Papa Westray – Orkney

Papa Westray (or Papay as its affectionally known to the locals) is a tiny scrap of land in the North Atlantic with a friendly community of around 70 people. The island is 4 miles long by 1 mile wide, but for the size of the place there’s plenty to see. Papay is an archaeological gold mine with sites that date back over 5000 years. You could see everything in a day if you really wanted to, but part of the charm of the place is falling in with the slow paced island life. I decided this was the perfect place to recover from jet lag after 40 hours of planes and airports. No schedules to keep to, just long days to get immersed in the history and rugged coastlines at whatever I pace I could muster. And an excellent choice it turned out to be.

The southern pier where the ferry to Pierowall departs

The southern pier where the ferry to Pierowall departs

The first thing I notice walking around Papay is the quality of the light. I don’t know if its an Orkney thing, a Scotland thing, or a general midsummer in the Arctic thing, but the light and the colors of the sky are subtly different to what I’m used to. Its really quite spectacular. As a bonus, the days are so long here that the beautiful twilight hour where all the colors turn to gentle pastels lasts for hours and hours. It’s a wonderful land to stretch your legs in.

I start my grand tour with the Knap of Howar, the most famous site on Papay. This Neolithic farmstead was inhabited between 3700 BC and 2800 BC and is still in pretty good condition considering. I expected to be overcome with awe viewing a building that’s older than the pyramids, but what I’m immediately struck by is what a cute little house it is! I do the mandatory walk through its sparse rooms and sit inside pretending I’m a Neolithic farmer and trying to imagine braving an Orkney winter in the stone walls. I have to say, while the inside would be livable if it still had a roof, I hope people were smaller back then because this is the first time I’ve had to duck considerably to fit through a doorway. I suppose the small entrances are for protection against Orkney’s incessant wind.

Knap of Howar: a Neolithic farmhouse inhabited between 3700 BC and 2800 BC

Knap of Howar: a Neolithic farmhouse inhabited between 3700 BC and 2800 BC

A short walk up the coast from the Knap of Howar (where I’m followed by some excitable young bulls who find me far too interesting for my liking) is St Boniface Kirk, a wonderful little church and graveyard by the ocean. The graveyard charms me so much that I’ll come back again for a sunset visit, but then again I do have a soft spot for graveyards.

St Boniface Kirk at sunset with Westray in the distance

St Boniface Kirk at sunset with Westray in the distance

The church dates back to the 8th century, was restored in 1993 and is now used for services and concerts. The inside is surprisingly cozy, a strange contrast to the exterior where ancient graves are whipped by the North Atlantic winds on the lonely coastline. The graveyard is what steals my heart of course. I have the place to myself, wandering quietly among the forlorn gravestones that are marred by age and lichen. A low stone wall is all the stands between the harsh winds and rough seas that batter the coast. A perfect home for reclusive ghosts.

The lonely graveyard by the sea at St Boniface Kirk

The lonely graveyard by the sea at St Boniface Kirk

Further up the hill from the kirk is the North Hill Bird Reserve. Even without the birds, this would be a wonderful stretch of coastline. I take my trip out on a gray windy day, but its one of those areas where ‘bad’ weather just adds to the character of the place. The sea cliffs are a wonderful sight. Gray slabs of rock make rugged staircases that are slammed by the waves. A dramatic contrast to the delicate wildflowers that pepper the tops of the cliffs.

The view south from North Hill. St Boniface Kirk peeks up in the distance

The view south from North Hill. St Boniface Kirk peeks up in the distance

Sea birds nest in the higher crevices. The fulmars are my favorite. They’re similar to gulls but with soulful dark eyes and no obnoxious squawking. They love playing in the air currents around the cliffs and their aerodynamics are a fantastic sight. As I wander I frequently look over to find one hovering right next to me or swooping in playful circles around the path. Don’t get too close to their nesting areas though, apparently they vomit on people in self defense and you’ll be lucky to get the smell out of your clothes.

The western sea cliffs at North Hill. A fulmar plays on the air currents while three more rest in the wildflowers

The western sea cliffs at North Hill. A fulmar plays on the air currents while three more rest in the wildflowers

The skuas (or bonxies as the islanders call them) are another story entirely. These air pirates spend their time stealing food from other birds and terrorizing unfortunate hill walkers by dive-bombing their heads. I get off lightly, none of them actually hit me, which does happen to people on occasion, but there are enough close calls to make me feel extremely harassed. Other birds seem to feel the same way about them. I see an arctic tern angrily attacking one that ventures too close to the cliffs (quite a courageous move I think given their size difference). I didn’t get a picture of the bonxies unfortunately because every time they came close enough I was busy cowering in terror!

Remember how I said the sea cliffs have more character in bad weather? Well it turns out they’re pretty awesome in the sunshine to. The day after my trip out to North Hill I take a walk out to Fowl Craig, an area of the reserve on the opposite coastline. Its a lovely calm evening and I’ve decided to go on a puffin hunt! Apparently the best time to spot them is in the evening. The cliffs at Fowl Craig are much higher than the ones on the west coast and the path goes right along the cliff tops. The place has a sense of being perched at the edge of the world. The waves are hidden from view but make cannon fire booms against the base of the cliffs. The fulmars seem even more active today, maybe they like the air currents higher up the cliffs or perhaps dusk is their favorite time of day. Their playful swooping never ceases to put a grin on my face. Every time one swoops past my knees I get the warm fuzzies. I sit and take in the views in the still evening. The air has become almost balmy now that the wind has died down. Eventually I wander back, giving up my puffin hunt for the day, but looking for them is half the fun anyway. Besides, sitting alone on the cliff tops watching fulmars play in the wind at twilight has its own sort of magic.

Perched on the sea cliffs at Fowl Craig

Perched on the sea cliffs at Fowl Craig

I stayed at Beltane House for my trip to Papay. It’s the only hostel on the island, has shared and private rooms, a grocery store right next door (well stocked with essentials like local pale ales and whiskey marmalade), and is so wonderfully cozy that I feel like I’m getting a completely unrealistic impression of what its going to be like living in hostels for the next few months. Jennifer and her family are wonderful hosts and everyone on the island is very welcoming towards visitors. Couldn’t ask for a nicer place to stay, but all good things must come to and end. Next I’m off to Stromness for a few days to check out some of the other sites that Orkney has to offer.

Farmland in Papa Westray with Beltane House and a few other buildings in the distance

Farmland in Papa Westray with Beltane House and a few other buildings in the distance

Listening to: I Appear Missing – Queens of the Stone Age

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