Travels on Orkney

When we arrived at John o’Groats, it was about 2.30 in the afternoon. We aren’t too interested in the general tourist stuff, so other than an opportunity for a great selfie, there wasn’t a lot to hold us there. We hadn’t planned much past John o’Groats, so back in Elton the van we set about planning the next part of our journey.

We were actually a bit surprised to realise there was a ferry terminal in Gills Bay just a few miles down the road, that could take us across to Orkney.

                The ferry that took us across to Orkney

Orkney was definitely on our itinerary, and quite unexpectedly it became our next destination. A quick check on the weather revealed the winds would be going up to thirty or forty mph the next day – we didn’t fancy a fifty minute sea crossing in those winds so we made the snap decision to get across to Orkney that afternoon. Luckily being a quiet time of year they had space on the 6.30 pm ferry, so we turned up, paid our £107 (one way) and sat in the queue waiting to board. Scarily they made us reverse our 7.5m van down the narrow 30 metre ferry “on-ramp”, and then they threw a couple of planks under the rear wheels at the last minute to stop the van bottoming out as we actually rolled onto the ferry. Made me feel a bit of a wuss as I watched them reversing 50 foot artics down the same ramp.

We thought travelling across the water in the dark would be disappointing, but it was a lovely journey seeing the lights of all the coastal villages, and then as we arrived into Scapa Flow, the main piece of water through the middle of the Orkney Islands, there were three oil rigs brightly lit up making an amazing spectacle in the water.

Leaving the ferry at St Margaret’s Hope, we drove to our proposed wild camping spot in the dark, knowing we were parking close to the beach and waters edge but having no clue on what we would be seeing in the morning.

Our first daylight view of Orkney was when we awoke to a beautiful view across golden sands and lovely bay.

Our first daylight view across blue seas and golden sands

We spent four nights in Orkney travelling around “Mainland” – the main Orkney Island. Each of our stops was overlooking the water and beautiful beaches; in fact pretty much everywhere we went across the island we had stunning views of sparkling seas and amazing beaches.

What sets Orkney apart however is its amazing history. Most views are dominated by Scapa Flow, the piece of water in the centre of the Orkney Islands. Most people will have heard of Scapa Flow, this famous – or infamous? – piece of water that saw so much activity in both the first and second World Wars.

In both wars, being such a perfect natural harbour, it became home to the British Navy. And in both wars, to protect the navy from marauding enemy submarines entering into Scapa Flow, ships were intentionally sunk to block the smaller entrances into Scapa Flow. Many of the rusty hulls of these “block ships” can still be seen today.

Another rusty  “block ship”
Rusty remnants of a sunken “block ship” – intentionally sunk to prevent German submarines entering Scapa Flow












A couple of events dominate the history of Scapa Flow:

  • With the surrender of Germany in the First World War, 74 ships of the German navy were interred in Scapa Flow pending decisions on their future. Seven months into the internment the German Commander made the decision to scuttle the entire fleet. 52 of the German ships actually sank in Scapa Flow. Most were later salvaged for scrap.
  • In October 1939, during World War 2 a German submarine did manage to find its way into Scapa Flow and managed to hit the British Destroyer “The Royal Oak” with two torpedos. The ship sank with the loss of 833 lives.

These are just two such examples of dozens, but with such a history, it was impossible to look out over Scapa Flow without being in awe of the history this single piece of water has seen over the last century.

We took a foot ferry across to the island of Hoy to visit the Scapa Flow naval museum and old naval base, a trip well worth the effort to see and feel the history of this amazing place.

Today the Navy’s abandoned Scapa Flow, and the view across the water view is dominated by three giant oil rigs.

View across Scapa Flow, with salmon farm in the foreground, and Oil Rigs in the distance

Our other main activity during our trip to Orkney was our visit to Skara Brae,

The insides of a 5000 year home – as it was found

a 4,000 year old Neolithic village which was uncovered from sand dunes during a wild storm in 1850.

This was an incredible place to visit, the walls of the houses are still standing, and alleyways are still rooved with their original stone slabs. The internal interior fittings of each house are still there – after 4,000 years! Gob smacking!

Skara Brae – Neolithic settlement










Orkney Ale – decent beer at last

And having complained on previous blogs about the availability of decent beer in Scotland, a trip to the Orkney brewery set everything straight again! Decent draft beer at last, and while I decided against the 10% Dark Island Reserve, I did bring away a bottle of 8.5% Skull Splitter – which I’ll be saving for a special occasion when I’m not driving!

We just touched on what this place had to offer, but if you ever get the chance – visit Orkney!

There were a few other highlights and lowlights of our visit to Orkney – the biggest highlight was seeing Otters, our first of this trip. Two lowlights – a little bump in the van as we were reversing over some grass, broke a few bits of the plastic valance at the back of Elton the van. A quick fix with duct tape made it look ok, but it will need fixing when we get back down South. And our electric step’s broken on the van, suspect the gears are broken, it’s a pain having to get in and out without the step but we’re managing ok, I guess a trip back to CamperUK to get this fixed under warranty- there’s nobody in remote Scotland that can fix this!

Despite these couple of setbacks, we’re still absolutely loving being on the road. We still look at each other and grin as we talk about what we’re doing. It still feels like we’re on holiday. I guess this feeling may change eventually but there’s no sign of it right now! The phrase “Life’s one long holiday” is very apt for us.

It would be easy to sum up our experience of the Scottish weather on this trip in one word  – Windy!

It’s been an incessant wind since we arrived on the East coast, and the further North we’ve come it’s blown harder and colder. As we sit writing this blog, we’ve had to move the van away from the cliff-top; the 50+ mph winds are certainly giving our van a good shaking about and the cliff top doesn’t feel like a safe place to be. We’ve watched with envy the soaring temperatures back home and we are a tad jealous of that!

One other thing that has been a bit of a disappointment has been the Aurora – northern lights. We haven’t seen them yet. It’s very high on our list of things to see while we’re here but we’ve suffered with almost constant night-time cloud on our journey so far. We’re banking on that changing sometime soon and we do hope to be able to post aurora pics some time – seeing the Aurora is a bucket list item for us.

Finally – we managed to get our journey route published onto google maps. Anybody who’s interested in the route we’ve travelled and the places we’ve stayed can see the details on our blog site here.

Sorry for the history lesson in this blog, we’ll try not to do it too often!

Next Blog – Living life in a motorhome


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