MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Orkney”

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

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.

At 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. The 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. Like Caithness, the Orkney Islands appear barren. There 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. I 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. At 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.

 

Leaving my car at the harbour car park the next morning, I experienced my first day of poor weather since arriving in Scotland. The 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. Although 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. A 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.

 

Not 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. Whilst 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. Out 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. Ironically 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. The 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.

 

This was the perfect time of year to go bird watching as the breeding season was well under way. On the cliffs below us and flying around us were gannets, guillemots, razorbills and fulmars. The 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. I 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.

 

Back in Pierowall village lies the ruins of Lady Kirk, a church built in the 17th century. Right on the waterfront it, like the village itself, is immensely peaceful although the graveyard hid some sad tales of infant and juvenile mortality. This 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. After 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. Returning to the hostel, I awaited my pre-arranged lift to the airfield which never arrived. It 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. Thankfully, 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.

It 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.

Journeys in the Homeland

As a child, many of our family holidays were to places within my home country of Scotland. As an adult, whilst eagerly heading off on adventures on foreign shores, I’ve always made a point of travelling across my homeland as well, revisiting favourite places and discovering new locations. Whilst I have my favourite places on the mainland, my absolute favourite parts of the country as a whole are out on various of the islands dotted up the west coast. I have lugged my trusty tent around a few of them, done road trips on a few others, and a few more still have been the destination for day trips. My passion for the country is yet to dwindle.

I spent 23 years of my life living in a suburb of Glasgow, the largest city in the country. Whilst not having the visual appeal of the capital city, for me it is the city to go for shopping and socialising. I love it. I do not, however, love its weather. The Scottish weather is not the most reliable at the best of times, and whilst I have many memories of gorgeous sunny days, I have a lot of memories of grey, dreich winter days where the rain slams off the streets. Contrast this to my home for the subsequent 5.5 years in Aberdeen on the east coast (Scotland’s 3rd largest city), where it is much drier, and the sun shines for longer. Whilst Aberdeen gets bitterly cold in winter, and gets a good covering of snow, it is complimented by beautifully crisp, clear days where the sun bounces off the snow, making it truly sparkle. Where Glasgow won out, was with its locality as the gateway to some fantastic areas of the west coast: the Trossachs, Loch Lomond, and the islands of Arran, Cumbrae, Gigha, and further afield to Oban and beyond. I missed the ease of access to the Western Isles and the Firth of Clyde islands when I lived in Aberdeen, having to chug across the width of the country to get out to these. Having said all that, the Cairngorm Mountain National Park was within an hour’s drive from the Granite City, and I used this as my playground for hiking and camping as often as the weather was reasonable.

 

Most of the years of my life I have at some point visited the Spey Valley within the country’s original National Park, Cairngorm Mountain. This is one of my favourite parts of the mainland, and I have visited it in blizzards, and fantastic sunny days, and a full spectrum of weather in between. The Cairngorm Mountain range is littered with Munros (a Scottish mountain >3,000ft high), and these are accessible from the Grampian (Aberdeen) side, as well as the Spey Valley to the west. It is home to Scotland’s 3 ski resorts and the 2 highest roads in the country, the most famous being the ‘Cock Bridge to Tomintoul’ Road (the A939), which is usually the first road to close in the country when the snow appears due to it reaching an altitude of 2,112 ft. Incidentally, this is one of my favourite roads to travel along, and is the access road to the Lecht ski resort, but it needs a really sturdy gear box due to an incline of 20-26% depending on the section.

There are so many fantastic hikes in the National Park that I could write a whole separate blog on these. My favourites are to the summit of Lochnagar (3,789ft) which starts in the glorious glen around Loch Muick, a good 1.5hr drive west of Aberdeen with red deer being a common sighting on this hike; the forest of Glen Tanar near Aboyne; the Spey river valley walk; and the shorter walks to Loch an Eilann and around the Glenmore forest at the foot of Cairngorm Mountain. A fantastic trip to do here is a guided walk into the foothills of the Cairngorm range to visit the local population of reindeer. It is a free ranging herd, the only one of its kind in the whole of Great Britain, and they can be seen roaming the mountains in the summer, or lower down in winter, where they come in for a regular feed and an up-close opportunity to hand feed these delightful creatures. A few of the herd tour the UK at Christmas time to pull Santa’s sleigh at parades and festivals.

 

The Isle of Mull and the Isle of Iona west of Oban are beautiful islands to visit, and they both demand to be savoured slowly. Mull is littered with single track road, and the best parts of the island are reached on these. Tobermory, the colourful town on the north-east of the island is famous for 2 reasons: the buildings on the waterfront are all painted in differing pastel shades, and it was also the set for a famous children’s tv programme a few years ago, called Balamory. It is an excellent location to hop on board a boat and go searching for whales and dolphins. I was lucky enough to see a sunfish which is exceedingly rare in such northern waters. On one of my visits I attended a production of Macbeth in the Mull Theatre, situated in the village of Dervaig. At the time it was the World’s Smallest Professional Theatre, with around 32 seats, and being so close to the actors, several of us got regularly sprayed with phlegm as the erudite actors portrayed their characters with immense enthusiasm. It is almost a little sad that this delightful little theatre has been replaced with a more modern, and larger production hall near Tobermory.

 

Taking a long drive to the south-west corner of Mull, the ferry terminal at Fionnphort hails the crossing point to the islands of Iona and Staffa. Staffa is an uninhabited sea stack with the famous Fingal’s Cave, and patrolling the waters around it are the populous basking sharks. These sharks are plankton feeders, and are beautiful to watch trawling the water, sieving the micro-organisms out the water with their giant mouths. I have lost count of the number of times I have visited Iona, and the weather has been glorious every single visit. I love hiking north from the ferry terminal to the northern beaches, and just relaxing as the Atlantic Ocean laps on the shore before me.

 

I only discovered the Outer Hebrides 2 years ago. I had been to the Western Isles of Skye and to Lewis and Harris in my adolescence, but I decided to take the long drive from Aberdeen across the width of the country, up the length of Skye and on the ferry out to the chain of North & South Uists, Benbecula, Barra, and Berneray. This region has a strong Gaelic (pronounced ‘Gah-lick’, as opposed to the Irish Gaelic, which is pronounced ‘Gay-lick’) heritage, and the signage is bilingual, with a preference towards the Gaelic. One of the many MacDonald clans can be traced back to the Uists. I spent a week touring the chain of islands, and I’ve never been anywhere so idyllic, so remote, and so far from the stress of suburbia in all my life. It is a very wild and rugged region, and it is exposed to the full brunt of the harsh Atlantic weather. Most of the island chains are barely above sea level for large portions, and the tide has a lot of influence on the coastal landscape. As a result, the place is teeming with shore birds, sea birds, and thanks to a plentiful supply of inland water, wetland birds too, not to mention the birds of prey that these smaller species encourage. I can’t think of a better place to go and watch bird life. The only wild otter I have ever seen was also on this trip. Whilst generally colder than the rest of the country, the Outer Hebrides boasts some amazing expanses of white sandy beaches, many of which stretch some distance. It was on one such beach on Berneray where I was walking along daydreaming, that my attention was drawn to a movement ahead of me. An otter had just returned from a trip out at sea, and it was drying itself off on the sand, rolling over and over and having a full body shake down. I stood quietly watching it for several minutes before it disappeared up the sand dune and over the ridge.

 

Last year, the cogs were already in motion for me to make a move abroad. In an effort to both conserve money whilst taking a break, and to immerse myself in the country I would later leave, I packed up my tent, my stove, and sleeping bag and headed off first to the Island of Arran, and then to the Isle of Gigha. With the exception of the last day on Arran, I lucked out with the weather, basking in the 20s most days, and getting sunburnt on Gigha. Disembarking the ferry at Brodick on Arran, I set off with my 15kg backpack up Goatfell (2,866ft, a Corbett). I was in prime fitness at this point, and although it slowed me down, I amazed myself with how quickly I made it up to the summit. I enjoyed my lunch at the summit, taking in the glorious vista, before heading down the far side and through the glen below to my camp spot for the night. It was only May, not quite in season yet, and I had the campsite to myself. Over the proceeding days, I worked my way south, camping in the forest and enjoying the changing coastal scene. Thankfully the rain only came in the morning I was due to leave, so I managed to get packed up and under cover without getting too drenched.

 

Gigha is a comparatively small island on the exterior side of the expansive Argyle Peninsula. Getting to the ferry terminal is a mission in itself, but once out on the island, I spent several days soaking up the rays and meandering from one end to the other, pitching my tent wherever I felt like it. One of the glorious things about Scotland is the ‘Right to Roam’ Act. Apart from individual properties, most land is generally classed as public, and therefore free access is allowed nearly everywhere. It is also possible to pitch a tent nearly anywhere you please too on the public land, as long as you’re not causing an obstruction or being a nuisance. As a result, I’ve had some glorious nights in my tent in the middle of nowhere, in some wilderness somewhere that I’ve hiked to. Gigha was no exception. I spent each night camped on the shoreline at a different bay, waking up to the sunlight dancing off the gentle water. It was such a relaxing holiday.

 

Unfortunately, my memories of the northern isles, Orkney & Shetland, are very faint, having been there in childhood and never having made it back in adulthood. I can remember visiting puffin colonies, and some incredible archaeological sites in Orkney, mainly the World Heritage Site that is Skara Brae, a neolithic settlement from the BC era. There is not enough space to write about every place I’ve ever visited in my home country, many of which I’ve been back to over and over again, and putting more detail into those places I have mentioned would take an inordinate amount of time. Needless to say, I am proud to report that my home country still remains the one that I have travelled most extensively, and I think it is important for travellers to remember that your home country is well worth exploring too.

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