On Hoy, only the bonxies will hear you scream

Mark Rowe braves dive-bombing giant birds and wild Orkney weather for a bracing ramble round the rugged rocks of the North

'Be positive - it could clear up," said Alison, as we stood in the breakfast room of the Thira guesthouse, peering doubtfully through the sea fog to where the island of Hoy was supposed to be. Alison, the owner of a b&b which overlooks Hoy Sound, said "could" in a way that translated as "almost certainly won't".

The weather-related cliché about four seasons in a day is well-applied to Orkney. September is regarded as one of the better months to visit; you still have plenty of light, the weather can be more settled, and the midges, which appear to have evolved to drill through denim, have died down.

Hoy is one of the 70 or so islands that make up Orkney. It is easily reached by ferry from Stromness, one of the two small towns on what is locally referred to as Orkney's Mainland. This walk connects Moaness Pier on Hoy with the totemic Old Man of Hoy, 6.5 miles away. You have a couple of options. Take the ferry to Moaness pier from where you can walk to the Old Man of Hoy and back, a distance of 13 miles, which will take most people six hours or more. An attractive alternative is to walk all the way there, but take a minibus back from Rackwick to link up with the ferry, knocking off five miles. If you decide to do this, you should check the bus schedule with the tourist office at the ferry terminal in Stromness.

From Moaness jetty, walk up the asphalted road towards the valley. Hoy church stands 100m or so to the left. From the outside it looks to have fallen into disuse, and I was surprised to find the door open. The interior is stark, though there is some clever woodwork on the chairs and the pulpit; the church closed in 2001, but services are still held there occasionally.

Continue uphill and keep straight on, following the signpost for Rackwick when the road bears right. You are now entering North Hoy nature reserve, a paradise for bird-lovers, while mountain hares may skip across your path and wildflowers are abundant. The track becomes more like a moorland path as you reach Sandy Loch. The mist finally started to lift and the scenery was spectacular. To the left stood Ward Hill, the highest point in Orkney at 479m. The hill is presumably how Hoy got its name - from "haey", the Old Norse for High Island. Both Ward Hill and the whale-backed ridges that flank the right of the valley are wind-striped, scarred by frost and gales.

The track follows Rackwick burn downhill, passing the modest-sized Berriedale Wood, the most northerly native woodland in Britain. The path criss-crosses the burn, twice using modern black-painted bridges that seem out of keeping with the surrounding wilderness. It's an isolated spot, but an idyllic one: the water in the burn is clear and gurgles heartily.

You reach Rackwick, on Hoy's wild Atlantic coast, against a backdrop of heathery hills and steep cliffs. A small crofting community once lived here; recent attempts have been made to revive the deserted houses and there is a scattered community, but no shops.

The Old Man of Hoy is three miles away. Follow the sign-posted path up past Rackwick hostel. On your left is Rackwick folk museum, in an old croft building. Like the church, it looks disused but it houses a simple and oddly captivating collection of items and photographs.

The path climbs steadily but is always clear. After you pass through a stretch of boulders, there is a small path off to the left, which invitingly appears to lead to a cliff-top walk. I made the mistake of taking this path some years ago, and found myself slap-bang in the middle of the breeding ground for the great skua, known locally as the bonxie. A short spell of dive-bombing saw me off then. They are still there, patrolling the skies - 6kg parcels of feathered malevolence.

Twenty minutes of flat walking later, you come to the Old Man of Hoy, a spectacular 137m latticed rock stack on a basalt base, the remains of a collapsed natural arch once connected to the nearby red sandstone cliffs. He looks deceptively small in contrast with nearby St John's Head, which at 335m is among the highest vertical cliff faces in Britain. This is a tough landscape. More people have trekked to the North Pole than have successfully climbed these rock faces.

Kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and puffins all breed here. The breeding season is over, but just about anything can show up at any time. This is an exposed spot: the grass is as neat and clipped as a golfing green but it is narrow, and the cliffs are sheer. Returning the same way, you should have time to sit by the beach at Rackwick, watching the bonxies duffing up the fulmars - one bops the fulmar on the head; a second flies from underneath and delivers a head-butt to the solar plexus. Nature, red in tooth and claw indeed.


Distance: 8-13 miles, depending on whether you take the minibus from Rackwick.

Time: five to eight hours.

OS Map Explorer 462. This walk is included in a booklet of environmental walks issued by the Orkney tourist office (01856 872856; www.visitorkney.com).

Logan Air, a franchise of British Airways (08457 733377, www.ba.com) flies to Kirkwall on Orkney from Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow, with connecting British Airways flights to the rest of the UK. Fares start at £150 from London.

For ferry timetables and tickets contact Orkney Ferries (01856 872044; www.orkneyferries.co.uk).

Mark Rowe stayed at Thira bed and breakfast (01856 851181; www.thiraorkney.com), near Stromness, which offers rooms from £25 per person.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments