First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The Isle of Stronsay sails on the eastern edge of the archipelago of Orkney, a long island flattened on a sea that glinted like black obsidian this sunny morning. Sandstone farmsteads lay low, straddling the island’s low green ridges.
Two great skuas were bullying a gannet, trying to make it disgorge the fish it had just caught, as we steamed into Stronsay. Formalities at Whitehall harbour are at a minimum – you just walk off the ferry, collect your hire cycle and head off along the straight and narrow island roads. Brown and black cattle glanced at us through their long eyelashes as they munched a salad of grass, buttercups and clover.
Down on the rugged east coast the cliffs stepped seaward, footed on dark plates of sandstone. Fulmars eyed us from their nests in cracks and crevices of the rocks above slit-like inlets where a copper-coloured sea rose, hissed and fell away. There was a salt edge to the wind, and a great sense of being far from anywhere on a wide sea.
The path rounded the Vat of Kirbuster, a deep dark chasm of a blowhole, the entrance spanned by a sway-backed rock arch, its layered walls spattered with white blooms of sea campion. Beyond rose the green-capped rock stacks of Two Castles, where early Christian hermits somehow contrived to eke out existence in absolute solitude.
We crossed a stream trickling down through a rushy grassland bright with yellow cross-shaped flowers of tormentil, tiny white eyebright and the stout purple-pink heads of northern marsh orchids. At Carlin Geo a disgorged pellet of feathers, bones and two webbed feet lay on the grass, while a great black-backed gull on the rocks below snapped its beak in satisfied remembrance of this grisly feast.
The green promontory of Lamb Head curved seawards, its neck guarded by the stone-built round base of a Pictish broch, a defensive tower perhaps two thousand years old. In the centre a stone slab had been slid aside from a square-mouthed entrance, revealing a pitch-black chamber below.
Beyond in the Bay of Houseby, the beach of orange kelp and flat rocks seemed to writhe and undulate. It was a mighty haul-out of grey seals, shifting their blubberous bodies towards the water and watching us with solemn round eyes. As we followed the flicker of a wheatear’s white rump inland, a mournful hooting like a convocation of tuneful foghorns broke out behind us – the tideline singing of Stronsay’s seals.
Start: Vat of Kirbuster parking place, Isle of Stronsay, Orkney, KW17 2AG (OS ref HY 681241)
Getting there: Car or passenger ferry from Kirkwall to Whitehall harbour, Stronsay (orkneyferries.co.uk). Bike (free) from Ebenezer Stores, Whitehall (01857-616339); head south on B9060 to Kirbuster parking (signed).
Taxi – 01857-616335.
Walk (7½ miles, easy/moderate, OS Explorer 465): From info board head east on track to coast. Right/south along cliffs for 4 miles to Bay of Houseby. At The Pow (677221), right/inland up concrete farm track. Follow road for nearly 1½ miles past Mid House (670228), South Schoolhouse (668232), Eastbank (672237) and Roadside (675241) to T-junction at Everbay (673246). Right (‘Vat of Kirbuster’); in 600m, right (679250) to start.
Conditions: Unguarded cliff-top paths, beach, quiet lanes
Lunch/Accommodation: Stronsay Hotel, Whitehall (01857-616213, stronsayhotelorkney.com); Storehouse B&B (01857-616263), Stronsay Fishmart (01856-616401)
Tea/cakes/info: Craftship Enterprise Café & Craft shop, Mallet on B9060 between Whitehall and Kirbuster (01857-616249, craftshipenterprise.co.uk)