Island hopping in Orkney

by Mary.Murtagh

Take a walk on the wild side in Orkney, spotting puffins and seals, hopping between islands, and finding empty beaches with white sand and clear turquoise water

Seals love being serenaded. I know this because half a dozen of them followed me around the shoreline of the tiny Orkney island of Graemsay, listening to my ear-splitting rendition of Imagine. I'd been told these curious creatures enjoyed music and if you played them a tune they would follow, Pied Piper-like. I thought I was having my leg pulled until my groupies started to gather.
It is memories like those that you clock up and treasure after a visit to this far-flung outpost of the British Isles. You may only know this archipelago as a box on a UK road atlas but to visit these 70 or so islands is to see nature in the raw and get a glimpse of life in years gone by, where locals smile at strangers and leave their doors unlocked.
Expect to be blown over by the wind and blown away by your visit - this is the wildest edge of Britain. There are 1,000ft cliffs to brave and wide and empty beaches with white sand and clear turquoise waters to picnic on.
Wildlife abounds. At certain times of year you can sit quietly on the edge of a cliff and watch thousands of puffins catching fish out at sea and returning with their bright orange beaks full to feed their young. Their antics dodging aggressive fish-stealing and dive-bombing skuas are sheer entertainment. At other times of year, basking sharks and whales call these waters home, so keep your eyes peeled for an unexpected splash out on the water.
Some of the archipelago's highlights include:
Annual sheep punding on North Ronaldsay
Visitors are welcome to join in with the round up of these rare semi-wild sheep who live on the seashore and dine on seaweed. They taste delicious, too, so try some North Ronaldsay mutton.
Westray and its tiny sister Papa Westray
Westray is a walker's dream. The island has spectacular walks along long empty beaches covered in white sand, vertigo-inspiring cliffs with blowholes, caves and sea stacks, and pretty pastures. Take an Ordnance Survey map to guide you and a pair of binoculars to spot dolphins and puffins that live close by. For a warm Westray welcome book into No 1 Broughton B&B, run by Sheila and Jerry Wood, who use the fruit and vegetables from their garden to conjure up delicious meals served in their dining room with a spectacular view over the bay. Take the tiny passenger-only ferry across the stretch of water that separates Westray from its diminutive neighbour Papa Westray. You can walk around the edge of the island in a day if you time your ferry connections right. It's home to a rare colony of the beautiful primula scotica flower, the Knap of Howar (still regarded as the oldest standing house in northwest Europe) and the North Hill bird sanctuary, with its terns, puffins and great skuas.
A different kind of island hopping
Get a Orkney Ferries pass and see how many islands you can clock up in one holiday. The vessels range from wooden passenger-only boats, with a skipper who remembers you on your return voyage, to huge seafaring ferries that plough the roughest of seas. Wherever you sail, the water is clear, pure and icy.
Sunsets over stones
Enjoy a sunset at the bewitching Ring of Brodgar and Stenness standing stones. They are Stonehenge with knobs on (and without the crowds).
Taking a dram
You don't have to be a whisky-lover to enjoy the charms of the cosy whisky bar at the Stromness Hotel. There is an encyclopaedic collection of Scottish malts to savour in front of a roaring open fire and a home away from home ambience to soak up if you're not partial to a dram.
Heading for Hoy
Hoy boasts towering red sandstone cliffs and hills covered in heather. Rackwick, a picturesque crofting village with a boulder-strewn beach, is a good place to stay before visiting The Old Man of Hoy. This 450-ft tall sea stack stands proud and alone just off the coast. It is home to hundreds of sea birds, including puffins, which you can smell long before you can see them. Try Cliffgate self-catering cottage in Rackwick for five-star accommodation that is modern, stylish and out of the pages of a glossy magazine. If you and seven companions visit for a week out of season, a stay will set you back a mere £56 each.
Get off the beaten track
Do your best to get to any of the uninhabited islands that dot these waters. The local wildlife groups often run trips to islets left to Mother Nature. It was a highlight of my trip to visit Eynhallow, where two treacherous tides meet and Orkney folklore says visitors sometimes going missing.
Food and drink
Try the many fine beers, ales and stout produced by the brewery on the islands and don't leave without sampling the fish plucked fresh from the waters surrounding Orkney.
Forget your passport, baggage allowances and air rage: the only way to get to Orkney is on a Northlink ferry. Hopping on board one of the huge ships that traverse the wild waters between Aberdeen and Kirkwall is like taking a cruise. During the summer, stand on deck and feel the swell of the waves as you leave the safety of Aberdeen harbour and follow the east coast of Scotland on the horizon. Before long the shadowy outlines of Orkney's southernmost outcrops will come into view and your Orkney adventure begins.


I've clocked up visits to 76 countries in 12 years as a journalist - now I've just the 119 others to go. I didn't have a passport until I was 12-years-old but I've made up for it since. My job as a regional hack took me all over including Dubai, Finland, Japan and all over Europe. Now I'm a freelance journalist I intend to do some serious damage to the remaining curly-edged pages in my passport. My favourite places are the Shetland Isles for its unspoilt beauty, Savannah, Georgia, USA, for its gentility and tasty cornbread and Zimbabwe for the kindness of its people. I love saunas in Helsinki, dim sum in Hong Kong and climbing in the Lake District.