Under Northern Skies (Part four)

Orkney – The West Mainland

The ferry from Gill’s Bay docks at St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay. We were to explore South Ronaldsay later in the holiday but for now we would need to travel between another three islands, Burray, Glimpse Holm and Lamb Holm before we finally landed on Mainland Orkney. In the past this would no doubt have presented a few problems but during World War Two, barriers were constructed between the islands and you can now navigate between them without getting feet or tyres wet.

I will write more about the barriers in a later blog for they are an integral part of Orkney’s history. But for now we sped over them and into Kirkwall, the main city of the Orkneys. In fact, the only city on the archipelago. And with a population of only 8,500 it’s not exactly a big place. There are only about 20,000 Orcadians spread over 70 islands though this is not as impressive as it first appears. Only 20 of those islands are inhabited and quite a few of those have less than 10 permanent residents.

Of the rest of the 50 ‘islands’ a number are either skerries, basically flat rocks in the sea or sea stacks, like the Old Man of Hoy. Not even a goat would deign to live on such a blighted spot.

We had lunch in a quirky little cafe in Kirkwall, had a quick look around the shops (which didn’t take long as there aren’t many) before heading to our base for the next week – the town of Stromness, which is the second largest place in Orkney.

Stromness, has an interesting history. The Vikings (yes, it goes back that far) called the area Hamnavoe, or ‘safe bay’ and you can readily see why that is so. But it wasn’t until the 16th Century that Stromness became settled permanently and it was used as a shelter for ships sailing the Atlantic ocean. Hudson Bay Company ships would stock up and recruit sailors in Stromness in the 1700s before crossing to Canada for the fur trapping trade. At one point three-quarters of all men employed by the Company came from Orkney. Stromness has also been a base for whaling fleets, for herring fishing and, in the 19th Century, for commercial shipping and you can see many fine Victorian buildings climbing up its hillsides today.


The poor weather which had marred our passage over to Orkney worsened the next day. In fact, it rained so heavily on our second day we mostly just hunkered down and stayed indoors. But by the following day the rain at least had gone and we were to get out and about to explore the Mainland.

There are no less than 12 RSPB reserves in the Orkney Islands of which 5 are on the mainland. We started off with a trip to Marwick Head. A reasonable climb up from the parking area brings you to the top of the sea cliffs. In the breeding season the cliffs are full of Razorbill, Kittiwake, Guillemot and Fulmar busy rearing their chicks but at this time of the year it is mostly Fulmar which grace the skies.

The Fulmar is related to the Albatross and they certainly are very graceful, quiet flyers. They glide effortlessly on their long wings, virtually brushing the cliff face, and they always seem to want to come and check you out, gliding just a few feet away from you. For all that they are quite difficult to photograph, appearing as they do quite suddenly in front of your lens then out of view again just as you press the shutter release.


You can still see pairs of Fulmar sitting on ledges on the cliff face. Whether they are breeding pairs or just a couple who hang out together I don’t know but they are a very delicate looking bird and so photogenic.

A couple?

Atop Marwick Head is the Kitchener Monument which memorialises the sinking of HMS Hampshire on 5 June 1916. It struck one of the mines laid by a German U-boat just the week before. The cruiser was bound for Russia on a diplomatic mission and of more than 700 people on board only 12 survived. One of those who died was Lord Kitchener, famous as being the face on the ‘Your country needs you’ posters of the time.

Kitchener Memorial

The Orkney Islands are noted for their wildlife and whilst a number of species are absent at this time of year when you do see birds or sea mammals they can appear in large numbers. We have seen large flocks of geese and an incredible number of Curlew. Starlings gather in large numbers, as do seals. It’s both an amusing and awe inspiring sight to see the bobbing heads of common seal gathering in the water as though they were old men taking a leisurely bath together.

Common Seals having a conflab

Further along the road is Birsay. The village itself boasts an old baronial hall but it is the Brough of Birsay which attracts the visitors these days. A brough is an island, in this case linked by a causeway which you can cross on foot. It is only revealed and passable at low tide. If you cross over to the island and spend a bit too long on there you are going to have to wait for many hours before the causeway becomes usable again.

The Brough of Birsay

Passing through Finstown, especially in the early morning, you get fantastic views of the Bay of Firth. On the distant horizon are some of the Inner Isles.

The Bay of Firth at Finstown

But not all of the places of interest are on the coast. At Stenness there are no less than four ancient sites of worldwide historical importance. At Maeshow is a chambered tomb which was built some 5,000, years ago and which is a designated World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, Covid has meant that the tomb is closed to visitors. I suppose that it is just too enclosed for the authorities to allow access at the moment.

But you can go and see some standing stones. The Stenness Stones lie between Stenness Loch and Harray Loch and are particularly impressive in the evening when we visited. There are now only 4 upright stones from an original circle of 12 but you can still marvel at how mankind managed to drag the stones and then arranged them in a carefully aligned circle 5 millennia ago. And, indeed, question why they did it.

The Standing Stones of Stenness, Loch Harray in the background
The Hearth in the centre of the circle

Just a stones throw from the Stones lies the Ness of Brodgar, an archaeological site which you can only visit during July and August when the site is being excavated. So we passed this by and went to see the Ring of Brodgar just a few miles up the road. This is another ring of stones and a henge or ditch but on a much bigger scale than any other on Orkney.

Here you can see 36 out of an original 60 stones and, whilst it is not as monumental as Stonehenge or Avebury, say, it is still very impressive and set in a fantastic landscape.

The Ring of Brodgar
The setting sun added magic to the stones

We were only just beginning to discover the incredible landscapes, the deep histories and the varied natural history of this land. But for now, we were happy to rest up and hope that the weather continued to be kind to us in the coming days. And the one thing we were starting to appreciate about Orkney is the quiet. There are plenty of visitors and, at times, plenty of vehicles on the road. But go just a few miles and it was just you and the birds for company. Just our sort of place.

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