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.