The Orkney Islands have been on my ‘to visit’ list for most of my adult life with both the rich archaeological heritage and the rugged coastline being major pull factors. I also live, ever-hopeful, that I will get to observe the Northern Lights on my travels. This, combined with an increasing yearning for solitude led me to the Loganair website where I found myself booking return flights to Kirkwall from Southend Airport. This in itself allowed me to tick off the goal of flying from Southend. As a child we often used to go to the end of the runway to watch the comings and goings of various aircraft, as well as going to the airshow and watching the Vulcan Bomber’s annual ‘fast taxi’. We moved away from Southend when I was 15, and as it developed into a passenger hub I always wanted to fly from there and see the places I knew as a child from the air.
Seeing as this trip was somewhat experimental I decided to sign up to Airbnb as I wanted to be self-sufficient during my trip. My wishlist was relatively simple with the only luxury I sought being a wood-burning stove. This beautiful bothy in Stromness had the much-desired wood burner as well as views of the harbour, and so it was a no-brainer. The bothy was warm, comfortable and more than adequately equipped for my needs. I spent a great deal of time sat in front of the window watching the boats, birds and seals outside.
In preparation for my trip I did a fair bit of research and found that other travellers strongly advised renting a car. Whilst I can drive I find myself limited to familiar routes (3, as you asked) so car-hire was out of the question and I decided to investigate whether it is possible to have an Orcadian adventure using public transport alone.I flew to Kirkwall from Southend via Aberdeen. From the airport I travelled to Kirkwall and took another bus from Kirkwall to Stromness. I purchased a 7-day Megarider bus ticket using the Stagecoach App. Public transport in Orkney was far better than where I live, and as I am not one for late nights I wasn’t restricted at all.
I had three full days on Orkney. My research had led me to the Discover Orkney bus tour run by Stagecoach. The T11 route runs from the end of March until the end of October and for £15 takes you to Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. Departing from Kirkwall Travel Centre at 10am, you are taken on a scenic tour of West Mainland where you can see out into the Scapa Flow. Going at the end of October as I did, there were only two other passengers. I spent the first part of the journey on the top deck, grateful that I had the foresight to pack my thermals.
Skara Brae has been on my archaeological bucket list as long as I can remember. Earlier this year I watched a documentary on BBC Iplayer about Neolithic Orkney and so to get the opportunity to walk around the site was fantastic. The admission fee included access to neighbouring Skaill House which was well worth a visit. From Skara Brae we travelled to the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness, again key places on my bucket list. The weather had made parts of the Ring of Brodgar challenging but I managed to remain upright and maintain my dignity.
The tour lasted approximately 3.5hrs and terminated in Kirkwall. From there I spent some time walking through the island’s capital, visiting St Magnus Cathedral and having lunch opposite in the community cafe. I also took the opportunity to do a small food shop, reliving my student days with some serious ready-meal action.
The weather on my second day in Stromness was suitably autumnal, with strong winds and horizontal rain, so I donned my waterproofs, threw my camera in my rucksack and set off on a walk around the town. I followed the road up to the golf course before admitting my defeat and heading back to Stromness Museum where I spent a good couple of hours reading about the history of the Orkney Islands. My younger self would have been put off by inclement weather, but I embraced it, and headed back to the harbour, popping into Argo’s Bakery for a sausage roll (well worth the hype). I spent the rest of the day reading, painting and watching the world go by from the window.
I wanted to make the most of my last full day on Orkney and so I decided to take two tours. The first was a tour of Maeshowe chambered Cairn. Another site on my bucket list, Maeshowe dominates the local landscape and forms part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. From outside the cairn you can see across the landscape to the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar; inside you can see runic graffiti carved by Norsemen in the 11th Century as they stayed overnight in the chamber. Access to the cairn is by tour only, and requires some fitness – there is a walk from the bus to the cairn’s entrance, with access to the chamber via a small narrow corridor.The afternoon’s tour meant heading back to Kirkwall. I had booked a tour at the Orkney Distillery, home of Kirkjuvagr gin. The tour was surprisingly well attended, very interesting and concluded with a gin tasting and a gin and tonic in the bar. I was taken with the idea that the botanicals used in this gin are grown and handpicked for by the Agronomy Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands, at their site overlooking Kirkwall Bay, from which Kirkjuvagr takes its name. I sampled Kirkjuvagr, Aurora, Arkh-Angell and Beyla, with Beyla being my favourite due to its delicate raspberry flavour.Slightly tipsy following an afternoon of gin, I headed back to the comfort of the bothy to light the fire and curl up by the window with a glass (or few) of wine, ready to head back to normality the following morning.
Orkney is a beautiful part of Scotland, and is worth visiting for the archaeology alone. The proliferation of sites across the Western Mainland where I stayed is staggering. Using public transport did limit me slightly, however additional planning would have meant I could have visited the Tomb of the Eagle and the Italian Chapel. Perhaps more time would have afforded me the opportunity to do so with ease.
I would not recommend travelling to Orkney solely for the purpose of seeing the aurora. If that had been my goal, I would have left bitterly disappointed (or, had I stayed another night, I would have left happy…). You would be foolish to travel there in late October and expect good weather. Always take waterproofs, a hat and some gloves. I forgot to bring my gloves and sorely regretted it. I also counsel against sitting on the top deck of an open air bus at the end of October, but then again I am not known for being completely sensible…