30th June 2017
Started with the 9.45am train from Dundee to Perth then catching the 11.15am train at Perth joining up with Jawn who got the train in Glasgow heading straight to Inverness. Always love getting the train, way less stressful, can put the feet up, relax & enjoy a nice hot tea.
Train journey took around 2.5hrs to Inverness, very easy, best to make sure you get a good seat as soon as you get on the train as it can be very busy - Inverness is a popular destination. The train journey went very fast, plenty of beautiful views on route and lots of things to plan with Jawn for the adventures we were about to embark on taking us up north to the Orkney Islands.
As soon as we arrived in Inverness we didn’t want to waste anytime, we headed straight to Ardlair Guest House getting a very warm welcome from Gloria the owner of the home, full of character and good vibes. She was asking us all sorts of questions, what brings us to Inverness, where we are from, what we do, almost getting interrogated but in a pleasant way, it did make us chuckle when she thought that we were German haha, “I mean Jawn is from Glasgow and doesn’t sound one bit foreign, i am from Dundee with an American/Canadian twang from my years living and playing professional Ice hockey internationally over there,” It was a funny start to our morning at Ardlair Guest House, Inverness.
After getting comfortably settled into our room we headed straight into town, short 10 minute walk if that, grabbing a quick bite to eat on the go then straight into exploring. Our plan was to climb Craig Phadrig, a hill fort on the summit, which is known to have been the base of one of the chief kings of Scotland, Bridei Mac Maelchon who was the king of the Picts from 554 to 584. A hill fort is a type of rampart made of earth, stone and/or wood with an external ditch. I was very excited to get to Craig Phadrig, l am a big fan when it comes to the Scottish history and the people who accommodated such areas. We headed out of town following the main road past the cemetery and golf course, then making our way alongside the canal river following the pathway. As we were walking down the pathway we kept getting asked by people if we were following the “Biggest little railway in the world”, we had no idea what they were even talking about. Quickly finding out that it will be an attempt to build the biggest Steam Engine model railway travel ever constructed, stretching 72 miles along the Great Glen Way, from Fort William to Inverness. They would have to build a railway track 3 inches wide moving through all sorts of terrain while it makes its way through the Scottish Highlands. Very cool, funny how we bumped into something like this “the benefits of adventuring” it was getting filmed/documented for a Channel 4 TV series by Love Productions, “Keep your eyes peeled, lm sure it will be something fun to watch when it gets aired”.
After scoping that out we then made our move onwards to Craig Phadrig. Finally making it to the forested hill with a small 564ft climb to the top, the views were gorgeous of Beauly Firth to the North and River Ness to the North-East. The walk is easy to the top, nothing too strenuous, l highly recommend this if you’re a fan of views or like the outdoors especially if you're in Inverness for a short time. We then took our time heading down back towards town, grabbing some dinner then getting an early night for our early start.
1st July 2017
Always way easier getting up when you know there is more adventures ahead. 5.30am start - shower, cereal for breakfast then head to Inverness train station for 7am train to Thurso. Our whole trip we would be using our Spirit of Scotland pass that allows travel on trains, buses, coaches and ferries on a huge number of routes around the whole of Scotland, making it super easy getting about rather than trying to fuss about with all sorts of different tickets.
I was expecting the train to be very busy similar to the train l got from Perth-Inverness, it was empty considering this is one of Scotland’s six great scenic routes on the far North Line. The train journey took around 4hrs, definitely didn’t disappoint showing off why its one of the top scenic routes.
We arrived in Thurso at 11.59am and jumped a coach straight to Scrabster a few hours before our Northlink ferry to Stromness at 1.15pm. There are a few options you have getting from Thurso to Scrabster including walking as it is only 1.8miles away. We wanted to have enough time so we could grab a Seafood lunch since Scrabster is known for fresh seafood. Unfortunately it wasn’t open, going with the second best option grabbing a quick snack at the ferry café. We then made a move towards Scrabster Loch located behind the lighthouse close to our departure gate. Didn’t manage to make it all the way to the Loch we didn’t have enough time, but still finding a great place chilling out snapping some shots seeing our Northlink Ferry arrive into the harbour with its huge viking emblem on the side “Love this emblem “.
We had about 30 minutes before our ferry departure. The walk took 20minutes to the departure gates, picked up our tickets, waited a few minutes then boarded the ferry for a short 1.5hr journey. Once again no stress very chilled and easy “This is my main focus when travelling - “NO STRESS”.
The ferry ride certainly didn’t disappoint, with comfortable seating and a clear day we could see for miles, as we cruised passed Hoy we got amazing views of the Old Man of Hoy (449 foot red sandstone stack, separated from the mainland by 60 metres giving its unique appearance and being one of the tallest stacks in Britain). What l would give right now to have my climbing gear and climb Old Man of Hoy, it has been added to the Scottish bucket list!
We arrived in Stromness, Orkney. We were booked in to stay at Stromness Hotel, easy 5 minute walk, check in then head to Skara Brae. Skara Brae has been on my list for a while along with the other hundred places l want to visit in Scotland but this place particularly. Skara Brae is a stone built Neolithic settlement consisting of eight clustered houses that were occupied around 3180BC to 2500BC. What’s even more fascinating is that not a lot of people are aware that these date back older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
Unfortunately renting a bike or walking we would not make it in time to visit the site, it closes at 5.30pm. Quite sad about this but we had a back up plan to visit the stones of Stenness, Barnhouse settlement, Ness of Brodgar, Rings of Brodgar and check out the RSPB Scotland’s Brodgar Nature Reserve which were all within the vicinity of each other making it a great place to visit. We quickly figured out that we could rent bicycles along the road, we walked 10 minutes from our hotel towards Orkney Cycle Hire. I was a little worried because it was almost 6pm and many places close early on the Orkney Island. We were in luck being warmly greeted by the lovely lady who runs Orkney Cycle, renting us the bikes for £8 and said “hand them back whenever you can tonight and make sure not to get caught in the bad wind, Enjoy”.
The skies were clear with a few clouds nothing too dramatic, we were not that worried about the weather but lm guessing she has more of a weary eye for the weather round here than what was predicted. As we left all chuffed that our back up plan was working out for the 5 mile bike ride to the stones, we quickly learned that Orkney is very deceiving, even though it looks flat there is lovely long ascending hills with the added bonus of the wind the lady had warned us about blowing hard against us. The bike lady was right; the wind was very strong which made it ten times harder. This didn’t stop us reaching the stones.
The Standing Stones of Stenness are one of many Neolithic Monuments, being one of the oldest henge sites in the British Isles that were very much associated with traditions and rituals for the Norse Gods.
My favourite thing about it all is that the majority of the stone sites in Scotland and here in Orkney are all very well maintained, not overcrowded by tourists and the best thing is that you can really indulge in the elements of the magical structures. You are allowed to touch the stones, sit next to them without being interrupted by hundreds of tourists who just want a selfie, l mean there is nothing wrong with taking a selfie next to the stones but having the time to enjoy them is an extremely important part of the experience. These sacred sites are special, being able to appreciate them, is part of what its all about unlike places such as Stonehenge that has thousands of tourists on a constant basis and you can only get within 6 feet of the stones plus these are free to visit and not a money maker scheme as long as you are giving back to community of the islands and respecting the land. This is one reason why l really do love Scotland and what it has to offer!
After hanging out with the Stones of Stenness we then walked a few minutes towards the beautiful loch of Harray following the signs for Barnhouse settlement, another Neolithic site revealing the base structure of 15 houses. This settlement dates back to 3000BC, another experience l will never forget. Walking into the houses and what’s left of them and imagining how life was back then - it's a very surreal moment comparing it to how we live to date. Something very special about these Barnhouses - being there having the chance to take it all in and appreciate them was amazing.
As this evening keeps escalating more and more back into the past, we make our way alongside the Stenness Watch Stone, which is known to mark the approach to Ring of Brodgar, our next destination. Before you head to Ring of Brodgar make sure and have a look at either sides of the small bridge, you may see some of the old stepping-stones connected to the Barnhouse Village. Everywhere l look or go lm making sure l have my eyes peeled “You never know what you might stumble on, there is still heritage sites that have yet to be uncovered”
The Ring of Brodgar is beautiful, feeling very much mind blown already with the previous stones. Now lm hanging out in what feels like an almost ancient stargate, there is no evidence to suggest this but this is the vibe lm getting, pictures of these Neolithic sites don’t do them justice.
Getting the opportunity to travel to a place this beautiful with so much history in my homeland is a real privilege, especially having zero pressure of closing times. It’s a true privilege us Scots have all this on our doorstep that is fully visible for the public eye, adding only more depth to why Scotland is a place you must visit.
The weather was starting to escalate quickly, the wind was getting stronger, the rain was getting heavier, it was getting dark and we needed to cycle back. The cycle back was not the easiest; there is a good reason why Orkney is one of the top self-sustainable islands in the world. Orkney having its exposure to the Atlantic and North Sea winds helping the land produce renewable energy. Orkney is home to the highest concentration of small and micro turbines in the UK, over 500 domestic scale wind turbines and even more impressive is that Orkney has one of the lowest populations of any British Country. Orkneys micro wind turbines saved over 50,000 tonnes of Co2 emissions to date. Basically what lm trying to say is that Orkney gets extremely windy, making it very difficult cycling against the wind.
Safe to say we made it back to our hotel settling down for the night and ready for our adventure to Skara Brae the next day.
3rd July 2017
All about Skara Brae today, like l previously mentioned l was super excited about visiting this place. Skara Brae is only around 8 miles from Stromness, not far and we really lucked out again with a wonderful day on the island. Also known as the Scottish Pompeii, it really is as beautiful from all the reviews/pictures l have seen, we got our entrance tickets then straight into the visitor center for a short video explaining briefly what Skara Brae was, how much they understand about this culture but then again a lot of unknown mysteries. Then into a small museum filled with artifacts from the site, material used for building, what they eat etc.… All very interesting but what baffled me more is how little they know about this culture. Its crazy to think that this place was only discovered in 1850 due to wild storms ripping the grass from a high dune later revealing the sacred site. After leaving the small museum you then come to a small example house showing what it would of exactly been like during the time when this culture thrived, most people would only live until mid thirties if that. Crazy to think how much things have changed in regards to life expectancy nowadays.
Being inside the example house it was remarkable how well protected you were from outside being right next to the coast. As we made our way out of the house towards Skara Brae myself and Jawn easily getting distracted by the Cairns people had previously built on the Bay of Skaill right next to the heritage site, we took a detour feeling it was relevant to add to the collection of Cairns that had been previously built.
After being big kids building Stone Cairns we then headed to the site, l felt like l was in Lord of the Rings and a hobbit returning home, very very cool place. I wish they still built homes like this. Maybe it’s an idea for the future.
We spent a good amount of time circling the area, snapping away, and enjoying the views while trying not to get blasted by the sand the wind kept blowing in our face. I recommend before visiting Skara Brae calling them in advance, they sometimes shut down the site if the wind is to strong bringing sand in from the Bay covering the site, Skara Brae is a very well preserved site with constant upkeep needed, make sure you always plan and have the option of two days you can visit incase one day its closed.
I felt very content finally visiting the site and ticking another Scottish place off my list, it was then onto another adventure. We headed down the coast back towards Stromness stopping at Yesnaby on the west coast of the Island, the views were insane, the structure of the Old Red Sandstone coastal cliffs were remarkable & very unique in there own way proving why Orkney is constantly thriving in beauty. Please be very cautious and careful when approaching the edge of the cliffs, the sandstone can be brittle, slippy and recently a man slipped while taking a picture falling straight to his death.
The day was not over we headed back to the Stomness hotel, picked up our bags they kindly let us leave behind after checking out, then grabbing the 5.40pm bus to Kirkwall taking 30 minutes.
When we got to Kirkwall we headed to Shore hotel, short walk from the bus station, dumped our bags in the room then headed out for a bite to eat at Lucano a little Italian place located in the town centre. After eating, we then met up with our friend Stephen Kemp Co-Founder of Kirkjuvagr Gin who gave us a tour of his building in progress for his new distillery/visitor centre that will be up and running sometime in 2018. Stephen is a local man, great vibes, all about helping the local community grow as well as having his own construction company making him very aware of the layout of the land & having an even better understanding helping the Orkney Islands thrive in creating a self sustainable eco environment. It’s a great thing seeing/learning about what Stephen is doing, what he has accomplished so far and all very exciting what the future holds for him in Scotland. Stephen didn’t stop there he took us around the Island giving us a local insight and ending it with a good chat on top of Wideford Hill, giving us amazing 360 views of the Orkney Islands.
What a great end to the night getting us ready for our adventure to Shapinsay, another Orkney island of the north coast of mainland Scotland.
4th July 2017
Was feeling sad today being it our final day adventuring with ScotRail as had to get back home but we were going to make sure we made the most of the day. Their are two Spirit of Scotland pass options when you go for the ScotRail passes, one being four days unlimited travel over eight consecutive days for £139 or the other option of eight days unlimited travel over 15 days for £179. Next time lm going to be sure to do the 15 day pass, there is so much to see alone on the Orkney islands that you could do it over a solid two weeks adventuring.
A solid hearty breakfast at the shore hotel, pack the rest of our clothes then leave them at the hotel, grab the ferry from Kirkwall-Shapinsay, 25 minutes long. Shapinsay has a population of 300 people, the island is known for specialising in beef and lamb that export thousands of cattle and sheep annually fitting in with the Norse meaning for Shapinsay “Helpful Island”. The main focus on this island probably has to be Balfour Castle one of the most northerly castles in the world making it very unique, created by two men David Balfour the 4th Laird of Balfour and Trenaby and David Bryce one of leading architects of his generation. Unfortunately we could not get very close to the castle without a pre booked tour, the castle recently being bought for £2.7 million. We still managed to get some beautiful snaps of the castle giving us more time to go explore rest of the island.
Made our way down to the tower located right next to the Balfour gardens before you enter the castle grounds. I was fascinated by this tower and no wonder, it was originally an abandoned Dishan Tower - Salt Water Shower with a Dovecote placed on top (Dovecote is free standing structures with pigeonholes for birds to nest) I thought this was extremely interesting and something that l wasn’t aware of at the time.
It was then onto sit down and grab a bite to eat, we were starving. Stopped in the local and only café on the Island, The Smithy Café. Having some delicious homemade lentil soup ending the munch with some fresh scones and raspberry jam. The food didn’t disappoint giving us the energy for the remainder of our time on Shapinsay.
We had about 3 hrs to kill until our return ferry; our plan was to walk round the whole island, very small only 11.4 sq miles. Our only detour would be up to the highest point, Ward Hill 64m then back to continue on round the island.
Every field we passed the cows would come rushing over to us, they were the friendliest cows l have ever come in contact with. Stroking their noses, feeding them grass, hanging with the cows having a good time. Time just seemed to disappear, the sun was shining and we now had only about an hour left until we had to be back for the ferry, we rushed up through the fields to Ward Hill enjoying the views for a quick 10 minutes.
Then as Jawn and me were rushing back, there was one last fence we had to climb over. I was impressed we made it until the last day before Jawn did something clumsy, he is good at being clumsy on the hills. Jawn jumped the fence landed the wrong way giving his ankle a twist, luckily coming out with only a bad sprained ankle & lots of bruising. We ended up flagging down a farmer in his truck coming to the rescue just makingour ferry as poor Jawn hobbled his way in the truck then onto the ferry. It was a nightmare, but thank god it happened on the last day. Jawn was full of many laughs, you can check out a picture of his ankle on his blog write up.
Felt good to be safely back into Kirkwall having that scare on Shapinsay, we headed straight to Helgis, a local traditional Orkney Viking designed pub. Helgi's certainly didn’t disappoint serving some great food. Recommend if you plan on eating at any restaurants in Orkney book in advance, Helgi's was fully reserved; we lucked out getting a table.
The day had come to an end and so had our adventures, we were due to depart on the 11.45pm Northlink ferry in our sleeper cabin for the 7hr ferry right back into the port of Aberdeen catching the 7.39am train. The train station is across the road from the port making it super simple to catch any train that fits in with your schedule.
With the Spirit of Scotland pass you can use it for additional extras too like money off car hire, loch cruises and steam travel. The journey planned using the pass went super smooth with zero problems. There are a few passes available from Highland Rover, Rail and Sail to city days out from either Glasgow or Edinburgh. Many options to accommodate whichever fits best.
A huge thank you to ScotRail, Visit Orkney and Northlink Ferries, you are all awesome and l look forward to travelling with you all again. Thumbs up for all these services.