Road Trip to Orkney

Fifteen years ago we enjoyed a very memorable and successful family holiday to Orkney and had always wanted to return some day. This is the year that we finally made it back.

Previously we had flown up to Inverness and then caught a coach up to the John O’Groats ferry taking us to Mainland Orkney where we hired a car. This time we decided to drive what is practically the entire length of Britain and so we allocated three days for the journey. The second day was spent pootling up through Scotland in the sunshine with time to make a couple of interesting diversions. We came across a large family of goosanders on the River Tay:

Goosander chicks
We don’t see goosanders in our part of the country and I am not very familiar with them, but there were eleven sweet little chicks following in formation behind their mother – a normal number for these birds but does seem a lot for her to look after

In Perthshire we went to see the Fortingall Yew, a male tree estimated to be 5,000 years old and is possibly the oldest tree in Britain and the second oldest in Europe. In 1769 the tree’s girth was measured at 52 feet but since then a lot of the tree has disappeared, having been stolen by trophy hunters. In 1785 the tree was given a protective wall and it still appears very healthy, although now split into several separate stems.

The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire
Two of the stems of the yew, with a circle of wooden stakes in the ground showing the original footprint of the tree

Clippings from the Fortingall Yew have been taken to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to form part of their mile-long yew hedge. This conservation hedge has been created out of cuttings from threatened wild populations of yew as well as from famous heritage trees and is a way of conserving a biodiverse selection of yew DNA for the future.

Driving through a windmill farm right at the very top of Scotland

On the third day of the journey, we caught the car ferry from Scrabster to Stromness, a route that took us past the famous sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy:

The Orkneys lie about ten miles off the north coast of Scotland and, although there are seventy islands, only twenty of them are inhabited. There are no foxes, badgers, weasels or squirrels, allowing ground-nesting birds to thrive there, along with the Orkney vole, found nowhere else in the world. In 2010, around the time of our last visit, there was a first sighting of a stoat on the islands and their numbers have increased rapidly since then. The stoats, with no natural predator there themselves, live off bird chicks and eggs and compete with the short eared owls and hen harriers for Orkney voles all of which is seriously bad news for the islands’ native wildlife.

A stoat eradication programme is now underway and, since it became fully operational in 2019, around 7,000 trap boxes have been deployed with 4,400 stoats now removed from the ecosystem. The programme employs thirty people and four sniffer dogs, trained to detect stoat scat.

A stoat trap in position at Mull Head

We didn’t see a stoat on the island ourselves but we talked to people who had and so the programme clearly still has a way to go. I am sure every last one of these non-native predators will eventually be removed from the islands – but how on earth did they arrive there in the first place?

It’s not just the incursion of stoats that has happened since our last visit. There are now many more tourists on Mainland Orkney, not least arriving in large numbers off the cruise ships that regularly dock and disgorge their passengers at Kirkwall. We had seen the main visitor attractions previously and could mostly steer away from the crowds this time but we did revisit the atmospheric Ring of Brodgar one evening when we had it to ourselves:

The wonderful Ring of Brodgar. It is astounding to contemplate that when this stone circle was built in the third millennium BC, the Fortingall Yew would already have been 500 years old

This far north in June, it only gets dark for perhaps two hours overnight and we went out every evening after dinner looking for short eared owls and hen harriers when we appeared to have the island entirely to ourselves.

The turf-roofed hide at RSPB Cottascarth. It is estimated that eighty pairs of hen harriers breed on Orkney and one of these pairs was nesting in the moorland right in front of this hide. We enjoyed many sightings of hen harrier over the course of the week, some of which were quite close encounters, but we failed to get any photos that are worthy of including here

We also got good views of Short eared owl on our evening drives around the island. This owl flew close to the car but I couldn’t get myself mobilised in time for a photo:

A short eared owl flies away across Birsay Moor one evening. Absolutely magnificent birds

The rough grassland in damp valleys was used as a nursery for thousands of greylag geese. But if they heard a car slowing down, they desperately scurried for deeper cover:

We were initially bemused as to why we were seeing cars parked in farmers fields like this…

…until we asked an islander and discovered that they are being used as mobile scarecrows to keep geese away from the crop.

Our home for the week was a secluded Airbnb with gardens reaching down to the Loch of Stenness, and with small islands of nesting arctic terns and lounging seals just in front. It was a beautiful and isolated location:

The peaceful garden had lots of flowers but we mostly only saw one species of butterfly on them, the large white. In fact it was predominantly only the large white that we saw as we ranged over the entire island. Perhaps it is this reduction in butterfly and presumably moth numbers, that leads to fewer caterpillars being around to feed chicks – and in turn meant we didn’t see any blue tits, great tits, robins or thrushes. We were also delighted not to see a magpie all week. The summer bird populations in Orkney are heavily weighted towards ground nesting species taking advantage of the absence of many predators.

Skylark fledgling on South Ronaldsay
Fulmar on the cliffs at Mull Head
There are so many fulmars nesting around the coast of Mainland Orkney
Oystercatcher with two young. The Oystercatcher is Orkney’s most common wader with 12,500 pairs breeding on the islands
Ringed plover on Deerness
A lot of eider ducks breed around the coast
Eider chicks
Nesting arctic tern
Black guillemot with its comedy red legs
We saw five species of gull. I hadn’t realised before that the black wings of the great black-backed gulls are outlined in white
Red-breasted meganser taken through the kitchen window. This was an exciting first for us
Meadow pipit
Meadow pipit with food for its chicks. Meadow pipits are one of the cuckoo’s most favoured hosts and indeed, as we walked around Hobbister Moor, two cuckoos were calling atmospherically

Hobbister Moor is a RSPB reserve but it is also where peat is cut and dried to be used to flavour the whisky at the nearby Highland Park Distillery.

Peat cutting is still ongoing at Hobbister

We really like Highland Park whisky and had done a tour around the distillery on our last visit, made most memorable because our son, who was just a few months short of his 18th birthday, had to have orange squash rather than whisky at the subsequent tasting much to his absolute disgust. That son is now thirty and this time we visited the smaller Scapa Distillery. We hadn’t heard of this one before but their whisky is entirely unpeated and it felt good to support a whisky for which Hobbister Moor does not have to be ravaged. I can report that we also very much like Scapa whisky and purchased two bottles of different types to enjoy when we get home.

Lots of lovely whiskies to try at Scapa Distillery

The Old Man of Hoy is the famous sea stack, but we thought that the Yesnaby Castle sea stack on the west coast of Mainland Orkney with its window at the base was possibly the more impressive:

And there was another incredible sea stack just a bit further south at North Gaulton:

There is an absolute wealth of archeological interest in Orkney. At Birsay in the north west corner, a causeway leads across to The Brough, a small island that has the remains of a Viking settlement:

The causeway soon to be uncovered as the waters recede, allowing low tide access across to visit the Viking settlement
Views across to the Brough of Birsay
Skiba Geo is an inlet that has been used by fishermen since Viking times and, in the winter, boats would be hauled up from the little beach below and rested in these protective hollows

Scapa Flow is a large sheltered area of water cradled by several of the Orkney Isles and which was used by the British fleet in both World Wars. The German fleet was held here for seven months after the Armistice in 1918 until they scuttled their own ships to stop them passing into British hands.

A map of Scapa Flow painted onto the floor at the Fossil and Heritage Centre on Burray

At first, blockships were sunk into the gaps between the islands in an attempt to better protect the British ships and some of these hulks can still be seen. I understand that they have now become artificial reefs providing a home for interesting marine life:

But, in October 1939, a German U Boat sneaked through the gap between Mainland Orkney and Lamb Holm and torpedoed the Royal Oak with the terrible loss of 835 lives. After this, Winston Churchill decided to build a series of barriers to connect up islands and protect the eastern side of Scapa Flow.

Churchill Barrier number 2, connecting Lambs Holm and Glimps Holm. There are roads along all four of the barriers, connecting up islands that were previously isolated and changing life there forever

The remaining entrances into Scapa Flow were then heavily defended with a mixture of booms, nets, search lights and gun batteries. Many of these defences can still be visited such as this gun battery at Hoxa Head on South Ronaldsay:

A lot of infrastructure still remains at the Ness Battery near Stromness including some of the accommodation huts.

One of the gun emplacements at the Ness Battery, looking across to the mountains of Hoy

The canteen hut was covered in murals painted by one of men:

A corruption of a Shakespearean quote ‘Come the three corners of the World in arms and we shall shock them’.

The short and springy coastal turf was often covered in these spring squills which was a new plant for me:

Early purple orchids were to be seen throughout the island:

The moss carder bee is an incredibly rare bee in Kent and is the subject of intensive conservation endeavour. But this beautiful bee was to be seen everywhere in Orkney and it is so cheering that it is doing well there:

Moss carder bee on kidney vetch

I had been hoping to see the rare great yellow bumblebee while we were on Orkney but it is a late flying species and the queens do not emerge until mid June. Flower-rich areas in the Orkneys are now the only place in Britain that these large bees, that have a distinctive black band between their wings, are to be found and I was sorry to have missed them.

This meeting about the conservation of nine Orkney species on the edge was unfortunately being held on the evening of the day we left the island because I would have liked to have attended. The nine target species in Orkney are: arctic tern, common pipistrelle bat, curlew, great yellow bumblebee, lapwing, little tern, oyster plant, plantain leaf beetle and Scottish primrose

There is much about Orkney that is very appealing, not least the absence of the dreaded Highland midge and the lack of deer ticks since there are no deer on the islands. It is also good to realise that all of the islands’ electricity needs are now usually being met by local renewable sources. There is much we still want to do and redo there and, although there are many Scottish islands that we are yet to visit, it is to Orkney that we think that we will return once more.

4 thoughts on “Road Trip to Orkney

  1. Very appealing, we have not ventured this far north but after reading this Judy, we will add it to our list, thank you, again.

    1. It is a very long way though, Chris! We came back in two days rather than three and it was two very long days of driving. However, made bearable by listening to seventeen hours or so of Jane Eyre on Audible!

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