The Bough of Birsay is a tidal island that is something of a reward for more intrepid travelers. One of the more difficult areas to access on the mainland, it has an extremely limited bus schedule and is accessed via a causeway that is underwater except for the 2 hours either side of low tide. If you can make it at the right time though, it is well worth the effort.
I plan my trip to Birsay carefully and dutifully get up in time to catch the 7am bus so I can get there before low tide at 10am. My plan is to catch the bus there and then walk the 25 km or so back to Stromness along the sea cliffs. When the bus arrives though the driver informs me that the timetable I have doesn’t apply to Tuesdays. This bus still goes but it doesn’t stop at Birsay. Well, when does the next bus go? Well…it doesn’t. Not today. Oh dear.
Not one to give up on my plans too easily, in a spot of quick thinking I dash to the bicycle hire place down the road. Turns out bicycle hire is pretty lax around here. There’s no one around, the shed is open, and there’s a sign telling me to just take a bike and put the money in a slot in the door. Don’t mind if I do. I haven’t ridden a bike for months, and the last time was only down to the shops, but I’m sure it will be fine. The wind isn’t too strong and it’s only 25 km after all. The way back? Well, I’m confident where my cycling skills lack pure stubbornness will see me through!
The way out there goes by without too many mishaps. I’m enjoying being out on the road, especially rolling down the nice downhill sections. It threatens to rain but is relatively calm and luckily for me Orkney’s pretty chilled out for cycling. There are hills but they’re not too steep and the back roads are nice and quiet. As an added bonus, drivers on the single track roads are used to stopping for other cars so less prone to trying to kill you a fit of road rage because you made them wait for 3 seconds. All in all a pleasant ride, although I start walking my bike up hills by the last section and try not to think about that fact that I still have to ride back again.
I arrive at the Bough of Birsay an hour before low tide. Perfect! I can see the tidal causeway trailing between the island and the mainland as ride towards the entrance. Another fan girl moment sorry, but for any Wolfskin fans, the Bough of Birsay is the Whaleback, where the Pictish natives lived when the vikings arrive.
The first section of the trail is across the causeway. It’s an easy walk, but atmospheric. The causeway is above water but surrounded by rock pools and long tracks of seaweed. The island is very interesting historically. It has the remains of both a Pictish settlement and a later viking settlement that was built on top of the Pictish one. It’s unclear if this transition between peoples was peaceful or the natives were killed. The causeway ends just before the entrance to the island proper now, but originally it would have extended right up to the main building of the viking settlement, making for a grand entrance indeed.
Everything of archeological interest is right at the entrance to the island by the small visitor’s center. When I arrive the visitor’s center isn’t open yet, but luckily they don’t look any gates or anything so I can still start my look around the island and figure I can pay the entrance fee when I finish. The viking settlement is in ruins now and is quite small, but it’s still very interesting to wander around. The Pictish settlement is underneath the viking one unfortunately, so they can’t unearth it without destroying the viking one on top. Oh well, it’s nice just knowing that it’s there. I have the ruins to myself which is good. Part of what’s cool about this place is how remote it feels. All of Orkney can be considered remote of course, but most of it feels fairly bustling. Birsay really does feel like edge of the world.
After I’ve had my fill of ruins, I start a circuit around the island. A small lighthouse is the only other real ‘site’ on the island, but the sea cliffs are lovely. There’s wonderful views over Marwick Head and lots of sea birds. There are great areas for puffin spotting around here so it pays to take things slow and get a good look at the cliffs. It’s not a long walk distance wise but I take it at a very slow amble, with plenty of stops to watch the puffins. I make very embarrassing noises every time one of the little darlings surprises me by flying up near the path. I swear my intelligence drops whenever they get near me.
After I’ve had my fill of the wonderful Bough of Birsay I make a quick trip into Birsay itself to have a look around the Earl’s Palace. You may remember the horrible Black Pattie from my post on Kirkwall. Well, his palace in Kirkwall was kind of like his holiday home, he only stayed there when he was actually visiting the town. The palace at Birsay was his main residence. It’s not in the best state anymore but the ruins are free to walk around so it’s worth a look if you’re passing through anyway. I don’t spend too long there, but it’s an interesting visit.
There are other ties to Kirkwall here as well. Before setting off I stop briefly at St Magnus’ Church, which is where Magnus was originally buried before his bones were moved to Kirkwall. True to form, I prefer the graveyard to the actual church, but that’s just me.
I’ve had my fill of the sites in Birsay so I begin my torturous cycle back to Stromness. The wind has picked up and is blowing perfectly in the wrong direction. In an attempt to make things more bearable for my exhausted legs, I allow myself to walk the bike for all of the uphill bits. After a while this deteriorated into uphill AND flat bits because the horrible headwind makes some downhill bits pretty much the equivalent of uphill. Thanks a lot wind! I start thinking of my legs as separate beings that I have conversations with (an exercise that I usually save for bullying my feet on long hikes).
It’s a huge relief when I finally roll back into Stromness. All the pain is worth it though. The Bough of Birsay is wonderful, and I’m so glad I managed to get out and see it. I wander back to my hostel and a hot shower feeling buoyant and very pleased with myself.
Listening to: Reflection – Tool