From the edge of the mainland to the Orkneys

This might be a lengthy post – we’ve been to quite a few places in the past week. Photos coming soon, hopefully this evening.

After Assynt, we headed for Sandwood Bay, perhaps the most inaccessible beach in the UK. There’s a great unofficial campsite at the end of a single-track road, then the beach is a 4-mile walk over the rugged heath. The weather wasn’t brilliant for the beach when we set off (wet and windy) but it was definitely worth it. The beach was gloriously empty, with massive sand dunes and sea stacks off to one side.

Our edge of the coast theme continued as we went to Durness, near Cape Wrath. We camped on a brilliant clifftop campsite, though the wind was fierce. We went for a walk over near Cape Wrath, taking care to avoid the big artillery range there. The MoD info suggests bombarding the landscape keeps it more pristine than farming or deer-stalking, but I am a little sceptical.

We then set off in the direction of John O’ Groats, passing some doughty cyclists and dodging some highland cattle en route. We took the ferry from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope. As we drove from South Ronaldsay to Orkney Mainland we saw quite a few rusting hulks in the waters of Scapa Flow – remnants of the German fleet perhaps?

Our first stop in Orkney was Kirkwall, a surprisingly big city, with small streets, old houses, a cathedral and lots of culture. I got my hair cut by a lady who said ‘We’re not the Hebrides’ – and I could see what she meant, as the Orkneys have quite a bit more bustle and self sufficiency about them. Generous amounts of free wifi helped me catch up with some freelance work, too.

The next day was mostly taken up with a prehistoric tour – we took in a series of 5,000-year-old sites including Maes Howe, a chambered grave, Skara Brae, an amazingly preserved village, and the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of standing stones. They were all really spectacular, and provoked the familiar questions – how to imagine people living so long ago, how (and why) did they move such enormous stones for the tombs? Will anything we build be visible in 5,000 years?

We’re currently camped in Stromness. Yesterday we paid a visit to Hoy, a small island with the the highest peaks in Orkney, and the famous ‘old man’ sea stack. The ferry was unusually crowded, as it was the Hoy half marathon. We weren’t tempted to join in though! There is a great trail from the ferry jetty all the way across Hoy to the Old Man. Rugged in the middle as you pass through the twin peaks, but remarkably well made for the final few miles.

The old man is amazing – we gaped at it and wondered how some friends of ours managed to climb it recently. The sea cliffs there are really high, and serve as apartment blocks for thousands of gulls and puffins. We had a great view of some puffins perched just below us.

We carried on round the edge of Hoy on what was described as a ‘demanding route suitable only for experienced hill walkers’. Not too bad though, apart from a steep descent into a corrie towards the end. What did make it challenging was a close encounter with a number of Great Skuas (Bonxies). These massive gulls defend their nests very aggressively, and a few of them subjected us to a rather scary dive-bombing attack. We didn’t actually get pecked, but we could hear the wind in their feathers as they swooped at us.

Eventually we got off the heath and away from the scary Bonxies. We lay on the beach in the sun while we waited for the ferry back to Stromness.


About johnfitzgerald

philosopher, husband, designer, photographer, quaker, cyclist, canal-boat dweller
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One Response to From the edge of the mainland to the Orkneys

  1. Robert says:

    Exhilarating stuff – what with prehistoric stones and Skuas it really painted a picture of life as it would have been for our forbears ………..

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