First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Among the Orkney islands, Hoy is the odd man out. The other isles of the archipelago lie low and green off the northern tip of mainland Scotland. But Hoy rises in a series of steep dark hills, culminating in the lowering 1500-ft bulk of Ward Hill.
From the pier at Moaness I bucketed along the rough road to Rackwick aboard the Hoy taxi. Once down there in the sparsely populated old fishing hamlet where big red and grey cliffs fall sheer into Rackwick Bay, I felt a long way from anywhere.
When young composer Peter Maxwell Davies met Orkney’s national poet George Mackay Brown at Rackwick in 1970, Brown pointed out a derelict house on the hillside, roofless, windowless and with decades of compacted sheep muck inside. Davies was delighted. The cottage was to be his home for the next 25 years, a harbour of peace as he composed and walked the hills of Hoy.
I set off up the grassy hillside track, crossing springs that glinted down over mats of moss and lichens. Soon the path became a well-paved route, the dusky pink granite sand sparkling between the stones. Turning the corner of the hill of Moor Fea, the sea ahead was a silken blue, the coast a dark red jumble of sandstone cliffs where fulmars planed on stiff wings.
The path ran north above the flat green and purple tableland of Rora Head, the Burn of Stourdale tumbling from the lip of slanted red cliffs in a grey mare’s tail of spray.
The Old Man of Hoy is a geological phenomenon, a slender sea stack of sandstone 450 feet high, rising from its footing on the rocky shore to a summit almost level with the cliffs. I saw it a mile away, its profile irresistibly reminiscent of General de Gaulle – receding chin, moustache, great prow of a nose and military kepi all present and correct.
The cliff path ran out to a viewing point. Fulmars, kittiwakes, herring gulls and guillemots lined the cracks and crevices of the Old Man. As I stood and stared, a horizontal prism formed in the air, bent in an arch and touched its seaward end to the foot of the stack, a once-in-a-lifetime rainbow.
The path from Rackwick back to Moaness led through a wild glen among the hills, a narrow cleft threaded by a boggy old road, as remote as could be. I came down to Moaness Pier as evening fell, the light going out of the day and a green flicker of the Northern Lights behind the hill of Cuilags to add the final touch of magic to the walk.
Start: Rackwick, Isle of Hoy, Orkney KW16 3NJ (OS ref ND 200997)
Finish: Moaness Pier, Isle of Hoy KW16 3NJ (HY 244040)
Getting there: Ferry (orkneyferries.co.uk), Stromness-Moaness, Isle of Hoy
Hoy taxi (01856-791315) to Rackwick
Walk (8½ miles, rough moorland walking, OS Explorer 461): From Rackwick follow ‘Old Man of Hoy’ signs past schoolhouse Folk Museum, uphill and along track for 2¼ miles to cliff viewpoint opposite Old Man of Hoy (HY 177007). Return to Rackwick. Back up road. In 400m cross Rackwick Burn (202001); follow path (‘Moaness 6.5 km’). In 2½ miles join road at Sandy Loch (219032); follow it down to Moaness Pier.
Conditions: Unguarded cliff-tops; Rackwick Glen track is boggy. Take midge repellent! – Avon Skin-so-Soft is effective.
Accommodation: Stromabank Hotel, Longhope, South Walls, Isle of Hoy KW16 3PA (01856-701494, stromabank.co.uk)
Orkney International Science Festival: 6-12 September; oisf.org