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.


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

One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
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

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all