2017 is the year I’ve dedicated to exploring home. We are lucky in Orkney to have so much history, loads of islands, and possibly my favourite part: lots of coastal walks. I was starting to realise that the sheer number of walks on our little Scottish island that involve stunning cliffs and rugged coastal scenery is bordering on ridiculous – but what was more ridiculous was how few of them I’d actually done myself.
I started out with the main ones: Marwick, Birsay, Yesnaby; I revisited some childhood favourites (now all-time favourites) on my home island of South Ronaldsay; and then I started discovering real off-the-beaten-track gems that I never even knew about.
I’ve been doing a lot. And if you ever get the chance, I think you should do some, too. Here are my favourites.
Brough Of Birsay
I have a confession to make: although I’ve been out to Birsay a fair few times, it never coincided with low tide, so until this year I’d never been out to the brough. Given that I lived here for 18 years, I find that oversight pretty shocking (thanks mum & dad!).
Twice a day (sometimes only once when it’s in the middle of the night!) for a couple of hours, you can walk to this stunning little island, and I 100% recommend it. Your entrance to the island is by a man-made stone causeway over the rocks, and once you’re over there, you are welcomed by an old Viking settlement. To stop there costs £5 as it’s a Historic Scotland attraction, but you can bypass the settlement and make straight for the track that takes you up to the lighthouse and around the rest of the island.
The first time I made it to the lighthouse, I was gobsmacked by the endless view, and the drop down to the fallen cliffs that have lay there for centuries, if not millennia. Hundreds of birds have made their home here, including the infamous puffin! You can see them from May through August.
Once you’ve made it up to the lighthouse, you can go either left or right back down the slope of the island. The right hand side is my favourite by far, and that’s where I’ve spotted all the puffins, too!
Off-island, Birsay offers some other great walks, such as the walk along to Skiba Geo and the whale bone. As someone who knows nothing about geology, I was fascinated by the strange formations of the place where rocks have sunk into the sea at all sorts of angles. There’s also an old fisherman’s hut, although it’s not as preserved as the ones at Marwick.
Or you can turn the other way and walk up towards my next walk…
Another place I cannot believe I’d never walked up is Marwick Head. Distinguishable from various parts of Orkney by its crown, the Kitchener’s Memorial (aka “the chess piece”), you can see how impressive it is from Birsay. Or at least, I thought you could.
Nope, up close is WAY more impressive, and after a few minutes, you lose all perception of height. Although they’re not the highest cliffs in Orkney (that accolade goes to St John’s Head on Hoy), the sheer drop of them is terrifyingly sharp.
I could spend hours up here with a picnic, watching the birds, the rabbits and the waves. Marwick Head is a bird reserve so you’ll find all sorts of birds here, including guillemots, razorbills and of course puffins. Just don’t go up on a windy day – in winter, you can see the spray hitting the top of the cliffs!! Hard to imagine from photos like these.
There are a couple of ways to get up to Marwick. If you don’t want to walk all the way from Birsay, you can park either below the memorial and walk straight up, or down in Marwick Bay and walk up the hill. My favourite is walking from Marwick Bay.
Again, from there, you could also walk in the other direction and eventually reach Skaill beach and Skara Brae. Half a mile in this direction leads you to a collection of old fishermen’s huts which are really quite cute.
Windwick Bay, South Ronaldsay
I will happily announce that Windwick Bay is my favourite place in the world. I’ve actually surprised myself that this decision was so easy to make.
It’s also possibly one of the more remote places you’ll find in Orkney. In fact, hardly any tourists come here, and in all the times I’ve taken the cliff walk (and sat up there for hours!) I’ve never seen a single other person there.
So this is real off-the-beaten-path and I’m kind of sorry for sharing the secret.
I have many, many happy childhood memories in this place, and also a pretty scary one when my Dad & I ended up trapped in a cave because the tide came in! We ended up having to find a grassy, non-vertical cliff to climb to safety. I was about eight years old.
Like Marwick, this place is fantastic for bird-watching, although it’s only really home to gulls. Down on the beach, you’ll find lots of smaller birds and quite often a seal will pop its head up to see what you’re up to. I’ve even seen dolphins there this year!
If you walk up to the corner and along the cliff top, you eventually get to a piece of land that juts out into the sea, and I’ve declared this my favourite spot in the world. My happy place. The view is absolutely unreal (again, not unlike Marwick) and not only can you watch the birds socialising and fishing, but they actually fly right past your head to say hello (or more like, what the hell are YOU doing here?).
Unlike Marwick, this is a fantastic place to go in winter. Why? Because it’s so sheltered, seals choose this place as a breeding ground, and it gets busy. Want to see hundreds of seal pups? Well, my friends, this place is for you.
If you keep going, you’ll eventually reach Eastside beach, a lovely stretch of sand with a church. In the other direction, you can get up to the Tomb Of The Eagles, which is another amazing walk but I’m yet to do the whole stretch.
Yesnaby is in another remote location, but popular with visitors and locals alike.
Situated between Skara Brae and Stromness, this place offers unreal-looking terrain, and at some points it feels like you’re either millions of years in the past or on another planet.
It’s also one of the more dangerous walks in Orkney, so watch your step and don’t do anything stupid. Like stand on this precarious bridge to a sea stack while a wave thunders underneath your feet.
(But seriously, guys, several people have died here this year alone, including a beloved tour guide who knew the ropes. So please be careful because cliffs are relentlessly unforgiving.)
Yesnaby’s famous landmark is the so-called Yesnaby Castle, which is actually an arched sea stack. It’s nowhere near as high as the more famous Old Man Of Hoy, but it’s still worth a visit. You can reach it by parking up at the car park and taking the cliff path to the left. It’s about a 20 minute walk to Yesnaby Castle.
If you walk further on, you’ll come to a higher sea stack called North Gaulton, although I’m yet to make it that far. If you want a really long walk, you can walk all the way to Stromness, which takes 4-5 hours.
You can also turn right from the car park; although I found the walk less exciting, you’ll find an Iron Age broch, the Broch Of Borwick, and on from there you’ll eventually reach Skara Brae.
Old Man Of Hoy
The ultimate and most iconic coastal walk in Orkney! You’ll have to get a boat to this one, because Hoy is one of Orkney’s many islands. It’s one of the most popular islands to visit, if not the most popular – and for good reason! There’s a very old man living there and lots of people like to visit him before he falls over.
The Old Man of Hoy is a 137m sea stack that has possibly only existed for 400 years, and has halved its width in the last century or two.
Ferries run at pretty good times so you can get a boat from Stromness in the morning to Moaness, and get the return in the late afternoon, giving you a fairly full day on the island. From Moaness, you can jump on a minibus to Rackwick, which is the official start of the walk. You may need to book this in the winter as they don’t automatically run the shuttle.
We reached the Old Man in under an hour from Rackwick, despite all the signs and information that we found telling us to allow 3 hours return. The walk itself isn’t too coastal – it stretches inland before you reach the Old Man – but it’s a beautiful walk nonetheless, especially as you leave Rackwick Glen and take in the views of the bay.
Once you reach the Old Man, you can continue up to St John’s Head, but to be honest even happy-go-lucky cliff marcher here would be very wary doing so. St John’s Head is HUGE. Absolutely massive. 352m of massive, in fact. It looks like something out of Jurassic freaking Park.
Instead, we turned back to Rackwick and continued our walk to Moaness through the, quite frankly absolutely beautiful, glen.
We calculated that we must have walked about 11 miles on this trip, and it was worth every one.
Hoxa Head, South Ronaldsay
Although it’s not absolutely stunning scenery around the cliffs themselves, Hoxa Head is a great place to go for fantastic views over Scapa Flow, Hoy, Flotta and much of both mainland Orkney and mainland Scotland. Hoxa Head is also littered with pillbox lookout points from the war, and provides some of the most accessible ones in Orkney which are free to explore. There’s a tea room to stop at to, which serves lovely food.
Brough Of Deerness
Having never had much to do with Deerness, I only discovered the brough this year. In fact, I even stopped by the Gloup a couple of times before making a trip up to the brough.
The funny-named Gloup itself is well worth a visit as it’s an impressive collapsed sea cave – most people stand at the top and if it’s been raining, you can see one of Orkney’s few waterfalls. But you can also kayak into the cave from the sea, which looks pretty incredible!
The brough itself is interesting to get to because you follow a staircase down into the little bay surrounded by stunning cliffs, and then take a precarious path up the side of the peninsula. There’s a beautiful lagoon next to the path which I really want to go swimming in one day!
You can carry on up around Mull Head, but from my experience it wasn’t worth all the extra time. You can keep going to the Covenanter’s Memorial though, which is something I plan to do at some point.
Do you enjoy coastal walks? What’s your favourite on this list?
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