading the information or descriptions that went with them. I particularly liked a painting in one of the galleries that contained every known stereotype or classically Scottish object within the one image. As the guide who was there commented, you could look at the piece multiple times and still see something new each time, the picture was just so immense.

 

 

 

Stewart Memorial FountainRound the corner from the museum lies Kelvingrove Park which was unbelievably busy given it being a public holiday and such cracking weather. Glasgow UniversityFrom the skate park to the fountain and everything in between, there was barely an inch of grass free to sit on with families and friends everywhere making the most of the cracking summer weather. Grey squirrelI was overjoyed to spot an ice cream van and joined the long queue to wait patiently for my ’99’, and boy did it taste good. University quadrangleI people watched for a while, before taking a trip down memory lane by walking to Glasgow University. Glasgow UniversityHere, it was eerily deserted, being outwith term time. Exams were over, and only graduations awaited in a couple of weeks’ time. I watched a grey squirrel cry out in the trees as I walked below the high tower of the main building, cutting through the arches into the quadrangles and round to the entrance gate before heading past my old student union where a hundred memories flashed through my head. It felt a lifetime ago since I’d last been there, and it might as well have been, for all that has occurred in the 11 years since I left the university life behind. It felt almost strange being there, and I headed through the busy Ashton Lane, all the pubs spilling out onto the cobbled street, and back to Hillhead underground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back at Buchanan Street underground station, I got stuck again trying to exit the barriers. It wouldn’t accept my ticket and with the ticket office at the far end of the floor, I was left on my own, jumping up and down and waving like an idiot trying to grab their attention. Several commuters looked at me strangely on passing, assuming I didn’t know where to put my ticket, yelling instructions at me in a tone that suggested I was stupid. Eventually a more sympathetic commuter saw my plight and went over to the ticket office to point me out to the staff. Like Cowcaddens before, they gesticulated from a distance where to put my ticket, not realising this wasn’t my problem. It felt like the longest time before eventually they pressed a button and all the barriers released, finally letting me escape. It seemed the underground did not want to be my friend that day.

Back out in the sunshine, I had one last place to go on my trip down memory lane. Heading down Buchanan Street briefly and cutting through Exchange Place, I rounded the side of the Gallery of Modern Art (another free attraction) to find one of my favourite and most iconic statues in the city: the Duke of Wellington atop his horse, standing oh-so-proudly… with a traffic cone on his head. Duke of Wellington statueOriginally started as a joke in the 80s, it has become so iconic that it now features on souvenirs and in guidebooks for the city. The city council has tried many tactics to discourage and stop the practice, removing the cone repeatedly, only to have it replaced within hours or days, and attempts to implement more extreme measures to stop the practice have been met with petitions from locals and celebrities alike. There are few Glaswegians who even know what it looks like without its cone, and having passed it so many times when I was younger, I felt it was about time I actually took a photograph of it as a memento. There was something warming about seeing it in the flesh again after all these years.

Cutting past George Square once more, I retraced my steps from the morning back to the Royal Concert Hall, picking up a much needed iced tea for the bus ride home. It drove through suburbs of familiarity as I headed to my parent’s house, pleased with my day as a tourist in the sun. It might not have the visual draw of Edinburgh’s Castle, but Glasgow still has my heart and certainly has plenty to offer. My day tour had merely touched the surface of things to see in the city, but it had been immense fun playing tourist in my home town.

Glasgow Mural Trail

As my home city of Christchurch continues to rise from the ashes, I have become a fan of the many street art murals that have appeared on the bare walls of new and old buildings alike. With varying styles, themes and colour palates, they grab your attention and make you smile or make you think. So when, after 3.5 years, I made a return trip to the city of my birth in Scotland, I was surprised to discover that the country’s largest city, Glasgow has its own share of street murals.

A great resource for walks in Scotland, both urban and country, is the Walk Highlands website which gives detailed descriptions as well as maps to highlight the route and sights on the way. It was here that I found out about the murals trail and decided to integrate it into a day of sightseeing that I had planned in the city. It’s been 10 years since I lived in Glasgow, and sometimes I think it is just pure fun to play tourist in your own home town, so armed with the directions, I set off.

Having caught the bus into Buchanan Bus Station, it was an easy walk to the recommended starting point on upper Buchanan Street. There is no mural here, but it is a good central place to start and end the trail due to the locality with transport, shopping, and refreshments all nearby. Turning onto West George Street, and heading past George Square, Rogue One and Art Pistol’s Hip-Hop Marionettes adorn the wall near Strathclyde University’s student union. Just beyond here, the walls of Strathclyde University itself have become a massive canvas with a myriad of murals covering the many walls, some at eye level and others spanning the huge multi-floored expanse of the gable-ends.

Hip-Hop Marionettes, Rogue One & Art Pistol

Hip-Hop Marionettes, Rogue One & Art Pistol

Lecture Hall, Artist Unknown

Lecture Hall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde University, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde University, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Strathclyde Wonderwall, Artist Unknown

Equatorial Telescope, Art Pistol, Rogue One & Ejek

Equatorial Telescope, Art Pistol, Rogue One & Ejek

Land-Ship; Art Pistol, Rogue One and Ejek

Land-Ship; Art Pistol, Rogue One and Ejek

Where George Street meets High Street, a short walk to the left revealed one of my favourite murals on the trail, that of an exceptionally realistic painting of a man with a bird on his hand. Retracing my steps back down to High Street, I turned onto Ingram Street, where a little along the way, a massive mural, Fellow Glasgow Residents, overlooked a car park. As beautiful as this mural was, the fact that it was part of an active car park made it difficult to look at it properly, or take photos of it, as there were vehicles parked everywhere. With multiple images within one mural, I feel that it could be looked at multiple times and still not notice every detail.

Man, Smug

Man, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

Fellow Glasgow Residents, Smug

At the end of the car park, turning left onto Candleriggs in the heart of the Merchant City, one of the murals painted for the Commonwealth Games of 2014 is very prominent about a block down on the right. At the bottom of the street, turning right onto Trongate, a laneway near an old-fashioned sweet shop hides a very large and colourful spaceman. Turning left on Stockwell street towards the River Clyde, the Clutha bar, unfortunately well known due to a tragic accident involving a helicopter crashing through its roof in 2013, has its outer wall adorned with murals too.

Badminton, Guido Van Helten

Badminton, Guido Van Helten

Space Man, Recoat and Ali Wylie

Space Man, Recoat and Ali Wylie

Clutha Bar; Art Pistol, Rogue One & Ejek

Clutha Bar; Art Pistol, Rogue One & Ejek

Clutha Bar; Art Pistol, Rogue One & Ejek

Clutha Bar; Art Pistol, Rogue One & Ejek

Following a brief walk along the Broomielaw, the trail turns up Ropework Lane and onto Howard Street which has a massive mural that curls around the lower portion of the building, round onto Dunlop Street. Again, the parked traffic made it a little difficult to appreciate it all, but it was certainly colourful. Back on the Broomielaw, and over onto the Clyde walkway which forms a promenade along the north bank of the River Clyde, the trail heads west past a large tiger and the amazingly realistic Five Faces that adorn the road side of the five pillars supporting the railway bridge.

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Big Birds, Artist Unknown

Glasgow Tiger, Artist Unknown

Glasgow Tiger, Artist Unknown

Five Faces, Smug

Five Faces, Smug

Five Faces, Smug

Five Faces, Smug

Five Faces, Smug

Five Faces, Smug

Five Faces, Smug

Five Faces, Smug

Five Faces, Smug

Five Faces, Smug

Backtracking slightly to head up Jamaica Street, along Argyle Street to the east, and up Mitchel Street, is a mural of a taxi. However, on closer inspection, the mural is not just of the taxi itself, but indeed all the bricks of the wall have been painted on too. Immediately up from here is a large mural of a woman with a magnifying glass and beyond that, the almost ironically placed Wind Power which was partly hidden by the rubbish and refuse of the local businesses. Detouring along Mitchel Lane, a hidden panda appears, and then the trail continues up Mitchel Street further before heading along Gordon Street.

The World's Most Economical Taxi, Rogue One

The World’s Most Economical Taxi, Rogue One

Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Smug

Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Smug

Wind Power, Rogue One & Art Pistol

Wind Power, Rogue One & Art Pistol

Glasgow's Panda, Artist Unknown

Glasgow’s Panda, Artist Unknown

Passing Central Station, the train station serving the south of the country, turn left down Hope Street and then right onto Argyle Street where a clever mural appears on the left, almost looking like a noticeboard to begin with until you notice the extras. This one is expansive, along not just one wall, but wrapping around onto York Street. Returning to the Clyde Walkway by the Broomielaw, the supporting structure of the broad M8 motorway is adorned with a massive mural of a swimmer, another piece created for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. This one is so large, it is best appreciated from the other side of the road.

Gallery, Smug

Gallery, Smug

Gallery, Smug

Gallery, Smug

Gallery, Smug

Gallery, Smug

Gallery, Smug

Gallery, Smug

Gallery, Smug

Gallery, Smug

Swimmer, Smug

Swimmer, Smug

Heading north, keeping the M8 to the right, the Clydeside Expressway is crossed via a footbridge, and there is a section of the trail with no murals, this route serving merely as a connector between the south and north sections of the trail. Always with the motorway to the right, eventually crossing the busy Sauchiehall Street, a detour past the bank uncovers a crocodile underneath a footpath. Following Sauchiehall Street east until Rose Street, the Cowcaddens underground station is reached via an underpass which is decorated with a mural, as is the underpass on the far side of the underground. From here the trail returns back to Buchanan Street.

Glesga Crocodile, Klingatron & Art Pistol

Glesga Crocodile, Klingatron & Art Pistol

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Art Pistol

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Hand Shadow Puppets, Rogue One

Shadow Puppet, Art Pistol

Shadow Puppet, Art Pistol

According to the website, the distance covered is 9.25km, or 5.75miles. It can be walked in half a day, or can be interspersed with refreshment stops to make it longer. On this particular day, I was playing tourist and visiting some of the city’s major tourist attractions. I incorporated this walk into my sight-seeing, taking detours to attractions where necessary, and therefore I easily made this trail into a fantastic day trip. Since that day, I’ve found so much more street art in Greater Glasgow too, but this trail is definitely a very good starting point. Even without going off the trail to visit attractions, this trail actually offers a reasonable overview of the city, and I think it is a fantastic way to discover the city of my birth.

Mount Barrosa

Despite being the last month of autumn, the weather in New Zealand’s South Island has remained relatively warm, meaning a lack of snow on the mountain tops, and an extension to my hiking season. With a multi-day hike coming up in July, I am aware that I need to keep up some degree of fitness, despite the dark nights tricking my body into a sense of hibernation. Already several weeks on from my last hike up Avalanche Peak, some good weather again coincided with a day off work, and I set off on the now-familiar route south-west from Christchurch.

About an hour and a half’s drive away, lies the small village of Mt Somers which nestles at the base of the mountain with the same name. From here, Ashburton Gorge Road winds west into Hakatere Conservation Park. Before the sealed portion of road ends, beyond which lies Mt Guy and Mt Sunday, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it car park denotes the starting point for the Mt Barrosa summit track. Arriving mid-morning on a Sunday, I had the place to myself.

Start of the hike

Initially passing through private land, the path marked by orange poles follows the fence line before crossing a small stream once and then twice to the base of the mountain. Here a stile marks the transition onto public land within the Hakatere Conservation Park. Immediately the climb starts, winding through low scrub, following a reasonably worn path marked out by orange poles. It feels like altitude is gained quite quickly without feeling too exhausting and, as many of the hikes have had, I was constantly accompanied by hopping crickets.

On the ascent

Like Mt Guy, the lack of anything other than ground vegetation, meant it was an exposed walk the whole way up. With the sun quite low in the sky in May, several portions of the trail were in shadow in the morning, but on a summer’s day, this would have been a hot one. But aside from the exposure factor, I found the hike a little uninteresting with little to look at other than the jumping crickets and the path before me. The neighbouring gullies were in shadow and the nearest birds sounded far away.

Neighbouring slope

After about 40mins, a little interest came in the form of some rock formations that the path skirted round, and each lower ridge had a differing size of rock point jutting up. Stopping to take in the view which is mostly behind you as you climb, the valley below started to open up more and more. I could see my lonely car in the car park for over the first hour of the hike, getting smaller and smaller, until the path skirted another rocky outcrop and crossed slightly over the mountain front.

The valley below

Shadows and light

One of many rocky outcrops

I reached a false summit about 1.5hrs after leaving the car behind, and only now could I actually see the summit of Mt Barrosa ahead of me. The steepest section of the hike was behind me by this point, but the path quality deteriorated from here on in, where large sections involved simply making a bee-line for the next orange pole, as it continued the ongoing climb. Now the view up the valley revealed Lake Clearwater and Mt Guy as well as Lake Heron, and this remained my view the rest of the way up.

View from the false ridge

Looking towards the summit ridge

Panorama from the mountain flank

Looking upwards

Although the gradient of the hike was not as steep as the lower section, there was a lot more scree and boulders underfoot, but the orange poles did enough to guide you in the right direction. However, when the ridge line was finally reached, even the orange poles disappeared. A fence split the ridge line in two, and it was easy to follow this until the unmarked summit (1364m) was reached. A lonely orange pole stood proud at the top, and clusters of large rocks made for an interesting summit.

Nearing the summitMt Barrosa summit

Rocky panorama

Summit panorama

I have read on some sites that from the summit, Aoraki/Mt Cook is visible, but I don’t believe this is true. There was certainly a distinctive mountain top on the horizon, but I think this is most likely Mt D’Archiac or another peak. In my mind, Mt Cook is both too far away and behind too many tall peaks to be visible from there. What is visible though, is Mt Somers and the tramping track that skirts its circumference, as well as a plethora of other mountains. Looking east, the Pacific Ocean was just visible through the haze.

Mt Somers

Mt Guy

With little to no wind at the summit, it was pleasant, and I loitered up there on my own for quite some time, enjoying the solitude and the view. It had been a while since I’d enjoyed a quiet summit, having hiked many popular routes this summer. Retracing my steps the way I had come, meant that after negotiating the upper reaches where the lack of distinct path meant a lot of foot watching, the lower portions meant I could enjoy the view a bit more. By now early-afternoon, the sun had shifted so that the shadows played out differently on the return leg. I found myself almost skipping down, and was surprised to spot another car in the car park as it came back into view. Only at the very bottom, back at the stile into private land, did I come across the occupants: a family out walking their dogs, and the only people I met on the hike. I reached my car 4hrs 5mins after leaving it behind. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign at the bottom lists the hike as 2.5hrs to the summit. I reached the top in about 2hrs 10mins, only a little ahead of the normally generous timing, but the ease at which I came down, meant the return leg was only about an hour. Then it was a simple case of enjoying the rest of my snacks as I headed back home to Christchurch.

Heading back down

Descending towards the false summit

Ashburton Gorge

The valley below

Mural City

As life starts to wind down towards the inevitable short days of the winter months ahead, I’m spending more time around my hometown of Christchurch on my days off. Having spent many summer days out hiking or exploring the country, I recently spent some much needed down time wandering around the city that continues to pick itself back up again post-earthquakes. After the success and vibrancy of last year’s Spectrum Street Art Festival, I was pleased to see it was running again this year, and especially keen to see the new murals that have popped up around the place. Sadly, many of last year’s have either gone or been hidden, including my favourite, and the most popular, Ballerina. But the rebuild must go on.

Jacob 'Yikes" Ryan & BMD, Hereford Street

Jacob ‘Yikes” Ryan & BMD, Hereford Street

Jacob 'Yikes' Ryan, Hereford Street

Jacob ‘Yikes’ Ryan, Hereford Street

 

BMD, Hereford Street

BMD, Hereford Street

 

Artist Unknown, Cashel Street

Artist Unknown, Cashel Street

 

Toothbrush, Ikarus & Jacob Yikes, Cashel Street

Toothbrush, Ikarus & Jacob Yikes, Cashel Street

 

Artist Unknown, off Colombo Street & Battersea Street

Artist Unknown, off Colombo Street & Battersea Street

 

Embassy, Wongi, Colombo Street

Embassy, Wongi, Colombo Street

 

Love, Artist Unknown, Brougham Street (now gone)

Love, Artist Unknown, Brougham Street (now gone)

 

Artisti Unknown, Hereford Street

Artist Unknown, Hereford Street

 

Figure, Deow, Buchan Stret

Figure, Deow, Buchan Stret

 

Close up, Sofles, St Asaph Street

Close up, Sofles, St Asaph Street

 

Close up, Sofles, St Asaph Street

Close up, Sofles, St Asaph Street

 

Sofles, St Asaph Street

Sofles, St Asaph Street

 

For Madelane, Elliot Frances Stewart, Mollett Street

For Madelane, Elliot Frances Stewart, Mollett Street

 

Splash, Artist Unknown, YMCA Building, Hereford Street

Splash, Artist Unknown, YMCA Building, Hereford Street

 

Monsters, Berst, Gloucester Street

Monsters, Berst, Gloucester Street

 

Vexta, Cashel Street

Vexta, Cashel Street

 

Ikarus, Hereford Street

Ikarus, Hereford Street

 

Multiple Artists, Hereford Street

Multiple Artists, Hereford Street

 

Cookie Monster, Emma, Hereford Street

Cookie Monster, Emma, Hereford Street

 

Ikarus, Hereford Street

Ikarus, Hereford Street

 

Yikes, DTR & Leeya, Hereford Street

Yikes, DTR & Leeya, Hereford Street

 

Artist Unknown, Hereford Street

Artist Unknown, Hereford Street

 

Yikes & DTR, Hereford Street

Yikes & DTR, Hereford Street

 

Late Bloom, Artist Unknown, Hereford Street

Late Bloom, Artist Unknown, Hereford Street

 

RIP Prince, Jacob Yikes, Hereford Street

RIP Prince, Jacob Yikes, Hereford Street

 

Yikes & DTR, Hereford Street

Yikes & DTR, Hereford Street

 

Ikarus, Hereford Street

Ikarus, Hereford Street

 

Jacob Yikes, Hereford Street

Jacob Yikes, Hereford Street

 

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