If asked at the beginning of the year, where I’d like to travel this summer, I doubt the Orkney Islands would have come top of the list. With trips in 2020 planned to Japan, South Africa and Tanzania to witness the wildebeest migration, I’m not sure northern Scotland would have got much of a look in.
But needs must when the devil drives, as they say, and this summer with 90% of the world closed due to Covid-19, the wilds of the Scottish Islands were about as near to a wild frontier as I was likely to get. Besides, travel is travel and after five months in a London lockdown that insatiable itch was becoming impossible to ignore.
And so it was that ten Wild Frontiers diehards met up at Inverness train station, early on a sunny Saturday morning, prepared for an Orkney adventure. Here we met Alan and Dave, two charming, fun and, as it turned out, extremely knowledgeable, guides and after a short and none too draconian briefing on Covid rules, drove north through the spectacular highlands to the ferry terminal at Gills Bay. And after an uneventful if blustery crossing by mid-afternoon we were on our first walk, along a coastal path of the Hoxa peninsular, looking out at Scapa Flow.
And immediately the unique history of the islands hits you. During both the First and Second World Wars the British northern fleet was stationed in the Orkneys, and derelict gun emplacements lined the path along the sea’s edge. It was here in October 1939, before the war had really got started, that a German U Boat sneaked into Scapa Flow and sank HMS Royal Oak with the loss of over 800 men. Had the rest of the fleet not taken to the open seas that morning the embarrassing catastrophe could have been far worse. It was also here that the Germans scuttled their fleet moments before the First World War armistice was signed, and, in 1916, that the HMS Hampshire hit a mine and sank, taking 737 souls, including Lord Kitchener, to their watery graves.
And this is what the Orkney Islands has in abundance – history.
Over the course of our six full days on the Orkneys we visited three islands. On Rousay to the northwest we visited a Neolithic burial chamber, the semi ruined 12th century Viking church of St Mary’s and a 1st century AD ‘broch’ or fortified dwelling. On the island of Hoy we walked to the famous coastal stack, known as the Old Man of Hoy, and visited the 5,000 year old megalithic chambered tomb of Dwarfie Stane. And on the mainland (as the main island is known) we had a day that felt like we had entered a chapter of Lord of the Rings as we visited the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and, just off the beach at Skaill Bay, the subterranean settlement of Skara Brae, all of which are over 5,000 years old. Some believe that the Orkneys were the centre of Neolithic Britain as these amazing sites predate Stonehenge. We also visited the huge 12th century cathedral in the Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall, two 17th century tumble-down royal palaces and an exquisite Catholic chapel built by Italian prisoners of war.
To get to these sites we did some stunning coastal walks, often along dramatic clifftop paths.
From our elevated position we could enjoy the abundant birdlife for which the islands are famed; as well as arctic terns, red footed guillemots and fluffy fulmar chicks, we saw a majestic golden eagle on the island of Hoy. We saw seals basking in the afternoon sun, swimming in the sea, and we walked out onto a tiny island along a causeway whose only dwelling was a lighthouse. For the most part the weather was good with only one day of rain, and the company charming. Our hotel, which only opened the day we arrived, was great, the staff very friendly and the food they served first class. They also had a selection of 350 different single malt whiskies which made the evenings hum.
For me the only thing missing was being in a foreign land and all that goes with that; the different language, architecture, cuisine, sights, smells and sounds. And that I missed. So no, it wasn’t Japan, South Africa or seeing the wildebeest on the Serengeti – all that will have to wait for another time – but in their own way the Orkney Islands do offer a unique and charming wild frontier, which everyone of us enjoyed.
Part of my remit had been to see if Wild Frontiers could offer domestic tours. After our Orkney Adventure, I really don’t see why not.