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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.