Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Kirkwall, Orkney Islands - Another time, another place

If you were to imagine the perfect summer bicycle tour, you might imagine a place where you are pedalling along quiet back roads under a hot sun, picking up groceries in pretty villages, pitching your tent by beaches of white sand and parking up the bike along the way to make lots of little visits to places of interest. You might imagine the Orkney Islands.

The only trouble with Orkney is that there is so much to see that you hardly cover any cycling miles. It was lucky then that my friend Graham and I got a few miles under our tires on the cycle from Inverness to the Orkney ferry at Scrabster. It was a journey of real contrasts starting out with an idyllic pedal across the Black Isle. The single track road wound its way along the top  of a ridge above farms and woodlands with open views across the waters of the Moray Firth to the south and the Cromarty Firth to the north. We crossed the Cromarty Firth by a tiny, two-car summer ferry. It connects the beautiful old village of Cromarty with its narrow streets and pretty cottages to the modern oil and renewables plants at Nigg. It's the only ferry still in operation from the former network of boats that connected up the east coast.

When we cycled off the ferry we headed north through a very different landscape as we crossed the moors and empty lands of Caithness. The single track road seemed to be the only sign of modern man's presence and the views from it stretched for miles. Grey clouds gathered above and the wind picked up to a level that almost blew me off the road but the sun burst through in places spotlighting the hills and the rain stayed off. Next day was a rollercoaster ride along the north coast under a hot summer sun. It was a different landscape again of sandy beaches and small crofting villages set against the backdrop of the mountains of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal.

Then on an evening of late summer light, our ferry crossed to Orkney, slipping by the sea stack of the Old Man of Hoy, its sandstone layers glowing orange in the setting sun. The ferry pulled into the harbour at Stromness, tiny in comparison to the ship. We pedalled in the dusk to the campsite through its meandering streets trying to avoid the old central line of cobbles, originally laid to provide grip for horses' hooves.

The following days on Orkney were a dream. Sun beat down from blue skies and picked out the patchwork of green fields that cover the islands. We cycled, but not much.

On the first day on the road after torrential rain in Stromness, we cycled in early morning light to the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of Neolithic standing stones. They rest on a narrow bridge of land with water on two sides, vast views across the landscape and below the big skies of Orkney. As the sun rose into a cloudless sky and the breeze whispered through the grasses, I soaked up the atmosphere and the magic of the place.

A few minutes south by bike from the Ring of Brodgar is another important archeological site, a chambered burial tomb called Maeshowe. We parked up the bikes and joined a guided tour, the only way you  are allowed to enter.

Crouched down and crawling through the low entrance passage, we came into a large underground chamber which was dark and cold. The chamber also dates from Neolithic times and though we might think of people from then as being primitive, they had somehow engineered this structure with huge slabs of stone weighing several tons. There were side chambers on three of the walls where the human remains would have been placed and huge "block" stones at their entrances that would have been moved into position to seal the chambers. There was also a huge block stone at the entrance passage and it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when the guide told us that it still works and can only be closed from the inside. The chamber was carefully constructed so that the winter solstice sun, passing above the low hills of neighbouring Hoy, shone through the entrance passage and illuminated the back wall. That gave me goosebumps to add to the standing hairs.

From Maeshowe we cycled north up Orkney's mainland as roadside daisies danced in the breeze to one of Europe's most significant ancient sites, the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. Here the ancient houses and even the interior fittings such as beds and dressers can still be seen in the exposed remains below the turf. The village was hidden  for millenia until a storm in the winter of 1850 exposed its stonework. The village sits right at the edge of the sea where white sand is washed by turquoise waters. It's a remarkable experience visiting these ancients sites on Orkney but the most remarkable thing of all is that they are 5000 years old.

Late afternoon pedalling from Skara Brae took us around the north of Orkney's mainland and we ended a perfect day with a beachside wild camp and a beautiful sunset.

On another day of sunny skies but brisk winds we cycled through Orkney's capital town, Kirkwall, and further south to explore more recent history. As we crested a rise the sparkling waters of Scapa Flow came into sight and we whizzed down to the coast and across the causeway of one of the Churchill Barriers, built during the war to protect the British fleet from submarine attack by cutting off entry through the narrow access channels. The barriers were built by Italian prisoners of war who were housed nearby.

We cycled to the location of their camp on Lamb Holm Island but not much remains today except one very special place called the Italian Chapel. It was built by the prisoners from two Nissan huts and very basic materials as a place of worship during their internment. The outside is simple but beautiful and the interior is exquisite. The main artist was Domenico Chiocchetti, one of the Italian prisoners. Even when the war ended and his fellow inmates returned home, he stayed on to finish the chapel. It's hard to imagine that, unless you've been to Orkney. The Italians asked the Orcadians to promise to look after their chapel after they had gone and there is a black and white photo on display of some of the former Italian prisoners who made a return visit in 1992. l found this story incredibly touching and blinked back a few tears as l gazed across the quiet waters of Scapa Flow.

In the last few days Graham and I had pedalled much of Orkney's mainland but we wanted to visit one of the outer islands as well and so boarded a ferry to Westray, one and a half hours sail to the north. The ferry was stuffed full with islanders returning home from the biggest event in the Orkney year, the Kirkwall agricultural show. We cycled off the ferry into an evening of heavy rain blasted horizontal by a fierce wind. Westray is really out there. The ferryman said we were welcome to spend the night in the waiting room so we rolled out our sleeping mats on the long benches and enjoyed the ensuite facilities.

The sun shone next day as we cycled around the island, stopping to watch puffins and seabirds on the cliffs, to walk along idyllic beaches, to pedal passed the tumbling walls and rampant brambles of an abandonned village and eat a picnic lunch in the island's main village, Pierowall. Its a pretty place with a row of cottages set around a semicircular bay of turquoise water and white sand. There was a special atmosphere here as in so many places in Orkney and I felt like I was far away from Scotland in another time and another place.

Tonight I'm taking a ferry to another far away place, the Shetlands, which incredibly lie more than 100 miles off Scotland's north coast. But before I get there, here are some more favourites photos from the magical Orkney Islands.

More photos on flickr - click the link.

Fact File
Daylight - 18 hours
Distance - 5567 miles, 8959 kms
Days - 135
Route - from Inverness followed national bike route 1 north to Tongue and Thurso. Took ferry from Scrabster to Stromness. Cycled a loop around mainland Orkney north of Stromness then round to Kirkwall. Took a ferry to Westray and cycled its 10 miles or so of road.


  1. A truly wonderful place, outstanding photos and detailed information packed story. Hope Shetland is as lovely. Happy cycling.
    Love Mum & Dougie xx

  2. Thank you. I think Orkney is one of the most magical places on the planet.