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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.

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