Having just returned last night from Orkney and still feeling a bit wistful about not having been able to take my bicycle along this time and go for a spin on what is after all one of my favourite places in all the world to ride, I thought I’d indulge in a bit of vicarious touring and write up a few suggestions for anyone thinking of heading up that way. I’ve been up there seven times now, come to know the various islands rather well, and would go up there again in a heartbeat; believe me, they really are a lovely set of islands to explore by bike.
Getting there: There are flights into Kirkwall from around Britain, but if you are taking your bicycle (and are not already riding to John O’Groats) your best bet, and by far the most economical option, is to take one of the ferries.
There are three from which to choose – the big one from Aberdeen, an eight-hour journey that arrives in Kirkwall at midnight (and continues on to Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands), or take one of the much shorter crossings from Scrabster or Gills Bay, on the north coast of Scotland, over to Stromness and St Margaret’s Hope respectively. These run through the day, are quick and easy and get you there at a respectable hour. I’ve always gone for the Scrabster-Stromness option myself, partly because the Gills Bay ferry seems to be more heavily used by bus tours and day-trippers from Inverness, but mainly because Stromness is nearer my favourite part of Orkney – the vast heathery uplands of West Mainland, Orkney’s largest island.
To get to Scrabster and the Stromness ferry you buy a rail ticket to Inverness and from there take the slow, oh-so-local all-stations train to Thurso. It is a three-hour train journey and a very scenic one through what is known as ‘the flow country’, a wide open and beautifully desolate landscape of peat bog.
A word of advice for anyone planning to catch the train up here, especially in the summer months – book your ticket well in advance and be sure to get a reservation for your bicycle. And make certain that your reservation names a specific train and time. This is really important. There is space for only four bicycles on each train and conductors, guards and stationmasters are very strict about this and since this train (to Thurso, and on to Wick) is the same one used by countless LEJOG cyclists to get to or from the northern end point, demand for bicycle space is very high.
Once you’ve alighted at Thurso it is an easy three-mile ride along the coast to Scrabster and the Northlink ferry terminal, where you catch the ferry to Stromness . There is plenty of space here for bicycles, and the bikes themselves go free. Be sure though to have some photo ID – they won’t let you on the ferry without it. Chances are, given the train timetables, you’ll have an hour or two to wait for the ferry. Scrabster is about the deadest and dreariest place imaginable being little more than an industrial port and ferry terminal. Your best bet if you want to kill time or get something to eat is to ride back to Thurso (a very easy jaunt). Here too the pickings are slim when it comes to nice eateries, but there is a nice café on the beach called The Pavilion where I have spent some pleasant afternoons waiting for my ferry.
The ferry ride to Stromness is pleasant (as long as there’s no swell) and very scenic, skirting as it does the cliffs on the western flank of Hoy and the spectacular 137-metre sea stack in front of them. The view makes the ferry a bargain as well; cruise ship passengers pay fancy money for this view. Ninety minutes after you left Scrabster, you’re docking in Stromness, an old and atmospheric seaport on the southwestern corner of Mainland, the largest of the Orkney Islands (Oh and by the way, they are NOT ‘the Orkneys'; you’ll sound like a tourist coming out with that one. Orcadians refer to their homey archipelago as ‘Orkney’, using the familiar singular.)
Another useful piece of advice – book your accommodation in Orkney well in advance, especially if you plan to be going up there during the busy summer months and even more especially if you are going to me there mid-August, around the time of the big County Agricultural Show at Kirkwall when Orcadians come in from the outer islands and scattered family members return on their annual holidays and the hotels, hostels and B&Bs are full to bursting.
Now for the cycling. What I love most about cycling in Orkney is simply being out and about in its wide open spaces, the windswept immensity of purple heather and moor, and the sense of ancient magic in the landscape. As easy as it is to hop inter-island ferries from Kirkwall and head out to the more remote islands, my favourite places to ride in Orkney are the desolate roads through the heart of West Mainland the biggest and emptiest part of the archipelago’s biggest island. I love it there, or riding along the rugged southern coast overlooking Scapa Flow, or heading up to the wild headland near Birsay with its ancient Pictish ruins, or stopping up by the haunting Ring of Brodgar, an eerie stone circle erected by an unknown people 5000 years ago on a neck of land overlooking two silvery lochs. Although by now I have been to every one of the islands, it is this ancient mystical heart of Orkney that always draws me back.
If you’re going to Orkney for the first time, taking the ferry from Tingwell out to Rousay and doing a loop of the island is a pleasant introduction to going further afield. Going out to Westray one of the northern isles, will give you, in effect, a scenic island cruise and a pleasant out and back ride on the island itself, to an old ruined castle on the northern tip, by Noltland. As for Scotland’s famous midges, the Orkney winds generally sweep them away – although I have been there when the lochs are still as mirrors and then they can get pretty itchy.
As for guidebook specifics, lists of things to see and must-dos, don’t ask me; I am a pretty lousy tourist. For me the joy is always just seeing the countryside or the streetscapes wherever I go.
I will put in a plug, though, for my favourite B&B up there, a really lovely spot called Holland House, run by a delightful lady named Jan, and in a beautifully restored old vicarage in the heart of West Mainland. Basing myself there, heading out each morning to explore my favourite island, fortified by a hearty B&B breakfast, and with a crackling fire to return to each evening is my idea of cyclo-touring in the grand old style.