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