My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “August, 2016”

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. I 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. Docking 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. Crossing 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. I 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. I 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.


Like 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. The 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. On 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. There 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. By 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. Looking 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. A 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. Its 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. It 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.


I 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. From 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. Colin 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. In 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.


107 square miles of barren moorland straddles the cape, most of which is owned by the Ministry of Defense 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.


Eventually 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. The wild weather meant there wasn’t a lot of bird activity, but the cliffs were still steep and dramatic none-the-less. The 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.


Whilst 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. Near 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. It 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. In 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.


I’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. I 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. I 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.


The following morning, I made the short walk back to Smoo Cave which I was able to enjoy both fog free and people free. Without 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. Only 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. Firstly, I headed off to Kinlochbervie, a fishing village at the head of Loch Inchard. There’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. A mountainous region with interesting rock formations and full of lochans, there is constantly something to catch the eye. I 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.


Stopping 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. Previously this crossing could only be made by boat, but in 1984 the bridge was opened and it’s quite distinctive. Pulling 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. Along 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. Heading 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. We sailed under the Kylesku bridge whilst jellyfish floating around us, before heading back to the pier.



I 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. Nearby a group of European tourists practiced sword fighting, and along the road a group of geology students were studying some rocks near the road. The whole day had been packed with glorious scenery, and Loch Assynt was no different. Built 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. My last stop in Sutherland was Knockan Crag, one of the main stops within the North West Geopark. Here, 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. The 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. Distinctly 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.

Standing on a promontory between Loch of Stenness and Loch of Harray, the remnants of a collection of standing stones towers above the grass. Guided 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. In the past, one farmer knocked some of the stones down to make way for pasture, but was stopped before he completely demolished the site. One 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.


Behind the standing stones is the remnants of a barnhouse settlement, a collection of 15 buildings of varying sizes dated to 3000 BC. The largest of the buildings has an alignment with nearby Maeshowe, a chambered cairn, and the entrance to the standing stones faces this settlement. Behind this, is the peaceful setting of Loch of Harray where a bird hide sits hidden amongst some trees. It 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. There were plenty of mute swans floating around, and dragonflies danced along the shore.


Just 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. Again, its purpose is not completely understood, but this, along with many other neolithic sites on Orkney are World Heritage protected sites. I’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.


There’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. I’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.


After following the circuit back to the Ring of Brodgar, it was time to head back to Maeshowe for my scheduled tour time. A 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. Through 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.


By 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. From 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.


After 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. Near Hobbister a turn-off is signposted for Waulkmill Bay and this is a must-visit. Just 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. On 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. In 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.


The 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. The west coast of Orkney’s mainland constitutes tall dramatic sea cliffs littered with inlets and stacks. In 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. I 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. A 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.


In 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. From 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. The 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. Away 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. As 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.

A well and a replica stone are all that remain of the Picts from the Iron Age (about 100 BC). The rest of the site is from the Viking era, with a settlement and church dating to the 12th century. In those days, the Brough of Birsay was the centre of power in Orkney. The church is the most intact, but most of the site is just the wall remnants of the various buildings. Up 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. Where the ground was lush with grass and meadow flowers, the cliffs drop dramatically into the sea, and peppered amongst them were nesting seabirds. I was on the hunt for puffins, my favourite sea bird, and I had read that this was a good spot to spy them. I 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. Built between 500 and 200 BC, it is an Iron Age broch village made of drystone and shaped into a roundhouse. The site is an extensive maze of wall remnants and outlines of buildings. The 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. Like Skara Brae, it is a beautiful spot, on a hillside overlooking the coast. In 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. By 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. The 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. Built 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.


My last stop on the west coast was a clifftop walk that I had spotted on the drive from Skara Brae to Birsay. The 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. Only 12 of the 600 on board survived, and the names of those who died are listed on a wall next to the tower. Aside from the memorial, this is another fantastic spot to watch birds, and the noise was incredible as the birds thermalled off shore. Amongst 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. I 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. I 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. I had an early rise the next morning to catch the ferry back to the Scottish mainland. I 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. I 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. Even after eating breakfast there was still little to see. Only 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. The 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. As 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.


The 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. A volunteer sitting there took some photos of me at the entrance, before leaving me to it, taking herself off to watch the bird life. It’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. Once 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. After a nosey around inside, I exited in time to see the other tourists arriving. I 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.


Leaving 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. I 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.


Linking South Ronaldsay through Burray, Glims Holm, Lambs Holm and Mainland are a series of 4 causeways known as the Churchill barriers. Built 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. Driving 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. Also evident along the coast of these islands are other remnants of the wars: abandoned military outposts that stand somberly to attention. Contrasting this is the beauty of the little beaches that exist because of the causeways.


The 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. 550 detainees, captured abroad, were brought to Orkney, 200 of which were housed at Camp 60. Among 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. The 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. Step 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. When 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.


Returning 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.


Once the wedding was over, the cathedral was reopened to the public and I took a wander around inside. It is a striking cathedral inside and out, made of distinctive red sandstone intermixed with yellow sandstone, and dating back to the 12th century. Nearby 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. Being 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.


With 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. I 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. Following 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. It 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. I took the scenic drive back to Kirkwall via Tankerness, driving rural single track roads through farmland until I reached the airport outside of Kirkwall. Then it was just a short drive back to town to dump my car before heading out for the evening’s entertainment.


On 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

Inside the small house at Knap of Howar

Passage between the two houses


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 sights. 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

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