My guide to Orkney is available to buy from www.bradtguides.com/orkney and all good bookshops
Hoy is the first Orkney island many visitors see as they sail from the UK mainland and it’s the wildest and most rugged of them all, its contours defined by glowering sea cliffs. The name of the island, appropriately enough, comes from the Old Norse ‘Haey’, meaning the ‘high island’.
Hoy is also long – 22 miles from north to south, though only 6 miles broad in the beam at its widest. With a population of just 470 it can feel very empty. Most visitors come with one aim in mind, to walk to the Old Man of Hoy, the tallest sea stack in Europe. If you walk all the way from the pier at Moaness, which is served by the foot ferry from Stromness, you have a magnificent drama-filled 14-mile hike.
Standing 450ft (137m) high, Rising from a pedestal of dark basalt lava, the Old Man comprises fragile Old Red Sandstone intermingled with layers of flagstone that create distinctive slab-like ridges. It was first climbed in 1966 and been summited many times since, including by an eight-year-old boy, a blind man and reached by a nerveless high-wire artist.
As you retrace your steps you’ll see Rackwick Bay laid out far below. The beach here, set below towering cliffs is very special. It stretches for the best part of a mile and is impossibly scenic.
The bay comprises sand made from pure quartz – one of just three places in Scotland it can be found – and run along this stretch of the beach and you can feel the sand reverberate under your feet.
More than 90% of Hoy – everything apart from the human settlements scattered in the far north and along the east coast – has been left to its own devices, the heather ungrazed for 50 years. This interior is as close to wilderness as you can find in the UK. To survey this bone-cold landscape you can climb Ward Hill. At 1570ft (479m), this is Orkney’s highest point. I climbed it early in the day. It was sunny enough to have breakfast outside and look up at where I planned to be a couple of hours later.
Although an inviting climb, Ward Hill is awkward. Only its height defines this peak as a ‘hill’; in every other sense it looks and feels like a mountain. The upper reaches welcome you with a sub-Arctic glaciated environment so a walk up its sleep slopes should be treated with respect. There is no clear path to the summit; instead it’s a case of yomping upwards over open ground. Fortunately, the pay-off outweighs the effort: arguably the best view to be had in Orkney. Luckily, I’d forgotten to take my warm weather gear out of my knapsack before setting off. On the summit it was blowing 40mph with a wind chill a biting 4C.
I was accompanied up Ward Hill by a couple of mountain hares, who bounded ahead of me. They still had their winter white coats on. I saw others on the skyline towards the end of the same day.
Orkney’s best-known archaeology is on the archipelago’s mainland, at places such as Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. But Hoy too has a remarkable site, even by Orcadian standards: Britain’s sole prehistoric rock-cut chambered tomb.
Lying on moorland half a mile from the south side of the Rackwick road, the Dwarfie Stane measures 25ft by 12ft and dates to 3500BC. A narrow passage has been hewn out which leads – although a bit of a squeeze – to two chambers and a stone ledge that is sometimes identified as a stone pillow.
Hoy – and Orkney more widely – played a major role in both world wars. During World War II, Hoy’s small port Lyness was the main UK shore base for servicing the home fleet and more than 12,000 military and civilian personnel were stationed here. Battleships, aircraft carriers and smaller craft all required re-supply and repair. Lyness is among the most historically important military sites in the country. Among the most striking spectacles is the propeller of HMS Hampshire, which was sunk by a mine in 1916 with the loss of 737 crew and passengers.
At it southern end, Hoy is joined by a causeway to the island of South Walls, which has an atmosphere all of its own. You can enjoy some of the very best coastal walking in all of Orkney, almost certainly in solitude. South Walls is small – just 3 miles long by 2 miles wide – and much of its farmland has never been ploughed or subjected to fertilisers. More than 180 types of wildflowers have been identified here, including Scottish primrose, tufted vetch and ragged robin. A striking sea stack, The Candle, rises adjacent to other huge stacks and arches that have been left behind by a retreating coast. Vast polished plates of rock tilt at rakish angles into the sea.
The word ‘gloup’ doesn’t sound cuddly – and with good reason. It’s a term for a part of the coast where the land has collapsed, often all the way to the sea, in an extremely vertiginous way. Two well-signposted (though unfenced) gloups lie in wait along the south coast – peek into their depths if you have the nerve.
More cheerily – unless you’re a pinniped – South Walls’ easternmost point, Cantick Head, is one of the best places in Orkney for whale-watching and for spotting the orca pods that patrol the waters of the Pentland Firth for unwary seals.
Surprisingly for an island known the world over for the Old Man of Hoy, there are just two cafes on Hoy. After a hike up Ward Hill, to the Old Man, or along South Walls, either will reward your efforts. My favourite is Emily’s Tearoom, near Lyness. You have superb views of the bay and Emily will rustle up bacon pancakes and a life-enhancing brew.
By dint of its location, Beneth’ill Café sees more trade. Located 400yds uphill from the pier, in the shadow of Ward Hill (try saying the café name out loud and you’ll see why it is so called), it serves good traybakes & crumbles.