Hoy means High Island in Old Norse and it’s strikingly different both in landscape and atmosphere from the rest of the Orkney archipelago. It’s a landscape of contrasts – brooding hills and peaty moors replace the rolling green pastures of the mainland but the coastline, which is often battered by raging seas, occasionally throws in a turquoise bay with glistening white sands.
Rackwick Bay is a strikingly desolate yet beautiful beach. Enclosed by red sandstone cliffs, its pinkish sands are backed by smooth boulders. Seals bob in the breakers and seabirds nest in the surrounding cliffs.
Get the passenger ferry to Moaness Pier on Hoy and pick up the minibus to the Rackwick Bay Hostel. The village itself is a scattered crofting community that sits in a brooding valley surrounded by towering heathery hills and closed off at one end by the wild Atlantic. It’s bleak but inescapably beautiful.
Leave any beach exploring for later and pick up a path leading west, signed to the Old Man of Hoy. Go through a gate and bear right, following signs. As the path climbs views open up to Rackwick Bay to your left. Turn right at a stone sign, then keep to the path as it heads uphill on steps and a rough path. Go through a gate, then continue on the narrow path as it winds along the headland. The cliffs are a breeding ground for kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and puffins.
From here on it’s just a matter of sticking to the path as it skirts the coastline, then cuts inland over heathland, until you see the Old Man. In late summer the heath will be ablaze with bell, ling and cross-leaved heather, which flower in pinks and purples, as well as tiny northern marsh and spotted orchards. The moorland is also a breeding ground for great skuas (or bonxies as they’re known locally) and they won’t be shy of dive-bombing you during the nesting season.
After 3 miles you’ll come to the Old Man of Hoy, a 137m (450ft) red sandstone sea stack teetering on a black basalt base. Chris Bonnington first climbed this famous landmark in 1966, then again the following year for a BBC live broadcast watched by 23 million viewers, while 42 years later three base jumpers leapt off the top. Most other visitors will enjoy scanning the stack for nesting sea birds or simply ticking off a walk that features on most people’s wish lists.
Retrace your steps to Rackwick, but take a detour before the hostel to visit the Crow’s Nest Museum, an old byre and croft with dry stone walls and turf roofs, which are left exactly as they were when they were inhabited in the 1940s. It’s a fascinating insight into how crofters have lived in the community for hundreds of years.
Regain the track that leads back to the hostel, but instead turn right and walk down to explore the beach. Take time to pop your head into the bothy that offers free accommodation (and shelter) if you’re willing to brave the elements.
Steep, rough paths over moorland. Take care near the cliff edge.
HOW TO GET THERE
By public transport: There are two ferry services to Hoy. The passenger ferry sails three times a day from Stromness to Moaness Pier (Mon-Fri) and twice on Fri evenings, twice daily Sat and Sun. There is also a car and passenger service between Houton (near Orphir) and Lyness and Longhope up to six times daily (Mon-Sat).
There is a seasonal minibus service between Moaness
Pier and Rackwick.
Tel. 01856 791315
There are no cafés or shops in Rackwick so make sure you bring a packed lunch.
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre
Open all year Mon-Fri,
9am-4.30pm; Sat-Sun, 10.30am-4pm. Free entry, donations welcome.
Tel. 01856 791300
Hoy, KW16 3NJ
Tel. 01856 873 535