This morning, before breakfast, I was on the water: silky in front, and dripping behind, the ferry cutting a path from the island of Hoy, via the island of Graemsay, to the island where I live , vaguely called Continent.
While this name creates ambiguity in the conversation (do they refer to the mainland of Orkney, or the Scottish mainland, seven miles south of the Pentland Firth?), I have always admired the way it subtly shifts the center of gravity closer to home. Considering everything else in relation to our own larger island, this resets the dial to what it means to be remote. Remotely, we? Barely. We are at the heart of the action.
So the mainland Orkney – with its gentle rolling hills, inland lochs and lush pastures – represents the bustling metropolis, and Hoy the vacation destination: a place we mainlanders could retreat to when we tire of living in the Kirkwall town center (9,200 inhabitants) or Stromness (2,200 inhabitants). When I arrived on Hoy last night the sun was setting behind the hills to the west. The luminescent, opalescent sky – as if encrusted with mother-of-pearl – and the red sandstone cliffs ablaze like the embers of an immense fire.
Travel having been so difficult over the past year, more of us are taking a fresh look at our regions. Here, travel between the islands resumed long before the route to mainland Scotland, and so it was with a new sense of freedom that we began to explore new lands near home. Now, with the opening of domestic travel, the Orkney Islands are available to other adventure-seeking Britons, risk-free on the ever-changing red-amber-green lists. And, after being voted ‘Best Scottish Island’ in a Which? survey, they are likely to get even more attention this summer.
To get to Rackwick, Orkney’s most iconic beach, from the pier we had to walk through Hoy, through an empty valley of heather and moss, marked with linear scars from centuries of peat cutting. (We hitchhiked with friends, although avid hikers can take the scenic route, following a four-mile trail between smooth, winding hills and past a small loch of calm, black water.) white tails nest there and from their perch, high on the rocks, they gaze at a rough, almost lunar landscape, dotted with vast boulders.
A single track road crosses the valley floor like a stream and emerges in a cluster of houses that overlook the beach. We stopped long enough for a glass of wine, brought in our backpacks, before rushing out onto the sand, stripping off our clothes and wading in the water, naked. The sea, as always, was freezing cold. As we were leaving, parallel to the beach, a seal lifted up and swam beside us, in a curious, almost canine way.
We stayed in a house overlooking the bay, arriving just before sunset and leaving shortly after dawn. One night is all you need sometimes; afterwards, you come back to “real life” more sharpened and invigorated. Nothing is more effective in marking this period other than a boat trip, however long – from Stromness north to Hoy takes 30 minutes: the effort to get there, in my opinion, is what makes the islands so singularly restorative. And there are plenty of islands in Orkney: around 70, depending on how you choose to define them, 20 of them are inhabited. Each has its own identity: Rousay, “Egypt of the north”, rich in its archaeological riches; Sanday, with its expanses of silvery white sand, its turquoise waters, its dunes whipped by the wind; Shapinsay, with its squares of land in perfect patchwork. Each deserves special attention.
The last time I took an inter-island trip, I visited North Ronaldsay, the northernmost outpost in Orkney, with my parents and my partner Rich. It’s 30 miles, or a three hour ferry ride, from Kirkwall. It is a wild and wonderful trip, which you must take if you have the time. While on a day trip, we flew into one of Loganair’s small eight-seater planes instead. The flight alone is worth a day trip in itself: a low-altitude trip with million-dollar views, as the tiny propeller plane hops from island to island, drops off mail, and picks up passengers. .
As with most small islands, North Ronaldsay Airport is a straightforward affair: a cruciform airstrip, a tattered windsock, a utility waiting room. Airport staff work part-time, interrupting their day at the farm or in the store to take care of the airfield.
North Ronaldsay is best known for its seaweed-eating sheep, and of course we’ve found them roaming the rocky beach: fawn and tan and mahogany brown. They live confined to the shore by a drystone wall that runs along the perimeter of the island and must be repaired and rebuilt each summer by the local sheep dyke keeper, Sian Tarrant, and a team of volunteers.
We battled hail on a sparkling beach, passed a dozen brindle seals in the sun, to an Iron Age broch who held a sentry on a rocky headland, and peered through the waves. That day was dark and ominous, a wintry wind was blowing over the North Sea, and we stood there contemplating the depths for a few minutes, before turning around and retreating to the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory – which also serves as a local cafe, bar, campsite and guesthouse – to warm up with tea and mutton broth (all the better to feed on seaweed).
But if one goes from island to island by plane, however, the highlight must surely be the world’s shortest scheduled passenger flight, between the Islands of Westray and Papa Westray. From take off to landing is 1.7 miles, shorter than the runway length at Heathrow, and takes around 90 seconds by my watch. Papa Westray (known as “Papay”) is the “island off an island off an island” that stole the show in Amy Liptrot’s superb sobriety memoir The Outrun, and it is an absolute delight. Being four miles in a mile, you can walk around it in a day, if you keep moving forward, but despite its small size, it is home to a vibrant and artistic community, with a well-known annual festival and heritage center. and crafts at the old kelp store.
We wandered through the Knap o ‘Howar, a Neolithic stone dwelling which is the oldest of its kind in Northern Europe, before heading back to the airfield: its boundaries are marked, quite charmingly, by walls. in painted dry stones. And then got off the little plane, and got out the folding step, and we jumped – and we crashed down the runway down to Mainland, back to the center of the known world.