5 Days in Caithness and Orkney: Orkney mainland and Hoy

Gill’s Bay to Orkney Mainland and Hoy

Rackwick Bay, Hoy

Blue sky and sunshine but a biting wind looked the order of the day as I sat in the ferry queue at Gill’s Bay waiting to board the 9.30am crossing to St Margaret’s Hope. Not the prettiest of ports but it offered the quickest journey  – just an hour and handiest from John O’Groats.Cars were packed like sardines in the car deck and it was near impossible to squeeze out of the car.

More Orca watching on board but no luck. Plenty seals, skuas, gannets and such like.Shearwaters too.It was so bitterly cold it was almost hard to stay out on deck unless you were dressed like Nanook of the North (which I was) – hat, four layers (including a duvet jacket and waterproof on top), gloves.Brrrr. Our ‘summer’ still felt very distant given the temperatures : 8C,  with windchill making it feel closer to zero. Baltic.

Deserted township , Stroma

Boiling seas at times, as the currents and eddies raged against each other beyond emerald green Stroma – fascinating to watch the ship negotiate around this and the hidden rocks.

Scapa Flow was almost flat calm as we entered, a vast expanse of water, almost like an inland sea.The German Fleet scuttled here at the end of WW2 and their hulks can still be seen in the shallower areas making for great diving sites.

Scapa Flow
St Margaret’s Hope

St Margaret’s Hope looked a snoozy, quiet little place of grey/brown houses huddled round the bay as I made for the Italian Chapel across the Churchill Barriers.I was immediately struck by how many houses were dotted around the island –  it all seemed relatively built upon.Lots of farms of course because Orkney comprises of rich farmland. I can’t say I was very taken with it on first inspection but it was early days. Orkney is lowland in character , not Highland and I was missing the wilder,  more attractive landscape of the west.

The Italian Chapel was a wee beauty and lived up to all I’d read about it. A delightful building, with some interesting information on its history well displayed. A great sense of peace and calm inside ; what a wonderful achievement by the Italian prisoners (and of course, aided by the British High Command) during WW2. Respect and dignity and faith held in high regard , no matter that each side was ‘the enemy.’


Heading for Skara Brae , I travelled across more Barriers and islands onto Orkney ‘Mainland’ and the houses seemed to get ever more present and grey and to be honest, unattractive. Low, rounded or flat landscapes unfolded.The area around Kirkwall looked pretty awful – like arriving in a part of Scotland’s industrial Central Belt. Hhhmmm.

Roads everywhere, some very fast and all well signposted.

It was about 11.45am when I reached Skara Brae, under clear blue skies. Always good to flash the Historic Scotland pass and breeze through and I spent about half an hour in the Visitor Centre alone, perusing the excellent background info on the site.It was my favourite part of the whole place in fact.There were some truly astonishing finds on display – Stone Age tools, jewellery, combs……bone pins, precious stones……5000 years old! This village had been built long before the Pyramids.The timescale was difficult to take in.

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The recreated ‘Stone Age house’ with roof was beautifully done. Now I know where they got the idea for The Flintstones all those years ago. The stone dresser, chairs, fireplace,wall storage.The high roof and small doorway. The sleeping areas demarcated with slabs (they must have built these up with animal skins/furs and base bedding to be comfortable, surely  (hay?straw?heather?). Incredible.

Then out to the village itself where the original though now ‘open roofed’ dwellings were set in a circle.It’s a small site and once you’ve seen one, so to speak, you’ve seen them all. Beautifully maintained. And of course,  it’s a fine location, on Skaill Bay with its white sand and pebble beach and unspoilt surroundings.The village used to be beside an inland freshwater loch until major landscape changes due to storms destroyed the habitat forever and the sea made inroads,  effectively destroying the village as a viable entity. No fresh water nearby….time to move on.




Next stop – the Brough of Birsay with its Viking Longhouse and Pictish remains. Probably the nicest area of Orkney I’d seen so far, reminiscent of the Hebrides with some wildflower meadows.


I was lucky that the tide was well out, allowing me to cross the stone causeway onto the island. A beautiful site, the wild sea all around.Headed up onto the high point to get a view of the cliffs and more Orkney islands, a nice circular route.

Brough of Birsay


Cliff walk


I’d booked into the Maes Howe tour at 3pm (the only one left) and had to cross the island again to reach the visitor centre and get my ticket. If you don’t book in advance , you have little chance of seeing this site, as it is tour only.This 5000 year old burial chamber looks an uninteresting large grassy mound from the outside but inside, it is a revelation and definitely the highlight for me of all the island’s World Heritage Sites.

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Had 15 mins to quickly detour to check out the RSPB’ s Loons Hide en route – a small hut from which you can view birdlife on the wetlands. A few mallard about. I often think the worst places to see wildlife is from these hides! Or less ‘common’ wildlife at any rate.

It’s well worth arriving early at Maes Howe to read the info board outside, which explains in detail the Viking graffiti which has been scratched in Runic script all over the interior. ‘Olaf was here’ and ‘Ingegerth is the most beautiful woman…’ etc. Brilliant.But the real star of the show was the chamber itself, a feat of Stone Age engineering we would have difficulty matching in sheer precision today.How they cut, manoeuvred and set in place the enormous entrance slabs ( 3 of them and one is in a single piece) defies belief.These were highly skilled, creative, artistic and sophisticated people, essentially very much like modern man. Maybe more so!

The ‘tour’ lasts about an hour and you are standing inside a single chamber for that time but it was fascinating throughout.Note – I must remember to log into Maes Howe live webcam at the winter solstice to see the final rays of the sun shining through the entrance onto the far wall,as was intended by its builders.

Wonderful place.A new and enormous complex at Ness of Border is also being excavated though there’s no public entry allowed yet.Essentially, the whole island is dotted with remains of habitation that will take way more than decades to uncover.

Just 5 mins away is the Ring of Brodgar and the enormous Standing Stones of Stenness. Had a stroll around both sites – not as impressed with Brodgar as I’d expected and thought Callanish on Lewis was finer. Just too much around by way of buildings which detracted from both sites. I’m too used to the lonely moorland of the Hebrides, far less populated and built upon.


Time now to head over to the ferry to Hoy for my first night’s camp. I was booked onto the 5.15pm sailing from Houton to Lyness, about a 90 minute sail.Not an easy place to get to , Hoy. I had to book well in advance or risk not getting over at all due to demand.

I have to say,  as I sat at Houton pier, that Orkney had not impressed me landscape-wise and I felt a strong wish to get off it sooner rather than later. Not something I generally feel about any area in Scotland. I was due to spend all of tomorrow – Tuesday –  on Hoy plus another night then head back to Caithness on Wednesday.The forecast wasn’t great either so my chances of doing the only thing I wanted to do on Hoy – see Rackwick Bay and do the 6 mile return walk to the Old Man of Hoy – looked unlikely. Decision time. Luckily, I managed to change my schedule and rebook onto the mid-morning ferry back to Houton the next day and bring forward my return from St Margaret’s Hope to a late afternoon sailing.

Near Houton looking towards Hoy

So – 17 hours or so on Hoy was the plan on a now greyish, cold day. The ferry journey was uninteresting  – more flat lowland landscapes and not much happening on the birdlife front.Fairly depressing housing and semi-industrial outcrops plus the oil terminal on Flotta. It all seemed a bit grim and not really like the Scotland I loved so much at all.

It was actually a relief to begin the 30 min journey from Lyness to Rackwick, a more Highland landscape emerging as I headed north on Hoy. Moorland, some little turquoise bays, high hills, heather…..my heart and spirits began singing again.This was more like it. Then the climb up and over the hill pass to Rackwick itself, a famed beach and cliff landscape and reckoned by George Mackay Brown, the wonderful Orkney writer, to be the most beautiful place on the islands.



Passed an RSPB van parked opposite where the first sea eagles are now nesting on Orkney after 150 years. Warning signs not to approach too near the cliffs in case of disturbance.Had a brief look with the binocs for the nest but they are often incredibly difficult to see, tucked into deep ledges.With any luck , I might spot one of the birds on the hunt near the coast, as I cooked up my dinner.

Big car park area behind the beach at Rackwick and it all looked mightily impressive. A scatterering of houses, some dunes, and the most amazing red sandstone cliffs bordering one end of the bay.Parked up then headed down a track to get a proper sight of the beach itself – you could hear the surf already and the spray was creating mist closer to shore.

Unusual stone roofs
The Bothy

The tide was almost fully in so no sand and the beach comprised of enormous rounded pebbles, small boulders really making it awkward to walk on.The cliffs seemed to be coloured in various different pink and red and green hues – a wonderful sight.A place you just have to stand and stare and drink it all in. Wild and lonely, almost desolate. All on the grand scale. A bit of a wow.

Checked out the beautifully restored stone bothy with its grassy garden and drystone dyke walls.Tidy and clean inside but I’m not keen on staying in a bothy. Even with my husband I prefer the tent to a bothy as at least you have privacy and your own space. So – the bothy, nice though it was, was out.

Problem was, there was no obvious place to pitch a tent that had a ‘good view.’ There was the bothy garden but it was completely enclosed by a wall and also meant a bit of a trek from the car with a pile of gear and food.I wandered back to the car, knowing I was being incredibly lazy and found myself being followed by a man and his dog who appeared from nowhere.I was going to say hello, as you do when you feel you are the only two people in the middle of nowhere, but he kept his head down.Finally, I turned round to speak to him.Turned out he looked after the bothy and thought I might be staying so had followed me down. He was an old Orcadian, with a strong accent, one of the original inhabitants of Rackwick.I stopped and chatted to him for 5 mins or so. The village was mostly all holiday houses now, the locals trashed the bothy during the summer and he was mourning the loss of a past age.


By now the rain wasn’t far away, the wind was set to blow a gale according to the Shipping Forecast and pitching the tent in a raised grassy bank I’d spotted wasn’t appealing so I decided to sleep in the car. Not an ideal scenario but it was only for one night.Cooked my tea beside the shelter of the car after enjoying a couple of plastic cups worth of Cava. Nectar. Cooked some pasta and added pesto sauce but managed to forget the Parmesan. Drats. Then tea and a few chocs.The forecast was sounding worse for tomorrow and sure enough, by 8pm the rain came down seriously. It was bitterly, bitterly cold and I was glad of the car’s extra shelter.

I had just finished clearing away the cooking stuff outside and was contemplating settling down with a book when the Bothy Man appeared at my side.I hadn’t even heard him crossing the car park. He had a curious way of not looking at you directly at all and staring into the distance.He said I was welcome to sleep in his caravan, where his grandkids normally slept – there was no toilet but there was one down the path to the bothy. It’d be a cold wild night and not great for a tent.I thanked him several times for his kindness which I thought was very genuine,  but said I’d be happy in the car – I was all set up.

I’m fairly slight in build though not small in height so the car was reasonably comfortable  for one night. As it was, substantial metal box as it was, it got rocked a fair bit in the gale during the coming hours.Good choice to avoid the tent though ‘nature’s call’ at 2am  (there’s always at least one wake up for that ) was tricky to say the least, as I’d no wish to head out into the howling gale and driving rain.No damage done to the car however, which was the main thing!

I realised  the next day that I’d missed not one but two signs for a 2 – roomed Hostel way up on the hillside which might have been ok.I remember watching Skuas hunting as I approached Rackwick meaning I drove straight past the signs.Oh well.

Next day: Stromness and Kirkwall 5 days in Caithness and Orkney: Stromness ; and Kirkwall redeems itself big style

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