Beginning in Stromness, Mark Rowe takes a clockwise arc around Scapa Flow, one of the largest natural harbours in the world, island hopping and enjoying a series of bus and ferry rambles along the way.
By Mark Rowe
Brinkies Brae is a hill that looms up behind the Orcadian town of Stromness like an ocean wave. At its base, the town’s thick-set 18th-century houses are all but embedded in its granite. Steps have been cut up to the summit, a steep incline that eventually gives way to high moorland. As the contours ease off, I follow the line of a drystone wall. I catch my breath at the trig point and am repaid for my modest effort – the summit is just 94m/308ft above sea level – with a magnificent view.
Much of the main island of Orkney – named, logically enough, Mainland – is laid out for inspection, the land sweeping away to the north, across glacial valleys to whaleback hills that frame the horizon.
Even though I’ve hit on a fine weather day, there’s an eeriness to Brinkies Brae. Huge black-browed gulls sweep past, daintier curlews hang in the air like oversized dragonflies. My scalp tingles. Perhaps I’ve been reading too many Orkney folktales: the hill was once home to Bessie Miller, a Stromness witch who resided in a smoke-filled hovel and charged gullible sailors sixpence to guarantee them a favourable wind.
In front of me, filling the frame, is the vast expanse of Scapa Flow. Covering an area of 320sq km, this magnificent waterscape is one of the largest natural harbours in the world. Yet it is curiously overlooked by the majority of visitors to Orkney, who head eagerly for the islands’ archaeological jewels, such as the Stone Age village of Skara Brae, the Neolithic burial tomb of Maeshowe and equally ancient Standing Stones of Stenness. While it forms a watery backdrop to all visits to Orkney, Scapa Flow can often seem to be hidden in plain sight.
A shore thing
In the course of three days, I plan to work my way from Stromness in a clockwise arc around the bay to the eastern reaches of Scapa Flow and the island of South Ronaldsay (clearly visible from Brinkies Brae). The good news for walkers is that much, though not all, of Scapa Flow’s coastline is accessible. Scotland enjoys open access laws but there is no continuous path along the shore; farm fences are often planted down to the mean water mark, making it onerous and often impossible to hug the coastline.
After nosing around Stromness’s galleries and cafés, I take a bus to the township of Orphir, located around 14km to the east. A quiet lane leads from the settlement to the coast and a small museum, the Orkneyinga Saga Centre. Sagas were an Icelandic means of preserving oral poetry and tales, and I read about the dark deeds of the earls, with eye-popping names such as Rognvald the Mighty and Wise and Thorfinn Skull-Splitter, who ruled Orkney during the Norse period 1,000 years ago.
An easy 5km waymarked circular route heads out from the centre and along the coast. For part of the walk, I’m accompanied by a raft of curious eider ducks. I pass the modest remnants of a Viking drinking hall, the Earl’s Bu, and a rare medieval round church, the design of which was inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
To get the most out of walking Scapa Flow’s coastline, a little island hopping is required. Near Orphir, I take the ferry from the port of Houton to the island of Hoy. I disembark at Lyness, a small port with an important history in both world wars. During the Second World War, Lyness became the main shore base for servicing the home fleet’s battleships and aircraft carriers, and more than 12,000 military and civilian personnel were stationed here. In 1919, the German fleet, held in the waters offshore after the Armistice, was dramatically scuttled here.
The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum at Lyness unexpectedly turns out to be closed for redevelopment, rather puzzling as I was visiting during the landmark centenary year, but I still find it oddly moving to wander around the deserted, crumbling jumble of buildings that make up the site – from the huge storage tank to the remains of a cinema.
From the jetty, a gentle 30-minute, 2km climb up the hill of Wea Fea leads to a wartime communications block that affords fine views of Scapa Flow. I then descend to visit the adjacent immaculately maintained naval cemetery, which commemorates over 600 war dead. The cemetery can be a sobering experience and, to lift my mood, I head to the southern reaches of Hoy and the island of South Walls, tethered to its neighbour by a causeway.
Hidden walking gems
Along South Walls’ southern coast you’ll find some of the finest but least known walking in all of Orkney. From the causeway, a superb walk of 8km hugs the southern coastline all the way to the lighthouse of Cantick Head at South Walls’ easternmost extremity. I pass deeply incised coastal ravines, known as geos, and crenulated bays, where a tempestuous tide is studded with sea stacks. I edge my way around a couple of ‘gloups’, rather unnerving – and extremely subtly signposted – inland holes that plummet to the sea. The grasslands by the cliffs here have never been ploughed or sprayed with fertilisers, and wildflowers abound in all but the darkest winter months. Cantick Head is a reliable position from which to watch for orcas on the prowl for unwary seals.
Back on Orkney Mainland, I take a bus east to begin my walk along Scapa Flow’s eastern flanks, along a necklace of islands and causeways. Just south of the village of St Mary’s, I disembark at the head of the first causeway.
Four causeways join the Orkney mainland to four islands in broadly north–south orientation: Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay. They were built during the Second World War and represent an impressive and urgent feat of engineering. More commonly known as the Churchill Barriers, they were built on the instructions of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to safeguard Scapa Flow from enemy attack. The order to barricade the harbour came after a German U-boat slipped undetected into Scapa Flow in October 1939 and launched a torpedo attack on
HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of over 830 crew.
I walk the 5km from the first barrier to the third. There’s no footpath on the causeways, but I find Orkney drivers courteous – giving me a wide berth and, almost universally, slowing down as they pass. On either side of the barriers, rusting wrecks poke out of the water. These are the remains of the blockships, ageing steamers deliberately sunk during the First World War to block the entrances to Scapa Flow.
Upon crossing the first barrier onto Lamb Holm, I come to one of Orkney’s most unusual tourist attractions, the Italian Chapel, perched on a windswept mound overlooking Scapa Flow. This enchanting chapel was made from corrugated military huts by Italian prisoners of war and features trompe l’oeil brickwork and wrought ironwork inside. It remains a place of worship to this day.
The barriers take up more time than I expect: a totem pole, created from a First Nation and Orkney community project, stands proud at the head of the first barrier, while at the third, low tide reveals an inviting beach on which to stroll. The wildlife, too, makes me pause. Regular ‘peep-peeping’ calls from adjacent fields reveal oystercatchers; gannets plunge like feathered spears into the water; and a handful of Scapa Flow’s 2,000 harbour seals bob up and down, keeping an eye on me.
A head for heights
The bus drops me at St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay. The Hope, as locals call it, is Orkney’s prettiest village, with a decent pub, artist studios and a fetching bowl-shaped harbour that fills and empties like a bathtub with the ebb and flow of the tide. A path runs along most of the island’s west and east coasts. Buses go no further south than the village, so I arrange a lift for the 4km to the hamlet of Sandwick, from where I plan to walk 7km to the tiny township of Burwick, near the southernmost point not only of Scapa Flow but ofb Orkney.
The coastal walking is outstanding, with the path twisting and turning as it threads its way along the cliffs. In one or two places, with barely a boot’s width separating you from thin air, a head for heights comes in handy. This is not a walk to undertake in fog or high winds.
A mile north of Burwick, I reach Barth Head, a juddering anvil-shaped slab of Old Red Sandstone. Its exposed rocks have been twisted this way and that under millions of years of intense geological pressure. Look out for great skuas (known locally as bonxies) and large petrels – they will let you know if you stray too close to their territory!
Just above Burwick, a final headland affords views across the sea to the British mainland and I can pick out John o’ Groats and, to the east, the high flanks of Duncansby Head, the mainland’s most north-easterly extreme. Yet my gaze turns west not south. Somewhere across Scapa Flow, 18km as the oystercatcher flies, buried in the haze, lies Stromness.
Walking often offers the chance to go with the flow. Here, on Orkney, in a more literal sense, I’ve done just that.
Time/distance South Route
Allow three days to walk the locations described in the feature, which add up to around 25km.
OS Explorer 461, 462 and 463; Landranger 6 and 7.
Bankburn House, B&B, St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay (01856 831310, bankburnhouse.co.uk). The
helpful owner will pick you up in the absence of buses.
The Ferry Inn, Stromness (01856 850280, ferryinn.com).
Winter is a good time to visit Orkney. Watch the forecast for gales, but frosts are rare and spells of high pressure make for superb walking and the chance to see the Northern Lights.
Various ways, including the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Inverness, then a train to Thurso and a ferry (northlinkferries.co.uk) from nearby Scrabster.