Exploring the Orkney Isles out of season

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Here at WOW Scotland we are constantly looking for new places to take our customers to  – and not just the ‘big ticket’ attractions. With this is mind we set off for 3 days on the wonderful Orkney Isles to find some new secret places and to revisit some of old favourites as well.

Our departure time for the trip was a rather early 5.45am so we could get north in plenty of time for the 9.30am ferry from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope. The journey north is one I know very well, having driven it twice a day during my first summer as a tour guide back in 2005. However, despite how familiar it is it still felt good to be heading up the A9 north, through Golspie, Helsmdale and eventually arriving in Wick before embarking on the short hop over to Gills Bay. The last time we had been in Orkney we had taken the John O’Groats passenger ferry, where I’d been lucky enough to ride up front with the captain for some of the ride. This time I had to settle for a normal seat but the journey was very pleasant and an hour after we left we had arrived in St Margaret’s Hope on the island of South Ronaldsay.

As we drove down the narrow ‘Front Street’ of ‘the Hope’ two little girls gave us a friendly wave hello. We pulled up at the seafront and wondered down to the Craft Cooperative where another friendly welcome awaited us.  ‘ You are the first tourists of the season’ the lady behind the counter said. Just in case she thought we were a bit mad visiting Orkney in deepest darkest February I told her I was a tour guide looking for new places to take my guests and she and her colleague gave us lots of advice on things to see and do in the vicinity.

Our first stop on our Orkney adventure was the Hoxa tearooms where we had a cup of coffee and enjoyed a view over to Flotta (and the Flotta oil terminal). Despite the building being very modern and lacking the character of the type of places we usually like to visit, the hosts were very friendly and gladly gave us advice on how to get to the nearby World War 1 and World War 2 battery. The Hoxa battery is a fantastic place for those with an interest in military history – there are lots of interesting buildings to explore and this is just one of a plethora of military sites to be explored on the islands.

The next places of interest on our tour were the Churchill Barriers, built by Italian prisoners of war during WW2 to protect the ‘Grand Fleet’ in Scapa Flow. During their interment in Orkney the POWs built a chapel out of old Nissen huts; this is known as the Italian Chapel and is well worth a visit as it helps bring the realities of life in Orkney during WW2 to life.

After a quick stop at our friends Gael and Andrew’s house in Kirkwall for a ‘peedie’ cup of tea we ventured out at sunset to revisit some of our favourite sights, with the hope of getting some great photos. First of all we visited the Stones of Stenness then the Ring of Brodgar – two incredible pre-historic sites that should be high on your lists of things to do whilst in Orkney. After this we shot down to Yesnaby just as the sun was setting to see the Yesnaby sea stack – if you don’t have enough time to make it over to Hoy to see the ‘Old Man’ then this comes a close second.

Our evening’s entertainment in Kirkwall consisted of local ale from the Swannay Brewery and whisky from the Highland Park distillery, along with a very good and reasonably priced ‘pub grub’ meal from ‘Helgi’s’. Despite the good company our crack of dawn was catching up on us and we decided to ditch the bright lights of Kirkwall town centre for our warm and cozy bed.

Next day we (well, I – the other half of WOW decided to sleep on!) rose early and watched as the sun rose over Kirkwall. The aim of this day was to only visit places we hadn’t seen on previous trips so we decided to start the day at the 2000 year old Cuween Hill Tomb. Here those who don’t mind getting a bit muddy can get on their hands and knees and crawl into the centre of the tomb. Next on the agenda was the Wideford Hill Tomb. The 2 km round walk on a muddy path rewards you with another pre-historic gem with a ladder leading you into the heart of the tomb. Wideford also affords stunning views of the mainland and Scapa Flow.

Realising that I had forgotten the memory stick for the camera we nipped back to Kirkwall where we were greeted with an offer of a guided tour from our Orcadian friend Andrew. This was to prove to be the highlight of the trip! Andrew told us all about Orcadian culture, folklore and history as well us pointing out some of the highlights and secret little places that we love to show our guests on our tours.

One such place was the fishermens’ huts near the Brough of Birsay where fisherman used to come and shelter from bad weather, which by all accounts is an almost constant feature of Orkney. Just in case we were in any doubt about the changeability of the weather, as we started walking back to the car we were engulfed by a blizzard!

The penultimate stop of the day, the Broch of Guerness, was the biggest surprise for me. I’ve visited many brochs (pre-historic round houses) in the past but this was unlike any other I had ever seen, with defensive ditches built around it and lots of interesting stonework inside the broch too.  The day was rounded off by a quick walk with Gael and her dog Ruby on the beach at Scapa before retiring to our hosts’ cozy house for the evening.

Our third and final day saw us explore the east of the island. We headed out to the Brough of Deerness where the first sight we saw was ‘The Gloup’; a sea cave which is partially collapsed on the landward side – a definite must for those who like beautiful coastal scenery. We then took a walk round to the Brough of Deerness where we were greeted with stunning views of the cliffs and coastline as well as the remains of a 10th Century Church.

After working up an appetite on our coastal stroll, lunch in Kirkwall at Judith Glue was just what we needed. This is a gem of a café serving some great local food. I had the Orkney Herring and Kay had their homemade quiche, both of which were delicious.

Afterwards we visited the St Magnus Centre where we learned about the Orkneyinga Saga. A short video relates some of the fascinating early Norse history of the island, in particular the story about how Magnus became a saint.  Straight after this we visited St Magnus Cathedral, the jewel in Kirkwall’s crown, with the relics of both St Magnus and his murderous cousin interred inside. We then had a quick walk around the centre of Kirkwall before heading off to the ‘rival’ village of Stromness for our ferry home.

As we arrived in plenty of time there was a chance to explore the narrow and quaint streets of Stromness, and to our surprise even in February there was plenty to do. We visited a few of the many galleries around town and fell in love with a painting of cow painted by a local artist  (Sally Lynch) which is now sitting pride of place in our house!

As they say you’ve got to save the best to last and this trip was no exception. The ferry ride with Northlink to Scrabster was definitely one of (if not ‘the’) highlight of the trip. As you pull out of Stromness you get awesome views of St John’s head on Hoy. These are the highest sea cliffs in Britain and are truly spectacular. Throw stunning views of the world famous ‘Old Man of Hoy’ into the mix and you’ve got a ferry ride to remember.

Like so many other places in Scotland, Orkney is somewhere that you can visit time again and always see something new. It often surprises our guests that myself and the other WOW Scotland guides can travel as often as we do and still see and learn more about the country we love.  However, that is the beauty of Scotland and I doubt that I’ll ever come anywhere close to seeing it all.

WOW Scotland offers a variety of tours to Orkney. For those short on time a one day tour out of season is possible although between May – September we only offer tours of 2 days or more. To get the most out of your trip we’d recommend 3 days (although you can achieve a lot in 2 days too). Prices for the 2 day trip start from £680 and the 3 day £1040. Ferry fees are not included in the price and cost from £150 return.

About Gordon Pearson

Gordon is the owner of tour guiding company WOW Scotland who are based in the Highlands of Scotland. They specialise in running tours from Invergordon and Inverness.

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