Over Christmas I spent a week on the Orkney Islands, during which I hiked, camped, lived off of Co-op ready meals and spent my time cursing the weather gods. In all seriousness, the trip was a success! The landscapes were stunning, stormy weather made for atmospheric photos and while no one would call microwave green curry a gourmet experience it was still a guilty pleasure. If you’re unfamiliar with the location of the archipelago, it can be found about 10 miles off the northernmost tip of Scotland, and does not exactly consist of palm trees and sunshine… it does, however, consist of some of the most lonely and dramatic scenery that I have thus far encountered. I went up the week of the winter solstice, which was the perfect time for astronomy, and to visit the various archaeological sites that make up the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’. In addition to praying for clear skies, I also spent my time scrambling up, over and around Hoy (somewhat confusing the sheep), sleeping in buffeting winds on Papa Westray and attempting to dry my clothing over the hob…
For most of the week I stayed at Brown’s Hostel in Stromness. It was somehow cheaper than my flat in Glasgow and had both a shower with decent pressure and an oven that actually worked. I’m considering moving back permanently. On my first full day I decided to walk along the coast from Stromness to Skara Brae taking in the Yesnaby cliffs, and then back round inland via Stennes. This turned out to be a rather ambitious walk that lasted near-on 8 hours (with the last two in the pitch-black), in part due to an underestimation of snow and ice, but also because the scenery was worth stopping for. I was treated to views of Hoy to the south standing on the Brough of Bigging, and moody lighting for the Hole o’ Rowe – a sea arch in the Bay of Skaill. The weather managed to give the impression that it could break at any minute, withholding its true might – it turns out – for just after I arrived back in the hostel. Apparently timing is key.
One of the main reasons that I travelled to Orkney in the first place was to learn about its rich archaeological landscape, with the hope that I might be lucky enough to witness the setting sun’s rays shining into Maeshowe. I was not. I went on the two most likely days, but low lying cloud cover prevented the phenomena from occurring; that being said, it was still well worth a visit, with the tour guides each providing their own take on the people who built the monument and the reason for its existence. For those who do not know, Maeshowe is a Neolithic chambered cairn – one of the best preserved examples in Europe – carefully built from giant stone slabs (weighing up to three tonnes) which form a high-ceilinged central chamber some five metres across, and when the time is right (for two weeks on either side of the winter solstice) the lasts rays of sunlight shine through the entrance passage into the cairn’s dark interior, lighting up the opposite wall. If you look closely, they would also illuminate Viking runes and graffiti carved into the walls which date to the 12th century, including some rather racy comments about other Vikings, and whom they chose to spend their nights with.
Only a stone’s throw from Maeshowe lies the Barnhouse settlement and Stones of Stenness, the latter of which is formed by upright stones some six meters tall and was constucted some 5,400 years ago. Further away lies the Ring of Brodgar, younger and shorter than the Stones of Stenness, but covering an impressive area 104 meters in diameter, making it the third largest stone circle in Britain. I was gifted with clear skies for my second visit to Brodgar, but plagued by a group of tourists that attempted to be centre-frame in every shot. Luckily I managed to subvert their attempts by angling it so that they were hidden behind the stones.
Mid-trip I took the only ferry to Papa Westray that week with the hope of clear skies for astronomy. The island is one of Orkney’s smallest at only four miles long, and almost as far north as North Ronaldsay. Despite being known for the Knap of Howar – a Neolithic farmstead older than Skara Brae – and as a popular bird watching destination over the summer, the island only has one road, but it was along this road that a very kind farmer gave me a lift to North Hill just as the sun was going down. I was expecting to camp that night, but it turns out the nature reserve’s bird watching hut is open all year round. I got a good few hours of astronomy in – Mars, Jupiter and the Orion Nebula were all on display – before the clouds rolled in and the wind rose to a rather excessive 50 mph. I was then grateful for the hut, although on the exposed headland it felt like even the hut was going to fly into the North Sea and me with it.
I had an early wake-up the following morning to catch the Westray ferry as I wanted to make the best of the limited daylight the solstice provided. I can say now that that day was simultaneously one of the best and most tiring of the entire trip. I arrived in Pierowall around 9 am and stocked up on food at the Post Office, stuffing my backpack and jacket with scones, doughnuts and chocolate. The cashier was highly amused. My plan was to walk from Pierowall past Noltland Castle (16th century) to Noup Head, then down the west coast, around Skea Hill and the Ness of Tuquoy, then all the way south to Rapness pier. The solstice may have given me only six hours of daylight to work with, but that light was magical, and the cliffs and sea stacks of the west coast were even more pretty than those of the mainland. The smooth slabs of rock rising out of the barreling waves gave the impression of an infinite ledge reaching for the seafloor and there was a sense of remoteness, echoed in the boom of the waves and cry of the gulls; it was with great sadness that I reached the main road near Smittaldy and began the gruelling walk to Rapness. By this time it was dark and the head torch was pulled out again. Unlike the previous day, I had no luck with a lift from the locals, resulting in a four hour road-walk back to the ferry terminal with only the planets, and the distant glow of cottage windows to light my way.
I spent two days on Hoy over the course of the week, and could easily have spent much longer exploring the southern part of the island. Nicknamed ‘high island’ by the Vikings, Hoy is the second largest in the archipelago and home to the two highest peaks, as well as the Old Man of Hoy, a 137 metre sea stack near Rackwick Bay on the west coast.
On my first outing I took the valley path from Moaness to Rackwick which circles round to the north, spent a few hours photographing the Old Man and St. John’s Head (the highest vertical sea cliff in the UK at 335 metres), before climbing up and over Sui Fea (379m) and Cuilags (435m) to get back to Moaness. When I arrived on the early morning ferry it was still dark and I had to use a head torch to reach the footpath, but as I emerged from the valley sunlight bathed Rackwick in morning light. It was a sight to see. By the time I got round to the Old Man of Hoy that light was fading fast and the wind had picked up. The coastal path peters out around the Old Man, and balancing on rugged cliff tops in 40 mph gusts may not have been the smartest idea… but it was certainly exhilarating. As I hiked further up the coast towards St. John’s Head the weather broke, and I was treated to torrential rain for the following four hours. Thoroughly soaked despite full waterproofs, I waded across the boggy tops to Cuilags. It was at this moment that the many, many contour lines took shape, and I realised quite how steep the descent to Sandy Loch was. It took me forty minutes of zig-zagging down the sixty degree slope before I reached the bottom and walked to Moaness pier. Whoever installed a heater in the ferry hut (which doesn’t really count as a terminal) has my everlasting gratitude!
I wanted to end the week with a bang so I decided to save climbing Ward Hill until my last day. Having taken the mid-morning ferry, it was already daylight by the time I arrived. Grateful for a little bit of road-walking after an exhausting week, I reached the Dwarfie Stane within an hour of setting off. Here a little bit of off-roading was required, a suitable warm-up for the gruelling climb to come; I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fall over several times due to the ice that had materialised overnight. After the descent from Cuilags the previous day, I was less surprised by the gradient of Ward Hill… but that didn’t make the climb any less strenuous. On the bright side, it was over quickly and the views across Hoy were worth the sweat and muscle soreness. I was blessed with a light dusting of snow and biting cold at the summit, but the stillness was almost overwhelming. It was one of only a handful of moments where I’ve been standing somewhere and felt completely at peace, and I was in no hurry to return to civilisation and lose my newfound peace and quiet.
Alas, all good things come to an end, and I was wanted home. The flight back to Glasgow was just as rickety as the one to Kirkwall, and I was reminded of my mortality as the tiny plane struggled to make it off the runway. Orkney was an experience, and I would gladly come back and explore some more. I hope you enjoyed this post and would consider signing up to my blog below!