Hoy and Graemsay
24 June 2017
Islands eleven and twelve.
On Saturday we headed to Kirkwall to top up on supplies for the Hoy trip, and I attended a concert in the cathedral, part of the St Magnus Festival, by the BBC Singers, which was fantastic.
On Sunday morning we got up in a leisurely manner, packed up and headed to Houton for the 10.15 ferry. We took our time, and were surprised to see as we came over the hill that the ferry was there, and vehicles were about to board. We joined the queue, and asked if we could catch this ferry, and as there was room on it, we could. So we caught the 9o'clock instead. Magic! More time on Hoy!
We headed up-island and checked out the pierhead at Moaness as a possible overnight spot. It looked good, so we left it and headed for Rackwick, where the hostel was a disappointment, as there was no possibiliy of parking there, so we went down to the large carpark near the beach. There was already a campervan there, and some cars. We parked up and took Jack for a walk down to the huge boulder beach and the bothy. It is really a basic shelter, which anyone can use free of charge, with their own sleeping mat and sleeping bag. I looked at the visitors' book and noticed a bottle of Highland Park malt whisky in its box on the table. I had a look and to my amazement there was still about a finger of whisky left in the bottom, to cheer some future camper's evening! Climbers often use the bothy, after climbing the Old Man of Hoy, the celebrated sea stack off the western cliffs near here.
Back to the car park, where to our dismay the large tour bus which had been on the ferry had parked right behind the van, having disgorged its passengers, and was sitting there running its engine. The magical eerie silence of this lovely place, with just the sounds of the sea the wind and the birds, wrecked by a throbbing diesel engine on endless idle. We thought of various ploys to get the driver to switch it off. From tempting him with a chocolate biscuit and a cup of tea, the carrot, to the threat of phoning up his head office on the phone number emblazoned on the side of the vehicle, the stick. In the event we did neither, just sat and seethed for about half an hour, when suddenly the driver did it himself, got out, put on a rain jacket, and went for a walk. It was obvious that his punters would be a while returning, as some of them had headed off on the long walk up the hill and round to the Old Man of Hoy. So we just stayed put, had lunch eventually, and heaved a sigh of relief when they all left at half past two.
We looked up the hill at Bunnertoon, the isolated croft that Peter Maxwell Davies lived in for many years, and remembered when we were camping here over twenty years ago, and watched a helicopter arrive with a huge bag of coal suspended underneath it, then deliver it in a cloud of coaldust to keep the composer's fire burning over the winter!
We stayed overnight, using the public toilets near the carpark, but decided against doing much more walking as the weather was cold and rainy, although shafts of sunlight had illuminated the red sandstone cliffs beautifully just before sunset. In the morning, if it was good weather, we would decide either to walk to the Old Man, or cross over to Graemsay for a long walk.
Monday morning dawned wet and nasty, so we binned the plans and instead went back down-island, to visit the Naval Museum at Lyness, our standy for bad weather. We know it well, having visited before, but every time brings new impressions, new information. The two world wars had a huge effect on these islands, Hoy in particular. Thousands of military and naval personnel were housed here, creating temporary towns which needed everything towns provide, like cinemas, shops, telehone exchanges, warehouses, and all that besides the stores of fuel, armaments, vessels and aircraft. A local farmer told us later that agriculture today would not be the same on these islands if it had not been for the wars, and the need to feed all of these thousands of people.
We had lunch in the museum cafe, decked out in 1940s style, with an old fashioned radio playing popular music from the forties. Coffee was served in china teasets, and there were little round weighted nets over the bowl of sugar lumps. Very Brief Encounter!
Outside the museum is the relatively new memorial to the Russian Convoys. It flies the flags of the UK and the Russian Federation, with inscriptions on two upright stones in English and Russian, commemorating the brave men who went on these convoys, many paying with their lives.
After lunch it brightened up, so we went on a coastal walk recommended to us by the man in the museum shop. It was indeed a worthwhile walk, with lots of geological features like geos and gloups. To be translated, these are inlets, and great holes in the land next to the cliffs, with the sea pounding in at the bottom. The latter are pretty scary, with steep sides, and stones saying 'DANGER'
We visited a graveyard after that, with the graves of seven of the eight crew of the Longhope lifeboat who died in 1969, trying to save a ship.during a storm. There were also war graves in the cemetery, although most are in the naval cemetery at Lyness, over six hundred graves. It is one of the saddest places I have ever visited, all those dead eighteen and nineteen year olds.
We then checked out the Longhope pier, where Ju had tracked down not only public loos but also a shower! The island's only shop was beside it, so we bought a few necessities, and decided to go back to Lyness. Parking was very limited at Longhope.
On the way we visited the RNLI museum which had a real lifeboat we could clamber all over, and lots of photos of the history of the Longhope lifeboat.
The pier master at Lyness could not have been more helpful. After talking to him for some time he offered to let us plug in to electricity on the pier overnight. Great, we thought, so that is what we did, parked right beside the shack that operates the linkspan, and only a metre or two from the ferry, the Hoy Head, whenever it came in, Hoy has no recognised campsites, but quite a lot of campervans and motorhomes come to the island, so wild camping like we did at Rackwick was the order of the day. We were glad to get our fridge cooled overnight by mains power. Otherwise we have to us gas, or run it off the batteries while we are driving.
On Tuesday morning we got up at silly o'clock, disconnected the power cable, and set off north again to Moaness very early. We decided to get the 10.15 ferry over to Graemsay, our twelfth island, to attempt a circular walk round it, according to our walks book. It was sunny and quite warm when we landed on Graemsay, but we had a surprise when the ferry arrived at Moaness as no fewer than 73 people got off! It was a concert of the St Magnus Festival which involved a lot of young musicians, all carrying music stands, so it was rather surreal! The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, no less!
The circular walk round the island described in our book of walks let us down somewhat, as a lack of footfall meant it was overgrown, indistinct, covered in tussock grass and thistles, and positively hard going. Jack hated walking through thistles! We went from the pier clockwise round to the old Kirk on the coast facing Hoy, and switched to using the roads, after a picnic lunch on the table by the ruined church.
We walked north towards the lower of the two lighthouses, then round the north side of the island to the taller one. We remembered lining up our course in Little Else on these two buildings six years go when we entered Hoy Sound on our way to Stromness.
The weather was sunny and we had a lovely day, returning on the ferry that picked up all the musicians again after we disembarked. We climbed back into Reg and had a quiet evening.
Goodbye to the northern isles
21 June 2017
Our two final days in the northern islands were spent exploring Sanday further. We went back to the Quoyness cairn as the weather was overcast and much cooler the following day, and walked down a path walled off from any cattle. Go figure! For me the cairn was a disappointment, as the entrance passage was barely three feet high, and my flexibility is not what it was these days, so I did not go in. Ju braved it, however, and took some photos inside. Impressive, well restored and maintained. We had a conversation about how sites like this could do with the kind of body trolleys car mechanics use to get under vehicles.
Sanday has an excellent heritage centre, which covers the history of the island from earliest times. There was a section celebrating the life and work of Peter Maxwell Davies, Max as they called him, who lived on Sanday after he left his croft on Hoy, and died there only a few years ago. He did a huge amount of work with people in Orkney, making music and founding the St Magnus festival, which flourishes every year, attracting mainstream classical orchestras to the islands.
Our third day dawned sunny, so we headed back up to the bay with the beached destroyer, as low tide was early in the morning. I got some good photos of this amazing relic, still recognisable as a large ship, around 70 metres long, and very high up the beach.
Then we turned our attention to an interesting geographical feature of Sanday, high sand dunes, in a line down the edge of a wide sandy bay, with another wide sandy bay on the other side, culminating in an almost tidal island of a few acres, with farm buildings on it. In brilliant sunshine, with Jack off the lead, we walked down towards the houses by the farm. One of these, to our amazement, has just newly been built, in fact we saw a man still working on it. We could understand why someone would want to buld a house there, with a fantastic sea view and privacy guaranteed as the only access was by a four by four driving down a sandy and stony beach. More concerning is the pervasive erosion of the coastline here, as elsewhere on Orkney. The sandy beaches and cliffs of sand in the dunes are fast disappearing, so it could happen that these houses might end up literally isolated, on a new island! We found out later from our campsite owner that the man who owns the house made his money in the oil business.
On Thursday morning we headed down to the ferry, and enjoyed a smooth sail back down to Kirkwall, slightly sad as that was our last trip north to the islands from there.
On our way west we decided to look at two cairns signposted off the Kirkwall Stromness road, and headed to the top of the hill behind Kirkwall, Wideford Hill, covered in radio tv and mobile phone masts, with tremendous views of Scapa Flow, of Kirkwall, of many of the islands we had visited. The second cairn was nearer Finstown, and needed us to climb a hill to see. There were torches provided in a box for the intrepid visitor. Once again the access passage was tiny, so we let Jack have a look for us, helped by the beam of the torch. Then we climbed to the top of the hill and saw the interesting stone pillars which we suspect locals have built up in recent years, out of the ubiquitous flat Orkney stone, just to see how easy it is to construct things with.
A lunch at Leigh’s wonderful taste of Orkney lunch stall at Finstown, then off to Dounby for some supplies. Back at Birsay campsite we caught up with our laundry, and settled in for a few days rest and recreation before heading for Hoy on Sunday morning.
Finally we managed to cross the causeway and get on to the Brough of Birsay, with its interesting archaeological remains from nelithic and viking times. Discouraged by a rather old and battered notice banning dogs from the hill because of sheep, Ju and Jack stuck with the stones and I climbed up to the lighthouse. It was tiny, not very tapl, simly because it didn’t have to be. It sits on the top of high cliffs, so it can be seen for many miles around.
Sanday, or number ten
12 June 2017
A calm night, then off to the ferry queue. As the weeks go by, it is clear that Orkney is getting busier. Our ferry today, the Earl Sigurd again, was absolutely full of traffic, going to Sanday and Eday. We were first off, in lovely sunny weather, so we drove upisland for a bit then found a long curving sandy beach to go for a walk on. Jack was in his element, and we were the only three on that beach. Beautiful white shell sand.
We had lunch back at the van, parked on the grassy verge beside a graveyard with a ruined church in it. Then we headed for the chambered cairn at Quoyness, having read that it was exceptional. Down a long farm track, to a car park, after a mile or two, only to discover that no dogs could be taken down the path from there to the cairn. It was too hot to leave Jack in the van, so all we could do was spit and fume and turn round. It does not seem fair that Historic Scotland should have a brown sign pointing to this ancient monument without ensuring that the farmer provides a fenced path to it, away from their cows with calves that they don't want dogs to upset. Or at least say no dogs allowed beside the brown sign. Grrr.
Driving further north on Sanday we saw the Start Point lighthouse in the distance, with its vertical black and white stripes. Another Stevenson lighthouse, they are all over Orkney, it seems.
On the road we passed a bay where one of Germany's first two destroyers ever built for the first world war lies beached and visible only at low tide. We made a mental note to come back one day at low tide. The two world wars have left their mark on these islands. We went on to pass bizarre buildings left over from a radar tracking station.
Finally we headed for our campsite, where we were pleasantly surprised to find a good pitch, with electricity, and a direct view of the sea, looking out westward towards Papay and Westray!
Almost feeling nostalgic, as this is our tenth and last of Orkney's northern isles. Next up will be Hoy.