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

St Magnus Cathedral

The sun tried to make an appearance as I drove back to Lyness,   lighting up a couple of attractive turquoise bays below the road.Then it was onto the ferry and the hour’s sailing back to Houton.I felt a bit guilty at feeling some relief to be heading for the Scottish mainland later that afternoon.Orkney holds such magic for so many people. I’ve never felt that way about anywhere in Scotland before  – I love most areas, Highland and Lowland but unlike Mackay-brown’s autobiography title, the islands hadn’t sung to me.Not even Rackwick, spectacle though it was.Genetic memory? My ancestors are from the Outer Isles and Skye and also the Scottish Borders – both areas I love with a passion, particularly the former.

Twenty minutes after leaving Houton , I was entering a very busy Stromness on a drizzly, mucky day.

Tight clustered houses,Stromness

Hoy looked very grey across the Sound, it’s high hills cut off mid-way by the clag. Good decision to have abandoned the walk.I parked up at the town’s entrance and made my way down to a little cafe I’d read about  – Julia’s – for a much needed latte and scone.It was going like a fair but I got a table at a window from which I had a view of the huge ferries to Shetland and the Scottish mainland which had docked. The harbour area isn’t a pretty one – very commercial, almost industrial but I knew the delights of the grey/brown town lay in its back streets.

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Nice people running the cafe too – friendly and chatty.We are social animals indeed and after a few days of whirling around in my own little bubble and despite enjoying my own company, it was good to meet more local folk.Not that my days had been spent incommunicado  – texts, What’s App photo/  message sending and a few phone-calls had peppered each day, keeping me up to date with Chris, my sons and youngest son’s Singaporean girlfriend ( we are both foodies and she loves seeing pictures of cake stops and the like).

Stromness was a pleasure to stroll through, even on a wet, wild day. The narrow, cobbled streets and the houses all huddled in on each there, were really atmospheric –  a bit like the lovely houses of the fishing villages in Fife but not painted white, much more muted in colour and without the red roofs.The swish, modern Pier Art Gallery was a beautiful space and a joy to wander through with its big glass windows and airy feel. I can’t honestly say much of the abstract art was to my taste but I enjoyed some of Barbara Hepworth and Stanley Cursiter’s work.

George Mackay Brown


Made my way to the local Museum and stopped at Mackay Brown’s house with its Blue Plaque, imagining him sitting at one of the windows with its narrow view out to the harbour.He didn’t travel much in life and spent most of his life on Orkney but had a deep understanding of the human condition and some of the best and worst aspects of it. He wrote lyrically of the islands and their Viking ancestry, a constant source of fascination for him.Plagued by ill – health, he died in 1996.His own words are carved on his gravestone –

‘Carve the Runes

Then be content with silence.’

I thought there might be more space in the Museum devoted to him but there was only his chair and a few pieces of memorabilia.And a small memorial garden towards the end of the town.Given that he was reckoned to be one of the finest poets of the 20th century, it seemed a little paltry somehow.

The Museum was busy, the rain chasing in visitors but what a fascinating and well laid out building it was.Many Arctic explorer ships stopped off in Orkney and of course it had a thriving whaling industry.Those harpoons – horrific.Huge links with the Hudson’s Bay company and I was fascinated to realise that the doomed Franklin Expedition took on fresh water here.I’ve aways been interested in the Arctic explorers and the terrifying and dangerous journeys they undertook, with sometimes tragic outcomes.Brave men indeed.

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The ferry from St Margaret’s Hope left at 16.50 so I was keen to head back towards Kirkwall and give myself enough time to visit the famed St Magnus Cathedral and at least have a stroll through the island capital.

Parked up at the harbour, another fairly unattractive and very large port and then headed into the back streets.As with Stromness, it all took became more picturesque once you left the main drag, pedestrianised mostly and with some fine Delis and other food shops.Compared to Stromness, it was packed and full of life. Finally, after 5 mins walk, the Cathedral complex appeared and its red-sandstone walls looked wonderful.But – it was lunch time and although I often skip it, I was keen to try The Real Food Cafe or Judith Glue, as it’s known.It’s a beautiful shop with a lovely gift section , full of things you really don’t need but are so tempted to buy.At the back is the cafe.Some decent homemade soup on offer – leek and potato I think  – with some of their Orkney Bere bread.Wasn’t too keen on that – very heavy and fairly tasteless, a bit like Irish Soda bread in texture.Some nice lunch options on display and the place was going like a fair.Very pleasant indeed.

Picked up some Orkney jams and a whisky miniature as wee gifts and then it was time for the Cathedral.

Cathedral entrance
Poet/artists/historians corner

Entering it and being confronted with the red and yellow Orkney sandstone striped interior, was like revisiting Cordoba’s Mezquita.I have never seen such an impressive interior in terms of colour and design anywhere in the UK. An utter delight and a huge surprise.Absolutely beautiful.Yes, the New Stone sites were impressive of course but this far more ‘modern’ building now stood out for me as the star which I would return to Orkney to see, if I had the chance.


Founded in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald, it is Romanesque, which I find the most beautiful of architectural styles.I was truly entranced by the whole place and wished I’d factored in far more time for it in the grand scheme of things.The sheer wealth of the islands – certainly compared to the Hebrides – is evidenced in these fine buildings as the Viking Earls were rich enough to commission them.

Just yards away across the street were the remains of the Bishop’s Palace, another fine building amidst manicured grounds and built around the same time.

Bishop’s Palace, Kirkwall

Somewhere, I had read that Kirkwall wasn’t that attractive, but I loved those back streets and the Cathedral complex.Very different to Stromness with all the bustle of a capital – albeit a small one but  – what history!

It didn’t take long to drive back to St Margaret’s Hope and it seemed, there, as if life had stopped for the afternoon. There was hardly a soul about, not a cafe to be found though it was quite a pleasant wee place with neat houses, all browns and greys and the water lapping against the walls.

St Margaret’s Hope

At 16.50, I watched the little village get smaller as the ferry headed out into Scapa Flow on an overcast but quite calm afternoon.

I’d finally seen Orkney  – or some of it.Certainly, some of the best of it.

At 18.20 I was happy to land at Gill’s Bay again and be driving through Caithness headed for the Kyle of Tongue, 60 miles away and hopefully, a comfortable B&B. IF I could find one – I hadn’t booked anything despite knowing I should have but this far north, mid May – would it really be so busy? (Oh yes it was).

The roads were good and very quiet as I headed west. Past Dounreay and then some tantalising beaches with heavy surf breaking on them as I approached Bettyhill. The landscape now changed, taking on a Highland character – varied and beautiful and interesting.It felt like coming home.


I was tired now and it was a relief to drive round a corner and find the magnificent Kyle of Tongue unfold before me in all its glory.I’d seen so many photos of it and it looked so gorgeous I was desperate to tick it off my list of ‘must sees’.Despite it being an overcast, greyish evening, it already looked beautiful.

Well, I paid dearly for not booking accommodation and spent a fruitless 45 mins cruising around the two hotels in Tongue, a pleasant village, (both looked nice,one clearly posher than the other), a far-flung B&B down a terrible , broken track only to find it was full and two other B&Bs.Nothing doing.

So I drove across the road towards Talmine, a straggling settlement above the vast sands. Tried one hotel but inside it was like something out of the 1960s, quite depressing so I pressed on to near the village’s end, all the time looking out for camping spots.There were quite a few so if all else failed I wasn’t stuck.A big advantage of travelling with the tent.And Scotland’s access laws and extensive wild land, makes it quite practical to find somewhere quiet and lovely to set up.

Just when I was about to give up, an old converted church appeared at a bend in the road with a B&B sign.Cloisters B&B had no-one staying and the man of the house- a man of few words – showed me almost silently to my room in the neighbouring small building,surrounded by lovely plants and with a view of the sea.Wow – what a find. And pretty cheap too.

The joy of being in my own(spotless and comfortable and blissfully quiet) room for the night at 9.30pm was immense.I was ravenous now, made up a big bowl of Tuna con Fagioli  and poured myself a glass of sparkling wine.Heaven.Then a quick shower and washed my hair – oh, to feel super clean again after 3 nights without any more than Nivea wipes to freshen up with.

Managed a phone call to Chris who had – on the spur of the moment – been invited to a Mark Knopfler concert in Glasgow.It sounded fantastic as he’s a huge fan. It was a surprise late birthday present from his 3 ‘children” – oldest 32. I was so pleased for him, what a really fantastic gift.Well done the kids!

By 10.30pm I was ready to collapse. Got the dinner bits and pieces washed and tided away, just to make sure there was no horrible food smell in the room then snuggled into a comfy single bed, light off and hoped I would soon get a decent night’s sleep given the long, long drive ahead tomorrow back to Glasgow and home.Since Dad died 3 years ago , I go through periods of really poor or very, very light sleep though things had been fine for the past 3 nights.There’s not always any rhyme nor reason to it, re which night I sleep well or not.As it turned out, I had a pretty mixed night, despite the comfort and just hoped it wouldn’t make the mega drive too dodgy given the potential to fall asleep at the wheel.It’s never happened to me but I’ve been close on occasions and its such a horrible, difficult thing to combat, that deeply drowsy feeling.

Forecast for tomorrow was pretty good and I was keen to walk those magnificent sands of the Kyle, captured in so many photographs. Then a fine drive, I hoped, down to Lairg, a road not yet travelled in all my sojourns throughout Scotland.

Final Day – the Kyle of Tongue and the drive back down south 5 Days in Caithness and Orkney: Kyle of Tongue and home

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