I had always harboured an ambition to visit Orkney and have my very own Orkne adventure. After planning my trips for months, I hopped on a short flight from Edinburgh and stayed glued to my window for most of the flight. An hour later, I arrived at Kirkwall on mainland Orkney on Saturday morning. As I boarded the plane, I happened to notice I was sat right behind Adrian Lewis, the Darts player and former World Champion. This, to be honest, puzzled me, but only until I saw all the posters in the bars of Kirkwall advertising an exhibition of Darts between 8 professionals and 8 amateurs. I arrived in Kirkwall and spent my first afternoon having a look around Kirkwall and specifically St Magnus Cathedral.
On Sunday, I took a special excursion to North Ronaldsay, with the intention of taking a tour of Britain’s tallest land-based Lighthouse. This was to be part one of my Orkney adventure. It was just under 3 hours there and 3 and a half hours back (after a short stop on Westray). Once on North Ronaldsay (or North Ron as it is affectionately known) I walked for about a couple of miles and was then picked up by the Lighthouse Keeper (and Tour Guide) in his Renault Espace. He made 3 trips to pick all the passengers up and dropped us all at the new Lighthouse. (The old lighthouse is currently being renovated – it finished 3rd in the BBC Restoration programme). I was grateful for the lift as it was about an hour to an hour and a half’s walk to the lighthouse and we only had 4 hours ashore!
Once at the Lighthouse, the Keeper demonstrated the Foghorn, not once but twice! Probably the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. I could feel the ground vibrate! Our guide took us up the winding staircase to the top of the lighthouse and we were able to go outside to marvel at the views, including the famous Sheep, dotted around the shore. We then carefully climbed up to see the lens, which is the original one from the 19th century. Our Guide told us all about the history of the Lighthouse and of the role the Stevenson family had in Lighthouse building throughout Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.
After the tour, I headed down to the new cafe next to the lighthouse. After a brief scan of the menu and the Specials Board, I decided on Beef and Beer Stew, which has to go down as the nicest meal I’ve had for a long time.
Unfortunately, time had moved on and luckily I was able to secure a lift with our Tour Guide, who was able to take me back to meet the ferry. We picked up the remaining walkers on the way and we all boarded the ferry happy in the knowledge that we had been to a remote, beautiful island, that had opened it’s doors and welcomed us in and given us a day we would never forget!
Shapinsay is the island closest to Kirkwall and therefore it is often overlooked as travellers go further afield when deciding which island to visit.
The MV Shapinsay departs you on the island after a gentle 25 minute crossing. The first image that strikes you is of the Victorian Turrets on Balfour Castle followed by the symmetrically shaped roads.
As I alighted the ferry, I made my way over to the Gatehouse, which was the former entrance to Balfour Castle. This magnificent structure is still in excellent condition and it is possible to take a peek around the side of it towards the opulence of Balfour Castle. Further left of the Gatehouse is the Douche, which is a salt water shower topped with a dovecot.
I made my way back towards Balfour village (which was developed as a home for the estate workers) and followed the straight road until I came to two stone markers in front of two strategically placed houses – with a straight track running through the centre. This was previously used as another entrance to Balfour Castle. I carried on and to my right was a circular stone tower which were the substantial remains of the Gas House, dating from the mid 19th century. David Balfour installed a Gas Works to illuminate the castle and village and the Gas House is all that is left.
I made my way up to Elwick Mill, built in 1893, which was once the largest water-powered grinding mill in Orkney, but is currently undergoing sympathetic restoration. There is a pottery workshop and studio in the nearby old Mill. Shapinsay clay is now being used for certain items.
After a long picturesque walk around the bottom half of Shapinsay, I made my way back to Balfour Village and took refuge in The Smithy, which was originally the village Blacksmith with a Sail Loft above. Now it is home to the Heritage Centre, Craft Shop and an excellent Cafe.
There are many other sights worth seeing on Shapinsay, such as Mill Dam, the RSPB Reserve and Mor Stein, a Megalithic Standing Stone. A good reason to come back on another day.
On Tuesday, I went on the Rousay Tour with my Guide, Patrick Maguire, where he picked me (and 6 other intrepid explorers) up for a wonderful day tour of the fascinating island of Rousay. The island is roughly round shaped and has a relatively low population for it’s size.
The tour included trips to MidHowe Chambered Tomb and MidHowe Broch,as well as Blackhammer and Taversoe Tuick Chambered Tombs. Patrick was an excellent host and was a mine of useful information about the island. Patrick is originally from Northern Ireland and his easy Irish charm was just the tonic for my inquisitive group.
The other travellers on the tour came from as far away as Norway and Hebden Bridge, which is on the border of Yorkshire and Lancashire.
The tour lasted all day and included trips to all the above mentioned sights plus views over to the nearby islands of Egilsay, Wyre and Eday. We ate our lunch overlooking Midhowe and then traversed the steep slopes down to the shore and walked what has been described as ‘one of the most important archaeological miles in Scotland’. As well as the Broch and Tomb there are substantial remains of Viking settlements close by.
As the tour finished with Patrick dropping us back off at the Pier, I had a look around the Heritage Centre and bade the island farewell, hoping to visit again another day. For a rleview of Rousay Tours click here.
ITALIAN CHAPEL AND HOY
On Wednesday, I was due to got to Eday, but due to me not reading the timetable correctly, I ended up missing the ferry. Not sure where to go instead, I opted for a quick trip by bus to the Italian Chapel (which was completed by Italian prisoners of war interned on Orkney during the Second World War) at Lamb Holm and then I carried on my Bus journey to Houton ferry terminal for the crossing to Lyness on Hoy.
As time was precious, I decided to spend my time in the Scapa Flow Visitors Centre. This turned out to be an excellent decision.
The Visitors Centre tell the story of Scapa Flow and Lyness (mainly through the first and second world wars). There are excellent exhibits (such as mines and torpedoes as well as informative information boards) and a short film outlining the major role of Scapa Flow in both World Wars. I found the Museum to be fascinating and incredibly it was FREE! It´s a definite ´must see`on any visit to Orkney and Hoy in particular.
After the trip to Hoy, it was back to my Bed and Breakfast in Kirkwall via the bus from Houton. I then had a good nights sleep in readiness for the flight back home in the morining. Orkney has lots of contrasting islands and is a fantastic place to visit, especially if you are interested in history or archaeology. I’ll be back to continue my Orkney adventure and visit more stunning Orcadian islands soon ….