#SPIRITOFSCOTLAND / #UNLOCKSCOTLAND
The time had finally come, I was off to the Orkney Islands for the first time. Tristan and I had been contacted in June to see if we wanted to work on some material for Scotrail's MyScotRail #spiritofscotland #unlockscotland campaign.
Of course we said yes and the plans started getting drafted up. The #spiritofscotland pass is a ticket that can be used for either 4 days of travel in an 8 day period or 8 days of travel in a 15 day period. This means you can adventure throughout Scotland and the islands via ScotRail trains, ferries and a number of buses and coaches. You can jump on and off as much as you like within your days of travel. This sounded like something we wanted to get involved in and try for ourselves first hand.
Friday 30th June '17.
On the first day of travel I set off from Irvine early to make my way into Glasgow to transfer onto the Inverness train from Glasgow Queen Street. The train from Glasgow to Inverness was just over 3 hours. Tristan joined me on the train about an hour into the journey at Perth. We enjoyed views of the countryside, lochs, forests and countless hills and fields. It really is one of the best train rides in the country, the views on the journey alone are worth the ticket.
After arriving in Inverness at lunchtime we headed to our B & B for the night to drop off our bags. We were greeted by the owner Gloria who instantly made us feel welcome and at home. She had a hard time understanding our central accents, she even thought Tristan was German and kept asking us if we had been to Scotland before. This made for some laughs and she showed us to our room. We quickly changed and headed out to check out our first location on the trip - Craig Phadrig.
Craig Phadrig is the site of an ancient fort that once stood at the top of the wooded hill at the location. The fort is no longer erect but the land it once stood on is still clear and a beautiful view point for looking out over the Beauly Firth.
We walked to the location instead of taking the bus which gifted us with a lot of great scenery on the way including the River Ness and the neighbouring canal. After a short walk along the canal and through some residential areas we reached the foot of the trail. It was a short and moderate walk to the top, perfect for anyone looking to check out some Scottish history or get out of the busy streets whilst in the heart of Inverness.
After taking some shots in and around the fort site and the woods we decided to walk back along the canal and into the city to head for some food and get to bed for our early train ride in the morning.
Saturday 1st July '17.
Up and at them!
Saturday was a very early start, we got up around 0530am after a late night of editing photos and charing camera batteries. We walked the empty streets along the high street and back into Inverness train station where we boarded the 0700am ScotRail service to Thurso. The journey was going to take 4 hours so we got plenty of time to look through the photos from our first day and load up on tea. The views once again were exceptional, every minute of the journey was like something out of a movie or tourist advert. I snapped a bunch of photos on the train and got editing straight away to try and stay as up to date as possible - the hardest thing about taking photos whilst travelling is that you have to get them edited and uploaded as close to live time as possible. It makes you think more about the photos you are taking and the posts you are going to make on social media as opposed to just taking and uploading phone photos all the time. Sometimes it can be stressful but it makes it worthwhile.
We arrived in Thurso after our 4 hour journey and realised we were only 1.8 miles from Scrabster Harbour, which is where we would be boarding the (Northlink Ferries) ferry to head North to Orkney. We made our way to the harbour on a coach and had some time for exploring in and around the harbour before departing. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at the harbour and walked up a nearby hill to get a view of the harbour and the surrounding areas.
Not long after reaching the top of the hill we seen the ferry coming into harbour which would be the one we would be taking to Orkney. The ferry was grand looking, big in size and complete with the amazing Northlink Ferries recently updated branding which includes an awesome viking graphic. We both fell in love with the artwork instantly.
It was that moment watching the ferry pulling into port alongside the lighthouse in front of us that made me feel very lucky to be away at the top of Scotland. We were only about 20 miles from John O'Groats, a place I can vaguely remember visiting with my parents when I was a very young child. We were at one of the most northernly points of mainland Scotland about to embark on a journey to the Orkney Islands to explore and document as a 2 man team for our blog North and for the country's rail company. It was a great moment to have and I felt proud in that moment. From starting the blog 'til now, Tristan and I have come a long way both on a personal level, as friends and as business partners. This was the start of something special.
We boarded the ferry and made off towards Orkney. The journey was only an hour and a half and on route to Stromness we got to witness The Old Man of Hoy. The old red sandstone stack is one of the tallest in the UK and stands at 449 feet - it is quite a sight! I am obsessed with tall structures and this was one of the best I have seen in real life. I took some snaps quickly and made sure to have a moment looking at it with just my two eyes instead of through the viewfinder. The whole side of the island of Hoy was beautiful and had great colours and textures, made for great photos. I absolutely love shooting close ups of natural textures and this was a great experience.
Shortly after passing Hoy we could see the Mainland of the Orkney Islands - the residents of the Orkney's refer to the biggest island as Mainland which consists of many places including the two main settlements, Stromness and Kirkwall.
Once we got off of the ferry we made our way to our hotel for the night, The Stromness Hotel. We recharged phones, cameras and got changed into some lighter clothing. Our objective for the afternoon was to visit Skara Brae - the remains of an ancient neolithic settlement on the West coast of Mainland. Unfortunately due to closing times we decided to wait until the following day to make the trip up. Now that we had the full afternoon and evening to ourselves we decided to look into renting a couple of bikes meaning we could get some exercise and at the same time see parts of the island that interested us. As we were going to do Skara Brae the following day we got on with doing the next days objectives covering all the travel on bikes.
We headed up the main street in Stromness and found a bike hire place called Orkney Cycle. We followed a path into a back garden where we were welcomed by a pleasant lady who had a big garage space full of bikes and bike tools. She got us a couple of bikes from the garage and off we went with no set time to return the bikes, just whenever we were finished for the evening.
Mainland Orkney appears to be mainly flat.. until you are on a bike. The roads are long and lovely to look at. There are a few deceiving inclines on the way to our destination but thankfully a lot of the road is downhill and what better way to start our time on Orkney than a bike ride with the wind smashing through your hair. After a short 5/6 miles we arrived in Stenness, home of the Standing Stones of Stennes. Tristan had previously visited this site and talked very highly of it, I couldn't wait! As soon as I started getting a glimpse of them in the distance I felt very excited and eager to get off the hire bike and get my camera out.
And there they were in all their glory, the Standing Stones of Stenness. The site is quiet, there aren't many people here and it is perfect for snapping away. I imagine and hope that the site is busier later in the Summer period but for today I am happy that there aren't many visitors. We left the bikes at the entrance and made our way into the site. I get my camera out and start looking through the viewfinder as the stones start towering above me. I was in absolute awe looking at the structure, it felt very surreal and intimidating but also made me feel calm and at ease. It's a magnificent thing to see in person and it just sets your imagination off wild thinking about the people who would have came here to worship and hold ceremonies.
The remaining stones are breathtaking, it would be interesting to see what it was like once upon a time when the others were still standing. The site is greatly looked after by Historic Scotland, their work is very apparent here which makes it a pleasure to visit and walk around. The site is very possibly the oldest henge in the British Isles which is another reason it all feels very special.
After walking around and touching the stones we head North along a short path to the Barnhouse Settlement. The neolithic Barnhouse Settlement dates back to circa 3000 BC. There are a number of remains of houses at this site and it was a good taster of what was to come the next day at the more popular area of Skara Brae. The houses look out over the Loch of Harray, another great view point. The amazing thing I found out about the site was that it wasn't actually discovered until 1984 and excavation didn't take place until 1986 through to 1991. To think these buildings lay below the earth all that time and are still in great condition is a huge achievement. Again, the imagination is going crazy and I'm starting to imagine the people living here, wishing there was some recorded footage or photographs of the time.
We made a move further along to the North-West of the stones and arrived at the Ring of Brodgar. This location provided another instant feeling of excitement. It was more exciting just to be there than to photograph it. Sometimes it is good to just stand and take it all in and appreciate it rather than mess around with a camera. I did get some shots of the site but it was quite difficult to really capture the size and beauty of it. Another place I felt really connected to and it was an absolute pleasure seeing it in person.
We left the site after taking it all in as much as we could and cycled through the nearby RSPB reserve. It was another beautiful area but we started to head back to Stromness shortly after due to the high speed wind and the rainfall. Any other day I would have been annoyed at cycling in the rain but I felt too naturally high to get beat up about it. We were cycling the roads on Orkney after seeing some of the oldest Neolithic sites in the whole of the UK, I felt very accomplished and connected with what was around me. We cycled back through the rain and after a lot of up hill and readjusting seat posts we dropped the bikes back at the bike hire and got to the hotel for some food and more photo edits.
Sunday 2nd July '17.
After a great sleep at the Stromness Hotel it was finally time to check out one of the islands main attractions, Skara Brae. We got our cameras packed and jackets on and headed for the site. The good thing about Mainland is that there are a lot of bus services that will drop you a stones throw from all the attractions and they are all very reliable and reasonably priced.
We got to the site and enjoyed a short movie and museum giving us the background of Skara Brae including many facts and theories about the people who resided here all those years ago.
After filling our heads with information we made our way out to the site starting with a replica house which gave us an idea of how the houses would have looked like on the inside. The replica felt very much like what you would imagine the real thing to be like. The stone corridors were long and windy and the rooms were vast and well crafted. The workmanship during the neolithic / new stone age appear to be very thought out and effective.
After the replica you are welcomed by a long path which leads to the actual settlement of Skara Brae, I don't even know what to imagine. I didn't look at anything online about the site before we visited - the only thing I seen prior to the trip was an old framed photograph in the Stromness Hotel of one of the houses, it didn't give much away. I was instantly blown away, the walls of the houses, the bed areas, the entrances, the way they all connected. The site was considerably busy but I still managed to get some photos to try and do it justice. It is like the other sites in Orkney, an absolute must to see in person!
After another short imagination frenzy we started to walk back along the path and past the stone beach front. We had finished the days objectives early and were thinking what we could do to fill our time before heading off on the evening bus to our next destination - Kirkwall.
Leaving Skara Brae with a smile on our faces we made a detour on the way back to Stromness to the cliffs in the Yesnaby area on the West coast of Mainland. Another site that is very deceiving, the sheer height of the cliffs and the size and power of the waves crashing against them is terrifying yet beautiful and mesmerising.
It is the kind of place that you could stay at all day and just watch the waves get bigger as they meet with the rocks, almost the same effect as watching a lava lamp for hours. We got some photos and headed back to Stromness to get our bags before setting off on the short 30 minute bus ride to our next destination - Kirkwall.
Arriving in Kirkwall we had no idea what to expect. We knew we were in a more built up part of Mainland and that we didn't have any objectives for the rest of the day - we thought we would be grabbing a bite to eat and then retiring to bed. We both got a message from our friend Stephen Kemp, co-owner along with his wife of the Orkney Distilling company. Stephen picked us up in an impromptu meeting and we were driven to and treated to a visit of his new distillery / private bar / visitor centre headquarters. The new building will be where his gin Kirkjuvagr will be created and will consist of private tasting rooms and gin bar along with other spaces within. We were the first people to get a tour of the premises and we cannot wait to go back and see it when it's all finished. We headed to Wideford Hill where Stephen showed us views like no other of the Mainland and the other closeby islands of Orkney. On the way up and back down we passed some old bomb shelters from WWII. This trip just never stopped giving.
It has to be said, day 2 and day 3 were just non-stop sightseeing and educational experiences, Orkney is an absolutely wonderful place with great sights and better people.
We said our goodbyes to Stephen after a micro education on Orkney's history and got to bed to rest for the fourth and final day on Orkney before travelling home.
Monday 3rd July '17.
We got up early and got breakfast on time before heading to our final destination (dun dun dun) of our Orkney trip - Shapinsay. Shapinsay is one of the smaller Orkney Islands and is only 25/30 minutes away on one of the local ferries. With a population of around 300 people it's not going to be like anything we've seen this far.
We got on the ferry and before we knew it we were pulling into the terminal. The views coming into the island were amazing, the water was so clear and had a palette of blues and greens and everything in between.
The focal point had the be the main reason we were visiting this island - Balfour Castle.
We walked up the access road to Balfour Castle and the views hit us fairly quickly (to get up close and personal and even inside the castle itself there is the option to book a tour). We got some shots from a distance to fit the whole castle building into out shots and then we looked for anything interesting on the grounds.
Surrounded by the sounds of the water and the Oystercatchers flying around us we checked out a stone tower that wasn't far from the castle. I had originally thought this was an old lighthouse building but after searching for it online we found out it was actually a form of salt water shower complete with a dovecot on top.
After some time spent at the water we headed to the local cafe for something to eat before deciding whether to head back on the ferry we were supposed to get or to stay a further 2/3 hours until the next and last ferry back to Mainland. We decided to go for the latter and began checking the map and walking along and up the island towards Ward Hill - the highest point on the island at only 64 metres above sea level.
The walk consisted mainly of straight narrow road and there was a short incline before reaching fields upon fields upon fields. The roads were so straight and you could see for miles along them, this was another photographers dream. I've always loved seeing old photos of America's route 66 where the road seems to go on for that long it almost disappears into the desert.
After filling a good few hundred megabytes worth of data on just photographs of roads we reached Ward Hill. The top of the hill actually looks higher than it actually is which is great as the view is amazing. You get a full 360 degree view of Shapinsay and the other neighbouring islands including Mainland. We took some photographs and started to head back to the road as we didn't want to miss the last ferry as our ferry from Mainland Orkney back to mainland Scotland was later that night.
We walked through a couple of fields and just as we got to literally the last fence of the fields, it all fell to bits! I was stepping over a farmer's fence and when I landed on the other side my left ankle completely gave way and I fell to the ground with a crunch. I let out a noise that can only be described as the noise a young fan would have made whilst standing in front of Mick Jagger at a gig in the early sixties - not a sound of joy but probably had the same high pitched tone.
I thought that was it, we were going to miss the last ferry back to Kirkwall meaning we wouldn't get the night ferry and I wouldn't get home in time and I wouldn't see my kids for another day. I got Tristan to lift me up from under the shoulders so he could support my weight. I could put weight on my foot but very very little. I told Tristan to go ahead and see if there was anyone around (wishful thinking considering the small population of the island). I hobbled through the rest of the bumpy terrain of the field and finally made it out onto the road. Within a couple of minutes my ankle was the size of a balloon and I could tell I had done some serious damage. To our luck a man appeared and was driving down the hill towards us in his pickup truck. Tristan stopped him and before he could even explain what the problem was the guy was telling us to get in. He was going to pick his wife up from the ferry that was due in that happened to be the one we were getting back. I'll be forever grateful to the dude for giving us a lift in a time of need!
After arriving in Kirkwall it was a few hours of edits and painkillers before heading to the harbour to be greeted once again by Northlink Ferries to start our overnight journey home.
* This photo was taken pre ankle trauma but is probably an accurate resemblance of what I looked like post ankle trauma.
I am extremely grateful to have gotten to visit a big part of the Orkney Islands with one of the best guys I know and especially whilst shooting material for one of the greatest and hard working companies our country has to offer - ScotRail. Travel is always a busy industry and particularly in our beautiful country of Scotland. Hats off to all those involved to make this trip happen and I fully recommend getting out there to #unlockscotland with the #spiritofscotland rail pass.
We will have a ton of images being uploaded to our photosets section throughout July so keep your eyes peeled for updates and please check out the ScotRail website link below to start planning your journey!