Orkney - Step back in time and experience Scottish island walking and wildlife at its best
I love islands,
I love the isolation, the feeling that one is removed from the rest of the world, the fact that you are never far from the sea and you get the chance to meet with locals with a sparkling glint in their eye that says 'satisfaction'. Think of long walks on a deserted stretch of white sand beach, ancient monuments, rugged, towering bird filled cliffs, wild windswept moorlands, wildlife filled deep clear seas and a wonderful welcoming population and you have Orkney in a nutshell.
Even as my wife, Laura, and I boarded the aircraft in Glasgow International Airport to depart for our Orkney Walking & Wildlife
trip, we had the feeling that we were travelling to a seemingly remote, mysterious and indeed romantic destination. Being very used to flying long haul and spending many hours up in the air with in flight movies and a 'pay as you go' drinks service, it was thrilling to strap into the seat of the turbo prop plane with just 20 or so other passengers. Orkney here we come!
Eyes peeled for glimpses of mountain peaks, lochs and the almost arctic floe country of northern Scotland, the clouds parted to reveal and archipelago stretching out into the north Atlantic. 'There it is!' shouted Laura, as the first land rose up into view. And then, one after the other, the full extent of Orkney's 70 islands became apparent, long and low, round and peaked, rugged and rocky with hidden coves and long sandy beaches. I felt my Robinson Crusoe fixation bubbling up, although I am sure that Laura would have something to say with regard to who would take on the role of Friday!
Touching down at homely and welcoming Kirkwall Airport on Mainland, the largest island, we had only been in the air for just over an hour, although it felt a million miles from the hustle and bustle of Glasgow. A short bus ride across the rolling moors of the interior we came into the bijou, though vibrant, sea port town of Stromness. Narrow winding streets rising away from the fishing boat bobbing harbour led to hidden lanes, whale bone decorated shops, galleries and a museum, all nestled beneath the Brinkie's Brae granite ridge.
Exploration of this intriguing historically important town would to wait, as our wonderfully located sea front accommodation beckoned us toward its revolving door.
Checking into the Stromness Hotel, I could almost hear the echoes of its 112 year history, bygone laughter from the whisky bar, travelling gentlemen from the 'Hudson's Bay Company' discussing trade over an Orkney Ale. That night I dreamed of stormy seas, breaching whales and viking hordes...maybe the last single malt 'night cap' was not such a great idea after all!
The following morning saw us boarding the small passenger ferry to the island of Hoy. Sailing along in the sun, the short voyage was a joy, the vessel accompanied by great skuas, known locally as 'bonxies'. These sea birds, pirates of the open seas that chase other birds to make them disgorge their food (charming!), cruised ominously in our wake as we neared the 'High Island'.
The main focus for the day was to see the iconic sea stack of the Old Man of Hoy, but the adventure became a whole lot more. Walking the cliff top path to the geomorphological wonder that is the Old Man, we were serenaded by the 'chack chack' of onomatopoeic stone chats as they flitted amongst the gorse. Flashes of white revealed wheatears flying between tussocks, eagle eyed hunters dashing in to snatch the caterpillars beneath our feet. The Old Man presented himself in regal fashion, his 137m sandstone body standing sentinal like above the turbulent waters, evidently unperturbed by the wheeling kittiwakes and whirring guillemots that alighted on his ledges.
The 6 mile walk across the center of Hoy took us through a heather clad valley beneath the peak of Ward Hill and past the incongruous ancient wood of Berriedale, the most northerly in Britain. Prehistoric red throated divers emerged from the waters of peaty lochans allowing us to feel as though we were stepping back in time with each footfall. Suitably exercised we sailed back to Stromness amidst rolling seals and diving gannets, a great day indeed!
After a restful sleep, no doubt aided by the previous days walking and comfortable surroundings, we donned our boots once again and headed up to the west coast of Mainland. Here lies the best preserved Neolithic site in Northern Europe, Skara Brae. Well, to tell you truth I could have spent much of the day exploring the past at this fascinating ancient village, but the present was urging us on for a 16 mile coastal walk.
Leaving the only footprints along the strandline of a sandy bay we walked the coastal trail up along the cliff tops back toward Stromness. Scanning the calm waters for the spout of a whale, our attention was drawn to a flash of glinting gold that buzzed amongst the Scottish primroses. Well, would you believe it, a great yellow bumblebee! Now, you may think that when you have seen one bee you have seen them all. However, this very rare and local species epitomizes the wildlife treasures that abound on Orkney. Indeed, a shadow across the path in front revealed the long broad wings of a soaring hen harrier, quartering the moorland for prey, its presence causing puffins to explode from the ledges like mini wind up flying penguins!
'What could be better?'
I hear you ask. Well, the next wildlife sighting of the day was the icing on the cake, the cruising fin of a large male Orca, yes, a killer whale! Passing through the waters just off shore, it spurred us onward with happy hearts back into Stromness.
That evening saw us celebrate our wildlife filled walk with a sing song with the locals at a local 'open mike' night. I am not sure if our a-capella rendition of a cajun fishing song allowed us into the Orcadian fisherman's inner circle, but we were allowed to stay!
Next day saw us heading inland to another mighty monument to the past, the Ring Of Brodgar. Walking along the ithsmus that separates the wildfowl filled Lochs of Stenness and Harray we arrived at this 4000 year old henge. If there is one place that really takes you back in time, this is it. Situated with uninterrupted views across the waters and moors, it is not difficult to visualise the view that Neolithic man (and woman, as Laura so kindly reminded me) would have had.
With our baggage taken ahead to allow us to walk unencumbered, we travelled in Orkney's capital, Kirkwall.
Fortuitously our arrival in Kirkwall coincided with the Kirkwall Show and the chance to gawp at enormous horses, sheep with ears that made them look like rabbits in disguise, and a man creating fine art with a chainsaw was too good to miss.
Kirkwall, like Stromness, draws you in down a myriad of winding streets with attractions at every turn. I was so enthralled with the artifacts in the museum that when I got home I bought a metal detector! As we walked down to the friendly and comfortable West End Hotel to rest our weary legs for the night, we passed the wonderful Romanesque architecture of St Magnus' Cathedral.
Low and behold the doors opened to reveal a pipe band in full regalia that struck up to provide the perfect musical accompaniment to our walking holiday in Orkney
. How can you top that, I hear you cry! Well with 68 further islands in the Orkney archipelago to discover I shall have to come back to you on that.