8 things I learned while stranded in Orkney, Scotland

Dec 8, 2019

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Before I took a trip there to fly the world’s shortest commercial flight, I was surprised by how many people didn’t know where Orkney was, or even that it was in the U.K. It’s an archipelago of around 70 islands, 10 miles north of the coast of Caithness in Scotland.

It was to be my first time there, and I had no idea what to expect as is often the case before I go somewhere new. I prefer the element of surprise and adventure over planning things meticulously.

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However, getting there and back actually had to be planed to the finest detail, as flight schedules and connections made things quite complicated. But no amount of planning could have prevented what unfolded. The morning of my flight dawned gray, wet and windy. I could hear the few passengers who were milling around in the Kirkwall airport waiting for the 15-minute flight to Westray talking about how there hadn’t been a flight between the two tiny islands of Papa Westray and Westray for three days because of bad weather.

Luckily, ours wasn’t canceled and neither was our 90-second nip in the air from Westray to Papa Westray (or Papay as it’s known locally). It was from then that the adventure really started and why I feel so compelled to share what I learned in the hope that it will inspire you to visit this beautiful, intriguing and unique destination.

It’s Orkney, not ‘The Orkneys’

First and foremost, let’s get the name right. Despite this tiny group of islands being officially called “The Orkney Isles,” make sure not to abbreviate to The Orkneys as you will be sternly corrected. Orkadians call their lovely islands simply “Orkney” and that is how tourists should, too. After all, we don’t refer to the islands that make up New Zealand as “The New Zealands,” do we?

The locals are incredibly welcoming

I meet a lot of amazing people on my travels around the globe but the Orkadians really struck a chord with me. The warmth and hospitality I received from Debbie at the Heatherlea Guest House and Amanda at the Hildeval B&B were absolutely outstanding and I would highly recommend their beautiful properties if you’re considering a visit to Kirkwall.

My cozy bedroom at Heatherlea Guest House.

I was taken aback by the friendliness of the people I met on Papa Westray. I was welcomed with open arms to the parish coffee morning and they even accepted a five euro note as payment for my coffee and cake as it was the only cash I had on me.

While I was there I befriended a woman who lived up the street and I told her my story, the travel sickness I had experienced on my journey from Kirkwall and why I was on the island in the first place. She took me into her home, gave me travel sickness tablets and said that I would be more than welcome for dinner should I be stranded on the island.

Then there was Jennifer, the lovely lady who runs the only hostel on the island. She taught me so much about Orkney in the short time we spent together and even took me on a tour of the island in her (electric) car to show me all the sights — I will be forever grateful.

The food is delicious

I didn’t have one bad meal during my short stay. Breakfast each morning was tailored to my taste with a Scottish twist including tattie scones and square sausage. Debbie even went out to buy lactose-free milk for my porridge. I ate out each evening, the first night in The Kirkwall Hotel and had the most amazing Scottish salmon.

The most delicious Scottish salmon that I’ve eaten.

The second night, I tried somewhere a little more modern — the then recently opened Twenty One. There’s an eclectic menu of small plates and a great selection of local gins, cocktails and draft beers.

One of Kirkwall’s newest restaurants – Twenty One

Read more: How to survive traveling as a vegan in Scotland

The weather can play havoc with travel plans

I found out the hard way that weather conditions in Orkney can be rather unpredictable and somewhat disruptive to travel plans. After a few hours exploring Papa Westray I headed back to the airport to find out that my flight off the island and back to Kirkwall had been canceled and that the last flight of the day was full. This meant I would miss my flight onward to Aberdeen as well as my fourth and final planned flight of the day back to London.

I was presented with two options by the two members of staff running the Papa Westray’s air traffic control and ground operations. I could either catch two boats and a bus back to Kirkwall (my idea of a nightmare) and rebook myself onto flights the following day or stay in the only hostel on the island and hope that I’d be able to get off the island the following day. As I absolutely hate traveling by boat but wanted to try and avoid having to rebook my flights, I thought I’d take my chances and head back to the airport and hope that the last flight of the day was able to land and that it had an empty seat.

As fate would have it, the flight was canceled. As much as it would have been lovely to stay in the hostel, I took a travel sickness tablet and headed to the port.

The first and smaller of the two boats I took to get back to Kirkwall. The tilt on this photo is because it was rocking so much!
(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)
The second, slightly larger and more stable boat from Westray to Kirkwall.

My point here is to try and be as flexible as possible if you’re planning a trip to Orkney. Maybe give yourself an extra day at the end of your trip for any unexpected weather disruptions and do some research on the various different transport options available to you before you leave — just in case you end up in my situation.

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They make their own gin — and it’s good stuff

There was me thinking that Scotland’s main alcohol drink was Scotch whisky — oh how I was wrong. I discovered that the country also boasts many gin distilleries including Kirkjuvagr in Kirkwall. I tried this honey and raspberry flavored Old Tom gin and it was so good that I can assure you if I didn’t have hand luggage only I would have bought a bottle (or three) to take back to London with me.

Orkadian Kirkuvagr Old Tom gin.

THE ENVIRONMENT IS TAKEN VERY SERIOUSLY

In times when all eyes are on the health of our planet, it’s great to see when people and places are taking the lead in trying to make a difference before it’s too late. Orkney has invested in a wind turbine project as a source of energy for its islanders. There are also plans to set a rule that only electric cars are to be operated on Papa Westray.

It’s stunning

I thought that the islands might be quite bleak and desolate. But, despite the awful weather I had during my visit to Papay, I could still appreciate the beauty of the rugged island landscape. There is so much charm and atmosphere on this remote island that no matter the weather, you’re sure to see some stunning sights.

(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)
Crab cages stored by the sea on Papa Westray’s eastern coast.

You can see the sea from pretty much wherever you’re standing on Papa Westray.

(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)
Nautical scenes on Papa Westray’s coastline.

At times the island felt almost abandoned and lost in time.

(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)
An old wreck spotted while walking down one of the many single lane roads.

There is also a visitor’s center which you can pop in and visit anytime. It, too, is blessed with stunning sea views.

(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)
The view from Papay Visitor’s Centre.

Right at the north of the island there is a beautiful old church and graveyard that is often used by Orkadians living on the island for musical performances and other special events.

(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)
The old St Boniface Kirk (church).

Inside the décor is modest and rustic.

(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)
The inside of St Boniface Church.

Orkney’s Mainland also has its fair share of delights to see.

(Photo by Dan Ross/The Points Guy)
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.

Cash is the way to pay

As TPG employees, we do as much of our spending as possible on our points and miles-earning credit cards. Unlike America where Amex is accepted pretty much everywhere, in Orkney it most certainly is not. Paying with card in Kirkwall on the mainland is pretty straightforward, as long as it’s not an Amex. Taxis to and from the airport only accepted cash (but they are looking at making it possible to pay with card soon), restaurants accepted debit cards and regular credit cards (just not Amex) and the only place I was able to pay with Amex was the Hildeval B&B where I stayed on my second night.

On the smaller islands, I had trouble paying with anything other than cash, and on Papa Westray there isn’t even an ATM. However, despite a very weak signal, I was able to pay for some snacks at the only shop on the island with my debit card.

Bottom Line

I am so glad I was fortunate enough to get to experience the adventure and beauty of Orkney. I will most certainly go back, this time with some more time to do exploring. If you’re the kind of person who likes to journey the road less traveled, then Orkney is the place for you. The laid back way of life is a great way to disconnect from the fast-paced world many of us live in. Not only that, but mobile phone signal can be intermittent, so you can use your trip to really switch off. I’d highly recommend it.

All photos by Daniel Ross/The Points Guy.

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