Old Man of Hoy
Orkney is a place of big open skies, rounded hills, beautiful beaches and well kept farms. Only on Hoy does the landscape take on a wilder feel, with rolling hills and towering cliffs.
Orkney is also notoriously rich in archaeological remains. It is said that if you scratch the soil it bleeds archaeology. Above all, in visiting Orkney you get a feeling of continuity, the sense that for thousands of years people have worked the land and left their mark.
The low-lying Orkney Isles have been favoured by farmers for over 5000 years. Its fertile soil and an abundance of good sandstone first attracted Stone Age farmers from the south. They settled the land, cultivated it and established villages. They also worked together to build tombs, temples and other sacred sites.
The number and quality of ancient monuments that remain from this period, testify to Orkney’s pre-eminent position at the centre of Neolithic Britain. Later the Vikings came, first visiting in the summers to fatten their livestock and later, colonising the islands, occupying and reusing farmsteads that had stood for millennia. And today, farming continues. Beneath many of today’s modern farms are the remains of Viking farms and, beneath that, layers of occupation stretching even further back in time.
The flora and fauna on Orkney is a big attraction too and our tour offers lots of opportunities to see many different species of birds, seals and wildflowers.
We start the tour in Glasgow, travelling by train to Thurso where we catch the ferry to Orkney. The tour takes in Birsay, Rousay, Yesneby, Hoy and Deerness and we visit the many historic and ancient monuments on Orkney too: the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stennes and Maeshowe, plus Midhowe Broch and Chambered Cairn, the Dwarfie Stane, the Italian Chapel, St Magnus Cathedral and the Earl’s Palace.
Our base is Orkney’s capital and main town, Kirkwall.
Robyn Lang from Australia joined our Orkney walking tour in July 2019 and wrote a blog about it. You can read it here.
The programme of hikes and visits will be tailored to your wishes and interests, but this is an example of how the holiday may look like.
We can change it to meet your interests, how much hiking you would like to do, the number of days you would like the adventure for and any specific places or islands you would like to visit. You can also choose the type of accommodation you would like to stay in: B&Bs/guest houses or (luxury) hotels.
Please send us an email with your requirements and we'll design a bespoke itinerary for you.
Day 1 - Glasgow - Inverness - Scrabster - Stromness
Day 2 - Brough of Birsay
Day 3 - Isle of Rousay
Day 4 - Skara Brae to Yesnaby, Stromness
Day 5 - The Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Day 6 - Isle of Hoy
Day 7 - Deerness, Italian Chapel, Kirkwall
Day 8 - Stromness - Scrabster - Inverness - Glasgow
The tour begins from Queen Street Station in Glasgow. We take a train to Inverness and on to Thurso and catch the evening ferry which sails past the Old Man of Hoy, arriving in Stromness at 8:30pm. We can enjoy an evening meal on board the ferry.
Subject to the tides, our first day on Orkney begins with a visit to a small uninhabited tidal island called the Brough of Birsay, meaning ‘fort island’. Although only 600m long by 400m across, this little island offers pleasant walking and a chance to explore some important ancient and historic monuments.
Fifth century Christian missionaries are thought to have been the first to establish a settlement on the isle. After that the Picts established a settlement and built a fort. The Norse, in turn, displaced them in the 9th century. The most extensive remains on the isle are from this Norse period, including the remains of a small Romanesque church.
After exploring the monuments we’ll walk around the island visiting the lighthouse and sea cliffs at the western end. Back on Mainland we continue our walk along the northern shore of Mainland, by low cliffs, to Skippi Geo, a natural harbour used by Norse fishermen.
We then continue to the village of Birsay where we visit the remains of Earl Robert Stewart’s 16th century palace and the site of Orkney’s first Cathedral, where St Magnus was laid to rest in 1116.
4 miles/6.5km, 165ft/50m of ascent.
Midhowe broch, Rousay
To the north of the mainland, across the Eynhallow Sound, lies Rousay (meaning Rolf’s island). This hilly island has been nicknamed the ‘Egypt of the North’ due to the richness of its archaeological sites, particularly its chambered tombs.
After a short ferry crossing to Rousay, our day begins with the Westerness Heritage walk, a 2.5 hour walk along Eynhallow Sound. This walk takes us to Midhowe broch, the 5,500 year old Midhowe chambered cairn, Norse farmsteads and the remains of St Mary’s church.
We'll spend the afternoon at the eastern end of the island and walk around Faraclett head with its dramatic cliff scenery and views across to the islands of Westray, Eday and Egilsay.
4 miles/6.5km, 330ft/100m of ascent.
Today we head for the western part of Mainland where we will visit the most complete Neolithic village in Europe, Skara Brae. Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, this stone build settlement is comprised of eight houses.
Our walk takes us from Skara Brae along impressive cliffs, past sea stacks, geos and the remains of the Broch of Borwick to Yesnaby.
Afterwards we visit the characterful and historic town of Stromness to take a walk through its winding main street all the way to the ness, or headland, of Stromness, where we get good views of Hoy. Stromness was the home Orkney’s most notable poet and writer, George Mackay Brown. It was also where ships of the Hudson’s Bay Company took on water, stores and recruited local men before heading out to the Canadian Arctic.
Up to 5 miles/8km, 245ft/75m of ascent along undulating coastline.
Ring of Brodgar, Mainland Orkney
The narrow isthmus of land between Loch of Harray and Loch of Stennes has a special significance. Many now agree the site, with its standing stones, temple complex, chambered tombs and villages, is the most important Neolithic site in Britain, the ritual centre for a 5000 years old Stone Age farming culture.
Together with Skara Brae these monuments on the isthmus have been designated the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today we will explore all of these important sites, walking west to east from the Ring of Brodger, to the newly discovered temple complex and then on to the Stones of Stenness.
Afterwards we visit the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn. Orientated exactly with the hills of Hoy this amazing structure remained intact until it was looted by Vikings in the 12th century. The runes left by these Vikings represent the largest collection of such carvings in the world.
About 2 miles/3.2km, flat.
Our trip today is to the island of Hoy, meaning ‘high island’. After taking the car ferry to Lyness on Hoy we travel to the northern end of the island.
Our first stop is a short walk to the Dwarfie Stane, a 5,000 year old Neolithic stone cut tomb carved from a huge sandstone erratic boulder. It is quite unique in Britain and is most akin to the rock cut tombs found in the Mediterranean.
We then travel to the spectacular Rackwick Bay. With steep hillsides on both sides and a beach of smooth sandstone pebbles and fine sand, the bay is a great place to walk and absorb the atmosphere. In the afternoon we walk to the old Man of Hoy, an awesome 450ft/137m sea stack. With good weather there are fine views across the Pentland Firth to the Scottish mainland.
The walk is on a good path and takes a bit more than an hour one way. We return to Rackwick Bay by the same route.
6 miles/9.5km, 550ft/170m of ascent.
Our last day on Orkney begins with a visit to Deerness in the east Mainland. Deerness is almost an island, separated from the rest of Mainland by a narrow isthmus.
In the north eastern extremity of Deerness the good farmland gives way to heather moorland and cliffs eroded and sculpted by the North Sea. We do a circular walk along this coastline visiting the Brough of Deerness, a remote headland that was once home to a community of Vikings. Only the remains of a chapel and hut shaped mounds survive today.
Afterwards we travel south to Scapa Flow and the Churchill Barriers. Constructed during World War II the causeways linking Mainland to South Ronaldsay were intended to make secure the important anchorage of Scapa Flow for Allied ships.
On Lamb Holm, one of the small islands forming part of the barrier, is the Italian Chapel. Build by Italian prisoners of war during World War II, the Chapel is made from two simple Nissan huts, with an ornate façade and decorated interior.
Later in the day we return to Kirkwall to visit St Magnus Cathedral, the Bishop’s Palace and the Earl’s Palace. Built by Earl Patrick Stewart in the late sixteenth century the Earl’s Palace is regarded as the finest example of Renaissance architecture in Scotland.
After our evening meal we will board the ferry where we have cabins and depart the following day early in the morning to sail back to the mainland.
6 miles/9.5km, 645ft/196m of ascent.
After breakfast on the ferry we disembark in Scrabster and take the train to Inverness and Glasgow where we'll arrive in the late afternoon.