When Cicerone author Alex Kendall travelled to Orkney to walk among its world-famous ancient sites, he experienced Scottish coastal walking at its best and the company of its ever-present wildlife.
There was still light in the sky at midnight. We drove off the ferry in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, fresh from the evening sailing from Aberdeen. The light in the sky was bewitching, signalling summer in the far north. By the time we woke up the next morning in Kirkwall hostel the stillness of the day before was replaced by low mist and lashing rain.
Orkney is globally important for its ancient sites, especially from the Neolithic period. My aim was to combine these unmissable encounters with our ancestors with walks in the other special places of the islands, where the wildlife of Orkney can be found. In the Sunday morning drizzle, we drove over to the peninsula of Deerness.
Towards the end of Deerness, all signs point to The Gloup, an impressive hole in the earth where the sea, eroding a cave, eventually caused the rock at the far end to collapse into it, creating a blow-hole. This is a good spot for glimpsing the foundations of the island chain, the 400 million-year-old ‘Old Red Sandstone’, stacked in layers from inches to metres thick, the bedding planes clear to see.
Walking up the coast to Mull Head we got the first taste of a constant theme in the Northern Isles, the ever-present calls of seabirds. Huddling on the low cliffs were fulmars, huddling onto their eggs and looking down their beaks at the weather, which had lowered into a fog that made even the next headland hard to make out.
Nearly forming an island along this coast is the Brough of Deerness, which can be scrambled up with the help of chains, leading you to a flat, grassy land barely 100 metres wide. Aerial surveys have shown that this brough used to be home to a Norse village, although the only bit that remains above the vegetation is a small chapel.
Down in the bay eiders bobbed, and our first of many grey seals stuck its head above the waves. Eiders are sea-ducks; the males are black and white with an olive-green patch near their heads, the females are a camouflage brown. They are best known for lining their nests with a super-insulating type of feather from their breasts, which we know as eiderdown.
Their call is immediately recognisable as ‘ooh’, uttered in a way that sounds like they find everything they encounter moderately surprising.
Because of the fog, which obscured anything else, the fulmars became our main object of interest for the rest of the walk, which hugged the cliffs between bog and heath, and the drop into the waters below. Fulmars (meaning ‘foul gull’ because of their tendency to spit a grim mixture at predators, including people) look distinct from our other gulls in their sooty grey colouring, a darker eye-liner and what I normally see as a less menacing expression. At this time of year, like most sea birds, they are breeding, taking turns to sit on the egg or head out to sea for food.
The fog began to lift as we returned to the visitor centre, which has an excellent exhibition on the Mull Head nature reserve and provided much-needed shelter for our lunch.
Maes Howe and Brodgar
By-passed by roads, and only just saved from a farmer who tried to blow them up with dynamite, are the ancient standing stones that line the narrow land in between the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness in the west of Orkney mainland. The view all around is of water and low hills, except south, where the much higher hills of Hoy rise into the sky, partially obscured today in a fine rainy haze.
The historical significance of this place is difficult not to wrap in superlatives. The Stones of Stenness are where 5500 years ago people first thought that placing giant rocks upright in the earth to signify something – a meeting place, religious site, art? – was a worthwhile use of what must have been valuable time.
Just these few stones are thought to have taken 50,000 man-hours to complete, so the much larger Ring of Brodgar, only a short stroll away, must have been a truly epic undertaking.
Ongoing is an excavation in between the two, at the Ness of Brodgar, uncovering what might have been a Neolithic city. We finished our visit on a tour of Maes Howe, thought to be a tomb but where no bones have been found, to admire the thousands of years of silence, punctuated by Viking raids and Victorian treasure hunting. Inside the fenced-off area around the mound, sheep grazed on the ancient site, oblivious to all the fuss.
Yesnaby and Skara Brae
Arriving at Yesnaby the next day, the fog had gone, to be replaced by drifting high clouds with dashes of blue. The coast here consists of cliffs tens of metres high punctuated by small inlets, which in the Northern Isles are called geos, or sometimes nousts. As opposites to the geos, there are also frequent stacks and rocky headlands that are on their way to becoming islands.
We walked over to one of these nearly-islands, the Brough of Bigging, to watch the waves crash against the rest of the coast and look out for more sea birds. Large dark brown shapes materialised overhead and then disappeared behind some rocks. The other birds were not too happy, and it was clear when the shapes returned, gliding effortlessly in the air, that these were skuas. Known as the pirates of the sky, they are often found bullying other birds, from typical nastiness such as egg stealing, to the revolting habit of forcing gulls to choke up their last meal so they can eat it. Putting yourself in their position, though, it’s a strategy that seems to work, and with the often-foul weather of Atlantic islands, you make a living any way you can.
Walking north along the coast, enjoying the view of an actual horizon rather than yesterday’s fog, we examined the rocky coast as we went. The land angled down towards the sea before the final vertical drop into the water, and in several places sheets of the sandstone had slipped down, like peeling layers of skin. In the frequent geos the sandstone could be seen on the cliffs, alternating in thickness but with protruding layers sometimes no more than a few inches thick. However delicate this looked, there would invariably be fulmars nesting there, looking partially asleep and staying still enough to stop their eggs rolling around.
I got the feeling that if you left a book by the sea, you’d come back to find fulmars nesting between the pages.
The further north you get in the UK, the more Norse it is, as our association with our Viking past becomes recent history (Orkney became part of Scotland only in the 15th century, well after the invasion of Edward I and the eras of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace). This history can be seen on maps with some excellent names, very different to the rest of Britain. Just north of Yesnaby we walked past the wonderful Howalee, Stinkna Geo and Hole o’ Row, to name a few.
The coast soon turns east into the Bay of Skaill, which immediately feels more sheltered, the sands of the beach a welcoming landing point. This is where the village of Skara Brae is found, unearthed in the mid-19th century by a storm. It has been dated to around 5000 years old. Now equipped with a modern visitor centre, this is a real insight into the lives of people who followed the retreating ice north after the Ice Age.
I left the group to look round the site while I walked back rapidly to Yesnaby to retrieve the minibus. The wind had picked up and rain squalls were approaching from the south-east, but the view over the water was still clear, back down south past Hoy to the mainland of Scotland, the hills of Sutherland clear on the horizon. The path continues past Yesnaby all the way south to Stromness, providing a route of more than 20 miles along the western coast of Orkney mainland, surely one of the most attractive low-level days out in the whole of Scotland.
The Isle of Hoy
Having 70 islands that range in size – from the mainland, complete with towns, agriculture and a road network, out to tiny rocks with a few tufts of thrift – makes Orkney almost too complex to explore thoroughly. However, if you’re looking for walking then the island of Hoy is pretty much top of the list, especially if you want to enrich your coastal experience with a few hills.
Crossing over in the morning, the ferry passed the nationally important natural bay of Scapa Flow. It was here that ships from the British fleet were stationed in both world wars, and where the German High Seas fleet famously scuttled its ships in 1919 after the armistice to prevent them being used by the British. Although many were salvaged, there are still seven down there, now prime sites for recreational wreck divers.
The hills of Hoy are heather-covered, reminiscent of the Scottish mainland rather than the low, green farmland of the rest of Orkney. Down at Rack Wick, a bay in the south of the island where the mainland of Scotland is visible across the wild waters of the Pentland Firth, these hills crowd around, green-brown and unusually steep when compared with what we’d been used to for the past few days.
Rack Wick is a starting point for both walkers and climbers; because just around the corner, unseen from the bay, stands the most famous sea stack in the whole of Britain, the Old Man of Hoy. Luckily for us the sun was out, and despite the sea breeze it was warm. The path to the Old Man rises to cross the flanks of Moor Fea, a hill whose southern side has been chopped off by the sea, then stays level as you enter Stourdale. A raised valley, Stourdale contains a small stream, which ends in a waterfall that plummets straight onto the rocky beach below. This small valley, idyllic in the sunshine, is totally overwhelmed by the grandeur of what surrounds it. Waves off the Atlantic crash against the rocks, cliffs hundreds of metres high rise sheer from the sea and peeking over the top of the headland that lies opposite is the Old Man of Hoy itself.
Standing on the cliffs opposite, looking down at the drop that climbers abseil off before taking on one of the ascents of the Old Man (before repeating the process backwards) filled me with respect, but not much desire to join them. I had hoped we’d see climbers on one of the routes, but instead the sea stack had the morning off, drying its sandstone layers in the sun and looking like someone had taken an apple corer through an old book and stuck up the result as a monument.
Despite the fame of the Old Man of Hoy and the notoriety it must have among climbers for its fickle weather, it is the cliffs that continue north up this coast that dominate the scene.
Rising to nearly 350 metres above the sea at St John’s Head, running north from the Old Man are around 3 miles of sheer rock, punctuated with lines of vegetation, cracks and hollows, and thousands of bird nests. The colours are incredible, every shade of earthy red and verging at points from yellow to purple. One face will catch the light while another bathes in shade, a giant dark orange wall that for me was the most incredible place on Orkney.
It is possible to walk the full length of these cliffs, on a rising path that can then return to Rack Wick, many miles later. Unfortunately for us, we had a boat to catch, so returned the same way and then headed down to the beach itself, where we were dive-bombed by terns, screeching to defend their nests in the dunes.
Heading back across the water from Hoy to Orkney mainland, most of the passengers were on the deck, watching the water and the sky for signs of wildlife. There are seals, dolphins and otters in these sheltered waters, and eagles in the sky. We passed the RSPB’s ‘eagle watch’, where they’ll help you look for nests through binoculars. Today we had seen none of these animals, and despite looking out for eagles every day, they had proved elusive. But feeling sad about missing an eagle sighting should not be the point. The overwhelming good news is that there are places in the UK where we travel to in search of wildlife, and where we know species like eagles and seals thrive. In many ways, seeing them comes second to that. And after all, there are always fulmars!