- Wednesday 29th & Friday 1st July 2022
Named ‘high island’ by the Vikings, Hoy certainly lives up to the title and we were hopping over for a stay which took us around 30 minutes by ferry from Orkney Mainland.
Orkney’s second largest island rises dramatically from the sea. With almost-mountainous moorland and glacial valleys, it’s an incredible landscape to explore.
You can see its hills looming large on the local landscape from all over. Ward Hill is Orkney’s highest hill at more than 1500 feet, whilst the towering cliffs on the west coast include St John’s Head – at 1136 feet, it’s the highest vertical cliff face in the UK. And it’s this mountainous terrain that drew us to Hoy.
But the island’s most famous location is the Old Man of Hoy, a sandstone sea stack. This fragile tower is a mecca for climbers and has even welcomed base jumpers and a tight rope walker.
We took the ferry from Houton and landed in Lyness, which I found to be riddled with dilapitated buildings and other wartime structures from WWII, and vehicles not from the war, certainly not asthetic on the eye. I was pretty surprised with the old vehicles part and I get being on an Island must mean its more difficult to despense of such materials but in this day and age surely this should be addressed? However as soon as we drove away from here things improved and we were on to an amazing coast road (single track).
We were heading to the beautiful valley of Rackwick which is surrounded on three sides by hills and on the fourth side by a long sandy curving bay and this is where we would stay for the night.
Straight away we could clearly see the dramatic difference in landscape to the rest of Orkney, with the two high hills to the south of Rackwick and the deep glen in between.
And straight away I fell in love with this place. This is where I would chose to live in Orkney. Its strange to say what I’ m about to say as ‘mainland’ Orkney was quiet, very quiet, even the more populated towns, but this was quieter still, idyllic and to me perfect. I could see myself here.
Straight away we headed to pay the Old Man a visit. This was a very beautiful walk which took us firstly up through grassland with grazing cattle. We went through a gate and then we were soon onto a rocky meandering path hugging the side of the cliifs taking us gradually upwards before slowly flattening out towards the Old Man himself. Great views of Rackwick Bay and the cliffs could be seen and we were also able to see over to mainland Scotland.
We continued to follow the old path straight across the moorland clifftop, flat and strewn with rocks all the while keeping a lookout for the tip of The Old Man of Hoy ahead.
Eventually we saw him in sight but it wasn’t until we got to the viewing point (Read: edge of cliff), that we got to see the full 137 metres of him above the crashing waves below.
When we sailed past here on Sunday on the Scrabster to Stromness ferry we sailed past the Old Man of Hoy and it was such a beautiful sight but my word to see the sea stack up close and personal, well I would highly recommend it!
From here we went on a huge cliff walk, and we sat patiently bird watching, until eventually we caught sight of some puffins and ow my goodness they are adorable and so funny to watch. We sat for a good hour just watching them.
After our epic bird watching experience we ‘had a bit of fun’ with The Old Man, its amazing what you can get up to or how you can occupy your time and find simple pleasures when you slow things down in life.
From here we headed back downwards all the while photographing The Old Man from every angle we could and believe you me there was loads, but it was simply stunning.
In the evening we walked down to Rackwick beach. The tide however had come in so the beautiful sandy beach we had saw on our arrival had disappeared but we walked along and over the massive sea smoothed boulders listening to the only sound we could hear, the sea. Could it be anymore idyllic.
Next day we were off to check out The Dwarfie Stane.
The Dwarfie Stane is a massive boulder which was carried by a glacier and deposited in a dramatic valley during the last ice age. It rests under a cliff called the Dwarfie Hammars (hammar is Old Norse for crag). As we had driven along here yesterday we had spotted this alongside some other huge boulders scattered along the landscape.
The Dwarfie Stane is special though, as it is thought that Neolithic people carved a chamber into the rock around 3000BC, and used it as a tomb. Its mind blowing, like a lot of things in Orkney!
We hiked up to the chambered tomb which was basically a big chunk of Old Red Sandstone and we climbed right in.
Since the chambers are small, there are stories of a dwarf named Trollid living there, hence the name Dwarfie Stane.
Other stories say giants were throwing rocks at each other. Either way, it’s a neat part of Neolithic Orkney.
From here we headed back down and then went straight back up the other side of the valley to climb Ward Hill.
When sailing in to Orkney and on looking across at the island of Hoy from the Orkney Mainland, we could see two peaks dominating the landscape. The highest of these is Ward Hill at 481m, not in the Munro standards but its the highest hill in Orkney, so it had to be hiked.
By the start of our hike the wind had picked up massively and the weather had changed drastically but we were leaving Hoy tomorrow so no matter what Hoy threw at us this hill was being sumitted today. As mentioned before this is nowhere near a Munro height but I have done manys a Munro that was easier than this hill. The ‘beginning’ of the hike went straight up on heathery, grassy, steep slopes with no sign of footsteps before and the wind was horrific.
Its peaks was like being on the moon, bare except for scattered boulders.
From the summit of Ward Hill you can usually see every island in Orkney (on a clear day) with the exception of Rysa Little – which, ironically, is the nearest.
Even although it was blowing a hoolie we found a cairn shelter and sat there for quite some time taking in the beauty of our surroundings before heading back out to battle the ferocious winds as we made our way down.
We had also read a story about a local woman called Betty Corrigal. A sad story at that.
On the road to Lyness there’s a lonely grave next to a hillside loch. This is Betty Corrigal’s Grave. In the 1770s, at the age of 27, Betty was unmarried and pregnant; the father of her child had run away to sea. In a time when this was frowned upon, she tried to take her own life by walking into the sea. She was rescued but went on to hang herself a few days later. Her body was buried in the hills, on unconsecrated land between the parishes of North Walls and Hoy.
In 1933 peat diggers found Betty Corrigal’s grave by mistake and then soldiers during the Second World War repeated this mistake. This poor soul could not even find peace here.
Since then Betty Corrigal’s grave has been properly marked and a funeral service was conducted. The grave is now visited regularly; a forgotten soul receiving kindness she never felt during her life. And I paid Betty a quick visit on the bleak but beautiful moorland.
Whilst most people immediately head north upon arrival in Hoy, like we did, the southern end of the island is worth a visit. South Walls is actually an island in its own right, albeit linked to its larger cousin by a man-made causeway. The majority of Hoy’s 400-strong population live here, surrounded by green fields and fertile farmland – a dramatic contrast to the rest of the island, which was worth seeing but I much preferred the North, 100%.
Before leaving Hoy we quickly visited the Lyness Navel Cemetry. These grounds are immaculately-kept and are the final resting place for more than 600 men, mostly very very young men.
Hoy is undoubtedly one of Orkney’s most spectacular locations, for me anyway. Hills and stunning sea cliffs offer excellent hillwalking, the west coast in particular is one of spectacular natural beauty. The dramatic summits of Ward Hill and the Cuilags stand in splendid contrast to the rest of Orkney and can be seen from almost anywhere on Orkney Mainland.
Hoy is definitley an island best experienced outdoors, and its wild landscape provides plenty of nature and wildlife opportunities. I would actually happily move here, to Rackwick and find bliss in a little old house surrounded by mountain and sea.
And then from here we were heading back to Mainland Orkney, to Island hop once again.
Hope you enjoyed the short video above of The Old Man of Hoy 💙🏴.