The Old Man of Hoy has to be one of Orkney's most recognisable sights, a landmark which makes regular appearances in tourist brochures for Scotland. It is a well-known and treasured natural monument, called a "sea stack", shaped by the rough seas of the Atlantic. It is 450 feet high, and it's heights were first scaled in 1966.
If you take the car ferry from Scrabster to Stromness, you will pass by the Old Man, which will provide you with the ideal photo opportunity. Ferry Info
The Old Man is, as the name suggests, on the coast of the island of Hoy. A footpath to it runs from Rackwick Bay, and it will take you a three hour round trip to visit it. There are facilities at Rackwick which would make a comfortable base if you wish to stay there. There is plenty of excellent accommodation on the island. Alternatively, if you are staying on mainland Orkney, you can take a ferry to Lyness or Moaness and then make your way to the opposite coast.
If you travel by car, you will probably have enough time to walk to the Old Man from Rackwick. The last ferry is in the mid afternoon, so unless you wish to stay on the island, you need to plan your day well.
Try to slow down a bit and enjoy the gentler pace of island life - instead of a mad rush around the historical sites.
I was whizzing past this phone box - only when I stopped did I appreciate the wild flowers and the sky larks twittering above. Suddenly I was back in my childhood summers, running through flower meadows. I was smiling, and happy and care free.
And while there - phone a friend - send a smile around the world!
The Orkney Islands are one of those rare places left on Earth, where life is easy, people are not rushed and the air is clean. There is no crime (maybe a stolen bike "borrowed" for a day) and no unemployment. There is beauty, wilderness and historic sites a plenty - but there is uniquely also good shops, great bars, nightclub, theatre and cinema, a new airport and the best short plane flight I have ever encountered - just 12 pounds for a return flight to Papa Westray (one of the islands) ... also excellent new ferry services ... all in all, people are surprised when they come to Orkney.
Here is a part of Scotland that is touched by the Vikings and they left not only their mystical Runes scratched in the rock, but a Scandinavian culture, place names, a language and folk lore - quite unlike the rest of Britain.
The best of Scotland is Edinburgh and Orkney
On South Ronaldsay, in the Orkney Islands, blacksmiths are not so old fashioned, forgotten technology - there is still much need for the skills, to repare farm tools and so on.
Orkney can be a bit like stepping back in time - in a nice way - to a way of life, values and countryside that has seemingly vanished elewhere in my lifetime.
I remember sky-larks twittering high up on a column of air - just a tiny shrill speck in a sky of blue - before they suddenly plummet to earth like on some glass elevator.
I remember lapwings cajouling me to follow their flapping shreiks away from some grassy nest and oystercatches serenading me by the light of dusk.
I remember fields with colourful flowers amidst the golden corn, and green fields the home to families of happy cows.
I remember all these things but I cannot find them anywhere else - just here, still, on Orkney.
So, the little old blacksmiths on South Ronaldsay is a reminder to me of long lost times, of dreams and hopes. Nowadays you can get married there, if you wish to.
Whatever your dream - make it happen. If you are reading this, stop, and think - what do I really want in life? What do I miss? What little dream would make me happy? For me it is not riches, power or fame - it is almost the opposite. I can look at a little stone cottage and I can imagine the wood fire, the purring cats, the playing children and my wife singing contentedly.
So, find your own special place, your own wee blacksmiths cottage, and make it home. Make it a place for family and you will be happy. And wherever you are in the world right now, think of this quiet little island where I have these ideas, and some day come say hi.
In 1946 a local farmer decided to investigate a mysterious mound on his land, discovering a set of steps going deep underground. In 1999 the present owners found the entrance and, later, Time Team (an archaeological TV programme) excavated. 29 stone steps lead to a sunken chamber, with small side chambers on the way. The stonework is incredibly skilful, and a huge ditch has been found surrounding the mound. Dating to the Iron Age or, possibly, earlier Neolithic times, the function of Mine Howe is unknown. Was it a tomb? Entry to the underworld? A place of initiation? Visit it and make up your own mind.......there's a good display of archaeological investigations and finds, and you get your own hard hat to make the descent!
Mine Howe is just off the main road at Tankerness.
The Broch of Gurness is like a better-preserved Skara Brae! Of course, it is not as old as Skara Brae. It is in a wonderful setting with spectacular views of the ocean.
You can walk all around and inside the Broch of Gurness. Very interesting.
An amazing opportunity to see the workshops of a blacksmith - still working!
You can get married here too!!!
This is inside the blacksmith's workshop - as mentioned in the previous tip.
Orkney is a great place to explore old fashioned heritage places like this - and old farms, like the Kirbuster Farm museum and Corrigall Farm Museum - both run by the Orkney Council, free to go in and well worth it!
If only for ten minutes, take time out from rushing about and stop at these tiny places. There are lots all over Scotland, beside the road with a sign you only see at the last second. Tempting to just carry on, especially as some idiot is likely right up your rear bumper - but please, do stop (safely) and look in some of these little heritage places - often free!
You find the people who look after them are devoted and caring folk, full of stories and insites into life in these remote lands. They are often modest and have to be encouraged but when they do - listen! They have locked inside their heads more memories, textures and colours than you will ever get by driving and photographing. It is hard to meet nice, gentle people sometimes when in a foreign country but these folk are a good bet.
If they have a peat fire burning, pull up a chair and ask a few questions. You will have a holiday to remember!
Watching seals swimming in the clear water, whilst I lay in the grass and flowers, fulmars chattering on the rocky cliffs. It was an absolutely magical day - like those of childhood memories. Orkney causes quite a lot of these!
Tip: Get away from the crowds and take a small side road, seeming to go nowhere special. Ahh, but it does - it goes were no one else bothers to go. Like this eastern side of South Ronaldsay - the most southerly of the main Orkney Islands and close to the Scottish mainland - almost a stones throw away.
I drove down this side road, expecting a dead end or just a farm, but I found real peace, tranquility and a calmness that you would pay a therapist thousands of dollars/pounds/euros for. Seriously! I lay down in the grass, warmed gently by the northerly sun, and slipped into a scene of such serenity, I became very very happy.
Forget the itinerary, the checklist of places to tick off, the big names and all the postcards.
Just do something simple like this. It does not have to be Orkney - you can find it at home or wherever you may be - but it takes some will-power and a special way of thinking.
Orkney has proved to be very special - it is a place that encourages you to relax, to connect with the planet and be at one with nature. But, even here, you will not find that peace unless you actively make it happen by leaving the crowds and the tourist route. It takes a sort of discipline and courage. I dare you to come to Orkney and head straight for a beach, a headland or a flower-filled meadow and ignore the World Heritage sites - just for one day!
You'll be all the better for it - I promise.
Take a little extra time to explore the side roads - instead of just rushing from one archaeological wonder to the next. Orkney lets you breathe - if you let it.
This is again on South Ronaldsay, by the Tomb of the Eagles but is an image intended to capture Orkney in essence - including rusting barbed wire , flower meadows and old buildings dried by the salty air.
Orkney is incredible - but has lost its trees. For thousands of years Orcadians have used the convenient stone slabs to build with - wood is more precious!
Though this little wood shack would look at home in mid west USA ... it is a very rare thing on Orkney. But it is the cleanliness of the air and the flowers in the meadow that is so Orkney. Wish I lived there.
On the west coast of the Orkney mainland, between Stromness and Skara Brae (5000 year old settlement!!!), these cliffs are magical and very accessible.
A great place to come for an hour or longer, to watch the Fulmars and the crashing waves!
Along the cliff tops, the grass is short and the air salty - perfect terrain for one of the rarest plants - the Scottish Primrose.
Look down in the water you can watch the seals as they watch you and in early summer you can see the cute puffins, called Tammie norrie on Orkney.
Across the western horizon is the Americas - imagine sailing that distance thousands of years ago. If you stand on top of the cliffs on a windy day you will find it inconceivable that sailors could manage such feats - but they did and still do!
Stroll along the path and you find iron age brochs - stone forts from 2000 years ago, now abandoned and crumbling into the sea with each storm. Its all there to explore, for free. No guide, no guards, no fences, just you and nature.
If you can, go to the island of Hoy, second largest of Orkney's many islands.
In the north of Hoy is the Dwarfie Stane, a giant boulder with a small room cut inside, guessed to be about 5000 years old - ie Stone Age.
No one dwells on the conumdrum of how stone age people cut out this chamber inside a stone, without hard metal axes or explosives (?Surely they didn't?) ... and it is just assumed to be a small tomb.
Hmmm. There is a lot more to the Dwarfie Stane ... as you will discover when you go inside it!!!
Maybe it was the home of a little person, maybe something else quite special. It is free, only five minutes walk from the road, and 2 miles from the pier (ferry from Stromness)
Nearby is the stunningly beautiful and wild Rackwick (Bay), Crows Nest Museum and the path to the Old Man of Hoy (highest sea stack in Europe and a real test of men).
Oh dear, I'm directing people to a stone. However, the Dwarfie Stane is possibly the only known cut stone chambered tomb in Britain. It's a solid red sandstone about 30 feet long, and you can actually crawl into it, where you will see two chambers. It is believed to have been cut around 3000BC. Considering the tools and technology available to people at that time, this tomb is a major feat of engineering.
It also has some interesting graffitti on it from visitors in the past. One of particular interest is British spy Major W. Mouncey's inscription, made in 1850. 'I have sat two nights and so learnt patience'. This may be a referral to the midges...!
It is well worth a visit if you're on Hoy, it's one of the main attractions, and rightly so. It's not far from the road, grid ref: HY 243 004.
Rackwick Bay is on the island of Hoy, and as you can see, is absolutely beautiful.
The bay is at the end of the main road in Hoy, and is a popular place to visit here. Although by popular, I mean about thirty people at the most! It is from this point you can take a footpath (the only access) to the Old Man of Hoy, which is about three miles from the bay.
At one end of the beach, a huge cliff rises out of the ground, and here you may see many species of bird, including the Puffin. When I was here, the Puffin had already left, but I did meet the famous Great Skua, or "Bonxie" as they are known locally. The Bonxie may well take a dive at you, especially during the breeding season, if you go near their nest. They are not afraid to attack, so be aware!
The Bonxie is famous mostly for it's attacks on other birds. Bonxie - the "pirate of the sky" They try to steal the other bird's catch of fish, and it can result in serious injury and even death, although this is rare. The rise in the population of the Bonxie has a small connection with the decrease of the Puffins here.
Rackwick Bay has a basic campsite, a museum - the "Crow's Nest", car park and toilets. The Crow's Nest is a preserved old 18thC croft house and smells wonderfully of peatsmoke.
Poor Betty Corrigall. It is not really accurate to call this off the beaten path, since there is only about one road in Hoy, you cannot fail to pass by the grave of Betty if you go to the island. OS ref: ND28019908 - beside the Water o'Hoy.
In the 1770s, at the age of 27, Betty Corrigall, known as the "Maid of Hoy" became pregnant by a sailor, who abandoned her. The shame of an unmarried woman left pregnant, and the fact that she was abandoned, was too much for her and she tried to drown herself. She was saved, but then successfully hanged herself.
So, another sin was placed upon her, as those who kill themselves are not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. So, poor Betty was buried on the parish boundary - in the marshes. Her resting place was left undisturbed until the 1930s, when she was rediscovered by some peat cutters. As peat is such a good preserver, her body was very well preserved as was the noose that lay at her feet.
Her body was disturbed again during WWII, and it wasn't until 1949 that her grave was marked with a cross. A local man, Harry Berry, was asked to make a more suitable gravestone for her, and finally, when he retired in 1976 and got some time on his hands, a small headstone was made.
The "stone" interestingly enough, is made from fibreglass, as an actual stone would have soon sunk into the marshy ground.
It is a very sad sight to see this grave out in what is the middle of nowhere, but Betty may be happy to know that she has certainly not been forgotton.
And to think that if Betty had lived in this day and age, her story would have been very different. How our values have changed!
Rousay is 'off the beaten path' as well as a 'must-see'. The ferry goes from Tingwall, Mainland...........be prepared to reverse your car onto the rather small boat! The crossing is lovely, with fantastic views. If you don't want to take a car you can book an all-day minibus tour (great value) or hire bikes.......ask at Kirkwall tourist information. Rousay only has one 'real' road and is wilder than Mainland. It's absolutely wonderful, full of prehistory and history (walk the 'archaeological mile at Westness). If you take the minibus tour, you'll find out what it's really like to live there. Go!
The Hoy ranger takes guided walks on the island during the summer season (ask at Kirkwall or Stromness tourist information). I got the ferry from Stromness and walked with the guide across the old post-road to Rackwick Bay (about 2 hours). It was really excellent, lots of birds (including great skuas) and flowers (including carnivorous ones!). There was time to walk on to see the Old Man of Hoy if people wanted, or just to explore. You can either walk back for the evening ferry or get a 'taxi'.....a minibus which arrives at a convenient time to transport those too worn out with all the fresh air!