Until recently the journey was epic and expensive, but the recent partnership between Logan Air and Flybe, connecting Kirkwall with four Scottish cities, means that Orkney is now more accessible, and affordable, than ever. Overland the journey is even more adventurous and ferries cost from as little as £13. But don’t let this newfound accessibility fool you; travelling to the extreme edge of Britain still feels like you’re stepping off the map. At 59° north, Orkney lies on the same latitude as Oslo and St Petersburg. In June the sun dips below the horizon for just five hours a day, while on winter days Orkney descends into darkness for 18 hours as the heavens strobe with northern lights.
Culturally, Orkney feels a million miles away. The dialect owes more to Old Norse than it is does to Gaelic – not surprising when you think the Scottish only gained power here in 1468. It’s this geographical and cultural isolation that makes the archipelago so distinctive. It seems familiar yet foreign, and in many ways it feels more Scandinavian than Scottish. Luckily, the Gulf Stream keeps the climate mild, and average temperatures differ by just 10°C between seasons. It’s perhaps because of these mild conditions that people have prospered here for thousands of years. The Neolithic village of Skara Brae predates Stonehenge, and Stone Age people thrived here long
before the Vikings arrived in the 9th century. This history is (literally) never far from the surface and the countryside is riddled with archaeology. Every few years a storm exposes a Neolithic village or a farmer’s tractor wheel falls into the remains of a chambered cairn, while ancient monoliths stand nonchalantly in back gardens.
The Orcadian landscape has a quiet drama. The mainland is gently undulating and green, scattered with low-lying farms and crisscrossed with dry stone walls. It doesn’t have the desolate grandeur of Shetland or the superlatives of the Highlands, but there’s something magical about it nonetheless.
“The scenery may not be dramatic, but somehow it makes you feel good,” said Malcolm Handoll, a bushcraft expert from Five Senses and our guide. We were stood on an isthmus that separates the lochs of Stenness and Harray, sheltering beneath the Stones of Stenness, four huge megaliths that once formed an elliptical circle of 12 stones. Set in the centre of a natural amphitheatre, the causeway is surrounded by water and cradled by hills. The brooding shape of Hoy looms to the west. This is the very heart of Neolithic Orkney (centre of the UNESCO World Heritage Site), where three of its most outstanding prehistoric monuments cluster within a 1-mile radius. It’s a magical spot, but it’s hard to put your finger on precisely what it is that captures the imagination.
“The area has a rare magic to it,” said Malcolm. “You can feel that there’s something special and unusual about it, but it’s not until you see things from a survival point of view that you come to realise that people put spiritual meaning on to landscapes that offer all the fundamentals of living. Here you have fresh water, fertile land and access to the sea for fishing. It all comes together like pieces in a jigsaw.”
It certainly puts a different slant on our perception of Orkney. People tend to imagine marginalised living here, but if you start to see Orkney as a rich and prosperous land, you not only come to understand why ancient communities have flourished here, but also why Orcadians today are so fiercely proud, resourceful and, in many ways, staunchly self-sufficient.
The ancient occupants have certainly left their mark. A mile northwest lies the Ring o’ Brodgar, the third largest stone circle in Britain (after Avebury, Wiltshire, and Stanton Drew, Somerset). Folklore says these are the remains of a gang of giants who danced the night away, only to lose track of time and turn to stone with the first rays of sun. Only 27 stones remain, but it is thought that there were once 60. Nearby is 5,000-year-old Maeshowe, the finest chambered cairn in western Europe. The mound itself is 37m (121ft) in diameter and more than 7m (23ft) high, and on the winter solstice the sun sets between the two hills of Hoy and aligns exactly with the 9m- (30ft) entrance passage to flood the chamber with light. Inside the walls are scrawled with Viking graffiti, left by Norse crusaders seeking shelter from a snowstorm in the 12th century.
It would be fair to say Orkney doesn’t always make things easy for you. The weather can be temperamental, to say the least. The first thing you will notice is the wind – a steady buffeting that makes even the sunniest day seem chilly. What you do get, however, is light (19 hours of it in summer), four seasons in one day and a nation of people who are complacent about rainbows. It’s when these elements kick up a fuss that Orkney’s raw beauty comes through.
When the westerlies are in full swing, Yesnaby cliffs are a sight to behold, as great waves roll in from the Atlantic and fulmars waltz in the air. But if one place tops Yesnaby for shear untamed beauty it is Hoy. Meaning ‘High Island’ in Old Norse, Hoy is the second largest island in Orkney and is starkly different to the other islands, both in appearance and atmosphere. The interior has the bleak grandeur of Glencoe; its heather-clad hills and peaty moors create an intense and claustrophobic atmosphere. On the coast, Rackwick Bay must be one of Scotland’s most desolate yet beautiful beaches. Enclosed by red sandstone cliffs, its pinky-yellow sand is piled high with smooth, round boulders, like a pebble beach for giants.
Top of most walkers’ lists is the Old Man of Hoy. You may remember Chris Bonnington’s ascent of the 137m (450ft) sea stack when the BBC broadcast it live to 23 million people back in 1967. Since then it has been the playground of many an ambitious climber, three base-jumpers and, mainly, thousands of nesting fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots. The Old Man may not be long for this world, teetering as he does on a plinth of tough igneous basalt, so it might be worth boosting him up your wish list.
The quick hop from Papa Westray to Westray is the world’s shortest scheduled flight. A pebble-skimming 2 miles, it takes between two and three minutes (it was once accomplished in 58 seconds). I’d already heard so much about the tiny island of Westray, lying some 10 miles off the Orkney mainland. According to the locals it’s reminiscent of how the mainland was 30 years ago and it’s considered incomprehensible to not greet someone as you pass. Sure enough as we drove into Pierowall, our driver raised a friendly hand to every motorist, cyclist and pedestrian. The wildlife brings most people to Westray – specifically, this is one of the best places in Orkney to see puffins.
“It always amazes me how excited people get when they see puffins for the first time,” Graham Maben of Westraak Tours confided as we headed along the cliff-top path towards the Castle o’ Burrian sea stack. “Oh look there’s a pair now…” He couldn’t even finish his sentence – I was already shuffling along the cliff-edge to get a closer look. It’s not just the puffins that whip wildlife watchers into a frenzy. The island is teeming with rare wildlife that is unfazed by gawking visitors. Otters bumble along the paths, orcas hunt seals just offshore and there are enough seabirds and waders to keep twitchers coming back year after year.
But it’s something above and beyond all this that makes Westray remarkable. Having returned home after living on the Scottish mainland, Graham can appreciate the island both as an Orcadian and as an incomer. I asked him what he thought made Westray such a special place: “I have such a passion for the island, its culture and quality of life,” he told us. “Yes, there is breathtaking birdlife and places of perfect solitude, but mainly it’s the vibrant belief in Westray by its people that makes it so special. Without the unique people who make this island community function, it would be a very different place indeed.” Feeling like I was on waving terms with all of 580 of its inhabitants, I can see just what he means.
Westray, Orkney KW17 2DR
Tel: 01857 677482
Local legends Sandy and William McEwen have redefined the term labour of love with their innovative restoration of this Grade II-listed Presbyterian Manse. An avid collector and rescuer of things, Sandy
has filled the house with a quirky, eclectic but ultimately elegant
array of finds on a shoestring, with cathedral chairs, Fairtrade rugs, salvaged wood sideboards and handmade box beds. “The idea is to make it look like we’ve just done a bit of dusting,” she says. The atmosphere is relaxed and comforting, and each room has its own character. From this creative hub, the McEwens run courses in writing, art and cookery, including some innovative spins on Orcadian baking (covering everything from bere bannocks to fatty catties – see page 40). An itinerant teacher, William first came to Westray in 1985 and since then the couple has renovated four properties on the island – Trenabie Mill, an old oat mill near Pierowall, is also well worth a look.
Chalmersquoy, Westray KW17 2BZ
Tel: 01857 677214
This independent hostel in Pierowall offers comfy and affordable accommodation from which to explore the rest of this magical island. The large lounge has beautiful views over the bay and the kitchen is a great place
to meet other travellers.
Harray, Orkney KW17 2LQ
Tel: 01856 771 400
The only five-star B&B on Orkney, this graceful country house sleeps five. The guests have the run of the lounge, dining room and conservatory, so you can be sure of personal attention yet space to unwind. The owners even hoist the flag of guests’ nationality for their arrival!
Related Links on the Countryfile Magazine website:
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- Discover the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path
- Discover Northern Ireland’s hidden treasure
- Discover Swaledale in Summer
- Discover Robin Hood Country