Orkney lies 15km off the north coast of Scotland and is made up of more than 70 islands, 20 of them inhabited. The scattered brown and green islands are gentle and fertile, characterised by rolling hills, numerous lochs, an indented coastline and a unique light that illuminates the land and sea.
Sunny weather can't be guaranteed; the wind is likely to blow constantly and more than four people on the same stretch of coastline is a crowd. However, the coastline attracts people back to Orkney time and again. There are cliffs battered by the westerly winds which house huge seabird colonies, rock stacks to tempt climbers, inlets, gloups and geos1, long easy beaches for long easy walks and dune systems to explore.
This entry looks at the coastlines of the most accessible parts of Orkney for the visitor: Mainland, Hoy and the southern islands that are linked to Mainland by the Churchill Barriers.
The islands are the northernmost British remnants of a mountain belt which was raised around 500 million years ago: the Caledonian Mountain Belt. Over almost all of Orkney this huge igneous intrusion was covered by sedimentary rocks laid down during the Devonian era, around 400 million years ago. These rocks are the local red sandstone; familiar in the architecture of the area, especially St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.
Layer upon layer of sediments were laid down on Orkney after the Devonian era and the islands may well have been submerged by the sea on occasion in the last 400 million years. However, intermittent uplift of the land through earth movements resulted in all the sedimentary rocks younger than that age being eroded from the islands. The final scouring of Orkney's geology occurred during the last Ice Age when the whole of the north of Scotland was engulfed by ice, which helped to shape the landscape we know today. The rise in sea level, following the melting of glaciers, is responsible for the drowned landscapes of today's coasts of Orkney.
Cliffs and Stacks
The erosive power of the sea and wind has dominated the development of the outer rocky coastline of the islands. There are impressive sandstone cliffs, reaching up to 335m high, especially along the exposed west coast. The sea has cut geos - long narrow slots following joints and faults in the rock - into the coastal cliffs. There are also gloups, or blowholes, caves and natural arches that have been created by the erosive force of the sea. As erosion continues, the rock spanning arches often collapses, leaving vertical rock pillars as sea stacks.
St John's Head - Grid Reference: HY180030
Note: See Ordnance Survey Landranger maps numbered 5, 6 and 7 for full coverage of Orkney.
The cliffs on Hoy are the most renowned and perhaps the most well-known, as the Scrabster-Stromness ferry route passes beneath them. The Old Man of Hoy stands proud of the cliff: a singular sea stack which has attracted worldwide attention, especially when it was climbed by Chris Bonnington in 1966 and was the first live outside broadcast on the BBC. The sedimentary nature of the rock creates cliff ledges which are perfect for roosting and nesting birds. The fertile sea provides plenty of food. As a result Orkney's cliffs support thousands of pairs of breeding seabirds. There is a footpath up to the Old Man of Hoy from Rackwick Bay, which affords good views of the bird colonies, especially from April to June, when they are nesting. Alternatively, as the ferry passes under St John's Head, look out for puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets and bonxies2.
Yesnaby - Grid Reference: HY221161
On the west coast of the Orkney mainland there are a series of cliffs - not as high as those on Hoy, but nonetheless spectacular - as they receive the full force of the prevailing westerly winds. At Yesnaby there are spectacular inlets and stacks; most notably at Yesnaby Castle which is a 15 minute walk to the south of the parking area. The cliffs do not support huge seabird colonies, but rafts3 of guillemot, razorbill and the occasional puffin can usually be seen just out to sea. The rocks are very crumbly here, so take care not to get too close to the edge. It is one of the only places in the world to see the rare Primula scotica, a tiny lilac-coloured primula which flowers in July and nestles into the clifftop sward to protect itself from the inclement weather. In a strong westerly wind, intrepid visitors will see Yesnaby at its best, as waves crash onto the wave-cut platforms at the base of the cliffs and stacks, then explode up over the top. It is possible to walk north along the cliff-top all the way to Skaill Bay, passing along the way one of Orkney's many Iron Age fortified towers, known as brochs (the Broch of Borwick) and an area of uniquely-patterned rocks immediately north of the broch.
Marwick Head - Grid Reference: HY226253
Further to the north along the west coast is Marwick Head, which is among the best places to see nesting seabirds on the Mainland. Easy to identify, Marwick Head is dominated by the huge memorial to General Kitchener, who died in HMS Hampshire when it hit a mine off the Head during World War I. The noise and the pungent smell of guano greet the visitor long before the birds come into view. It is possible to get close to the edge and see terraces of thousands of birds. The fulmars take full advantage of the uplift of air and perform admirably graceful aerobatics just a metre or two from the top of the cliff. There is a car park below Marwick Head, from which it is a ten-minute walk to the top. Alternatively, there is a coastal path up from Marwick Bay to the south, or from Birsay Bay to the north. In the cliffs to the south of Marwick Bay is Sand Geo, which was a pull-up for fishing boats for generations of local Orcadians. It has been restored and although it is no longer used for its former purpose, the boat noosts4 are clearly visible and the fishermen's huts are re-roofed.
The Brough of Birsay - Grid Reference: HY233285
Looking north from Marwick Head, the Brough of Birsay is visible. It is an island reached by a tidal foot-causeway. There are bird cliffs beyond the lighthouse on its seaward side. It is a good place to see rafts of seabirds and seaducks such as eiders on the water. There are also wading birds that nest on the grass sward and visitors will be warned of their proximity by swooping, shrieking oystercatchers. In June, the whole Brough is a subtle hue of blue, as the small and numerous squill plants flower. On all the cliffs of Orkney, red, pink and white thrift flowers clump in sheltered spots. The Brough is also home to the ruins of St Magnus Kirk and the remains of a series of early settlements. It is a very popular visitor destination and the car park is often full on sunny days when the causeway is passable. The footpath from the Brough car park, towards Northside, passes Skipi Geo, which is another boat noost, restored by local people. And just round the cliff, past two stacks that are covered in nesting terns in the spring, are a whale's rib and vertebra planted into the point of the cliff, overlooking the Atlantic. Next stop Iceland.
Mull Head - Grid Reference: HY593098
This nature reserve and cliff walk lies on the east side of Mainland. There is a walk going right round the head, enabling good views of the cliffs and the sea. The vegetation is lusher than on the west coast and there is a considerable depth of peat. Heathers, cotton grass and other acid-loving plants are abundant. The cliffs here are full of fulmars, which nest remarkably close to the top, right next to the path. Razorbills, guillemots and puffins nest here too. Also watch out for the bonxies, which will defend their nests by regurgitating semi-digested fish over any potential predator. Within 500m of the car park is The Gloup; a deep blowhole created by the erosive action of the sea, where the fault-line in the rock is clear to see. With an easterly wind blowing, it is spectacular as the sea bursts up from below.
Bays, Beaches and Dunes
The post-glacial rise in sea levels resulted in the flooding of the low-lying parts of the Orkney landscape and the formation of broad open bays. Many of these contain sandy beaches, backed by dune systems.
The influence of man has also resulted in the formation of beaches and dunes. During World War II, blockships were scuttled and then man-made causeways constructed5 to block the narrow tidal entrances at the eastern end of Scapa Flow; a deepwater harbour used by the Royal Navy to protect the fleet from submarine attack. These causeways are known as the Churchill Barriers and now carry roads linking all of the southern islands to Mainland Orkney. The Barriers have altered currents in the tidal inlets and allowed sandflats, even low dune systems to develop out from the Barriers and the shores of the islands over the last 60 years.
Barrier No 4 Beach - Grid Reference: ND479952
This beach lies at the northern end of the Churchill Barrier that links South Ronaldsay to Burray. Park next to the public toilets just on Burray6 and walk through the dunes to reach the beach, that runs the full length of the Barrier. There are the remains of a blockship sticking up out of the sand, which provides a perfect roost and look-out post for cormorants, as well as a store for local fishermen's creels7. As long as there isn't an easterly wind blowing, this is a sheltered beach. It has shelving sand and swimming is possible. Terns, as well as cormorants, feed in the shallow water and the occasional seal can be seen offshore.
Rackwick - Grid Reference: ND205985
Rackwick is on the west side of Hoy, overlooking the Pentland Firth and is one of the most spectacular bays in Orkney. There is a monumental feel to the place. It is girded by great cliffs on either side and a deep flat valley to landward. The beach is made up of huge sea-smoothed boulders, some three metres across, and shelves steeply down to the sea. At the southern end there is a patch of striped sand below the rocks, where children swim. On the lip of the beach is a bothy8, where visitors can stay overnight on the understanding that they leave it as they find it. The sound of the surf is as loud as anywhere in the world as it pounds against the boulders, endlessly.
Skaill Bay - Grid Reference: HY235195
Possibly the most famous of all the neolithic sites in Orkney is Skara Brae; a Stone Age village which is located beside Skaill Bay. The bay itself is a deep west-facing indentation in the west coast of the Mainland. Only direct westerly winds disturb the water and the long crescent-shaped strand. Shallow-shelving sand is topped with an arc of smoothed rocks and pebbles, above which is a series of sanddunes, out of which Skara Brae reappeared in the 20th Century. Both sides of the bay are rocky in nature, where eider ducks breed and feed, seals cavort and great flocks of kittiwakes roost. Terns feed in the shallow waters and the occasional pairs of grebe and goosander float around on calm days.
Birsay Bay - Grid Reference: HY241275
Seven kilometres north of Skaill lies Birsay: the home of St Magnus Kirk on the Brough, a small settlement called Earl's Palace9 and hundreds of grey seals. Although Birsay is the furthest point on Mainland from Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, it is one of the most popular visitor destinations.
The bay has everything: a sandy part, dunes and links, a rocky part, rockpools, low sea cliffs, eider ducks, fulmars, kittiwakes, bonxies, turnstones, dolphins and even the occasional orca whale. It is obvious that the Gulf Stream passes Orkney from the contents of the rockpools. There are corals in there, amongst the sea urchins, starfish, winkles, limpets and shrimps. At dusk the eider ducks and the seals coo and bark: an atmospheric nautical cacophony. The bay faces out to the northwest and west and the north Atlantic sunsets are at their most beautiful here.
Evie Sands - Grid Reference: HY375264
On the northern side of the Mainland, in a sheltered position is Evie Sands. The beach overlooks the small island of Eynhallow and Rousay across Eynhallow Sound. It is a very shallow shelving sandy beach, which empties of water at low tide. As a result, on a sunny day, the incoming tide warms as it creeps over hot sands and it is perfect for a wallow. It is one of the few places in Orkney where a lot of jellyfish are seen. At high tide, inquisitive seals keep an eye on passers-by. Mergansers and black-throated divers are often paddling around just off the beach, as well as the ubiquitous eider ducks. There are often other ducks such as pochard and tufted ducks. On the low cliffs towards the Broch of Gurness on the north of the beach, oxslips have found a footing amongst the tufts of grass, as well as the thrift that is found all around the coast.
Taracliff Bay - Grid Reference: HY550034
On the road to Mull Head, situated to the east of Mainland, is St Peter's Pool and the inviting-sounding Sandi Sand. It is, however, quite muddy and not as appealing in reality. But on the other side of the road there is a lovely beach on Taracliff Bay. Park by the public toilets and walk up over the sand dunes onto the broad swathe of sand. There are climbable rocks either end of the beach, as well as in the middle, which makes it a great venue for a family day out. If whales are off Orkney, this is one of the prime places to see them.
That's Not All Of Course
This is by no means an exhaustive description of all the coastal features of Orkney. For instance Westray has the most impressive bird cliffs and Sanday is so called because it has long sweeping sandy beaches. However, if this whets your appetite, go and have a look and perhaps you will find some of the hidden gems that are purposely excluded from this entry, in the hope that they remain secluded and quiet!