Walk of the month: Orkney

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Directions

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.

Travel essentials

Distance: 10 miles/16km
Time: Four hours
OS Map: Explorer 463 Orkney West Mainland

 

Getting there

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)

 

More Information

Go to: visitorkney.com and walking.visitscotland.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

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
and  

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

    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
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week