The Orkney Islands are both quite similar to and quite different from the Shetland Islands. It is a small group of islands just ten miles north of mainland Scotland. The soil is rich and the agriculture there thrives. Their Norse history is vast and well-preserved, and the people there keep their heritage alive and thriving with folklore and Viking stories. My trip to Orkney was highly successful and probably one of my favorite adventures from all of my time in Scotland. I got to spend two full days there exploring. Here is my story from day one:
Arriving in Orkney and Finding My Airbnb
After a bit of a struggle, I arrived on Orkney Island aboard the Northlink Ferry at midnight on a Wednesday. Unwilling to wait out in the cold for the bus, I marched for 45 minutes to Kirkwall to find my Airbnb. A BED! I was thrilled! After not being able to truly enjoy Shetland, I was bound and determined to see every bit of Orkney that I could.
I had rented a room on the bottom floor of couples flat in downtown Kirkwall (it was lovely and they were very kind). After two days of sleeping in a hard seat on the ferry, that bed felt like the best thing ever! I not only had a bed, but I had my own bathroom, kettle, and private space to relax in. Since I got in so late, I simply had to push in a passcode and get my key out of a key box and let myself in.
On my way there it was very dark, but the city of Kirkwall is well lit with street lights. I followed my GPS from the port into the town and passed the magnificent St. Magnus Cathedral. Then, I turned down a side alleyway and was very quickly right outside my door.
The Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar
Waking up early the next morning, I was ready to explore! I had been able to wrangle up my driver’s license number and was getting my first rental since moving to the UK. I pick up a homemade sausage roll and a cuppa from the local bakery and headed out! Driving west from Kirkwall, I headed to my first stop of the day, the Standing Stones of Stenness! I was stoked!
Driving on the left side of the road isn’t as hard to get used to as shifting with the left hand. So, I was glad that the road, twisting its way ahead of me, was almost completely deserted most of the time. I needed time to get used to it. I felt so grateful for my parents who taught me to drive manual before automatic – something less and less common in the States. My mind was saying “Left! Left! Left!”, but the disorientation of shifting with the opposite hand actually helped keep me vigilant. It didn’t take too long for me to get the handle of it.
I followed the GPS on my phone down winding narrow asphalt feeling my neck tense as my eyes wanted to focus, not on the motorway in front of me, but rather at what was lying in my peripheral. To my left–rolling hillocks scattered with sheep and adorable white cottages, a blue sky, and streaks of sunlight. To my right– the same except for Loch of Harray. Unsatisfied with the sky, a rainbow dove straight down from the heavens to dip into the water and greet the world within. I was in awe of the beauty of this place, and I was thrilled to be driving again!
Before I knew it… I was pulling off to the side of the road and found myself standing up close and personal to 5,000-YEAR-OLD standing stones! It seemed so strange to me –trying to look so hard back into space and time. I walked around each stone and gazed at the landscape around me. There was a small cottage nearby and a loch. I read all the Outlander books and watched the show… I put my hand up against the cool stone slab. Might I fall back in time a few hundred years? Nope. Still here.
The stones are massive compared to the ones that I have found near Aberdeen. From the four out of the twelve stones still standing, the tallest reaches up to almost 6 meters. I read that in the 1800s a farmer actually was in the process of dynamiting the stones when the local community came and stopped him! They definitely did well to take care of their history, and it was a pleasure for me to take part in it. The still early morning air was filled with mist and fog, and it created the perfect ambiance for my moment.
With the island being so small, it wasnt far from my next stop. The Ring of Brodgar. The Ring of Brodgar is another stone circle dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. Getting there, the car park was bit further away, and I needed to walk across the street along a walkway to see them. There were a few more people there, quietly strolling around and reading about the stone’s history. There are large signs asking you to please keep your distance from this set of stones because of erosion. The stones themselves are smaller in stature compared to the Standing Stones of Stenness, but this time, there are 36 stones still surviving of what used to be 60! The circle is much larger in circumference with other hills and cairns set apart from it. I was happy to keep my distance for the sake of the next generation. These sites are part of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage, and I was on a journey to find as many of them as I could during the next two days.
The Beach, The Cliffs, and Gratitude
Leaving the Ring of Brodgar, I headed west again meaning to make my way to the next historical site of Skara Brae, a Neolithic stone-built settlement near the Bay of Skaill. I arrived in the gravel Skaill Beach car park, my rental one of only two other vehicles. I suppose, when it comes to certain aspects of travel, I can find an upside to Covid’s reign. I was hardly ever stuck in traffic or waiting in a queue; the trails and landmarks were almost always barren for my singular use. I reversed into my spot. I was really starting to getting the hang of driving my little rental, and I was having a lot of fun.
I decided to walk the beach first. I couldn’t help it; the lapping waves requested my attention, and I blindly followed the call. Everything I saw, heard, and felt was pure bliss to my senses. Loose sands and waving marram grass led to a motley crew of rocks and seaweed all pushed up in overlapping bunches from the high tide. As I made my way onto the coarsely ground salt and pepper sand, I sunk slightly and momentarily lost my balance. Righting myself, I pushed on, trudging along like only humans do– trying to be graceful, trying to absorb it all. I heard voices in the distance, children laughing, parents calling out to them. I took a moment just to breathe. The air seemed so fresh, so clean–that just the simple act of breathing felt like a detox.
It was still early and the sun was still ascending, fighting dauntlessly to be seen through the cloud cover. As I made my way across the beach, the cliffs to my right drew me to them, and just as the waves had summoned me, I listened to this call as well, letting the pull take me. As I made my way across the remaining beach, the shoreline changed from sand to stone. Keeping careful with my footing, I traversed over the sometimes slick and sometimes ridged slabs, boulders, and alternative rock and seaweed-covered terrain. I was dressed well for it by wearing layers of clothing and a thin waterproof jacket, old jeans, and lightweight hiking trainers.
The first structure I passed on my way to the cliffs, was the remnants of what probably used to be an old stone shed. The roof had long been gone, but the walls still rose high enough to claim a window that looked out upon the beach. It looked like a framed photograph.
Continuing onward, the steady slope in elevation had my heartbeat up and my body temperature rising along with it. The sun broke free of the clouds and I greeted it happily. “Well, hello!” I said out loud. I turned to let the warmth of it spread across my face and chest. It had been a mostly cloudy and quite cold trip so far, and I was so grateful for that bit of warmth.
The grasses upon the landscape shortened and steadily receded to reveal the old red sandstone beneath. Before I truly braced myself, I found myself looking over the edge of the cliffs and into the crashing surf below. Between the sun and the ocean, I suddenly felt charged with adrenaline. My heart picked up with an entirely new rhythm, thumping with life. I couldn’t seem to help the joy I felt. I felt thrilled and excited with an overwhelming sense of liberty and abandon.
That feeling was what I had been after all year. A had taken an entire year away from my kids, friends, and family. I was supposed to be making the absolute most of it. And at that moment, I felt that I was finally doing that. My body picked up again at a happier gait. I skipped; I pranced; I frolicked, light-hearted and alive.
My face stretched and my cheeks almost ached from the smile on my face. I continued my romp along the edge of the cliffs feeling stunned and overcome with reverence for mother nature and her beauty. I remember feeling like I could have walked along that precipice the entire perimeter of the island and my eyes would have never wearied.
I had been looking at photographs of this for years and was finally there. Finally, I had my feet solidly upon the ground, my mind half lost and my heart hammering with the shock of it. I continued on, weaving my way along the edge of cliffs, going from flat rock to grassy hills. As I stood on the edge of the coastal machair grasses, I looked across the multi-hued blue ocean to the never-ending horizon. The rough layered cliffs thrust out of the water, the sea spray clashing up against it in outrage. Weaving my way along the trampled foot-trodden path, I listened. Gulls, Terns, and Guillemots. Waves that broke and splashed. Wind that gusted, puffed, and flurried. The reverberating crunch of my own devoted stride as I flattened the grasses beneath my now heavily soiled trainers. All of my senses had come alive.
Visiting these historical sites had my mind reeling. Coming from America, where the oldest historical landmarks barely reach back a few hundred years, that kind of history lifted the hairs on my arms with incredulity. But, in that place, as I stood precariously on the edge of the problematical blessing that is freedom and regarded layer upon layer of sediments, I thought even further back into time. Millions upon millions of years. I was being reminded yet again of the fleetingness of my life and knew then that my choice to take off on this journey was the right decision.
Back in 1850, there was a massive sea storm that battered the Orkney Islands. It was so powerful that it tore away parts of the landscape and stripped away the grasses from the areas around the seashore. After this, the owner of the area where Skara Brae resides discovered that an outline of something had been revealed. Because of the storm, some of the the stone buildings that had once been buried beneath the grassy mounds were now visible.
The local laird, William Watt, who owned this section of the land began working to unearth the rest of what he would soon discover as an entire neolithic village. Originally, they thought it was a Pictish village dating back to 500 BC, however, radiocarbon dating confirmed that the settlement was actually 4,000 years old and dating back to somewhere between 3200 and 2200 BC. The sand that had been covering the site had provided excellent protection and kept the settlement preserved.
After coming back from the cliffside walk, I came up around the backside of the site but had to go inside to purchase tickets for 9 pounds. You go through an exhibit that teaches you all about the history of the settlement and how it was discovered. From there you walk out following carved stone blocks that lead you back into time. It was a really neat experience and so interesting to think of what it might have been like for the people who had once lived there.
Yesnaby Castle Sea Stack and Coastal Walk
Leaving Skara Brae I turned south and headed for an area called Yesnaby in Stromness. With all of the ancient sites, visitors to Orkney might overlook some of the most spectacular natural parts of the islands. Although, I was very intrigued by all of the ancient ruins and the historical parts of this trip, what was truly blowing me away was just how beautiful the island itself was. The seaside cliffs showed layer after layer of sandstone that had been carved and sculpted by the ocean.
When I pulled up to the Yesnaby car park, I wasn’t sure I was even in the right place. There is an abandoned building where you park near the coast that is the start of the trail. When I got there, I looked around a little confused, but there were a few others, so I knew I wasn’t too far off track. The coast trail goes from Yesnaby all the way to Stromness which is right around 11 miles. I knew I wouldn’t do it all. With it being my first time driving in the UK, I wanted to be back before dark.
The path was mostly well-trodden dirt with very short turf. It was very easy to navigate and I passed a few people out walking with their dogs or children. The sky’s colors were constantly influx with quickly passing white and grey clouds. Seabirds swooped and soared from place to play within the cliff’s side. If you love birds, this place was great place for watching them and see varying types of seabirds like razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, and skuas.
The highlight of this walk is the Yesnaby Castle Sea Stack. When I came around the corner and spotted it, it took my breath away. The sea stack is a portion of the cliff that has been separated from the rest and stands out away from the edge at a height of 115 feet. On the Isle of Hoy (one of the other Orkney Islands), there is the Old Man of Hoy – both of these sea stacks draw climbers who try to scale them from the bottom to the top. I trailed on for another mile or so but then decided to turn back as the sun sank lower towards the horizon. It has been an amazing and spiritually charged day for me.
Returning to Kirkwall that night, I picked up some food-to-go before getting back to my room. I was famished. I laid in bed that night and scribbled down some notes about the day. Despite everything else going on in my life, at that moment, I felt a wave of contentment come over me. I had been overcome with highs and lows in emotion, and for the first time that night, I felt at ease with my place on the planet.
Tomorrow was going to be another full day, and I was ready for it.