Walk of the month: Orkney
At this time of year, the only company you're likely to have in Orkney is seabirds, as Mark Rowe discovers
I'd expected an encounter with great skuas, the giant feathered beasts of Orkney and the avian equivalent of football hooligans, as I struck out across Birsay Moor. Instead, it was greylag geese that kept me company in their hundreds, possibly thousands.
As I squelched along the path that dropped from the summit of Mid Hill towards the west coast of Orkney's mainland, the geese heaved themselves into the air, circled me half a dozen times and then settled, feathers ruffled, a few hundred metres away. They repeated this routine every few paces for an hour. Great skuas, known locally as bonxies, will waste no time in thwacking you round the head if they suspect you're treading on their turf, so I was relieved to discover that the geese – a mixture of feral and truly wild birds – are less aggressive and shy of humans.
The western edge of Orkney's mainland is the least travelled part of an island that at this time of year is likely to be a private fiefdom for the walker. Most of the headline draws for coach parties – Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Italian chapel – are elsewhere. So what you get on this side of the mainland (the Orcadians' name for their largest island) are tightly-knit farming villages, all manner of wildlife, wild, pulsating coasts, and sheltered lochs and inlets.
I was dropped off by the coastal bus in one such village, Evie, whose fetching name is apparently Norse for a "fast-flowing channel" and refers to the treacherous waters that lie between the mainland and the large adjacent island of Rousay. After a walk up a lonely moorland lane, I peeled off along a peat-cutters' track for the summit of Mid Hill.
The Orkney vole, a rodent that apparently is a must-see for mammal scientists, was elusive, as was another rarity, the endangered hen harrier. I had more luck with another unusual creature – the whimbrel – which was both visible and audible. Only three pairs of this small bird breed on the moor. You'll identify it by its curved beak, and its haunting, whistling note that echoes bleakly in these wild parts. If you're luckier still, your visit might coincide with the thrilling spectacle of sea eagles talon grappling.
The modest summit gave a top-of-the-world-feeling, with views north to the island of Westray. To the south the huge whaleback humps of the island of Hoy surged out of the water, while to the west I could make out my destination, the Brough of Birsay.
The geese kept flapping backwards and forwards as I headed on, the path – boggy in parts – eventually picking up a fence and turning into a paved road past Hundland Farm. The scenery calmed down, now a landscape of gentle hills underscored by lonely lochs and lakes. It was punctuated by abandoned houses colonised by watchful nesting crows and the mournful lowing of cattle that echoed across a silent landscape. On these quiet, flat roads, it was easy to quicken the pace after so much moorland plodding.
I kept on for the Brough of Birsay, an island and Iron Age hill fort that can be reached across mesmerising rock pools for just two hours either side of low tide. It's seabird heaven during the breeding season, while the rock pools ooze with crabs and starfish.
Here's a tip: don't pack too much food in your backpack for this walk, because it ends with a choice of two of Orkney's best food experiences. The first is Teas & Tabnabs, a take-away van by the Brough, which serves up first-rate bacon sandwiches, homebakes and homemade soup. Then there's the Birsay Bay Tearoom, a mile away, and one of the world's great locations for a coffee: bright and airy and snuggling behind huge windows overlooking a bay where seals haul out. To get there, you pass another curiosity, a ruined Renaissance palace built as an improbable 16th-century link for Orkney's royals to the cultural shores of mainland Europe.
The tearoom's staff are full of ideas for walks. The owner has even tried growing coffee beans in the nearby village of Costa and manfully resists making the most obvious of puns, though he admits his crop has met with limited success so far.
Climate change is supposed to be pushing crops further north, but even so, it will be some time before coffee plantations replace Orkney's moorland. Until then, let's leave it to the mouth-watering butter biscuits made from bere – a kind of barley grown in Neolithic times and ground at nearby Bryony Mill – to put a distinctive stamp on a walk in a distinctive part of the world.
From Evie, walk up the Dounby Road, turning right along the wide, peat-cut track, 200m after the information board. Keep to the paths to avoid disturbing wildlife. At the summit, head due west, picking up a path that heads across moorland to Hundland Farm. At T-junction 1.5km later, turn left. Take road, right, in front of Kirbuster Farm. Then, at junction with Barony Mill, turn right to the junction with the A966 and turn left for Birsay.
Distance: 10 miles/16km
Time: Four hours
OS Map: Explorer 463 Orkney West Mainland
Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) serves Orkney from a wide range of UK airports via Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness. By rail from London, Scotrail's Caledonian Sleeper service 08457 55 00 33; scotrail.co.uk/caledoniansleeper) to Aberdeen connects with NorthLink Ferries to Orkney. Buses run from Kirkwall to Evie (0871 200 2233; travelinescotland.com)
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