I think the highlight of my trip to Orkney was a day trip to the beautiful island of Hoy. A day wasn’t really enough, I’ve left many trails unexplored and had to skip the bottom half of the island which has some really interesting naval history. I’d love to go back a spend more time here, but the time that I did have was wonderful. I can’t wait go back.
To get to Hoy I head over on the morning ferry over from Stromness. The last ferry isn’t until fairly late in the day, so I have plenty of time to go for a decent hike and see a few sights. The ferry ride over is lovely. It’s a wonderful calm morning to be out on the water. The route takes us past lots of birds and seals before dropping us at Linksness on Hoy.
The first leg of my journey is a hike from the pier to the town of Rackwick, which is where the trail to the famous Old Man of Hoy begins. I expect to be walking along a road for most of this section but to my surprise and delight, there’s a trail that runs right through the Red Glen. There are some people dwindling into the distance behind me, but aside from that I have the place to myself. Most of Orkney is grassy and fairly flat. It’s a nice change to be out wandering between the high peaks along heather-clad moors. The time goes by quickly as I get lost in the wonderful drama of the place.
From Rackwick (more a small village than a proper town) the track to the Old Man of Hoy begins. It starts with a climb up through farmland over Rackwick Bay. The climb isn’t bad and there are lovely views over the sea cliffs in the distance. It’s a bright sunny day but there is a bit of fog that lingers around certain areas. This gives the sea cliffs a certain grandeur though, so I’m not mad at it.
Nearing the top of the hill I see one of the ‘Dangerous Cliffs’ signs that I’ve been getting used to around here. The trouble with these signs is, they’re generally followed by some pretty amazing scenery, so in my head I replace ‘dangerous’ with ‘awesome’ every time I see them. This is no exception. The track flattens off and runs along the side of the cliffs for a while, with spectacular views out to sea and fulmars and gulls popping over the top as they play in the wind.
As the track curls inland, the fog starts to close in. The track is well marked so it’s not too much of an issue for me, but I can see why people can get lost in it. Following the well-marked trail is easy but I’m not so sure how I would go keeping my sense of direction if I had to find my own way. It’s incredible how much the mist can chill you as well. It’s absolutely icy even in my hastily donned thermals, and I was sweltering in the hot sun before it turned up. It really does pay to come prepared for all types of weather up here. I snuggle down in my layers and trudge on. Not much further now, just up this hill and the Old Man of Hoy should be coming into view.
…or maybe not. The fog is so thick it’s impossible to see anything. So now I have a dilemma. Is the fog going to clear? Do I wait for it? How long before I give up and continue on my way? I did want to stop by some other sights as well today. How long can I wait here and still make it back to the ferry in time? I decide to wait an hour, so I settle in and cross my fingers (not going to lie, I had a nap). It is kind of cool watching the fulmars play in the fog anyway. There are worse places to wait around.
After an hour, the fog is still thick as ever. Occasionally the sun tries to burn through and I get hopeful that it’s clearing but the mist is racing so fast up the cliff faces that as soon as the sun clears a spot reinforcements come rushing in. I push my agreed time that I would leave another half hour but then sadly admit defeat and decide to move on.
Oh wait! There it is! My grin threatens to split my face in half. The Old Man is overwhelmingly impressive. One of those wonderful landscapes that’s so big that when you’re in front of it, it almost feels like you’re in the front row of the movie theatre and the screen’s too close to your face. It’s just so big! My fear of heights battles with my curiosity and I slowly get braver at standing near the edge of the cliffs to get a better look. Birds love the huge sea stack, a city of them come and go from the high cliffs. Some rock climbers are having a go at scaling the monolith. Braver (or more foolish) souls than I.
Aside from the Old Man, the sea cliffs in general are stunning once the mist clears. If I can just have a little fan girl moment, if anyone’s read a book called Wolfskin, Hoy is High Isle where Ulf is treacherously murdered. I can see why Juliet Marillier was inspired by this place. It really is awe inspiring. I reread the book just before coming here and having seen the size of the cliffs, I have a new appreciation for Eyvind’s bravery in hanging of the side of them. I will be trying nothing of the sort.
After I’ve had my fill of taking photos and staring at the sea stack grinning to myself, I decide I really should head back if I want to see anything else today. I’m just about to turn around when a woman shrieks that she’s just seen a puffin. I race back to the edge and look around excitedly where she’s pointing. Aha! The adorable little things must have a nest just below where we’ve been standing. I keep an eye on the area and see them flitting around as they come and go from their burrow. They’re lovely little birds, comically absurd, much smaller than I expected, and oh so cute. I stay for a bit longer to watch them. I’ll just have to run part of the way back.
After a brisk jog through the valley, which is clear of fog now, I get a wonderful unobstructed view towards the cliffs around Rackwick. The cliffs looked wonderful in the fog as well but it’s nice to get a better look at the details.
Once I reach the bottom, I make my way on the road around Ward Hill. This is the long way back to the ferry from Rackwick, where I’ll pass the Dwarfie Stane instead of cutting through the Red Glen. Walking along the road isn’t quite as nice, but it’s a beautifully dramatic landscape. Bleak hills jut up from valleys filled with heather and wild cotton.
About halfway around Ward Hill, I wander up a side track to the Dwarfie Stane, an ancient tomb from Neolithic times. It’s not quite as impressive as Maes Howe, but interesting because it’s the only tomb in the area that is made from a single slab of stone. This is particularly impressive since this was before metal instruments were available so carving something like this out would have been quite a feat.
The last section of the walk loses the drama of the other things I’ve seen today, but I’ve been on my feet for a long time so the peaceful view of the harbor is a welcome sight. The stark heather glens give way to rolling farmland and clear blue waters that look almost tropical. I’m early for the ferry so I stop for a beer at the handy cafe and relax in a corner. I think I’m ready for another nap.
Listening to: Good Times Bad Times – Led Zeppelin