Getting away from it all: Orkney island hopping

This morning, before breakfast, I was out on the water: silk-smooth in front, and streaming away behind, the ferry cutting a path from the island of Hoy, via the island of Graemsay, to the island where I live, confusingly called Mainland.

Though this name creates some conversational ambiguity (are they referring to mainland Orkney, or the Scottish mainland, seven miles to the south across the Pentland Firth?), I’ve always admired the way it subtly shifts the centre of gravity closer to home. By considering all else relative to our own largest island, it resets the dial on what it means to be remote. Remote, us? Hardly. We’re at the heart of the action.

Thus Orkney Mainland – with its gently rolling hills, inland lochs and lush pasture – represents the bustling metropolis, and Hoy the holiday destination: a place we mainlanders might retreat to when we tire of life in inner-city Kirkwall (pop. 9,200) or Stromness (pop. 2,200). When I arrived on Hoy last night, the sun was sinking behind the hills to the west. The sky luminescent, opalescent – as if inlaid with mother of pearl – and the red sandstone cliffs set aglow like the embers of an enormous fire.

The writer with her partner and their dog at Rackwick.
The writer with her partner and their dog at Rackwick. Photograph: Chris Page

With travel having been so difficult over the past year, more of us have been turning eyes afresh upon our local areas. Here, travel between the islands resumed long before the route to mainland Scotland, and so it was with a novel sense of freedom that we began to explore new lands close to home. Now, with domestic travel opening up, the Orkney Islands are available to other Britons seeking adventure, without taking a risk on the ever-shifting red-amber-green lists. And, after being voted “best Scottish island” in a Which? survey, they’re likely to get even more attention this summer.

To get to Rackwick, Orkney’s most iconic beach, from the pier, we had to cut across Hoy, through an empty glen of heather and moss, marked with the linear scars of centuries of peat cutting. (We hitched a ride with friends, although keen hikers can take the scenic route, following a four-mile track between smooth, curvaceous hills and past a small upland loch of still, black water.) White-tailed sea eagles nest there, and from their perch, high on the crags, they look out across a raw, almost lunar landscape, scattered with vast, erratic boulders.

A single-track road trickles through the bottom of the valley like a stream, and emerges in a huddle of houses that overlook the beach. We paused long enough for a glass of wine, brought over in our backpacks, before dashing down onto the sand, shedding our clothes and wading into the water, naked. The sea, as ever, was gasping-cold. As we struck out, parallel with the beach, a seal bobbed up and swam alongside us, with a curious, almost canine, manner.

We stayed in a house overlooking the bay, arriving just before sunset and leaving not long after dawn. One night is all you need sometimes; afterwards, you return to “real life” sharper and re-energised. Nothing is more effective at marking this time apart than a boat journey, no matter how long – from Stromness to north Hoy takes 30 minutes: the effort of getting there, in my opinion, is what makes islands so singularly restorative. And there are plenty of islands in Orkney: around 70, depending on how you choose to define them, 20 of them inhabited. Each has its own identity: Rousay, the “Egypt of the north”, with its wealth of archaeological riches; Sanday, with its expanses of silver-white sand, its turquoise waters, its wind-whipped dunes; Shapinsay, with its perfect patchwork squares of field. Each one deserving of special attention.

A sheep next to a common seal on the shoreline at North Ronaldsay.n.
A sheep next to a common seal on the shoreline of North Ronaldsay, the archipelago’s northernmost island. Photograph: Les Gibbon/Alamy

The last time I took an inter-island trip, I travelled to North Ronaldsay, Orkney’s most northerly outpost, with my parents and partner Rich. It’s 30 miles, or a three-hour ferry, from Kirkwall. That’s a wild and wonderful journey, which you must take if you have the time. As we were day-tripping we flew in one of Loganair’s dinky, eight-seater planes instead. The flight alone is worth a day-trip in itself: a low-altitude journey with million-dollar views, as the little propeller plane skips from island to island, dropping off post and picking up passengers.

As with most of the smaller islands, the North Ronaldsay airport is a simple affair: a cruciform landing strip, a ragged windsock, a utilitarian waiting room. Airport staff work part time, interrupting their day on the farm or in the shop to man the airfield.

North Ronaldsay is most famous for its seaweed-eating sheep, and sure enough we found them wandering the rocky strand: tawny and tan and mahogany brown. They live confined to the shore by way of a dry-stone wall, which skirts the island’s perimeter and must be repaired and rebuilt each summer by the local sheep dyke warden, Sian Tarrant, and a team of volunteers.

We struggled through hail across a gleaming beach, past a dozen basking, brindled seals, to an iron age broch standing sentry on a rocky headland, and stared out across the waves. That day was dark and foreboding, a wintry wind bundling in over the North Sea, and we stood there considering the depths for a few minutes, before turning back and retreating to the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory – which also serves as a local cafe, bar, campsite and guesthouse – to warm up with tea and mutton broth (all the better for being seaweed fed).

Knap of’ Howar, a Neolithic stone dwelling on the small island of Papa Westray.
Knap of’ Howar, a Neolithic stone dwelling on the small island of Papa Westray. Photograph: David Chapman/Alamy

But if one is going to island-hop by plane, however, the highlight must surely be the world’s shortest scheduled passenger flight, between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray. From take off to landing is 1.7 miles, shorter than the length of the runways at Heathrow, and takes around 90 seconds by my watch. Papa Westray (known as “Papay”) is the “island off an island off an island” that stole the show in Amy Liptrot’s stunning sobriety memoir The Outrun, and it’s an utter delight. Being four miles by one mile, you could walk round it in a day, if you kept a move on, but despite its small size it has a vibrant, artsy community, with a well-known annual festival and a heritage/craft centre in the old kelp store.

We wandered the Knap o’ Howar, a Neolithic stone dwelling which is the oldest of its kind in northern Europe, before picking our way back to the airfield: its boundaries marked, rather charmingly, by painted drystone walls. And then, down came the little plane, and out came the folding step, and in we hopped – and we trundled back down the runway towards Mainland, back to the centre of the known world.

Visits to Orkney’s smaller islands need a little preparation – you have to book ahead if you want to stay overnight; you might also need to book ahead to eat. But in my opinion, nothing beats an island-hopping trip for the sense of getting away from it all. A day in the wind is worth three in the spa. Or so it seems to me.
Cal Flyn is the author of Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (HarperCollins)


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