We chose to take the ferry between St Margaret’s Hope and Gill’s Bay as it was a good deal cheaper and shorter than the more popular Scrabster to Stromness route. The sun was shining and the sea was nice and flat, making the outside deck the perfect place to enjoy our journey across the Pentland Firth. We had a great view of the “Swilkie whirlpool” on the way; the turbulent waters rolling in opposite directions were an awesome sight. We learned later there’s a Norse legend about the whirlpool, saying it’s caused by a witch living under the sea, turning a millstone to grind the salt in the seawater. The sun kept shining as we drove off the ferry and headed north from South Ronaldsey towards Orkney’s mainland. On the way we drove along several causeways, at points passing large visible shipwrecks still partially submerged in the water. This was our first view of Scapa Flow – the body of water so important for the UK’s navy during both world wars. We carried on north east towards Deerness, where we found the wonderful Dingyshowe Bay. After a good walk on the curved, golden beach, we camped up for the night here.
The next morning, we awoke to an obvious problem. Chlo’s back had been causing her quite a bit of discomfort over the previous week, but despite her best efforts to grin and bear it, the severe pain had become unavoidable. This meant there was no position within the van which was comfortable for her and at this point, a decent proper bed and the ability to stretch out was what she needed. We booked an AirBnB for a couple of nights in the hope this would provide her with some respite and give her back a break from our little foam van bed. The flat we booked was amazing – a self contained, purpose built, eco-friendly little home. We got a really good insight into the renewable energy system in use at the property, something we hope to one day be able to incorporate in our own home. The comfort of a proper bed did help Chlo, and the next day, we enjoyed some proper r&r. Another treat was the ability to cook in an oven, rather than on a hob, so we loved making proper use of this and doing some baking. Chlo made chocolate banana peanut butter brownies, resulting in the little flat smelling wonderful.
On our second morning in the flat, we noticed the wind had substantially died down, leaving a beautiful, warm sunny day. We headed up to Mull Head nature reserve, supposedly featuring one of the finest coastal walking routes to be found on Orkney. It certainly didn’t disappoint, as within two minutes from the car park, we encountered The Gloup. Neither of us had any idea what “gloup” meant, but it turned out to be a collapsed sea cave – a gaping tear in the land where you could see water rolling about a hundred metres below. The erosion from the wild North Sea had hollowed out a cavern thousands of years ago, then eventually the cave roof had fallen into the sea. Our walk then continued along the headland, past the Brough of Deerness, and we were treated to stunning views along the coastline. As we looked into the shallow turquoise waters in one of the bays, we saw a harbour seal bobbing about, watching us walk along the clifftop path. Prue had read somewhere that seals can be very inquisitive if you whistle at them, which we did. It certainly seemed to keep the seal’s interest for a little while… although it was probably wondering what two land-idiots were doing making strange noises at it. Maybe it just wasn’t a fan of whatever songs we were whistling. That evening, we watched the Orcadian sunset and kept an optimistic eye out for Northern Lights. (No such luck)
We awoke to another sunny morning, and decided we would make today our history day. Orkney has so many historically significant artifacts and places, from Neolithic through to Viking, and from both world wars. As we headed towards our first stop, Prue saw a short-eared owl swoop and land on a fence post right next to the road. We are both big owl fans, and we’d been sad that we hadn’t seen any during our trip, so this was very exciting! We started out driving to the Ring of Brodgar – the third biggest stone circle in the UK. Even from a distance, the diameter of the circle is impressively large, but the site is all the more significant in its placement. Within walking distance is Stenness, where there are several gigantic standing stones towering higher than anything else for miles around. Then further along to the east is the chambered cairn of Maeshowe. We decided to take a tour inside the cairn, and we were lucky enough to be the only people booked on that particular showing. Having the place all to ourselves really helped us appreciate both the grandeur of the cairn, and also the peaceful atmosphere inside it. After stooping down the tiny entrance corridor, you arrive in the chamber, which is around seven metres tall. The solid stone slabs used to construct the walls and side rooms are absolutely enormous, and not found anywhere else in the area, much like many Neolithic structures. The design and careful construction meant that the site has been free from water ingress or erosion for the better part of five thousand years, and as a result it’s incredibly well preserved. This also means the runes graffitied on the walls from Viking intruders around three thousand years ago are also still very visible. After spending a bit of time appreciating these World Heritage Sites, we found an amazing beach near the long abandoned Neolithic village of Skara Brae, and camped up there for the night.
Having pottered around the lovely little town of Stromness and other areas of the mainland, we decided to take a trip to the smaller island of Hoy. Our only regret was that we hadn’t done it sooner – it’s an incredible place. Straight off the ferry, we had a look round the Scapa Flow visitor centre and museum. This has a huge collection of historical artifacts and recollections of local men and women involved in both world wars. It was fascinating, and well worth the look, especially as it was free to get in. We carried on to Rackwick bay, where the walk out to the Old Man of Hoy begins. The sun was really beaming down as we walked up the headland towards the enormous sea stack, and the view back towards the bay was breathtaking. It had been some time since we had been on a walk with any real height to it, as the majority of Orkney’s mainland is pretty flat. Having that small amount of altitude meant we could gaze across the sea for miles and miles – it felt like we were on top of the world. The area is a nature reserve, and as there aren’t any predators other than skuas, the mountain hare population has flourished. We were lucky enough to see about a dozen big hares hopping amongst the hillside heather during our walk. At the sea stack itself, we inched as close as we dared to the sheer drop of the cliff edge, and sat there for quite some time enjoying the sunshine and the view. Other than the enormous skuas, thousands of fulmars and other seabirds, we enjoyed complete solitude. We camped at Rackwick Bay that evening before the return ferry to Orkney’s mainland the next morning.
We’d booked our return boat to the “main” mainland that afternoon, but still had some time to appreciate some more of Orkney before we left. We popped into the lovely brewery, picking up some choice bottles to take with us as a souvenir. (Drinking them later when back in England was a real treat). Then, on our way to St Margaret’s Hope to catch our last ferry in Scotland, we saw another short-eared owl hovering as it hunted right by the road.
It felt like Orkney had been very kind to us during our stay, and both of us were sad to leave. Although turning back to travel north from Inverness had added more miles to our trip, we were both so glad we’d done it. We’re already planning a trip back there to explore some of the smaller islands of Orkney, as we realised we’d only seen a really small part of it.