Below is an article that I wrote about last summer’s trip to the Orkney Isles, located off the far north of the Scottish mainland. It was previously published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine. Hope it’s of interest…
‘There’s nothing greets your bloody eye
But bloody sea and bloody sky
… In bloody Orkney.’
From ‘Bloody Orkney’, composed by a soldier stationed there in WW2.
Heather and I are paddling among the Orkney Islands; it’s a part of Britain, but we are closer to Iceland than to London. Nobody knows that we are out here on the sea in this quiet corner of the archipelago on this blustery evening, and it’s not as if we can tell anybody; there is no sign of human life or habitation in any direction, and nobody has answered our VHF radio calls for days.
Halfway through the crossing, strong wind whips up. The rather stiff tidal current that we’re ferry gliding across is instantly transformed into a rather stiff white water rapid; albeit one which is five miles wide! We’ve both recently returned from paddling rivers in California, hence our skills and confidence are high enough to keep it together. We manage to keep control over our sea kayaks as we surf through the rapids, eventually breaking out behind a lonely islet in mid channel, where we both breathe a sigh of relief. Welcome entertainment is provided by a troupe of seals we watch surfing the standing waves beside the island.
Taking stock, the penny drops that we have big problems. Our route ahead is blocked by even bigger tidal races, forming huge surging breakers. We can’t go south as the headwind is too strong, we can’t go north as the tide is flowing several miles an hour faster than we can actually paddle, and we can’t retreat back west as it’s, um, too late; the sun just went down. We’re staying put on our own tiny desert island, for as many days as the weather and tide dictates.
Oops. I guess things wouldn’t be half so bad if we had remembered to bring any water with us …
The Old Man of Hoy, Orkney’s most famous landmark
Last August saw my wife Heather and I sea kayaking along and through the Orkney Islands, from John O’Groats on the Scottish mainland to the very northern tip of the islands, North Ronaldsay. The paddling was often surprisingly challenging and our route and pace was completely dictated by weather and tides, neither of which tended to be on our side. Oddly, the wet and windy catastrophe that was last August’s ‘Barbeque Summer’ (this being what the Met Office had predicted) proved to be a blessing. We spent so much time ashore waiting for the winds and seas to relent, that we actually experienced and explored far more of Orkney than we would have otherwise managed. Admittedly though, we could have done without having to repeatedly repair every pole on our expensive new mountaineering tent.
As we drove north through Caithness before the start of our adventure, the car protested at being dragged so far from home by spewing oil and smoke. As with August’s shocking weather, this again proved to be a blessing as it solved the problem of where to dump the car whilst we were paddling. Bizarrely, leaving it for repair at a Thurso garage cost less than several weeks’ parking would have done.
Packing at John O’Groats
The first challenge was actually getting to Orkney. We had decided to paddle there across the Pentland Firth from the Scottish mainland. As we sat in a cafe at John O’Groats staring at a chart, we realised the scale of what we were about to attempt. Crossing 100 square miles of tidal rapids at Spring (=strongest) flows on the first day of our trip; what could possibly go wrong? The Firth is notorious as Britain’s roughest tidal channel, with flows of over ten knots. The Admiralty Pilot book needs 12 pages of text just to describe these flows. After some feverish calculations, we came up with a direction in which to paddle, crossed our fingers and launched. We surfed across lively rapids pointing on this bearing for three and a half hours, whilst we were actually being slingshot in the opposite direction at a daunting rate. Truth is, it was actually quite pleasant and manageable and we landed on the island of Hoy with grins on our faces. It was only later in the trip that we appreciated just how lucky we had been to have a rare perfect weather day for this crossing; even a hint of swell or wind would have been simply terrifying.
Arrival on Hoy after several hours of surfing/ ferry gliding
Our journey next saw us paddling across the expanse of Scapa Flow. This central ‘lagoon’ of Orkney is famous as the site of the scuttling of the captured German High Seas Fleet in 1919. Of course you can’t see the hulking great sunken battleships from a kayak, but the dive boats nipping to and fro are a constant reminder of their presence beneath the waters. Paddling up through Scapa, we lunched at Lyness museum’s temptingly warm cafe. Lyness was a huge naval base through both world wars, and I was pleased to see that a memorial was being unveiled to the hardy sailors of the WW2 Arctic Convoys that set off from here, one of whom was my grandfather.
Stromness provided us with a few days of r’n’r whilst a storm passed overhead. The town is beautifully centred on a row of stone merchants’ houses backing right onto the inlet of Hamnavoe. The campsite is also located at the water’s edge, convenient for landing and launching. Less convenient is the fact that the hulking Thurso ferry looms right past several times daily, sounding an ear-splitting horn to announce its arrival or departure. Stromness was home to the late George Mackay Brown, one of Scotland’s greatest writers and poets. A read through any one of his novels will reveal more about Orkney’s History and culture than a library-full of guidebooks. We recommend that you begin with Beside the Ocean of Time….
Our route north along Orkney’s exposed west coasts passed some incredible cliffs, caves and stacks. Frustratingly, we viewed most of it from a distance, in short hops from bay to bay. We were usually forced to paddle offshore through the swell from the tail end of some storm or other, as we took advantage of brief gaps between the extended periods of strong wind. Between Stromness and Bay of Skaill, we sat offshore and watched in dumbstruck awe as the waves exploded halfway up the cliffs. Those cliffs are 100 metres high! Although the paddling could sometimes border on the heroic, there was regular distraction. Seals were everywhere, following your kayak close behind or dozing in large colonies wherever rocks broke the surface. Overhead, seabirds always kept the skies alive. A regular spectacle was dogfights between gannets (our largest seabird) and great skuas (not exactly small, either). The skuas would work in packs to harass gannets into dropping the fish they’d caught, and these scraps could be remarkably vicious, especially when conducted within arm’s reach directly overhead of your kayak.
Our time marooned ashore by poor weather was not wasted. We marvelled at the 5000 year old houses in the sand dunes at Skara Brae, stooped into the entrance passage of the Maes Howe prehistoric burial mound and waded across the causeway to the Viking village at Brough of Birsay. Orkney’s archaeological heritage is simply staggering; sites like these (some more, some less well known) literally litter the landscape. Likewise, a few days’ unplanned stopover on the island of Rousay found us admiring the intricacy of the stonework of Mid Howe Broch. Orkney’s numerous Brochs were built around two millennia ago; in case you’re wondering, brochs are stone towers with complex double walls and internal galleries, built for … well, no one really agrees what exactly.
As outlined at the beginning of this article, our crossing from Rousay to Orkney’s North Isles saw us blundering into phenomenally strong tides one evening, and coming perilously close to securing ourselves a slot on the evening news. Being shipwrecked on our own island was an exciting new experience, but not one we hope to repeat. The wind relented enough to let us escape the following morning, but even after proper pre-planning, the tides were still too strong for us and we ended up making landfall on a completely different island to the one we’d aimed at. At least this island had steak (provided by a kindly and generous resident who took pity on us), but we’d learned a healthy respect for the wild and open expanses of the North Isles.
Escaping from our own private island…
The most far-flung and northerly Orkney isle is North Ronaldsay. Having set our hearts on this as our final destination, we perused the weather forecasts and realised that we were only going to get one chance to reach it before another period of lousy low pressure set in. This meant an unusually long paddling day, slogging through wind and choppy seas along the length of Sanday Island. Sanday’s name comes from a series of perfect beaches, one of which we landed upon to rest. Heather was sad to come across a dead seal, floating in the kelp here. As she prodded it to determine its cause of death, the actually very much alive seal erupted back into life and she vanished in an explosion of saltwater. Once we’d stopped laughing, we had a final decision to make; was our final open crossing to North Ronaldsay good to go? Disappointingly the weather suggested ‘no’ and it looked as if, after coming so far, we’d missed our only chance. We cooked up some dinner and stretched out to sleep for an hour or two. Waking, we realised that the wind had lulled; perfect! We raced to the kayaks and sped across the Firth, faster indeed than Heather has ever paddled before. We reached North Ronaldsay at nightfall, greeted at the beach by dozens of seals and the Warden of the NR Bird Observatory, who had seen us approaching through his binoculars and thought that we were killer whales. Within minutes we were in the back of his Landrover, bumping along the track to the Observatory, where a hot meal and shower awaited. After such a long day – after such a long journey – this was an unexpected and welcome end.
Evening crossing to North Ronaldsay
The Warden of the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory
We were trapped on North Ronaldsay for several days, waiting for the ferry to arrive and carry us and our kayaks back south. There is absolutely nothing to do on this small and sparsely populated island. Nothing whatsoever, to break up the tedium and to make the time pass by. We were forced to sit on the shore for hours on end, watching the Atlantic waves peeling, the hundreds of seals yawning and scratching, and the island’s bizarre sheep wander around eating seaweed. In the evening, the sun would melt into the ocean (yet again) and all you could get to eat and drink would be yet another home cooked meal from the Warden’s wife, followed by Orkney’s local brew. None of you would like it there. It’s just not your sort of place. Stay away. In fact, that pretty much goes for the rest of the Orkney Islands too…just be glad that we went there, so that you don’t have to.
Scenes from North Ronaldsay
Getting there and around
If you don’t want to paddle across the fearsome Pentland Firth, Northlink Ferries serve Orkney from Thurso, Aberdeen and Shetland. They are happy to carry kayaks for free (like their owners, Hebridean ferry company Caledonian Macbrayne). If you aren’t taking a car, kayaks can be carried or trollied onto the car deck.
Inter-island ferry services are run by Orkney Ferries. These boats come in all shapes and sizes, and due to lack of RoRo facilities on some islands, your kayaks may have to be craned aboard (along with cars and cattle). Services to the North Isles tend to sail only every few days.
Orkney is also notable for insanely cheap subsidised inter-island flights. For example, Kirkwall (‘capital’ of Orkney) to North Ronaldsay is £14 return. Cheaper than the ferry and more regular at three flights daily, rather than two ferries weekly! It’s even half price for kids, the son of the Bird Observatory warden was flying to school in Kirkwall every day. We’re not sure if they carry sea kayaks, though…
The Northern Isles, Orkney and Shetland Sea Kayaking by Tom Smith and Chris Jex. This guidebook from Pesda Press http://www.pesdapress.com is indispensible, describing the local coasts and surrounding waters very clearly and accurately. There is plenty of tidal data and it also gives a good ‘taste’ of what the isles are like ashore.
Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas NP209: Orkney and Shetland Islands. Charts outlining Orkney’s powerful tidal flows.
www.orkneyharbours.com – Includes free tidal stream charts.
Admiralty Sailing Directions NP52: North Coast of Scotland Pilot. This hefty tome costs £50 (yes, £50) but the tidal stream information within it is recommended if you are going to doing many open crossings between the isles, something that the Pesda guide is less informative about. Of course, if financially embarrassed you could just get someone to photocopy the relevant chapter…
www.visitorkney.com/placestovisit - A fantastic free downloadable guide to every island. It’s also available as a free publication called ‘The Islands of Orkney’ from Tourist Information.
www.oska.org.uk – The Orkney Sea Kayak Association. They organise an annual ‘Paddle Orkney’ event.
Imray Chart C68: Cape Wrath to Wick and the Orkney Islands. Hardwearing nautical chart, so that you can look the seafaring part.
The Scottish Islands by Hamish Haswell Smith. A remarkable book that describes every last Scottish island, including of course the Orkney Isles. All sea kayakers should own this!
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk – Useful general resource.