One of the reasons I opted to swap city life for island life is my love of the coast. I could happily potter about beaches and stroll along cliff tops all day long - in fact, that is exactly how I spent last weekend.
When I found out the latest Orkney 'See You at the Weekend' itinerary detailed below was based on local seascapes, with four coastal walks to cover, I was in my element. This was the excuse I had been looking for to ditch mundane household chores and adult responsibilities for the day. Instead, I lost track of time walking along wave battered cliffs, mesmerised by churning seas and feeling revitalised by the brisk sea-breeze.
It would have been easy for me to focus solely on the dramatic scenery but I was intrigued by the physical remnants left behind by the people who lived and worked along these stretches of coast over the centuries. Although each walk took me through a unique and equally stunning landscape, my imagination was in overdrive as I followed in the steps of prehistoric man, Vikings, soldiers and fishermen.
If there is one thing I recommend you do on a visit to Orkney, it would be to include at least one coastal walk in your itinerary.
ABOUT THE ITINERARY AND MY ADVICE
The itinerary is one of several autumn and spring themed day trip ideas that are being introduced by Destination Orkney over the coming months as part of their 'See You at The Weekend' campaign. I'll be trying them all out so stay tuned for lots more Orkney inspiration from me.
The Seascape itinerary involves as much or as little walking as you are comfortable with but I do recommend wearing sturdy, waterproof footwear and be prepared for all seasons in 1 day! Also, please be careful along the cliff walks and keep to the paths. It might be very tempting to snap a photo of you balanced on the cliff edge for Instagram likes, but it is a very long way down in some places and just not worth becoming a statistic.
I also recommend taking a spare bag with you to pick up some of the litter that washes up along the beaches. If we all remove a few bits on our walk, we can make a bigger difference
ORKNEY SEASCAPE ITINERARY LOCATIONS
The walk along the cliffs at Yesnaby is without doubt one of the most dramatic coastal walks on Orkney Mainland. With rugged red crags, sea stacks, arches and geos, there are plenty of striking features to look out for.
The surrounding geology spans hundreds of millions of years and the many layers reveal the history of the landscape dating back to a time when Orkney was located south of the equator. During that period much of Yesnaby formed the bottom of a vast freshwater lake called Lake Orcadie.
On a windy day (of which there are many on Orkney!) the sea below bubbles and churns like a cauldron. The waves crash over rocks and rush through small gaps with ferocious power. On really windy days, sea foam and spray are blown over the cliff tops.
Yesnaby is a great spot if you want to witness the might of Mother Nature.
A good destination for a walk is the coast near to Yesnaby Castle, a two-legged sea stack that attracts hardy climbers. The return walk from the car park should take no more than an hour even if you factor in plenty of photo stops.
The story of the past may be told in the rocks, but the story of the people is told in objects and structures that dot the pathway. As you pull up at the car park, you can't miss the buildings that once formed part of a WWII gun battery. Orkney played a vital role in both world wars and you can find out more about those periods of the island's history in my Wartime Itinerary blog post.
On your way to Yesnaby Castle, keep an eye out for an unfinished mill stone. The hard stone found here was ideal for the many meal grinding mills on Orkney and stone was quarried here for hundreds of years.
If you walk along the opposite stretch of coast from the car park, you will come across the remains of the Broch of Borwick, perched on the cliff top. It is thought to date from the first millennium BC and was in use until it was abandoned about 600 AD. It once stood further back from the cliff edge but erosion has left it in a much more precarious position and I do wonder how long it will be before it is claimed by the sea.
Many people head to Yesnaby for a quick photo stop but I would encourage you to spend a bit longer here to soak up some of the history as well as the scenery.
From Birsay there are a couple of walking options. You could cross to the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island that was once a place of power, for the Picts and later the Vikings. The causeway can generally be crossed 2 hours either side of low tide. To find out more about this fascinating site, have a look at my Orkney Viking Itinerary blog post.
On this visit I opted for the gentle walk to the mysterious Birsay whalebone which is about a 2 mile return journey from the car park. The landscape here is much less rugged than Yesnaby but the sea can still appear wild and powerful. Pebbles crackle on the shore as the waves shift them back and forth, and seabirds squawk and swoop from their nesting ledges.
The first man-made features of note are at Skiba Geo, a natural harbour that has been used by local fishermen since Viking times. The most obvious structure is the 19th century fishing hut which would have been used for storing equipment.
Next to the hut are large hollows in the earth which are known as nousts. In the summer the fishing boats would sit on the beach, but in the winter they were pulled in to these nousts for protection.
Just around the coast from Skiba Geo is the whalebone sculpture. The facts of how it ended up here seem to have been lost in time and there are different versions of the story. However, from what I can gather, the bones are from a whale that washed up on the beach below around 1876. The post is part of the jawbone and the top is from part of the skull.
Why it was put there is a mystery and theories include it being used as a safety landmark for fishermen, to a mark of respect for the dead whale. Whatever the truth, it is an interesting reminder of a time when a washed up whale was seen as a fortunate event by the local community who could make money from the carcass. These days it makes for a unique photo opportunity.
Dingieshowe is one of my local beaches and I don't think I'll ever get tired of visiting. On a still, sunny day it is a little slice of paradise and curious seals frolic around just off the shore. On a day when the wind is blowing unrelentingly from the south or east, big frothy waves surge across the horizon.
Like most beaches on Orkney, you have a good chance of having it all to yourself at this time of year. One thing I would urge you to do, is take a spare bag with you and remove some of the ocean debris that gets washed up and deposited along the tide line.. There is a scheme to take away 3 pieces of litter from the beach and deposit them in the bin at the car park. I personally take as much as will fit in my bag and if we all do our bit, we can make a bigger impact. Every piece you take away is one less piece that will end up back in the sea, which causes a negative impact on the environment and wildlife.
If you continue to the left, at the very end of the beach you will find a little set of steps heading up to the cliff top. This is a coastal walk that isn't signposted and most people don't realise it's there. If you're following this 1 day itinerary then you probably won't have time to do this particular trail but it is worth investigating if you have more time.
The pathway takes you past geos, arches and stacks. A good point to aim for is a stumpy sea stack named Muckle Castle. The full walk is a circular route that eventually takes you along the main road back to the car park, but for safety reasons (and because the road is not that scenic!) I personally recommend just doubling back and following the same path you came, back along the beach.
The name Dingieshowe originated from 'thing-haug', which is Old Norse for an assembly mound where local people met during Viking times to set taxes and settle feuds. When you arrive at the car park, have a look at the noticeboard which will point out the mound referred to.
This particular mound covers an Iron-Age broch which actually stands on a Neolithic site. When you spend enough time on Orkney, you realise there are layers of history everywhere. I've heard it said that Orkney bleeds archaeology and if you dig a hole, you'll likely uncover an archaeological site. While this is a bit of an exaggeration, I've never been anywhere in Scotland that has the same abundance of archaeology. While the well known historical sites attract countless visitors, you can find signs of the ancient past just about every area you walk through.
The final stop of the day is Mull Head and a good place to find out more information about the area is at the visitor centre which is well worth a visit before or after your walk.
Mull Head is a nature reserve that offers circular walks ranging from 3 - 5 miles so you might want to conserve some energy for tackling this stop! Although, as with every walk listed here, you can walk for as long or as little as is comfortable.
In fact you barely have to get out the car for the first reward on this route. The Gloup is a collapsed sea cave with a small viewing platform at either side. You can peer down in to the dark depths and listen to the sound of the water and seabirds echoing around the rocky chasm.
Continue on and you will reach the steps to the Brough of Deerness where you will find evidence of another Viking settlement. On this particular walk, I carried on past this detour but you can read about it in my Orkney Viking Itinerary blog post. It is well worth visiting if you have the time.
Instead I carried on to the furthest point of the headland which I had never actually visited on my previous walks here and is marked by a little cairn. The scenery is outstanding as the path follows the contours of the cliffs with views of rocky bays below and several of the other Orkney islands in the distance including Shapinsay, Stronsay, Eday and Auskerry, which is only inhabited by one family.
This has become one of my favourite walks on Mainland and I wish I had done it sooner. I walked to the trig point and surveyed the moorland before me, the adjacent curves of the coast beside me and the surrounding islands on the horizon and decided I might have found a new favourite view too!
You have the option to head back the way you came, continue a little further along the coast and complete the loop - or you can continue on and complete a bigger loop by visiting the Covenanter's Memorial if you are feeling really energetic.
The memorial was erected in 1888 to commemorate the loss of over 200 Covenanters who drowned when their ship was wrecked in the waters below in 1679. It is actually quite a harrowing tale and one I will probably write about in more depth at some point.
These are just a few of the coastal walks on Orkney and for those of you that have asked me for walks to include on your visit, I hope this has given you some inspiration.
MY MAP OF ALL THE LOCATIONS MENTIONED
Disclaimer - This blog post is part of a sponsored partnership with Destination Orkney to promote their weekend itineraries, however as always all experiences and opinions are based on my personal experience
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