Published: 19th June 2011
We cast off from Burwick in a little former lifeboat, only five of us aboard. As we slid across Orkney’s silver-blue sea towards a flotilla of rocky skerries, a gull’s white belly flashed in the water. The seagull swung away from our boat and dipped a wing in the waves, as though to cool itself. All thoughts of the city we’d travelled from, the world of work and everyday stresses, washed away with it. Our little vessel ploughed on, furrowing the water with foam.
Quite soon we were arriving, and from the skerries came our welcoming party: seals in their dozens, leaping from their basking ledges and swimming by with their sleek, shiny, whiskery faces. That’s the thing about these Northern Isles of Scotland — they are so gorgeously empty that the wildlife is pleased to see you. Who needs the Galapagos when we have these magical slivers of stone, every bit as foreign, right on our doorstep?
We saw puffins, too, dapper in their black-and-white dinner suits. But it was on our voyage back that the local fauna laid on its big finale. As we purred through the violet waves, we caught sight of dolphins vaulting high out of the water, and steered towards them. They greeted us, shining and dancing all around, swimming one moment under the boat, then in front as though leading the way. One had a baby by her side. And the quiet little 10-year-old Scots girl, there with her parents, turned to us, her face flooded with excitement. We all knew this had turned from just another holiday outing into something miraculous.
The Orkneys are a revelation — remote, peaceful, staggeringly beautiful. And the archeology is also touched with magic. I trudged dutifully to see a stone age village, imagining a heap of incomprehensible stones, feeling like child press-ganged to some worthy outpost for the summer holidays. And there, scattered beside the glinting sea, was another miracle.
In front of us, lying low, stretched the subterranean village of Skara Brae, perfectly preserved from 5,000 years ago, with its tidy covered passages leading from house to house. Each of these small underground homes, older than the pyramids or Stonehenge, had a hearth, a fine stone mantelpiece, and bed alcoves requiring only furs to complete them. Plus, private loos — from 3,100BC.
Usually, ancient settlements look like slightly uncomfortable versions of our own, but this seemed cosy, hunkering down out of the wind. Our guide, the very inspiring Chris Read, of Wildabout Orkney, told us that JRR Tolkien had based his descriptions of the Shire on this village — which explains why it all felt so homely and hobbity.
Both the dolphins and the village are here partly because Orkney has always had a small population and scant development.
The islands offer plenty of stone — mighty great flags of it, strewn across every shoreline — so the builders of centuries past didn’t need to dismantle existing ruins. It was easier to pick up boulders from the beach.
Orkney comprises about 70 islands, only 17 of them inhabited, and although mainland Scotland is visible from the southern tip, the islanders think of themselves as Orcadian, not Scots. I didn’t see a copy of The Scotsman in the shops, let alone an “English” paper. But beware: you may arrive here, where there is space and sea and huge wild skies, and, like Chris the happy guide, never wish to leave.
“I hate hot weather,” Chris told me. “You can’t think.” In Orkney, I had to fight hard against my urgent desire to visit a house for sale on one of the remoter beaches. Here, traffic gridlock is a bike and a car on the same five-mile stretch of road, and slow ferries bob you blissfully from island to island. Don’t miss Westray, where instead of car hire, someone simply lent us a motor when we arrived. “We don’t really do paperwork here,” they said.
In case Orkney becomes claustrophobic, there is Shetland. Shetland is so far from the mainland that in atlases they have to put it in a box and float it just off Aberdeen, which only adds to the confusion. Even our Scottish friends were full of misinformation about Shetland’s “terrible midges” — when, in fact, it’s the Western Isles and the Highlands that suffer the flying nasties. Here, the air is fresh and clean.
Shetland shares the same latitude (60 degrees north) as Anchorage, in Alaska, but is warmer because of the Gulf Stream. It is also even sleepier than Orkney — with a coastline that unfurls itself magnificently.
We went in search of otters with Brydon Thomason, from Shetland Nature, who’s so passionate about the creatures, he seems almost to be one, as he transforms himself into a smudge in their landscape, and stoops beside rivers to sniff out their scent.
Together we drove up, via two ferries, to Unst, Britain’s most northerly inhabited island, passing fat Shetland ponies with sexy blond manes, and ruined grey churches surrounded by sheep, stopping to bird- watch on the way. The sun came out as we walked on the headland there and became the most northerly people on the British Isles. It was utterly deserted and beautiful. No Land’s End tat here, not even a signpost.
We stood on the most northerly beach, too, looking for otter tracks, as a stream twinkled down beside the last little white house with its red door and red-rimmed windows. Beyond us, only the North Pole.
It was just one final, extraordinary experience in these shy but sensational islands. You need to come prepared for all weathers, but your reward will be a window on an austere world where the wildlife is sometimes more gregarious than the people, and where life is so much more serene and modest than on the mainland. Do avoid estate agents’ windows, though.
Need to Know
Flybe (0871 700 2000, flybe.co.uk) operates flights from Gatwick to Kirkwall, on Orkney, with a change at Aberdeen (from £133 return) or flies direct from Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Inverness. Ferry options to Orkney range from 6hr from Aberdeen (£18pp, £70 per car) or 90min from Scrabster, in far northeast Scotland (from £14pp, £46 per car). Book via 0845 6000 449, northlinkferries.co.uk. You can fly on to Shetland (£95 return, again through Flybe) or it’s an 8hr ferry (£15pp, £55 per car, again from Northlink).
Where to stay
Lynnfield Hotel, in Kirkwall (01856 872505, lynnfieldhotel.com), has B&B doubles from £110. Kveldsro House Hotel, in Lerwick (01595 692195, shetlandhotels.com/kveldsro), has B&B doubles from £130. The Creel restaurant, at St Margaret’s Hope (01856 831311, thecreel.co. uk), has B&B doubles from £110.
John Leask & Son (01595 693162, leaskstravel.co.uk) can tailor-make a holiday on the islands, including flights from Aberdeen. Four nights’ B&B at the Ayre Hotel, Kirkwall, three nights’ B&B at Kveldsro House Hotel, Lerwick, and car hire on both islands, is from £983pp.
Wildabout Orkney (01856 877737, wildaboutorkney.com) arranges independent and guided breaks in Orkney and Shetland, plus wildlife or archeology day trips. Shetland Nature (07786 982773, shetlandnature.net) offers day trips and holidays in Shetland, with an emphasis on bird- and otter-watching. The boat trip to the Pentland skerries costs £30pp (01856 831605, boattrips-orkney.co.uk). Find more information at visitscotland.com/perfect.