With a history stretching back more than 5,000 years, the Neolithic monuments and archaeological treasures of Orkney have well and truly put the islands on the map. Sites like Skara Brae, Maes Howe and the Ring of Brodgar are famous throughout the world and attract visitors in their thousands every year.
But take a step off the beaten track and Orkney has so much more to offer than just its rich history; there’s a wealth of food, drink, crafts and wildlife to discover on the islands.
The road less travelled runs through Stromness. While most visitors to the islands will arrive in Kirkwall on the ferry from Aberdeen, I enjoy the shorter hour-and-a-half crossing from Scrabster near Thurso to Stromness on Orkney’s West Mainland.
After a restful night at the Pennyland House Bed & Breakfast, NorthLink Ferries‘ MV Hamnavoe took me smoothly across the Pentland Firth, with skuas and gannets flying alongside. After passing the Old Man of Hoy, one of Britain’s tallest sea stacks, and sailing into the giant natural harbour of Scapa Flow, the boat docked in Stromness and Orkney awaited.
Home for the three-night trip was Woodwick Mill, a former water mill north of Tingwall on the West Mainland. The mill – which lies just 20 minutes from both Stromness and Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital – has been converted into four self-catering apartments, complete with a heat pump and solar panels to warm the water.
With a well-equipped kitchen, comfortable beds and a spa bath, the mill lived up to its four-star rating. There’s a nice walk you can take from the mill down to WoodwickBay, a peaceful and quiet spot to enjoy the sunset and watch the birds coming in and out on the tide. For a sandier walk, just a bit further up the coast lies EvieBeach, a favourite spot for collecting shells.
For a wildlife lover, the mill was an idea base to explore the Mainland, with the RSPB reserves at Birsay Moors, Brodgar and The Loons & Loch of Banks within easy reach. Watching a hen harrier swooping over the heather at Birsay was a real highlight, as was spotting a snipe skulking through the undergrowth from the hide at The Loons. During the spring, the seabird colony at Marwick Head is a simply stunning assault on the senses, with all the sights, sounds and smells of guillemots, razorbills and puffins.
With so much wildlife to watch on Orkney, it’s easy to work up an appetite. Heading off the beaten track again took me over the Churchill Barriers – which were built to keep Nazi U-boats out of Scapa Flow following the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in 1939 – and down to St Margaret’s Hope on the island of South Ronaldsay.
Alan and Joyce Craigie opened The Creel Restaurant With Rooms in 1985 and have won a string of awards from organisations including the AA, the Good Food Guide and the Scottish Chefs’ Association. After tasting Alan’s cooking, it’s easy to see why. His ham hock terrine with tomato relish and beetroot salad was meaty and satisfying without being overly salty, while his slow-cooked Aberdeen Angus beef brisket melted in my mouth. Alan’s skills were really on show in his sweet lemon tart with bitter orange marmalade ice cream, which made for a great contrast.
Alan’s menu features two choices for each of the starters, main courses and sweets, keeping things simple and giving him space to concentrate on producing outstanding food. Well worth a visit.
Another hidden gem was the cafe tucked away at the back of Judith Glue‘s knitwear shop opposite St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Highlights included a thick Scotch broth served with bannocks, which were made from bere, an ancient type of barley grown on Orkney.
Eating out is always a treat when you’re self catering, but taking some nice food back to your accommodation can be a real joy too. Hidden down a lane opposite St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall lies The Longship delicatessen and wine shop, which has some fantastic tipples but also a cheese counter to die for. The sourdough bread was a big hit too. For a fishy option, Jolly’s of Orkney would be hard to beat with its selection of freshly-caught produce.
Stepping off the beaten track once more took me down a single-track lane to Shelia Fleet‘s jewellery workshop in the Old Schoolhouse at Tankerness, not far outside Kirkwall. Until I’d been taken on a tour, I didn’t really appreciate just how much work goes into each and every piece of her jewellery.
Sheila setup her own business in 1993 and now employs about sixty people, designing and manufacturing each piece by hand. Each order placed through her website or in a jewellery shop is made-to-order and the processes involved are absolutely fascinating.