The meanderings of an outdoorsy sort of person


Orkney Saga



A five day cycling trip from Newtonmore to the Orkney Isles via John O'Groats and back home through Aberdeenshire. I cycled 259 miles at an average speed of 10.8 mph. The wind was mostly behind me and the weather was generally good, apart from one rainy day. I used my 'red MTB' with slick tyres, had only one minor mechanical problem and no punctures. The bulk of my kit was carried on front panniers which balanced the bike very well. I kept all my day things in a 'rackpack' on the rear carrier; this was easily detached and used as a shoulder bag while visiting café's. I spent about £75 in 5 days on incidental expenses and a further £75 on trains and ferries. My kit was kept to a minimum, less than 15lbs, but I was very glad that I had taken a lightweight sleeping bag as I used it every night.

Day 1 Newtonmore to Wheems Bothy (South Ronaldsay) - 32 miles

The lead up to any trip is always tense as lists from previous expeditions are scrutinised, modified and the required equipment assembled. I felt anxious as I waited for my train at Kingussie Station at the start of my personal 'Orkneysaga', my ticket was booked and my bags were packed but there are too many stories about booked bikes failing to get onto trains. I felt a huge sense of relief when the Inverness-bound train rattled into the station on time and with room for me and my bike. This anxiety returned at Inverness Station when three bikes vied for two places. As this was the only possible train north and I had a ticket I asserted my rights and got on the train nae bother. Just as we pulled out of Inverness the announcement came that, due to the sudden resignation of the caterer there will be no food or drink available on the journey. A good job I had some with me as it was a four hour journey. I felt sorry for the people that didnt. Why couldn't the announcement have been made before departure rather than just after, to allow folk to stock up? The train journey from Inverness to Thurso is surely part of the holiday. Interesting coastal scenery gives way gradually to the remote vastness of Sutherland and Caithness.

Sutherland from the Train

You realise how far north you are when the train stops at Helmsdale for ten minutes to wait for THE southbound train to pass. We were a long, long way from London. After Helmsdale, the vast emptiness of the flow country was awesome. From the train window I could see miles and miles of NOTHING. No roads, no houses, no trees, no sheep, no crops and no mountains (except in the distance). Of course this is not strictly true, it just felt like it; the train stops occasionally at places like Syre and Kinbreck where there are a few houses. I wondered what people do to earn a living in such places. As we got nearer to Thurso, areas of stunted trees appeared, a legacy of a misguided government policy to plant trees, to the detriment of its landscape and wildlife and to the advantage of the wealthy via tax incentives. Further on, similar trees were being felled in an attempt to redress this balance. We approached the curiously named Georgemas Junction where the driver and the direction of travel changed ends as the back of the train became the new front. Thurso arrived and I did not linger long. The town has a slightly seedy air of neglect about it, more of a place for locals to go shopping than for tourists to visit. I had 20 miles to cycle to John O'Groats and a ferry to catch. It was warm, bright and the wind was behind me so I sailed along quite happily, noting that Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain, was not far away. Maybe a visit for another time? John O'Groats is everything I and any tourist would have expected it to be but I still took the obligatory photo of my bike leaning on the Land's End signpost. 

John O'Groats

The girls in the Woolen Mill Café were kind to me; they produced an excellent baked potato and coffee despite being officially closed. Thanks girls. The ferry to South Ronaldsay accommodates a large number of passengers but as this was early May there were only about 20 of us. A family with fractious children reminded me of days gone by when our children were small and made me glad that they, and I, are older now. The crossing was interesting; the Pentland Firth is open to the Atlantic and the swell was impressive, making the boat rise and fall spectacularly. These waves had traveled a long way judging by the lengthy interval between them. On South Ronaldsay the lushness was quite a contrast to the bleakness of Caithness and, for me, completely unexpected. Sure, there were no trees but the grass was long and very green. The roads were smooth and well looked after. I had missed the rain and had only six miles to go to my accommodation at Wheems Bothy Independent Hostel. En route I was treated to the sight of one of the most intense double rainbows I have ever seen, a multicoloured double arch rising out of verdant fields.

Orkney Rainbows

I found my accommodation easily and was made very welcome by the owner, Mike. The hostel is small, interesting and on an organic farm. I got myself something to eat and chatted to a Canadian couple who were spending a month 'tatty picking' in return for their keep. The things people do for fun! I slept well, lulled to sleep by the rain drumming on the hostel roof. I dreamt of blue skies and warm sunshine. What would tomorrow bring?

Wheems Bothy

Day 2 - Wheems Bothy (South Ronaldsay) to Rackwick (Hoy) - 43 miles

Having gone to sleep with the rain drumming on the hostel roof I woke up to the same sound and knew I was in for a wet day; no surprise really in view of the weather forecast. My two 'tattie picker' friends had started work early so I was left in peace to make my preparations and leave at 9am in heavy rain The scene at the farm was reminiscent of something out of the 19th century with figures bent double in the middle of a muddy, wind swept field. I wished them luck and was glad it wasn't me lifting spuds. Although it was raining, there was an up side to the day; it was fairly warm and the strong wind from the south east was behind me as I cycled north and west, so to some extent I was lucky. The day would have been a dour affair had I had a head wind as well as the rain. I raced along on quiet roads, running before the wind with my sails (waterproofs) fully out to catch the wind. Quiet, smooth roads led me from South Ronaldsay across the Churchill Barriers to the islands of Burray, Glims Holm, and then to the Italian Chapel

The Italian Chapel

on Lamb Holm. . The story of the Chapel and the Churchill Barriers is an interesting one. The barriers were a massive civil engineering task put there after the sinking of the Royal Oak (with the loss of 800 lives) in 1939 by a German u-boat. Italian prisoners of war helped construct the barriers (to keep u-boats out of Scapa Flow) and it was these men who also built the chapel. These barriers then proved convenient for placing roads on, thus linking many islands and considerably reducing their isolation. I was pleased to get out of the rain and into the chapel. The chapel, a converted old nissan hut, proved well worth the visit. I was stunned by the quality of the work; it is an example of triumph over adversity. The links between the islanders and the families of the prisoners who created it continue to this day. A little refreshed and dried out, the next stop was Kirkwall via another barrier onto Mainland. The road was straight, the downhills were fast and exciting and I soon arrived at this interesting small town. I particularly liked the narrow paved streets and the air of peace and tranquility. I liked even more the café near the Cathedral that cheered me up with an excellent lunch as I was pretty soggy at that point. I didn't linger long in Kirkwall as I had a ferry to catch to get onto Hoy. With the wind still at my back, I raced the 12 miles to Houton and caught the ferry to Lyness. Hoy seemed very different from the other islands; much more mountainous and less prosperous looking. The area round Lyness is littered with abandoned businesses and vehicles. I got some food at the last shop I was to see for a while, had a long talk with the owner about the difficulties of running small businesses in remote areas and then set off along the coast road to the north end of the island and eventually to Rackwick. The road was hilly but interesting and more typical of a single track highland road than an Orkney road. On the way I passed Betty Corrigall's Grave. In the late 1770's Betty became pregnant by a young sailor, who deserted her. The shame caused her to take her own life and as suicide prevented her being buried within the parish her final resting place was an isolated grave on the parish boundary. Her remains lay forgotten until the 1930's when she was discovered by locals digging peat. Her grave was marked then by a single stick and in 1949 an American minister erected a wooden cross and asked Hoy's Customs and Excise Officer to fashion a suitable gravestone. It took nearly 30 years for the promise to be fulfilled but in 1976 a small headstone was erected and a quiet funeral service performed. The stone is still there by the road-side together with a plaque telling Betty's story. Hopefully, she now rests in peace. The rain and wind returned hard and strong again after a brief respite. I arrived at Rackwick SYHA slightly wet and cold at about 5pm to find it locked with a message to call the hostel manager. This I duly did and he walked a mile in the rain to unlock the door and collect payment. I had the hostel to myself and although it is a bit spartan it was warm, dry and a welcome haven from the wind and rain. My plans had been to visit the Old Man of Hoy but as I had already been out in the wet for six hours that day and the rain and wind had increased to storm force I decided to leave it for another day. I felt very warm and cosy tucked up in bed with the wind howling like a banshee past the hostel and the rain battering against the window. No one else came to the hostel that night. I slept very well.

Day 3 - Rackwick (Hoy) to Kirkwall (Mainland) - 49 miles

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Rackwick Hostel
Rackwick Hostel
Rackwick Bay

Joy of joys; I woke to blue skies and sunshine. I was up early and away by 7.30 am, leaving the key in its secret hiding place. I freewheeled down to Rackwick Bay and spent an exhilarating hour on the beach. Rackwick is really magnificent. The bay is mostly stony with one short, sandy section and where the bay ends huge cliffs spring up many hundreds of feet. It is open to the Atlantic and with almost any wind direction large surf comes in. These waves batter against the cliffs around the bay and the noise is tremendous as the waves are rebuffed again and again by the cliffs. Seabirds wheel and cry overhead and right on the beach there is a superb bothy, lying low, scoured by the incessant wind. An inspirational place, in the hour I was there I saw no-one. I shall be back. I had a long way to go so after a last look I set off over the hill to the Stromness Ferry Terminal. Pausing briefly on the road about 3 miles from Rackwick the noise of the surf, booming away against the cliffs, could still be heard quite clearly. The passenger ferry arrived on time and what a lovely little ferry it was. The passengers were a mixture of locals and tourists and I had a long conversation with an old man who lives on Hoy and often travels on the ferry to Stromness to socialise and see his friends. The route took us via Graemsay Island then into Stromness Harbour. I liked Stromness; it had many similarities to Kirkwall.


I wandered along the paved Main Street, re-provisioned and chatted to a cyclist who was on the road for the whole summer. Feeling a little envious of him I set off to Maes Howe. The few miles passed quickly and I joined a guided tour which is the only way to get into the tomb. Seen from the outside, Maes Howe is unimpressive but I found the inside interesting. The tomb was build about 3000 BC and the four standing stones it was built around can be seen clearly at each corner. The skills of the stonemasons of so long ago are remarkable but I was much more taken by the runic graffiti left by the Vikings in 1153. In the 'History of the Earls of Orkney', known as the 'Orkneyinga Saga' it says, 'During a snow storm they took shelter in Maes Howe and there two of them went insane, which slowed them down badly so by the time they reached Firth it was nightfall'. I am intrigued by the idea that the only problem with two men going insane was that it slowed the group down; I wonder what happened to them. It seems that, while they were all stuck in the tomb for a couple of days they amused themselves by carving graffiti on the wall. This graffiti is now the largest collection of Viking runes carved in stone anywhere in the world. The translations of the runes show how little the way people think (or do graffiti!) has changed in over 800 years. Here a few examples.

Maes Howe

"Thorni fucked, Hergi carved"

"These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean"

"Thelfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up" - (about 15 feet up the wall)"

"He is a Viking &..come here under the barrow"

"Arnfithr Matr carved these runes with this axe owned by Gauk Trandillson in the south land"

"Crusaders broke into Maeshowe" 

"Lif the earls cook carved these runes" 

"To the north-west is a great treasure hidden here" 

"Happy is he who might find the great treasure"

"Hakon alone bore treasure from the mound "signed "Simon Sirith"

"Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women" - (carved beside a picture of a slavering dog).


Next stop in my history day was the Ring of Brodgar at Steness. Thank goodness there were no guides or entry fees and I was able to spend some time wandering round, soaking up the atmosphere. It is a huge circle and far more interesting and atmospheric than Callanish in the Hebrides. The ring is 104 metres wide and originally contained 60 megaliths although today only 27 stones remain. One stone, split in two by lightening, was particularly impressive. Well worth a visit. I got on the bike again and a tail wind blew me all the way to the Bay of Skaill and Skara Brae on the west coast of Mainland. This time I got the full visitor centre experience, right down to the limp, old, sliced, white bread served with the soup in the café. It was expensive too. It's always puzzled me that they do this when some crunchy bread or a nice roll could be served with so little extra effort. Skara Brae is a Neolithic village rediscovered after a storm in 1850. The village itself is a bit disappointing, some holes in the ground and obvious stone furniture. I was much more taken by the exhibition of stone artifacts, found during the excavation. The skill and superb craftsmanship of the people who lived there is astonishing and the use of some of the objects is still unknown. Very little is known about the origins of the people who lived there. One theory is that the original settlers came from a wrecked Egyptian sailing boat; its as good a theory as any. Leaving Skara and their sad bread I had to get to Kirkwall, as I had yet another boat to catch. This meant a headwind and at the same time it rained again. I also had my one and only mechanical problem of the trip. It took an hour to sort my gear cable and, by the time I'd finished, the rain had stopped so it was off, again, to Kirkwall. It was just about evening time and I was getting hungry & tired. My route took me via some appealing small villages to Finstown and then Kirkwall.  For the first time I felt the full force of the unfettered Orkney wind. I needed somewhere to stop out of the wind and to get something to eat. I looked for miles. There seemed to be no shelter anywhere and in desperation, I crawled into a small howff at the end of the farm road that had been built for leaving the milk to be collected.

Sheltering from the Wind


I just squeezed into it and it was a relief to eat something and get out the wind for a few minutes. When I stopped again a few miles on, this time all that was available was a bus shelter. I arrived in Kirkwall at about 7pm, sorted out where my boat departed from and then looked for somewhere to shower. There are times when I am moved by the kindness of strangers. I asked Steve, who works at Kirkwall Harbour, if he knew of anywhere. "No problem", he said, as he was just finishing work and about to go home "here is the key to the yacht club". When you have finished put the key through the office door. I had never met him in my life before but he trusted me with the yacht club key. Thanks Steve, you are a pal. I owe you one. After a superb shower I found a nice pub for dinner and at about 10pm wandered along to the ferry terminal to wait for my transport to Aberdeen.
Kirkwall Harbour
The wait for the boat gave me a chance to reflect on my short visit to Orkney. The general impression was one of affluence. The roads are smooth and well cared for, the houses immaculate and everything is in good order. Buses were even waiting to meet the ferries when they arrived; integrated transport is a reality here. They appear to have got things right in Orkney and this is how it could be everywhere else in the UK. However they don't have the pressure of the large population and heavy traffic that much of the mainland has and oil money must have helped. The bulk of their farmland is given over to grazing but the' beast density' seems much lower than on mainland UK; all the animals I saw seemed very contented and well fed. It's no wonder that Orkney beef and lamb has such a good reputation for quality. Another thing that struck me is a lack of 'Scottishness' . This is hard to define but Orkney felt much more like England than Scotland although I'm not sure the Orcadians would thank me for saying so. It was certainly nice to get away from the 'tartan tat' that dominates almost every Scottish tourist destination. The non-Scottish feeling must be something to with the Scandinavian origins of the people. Gaelic has never been spoken here and for nearly 1000 years the Orcadians had their own language called NORN. Few, if any, people wrote it down and as it died out in the 17th century little is known although the Orcadian dialect still contains remnants of Norn with words like: 'felkyo - witch' 'speir - to ask 'kye - cattle A few tiny written fragments exist such as the Lords Prayer ('ga vus da on da daligt brow vora' - give us this day our daily bread) and writings about early visitors to the islands. A mysterious character call Jo Ben visited the island sometime between 1529 and 1657 and it is likely he came across Orcadians speaking their native tongue for he wrote, '&.they are cunning and plain speaking, they use dialect, as when we say Good Day the say Goanda Boanda&.' I enjoyed Orkney very much, there is so much to see and soon I'll be back. The ferry, called 'The Hrossey', is big, beautiful and comfortable. We sailed on time at 11.45pm and after a drink in the bar I settled down in an empty recliner-seat in the empty recliner-seat lounge. I wondered why I was alone there and soon found out. The seats are horrible; you can't sit comfortably in them, you can't lie comfortably in them and you certainly can't sleep in them. No wonder the rest of the ship was littered with sleeping bodies and the lounge empty. I settled down on the carpeted floor, glad, again, that I had my sleeping bag with me and was lulled to sleep by the gentle motion of ship as it rode the North Sea swell. I slept reasonably well, for a while

Day 4 Aberdeen to Meikle Wartle (Aberdeenshire) - 55 miles

Our ship wriggled its way into the complicated dock at Aberdeen just after 7am. As I wanted to avoid the city rush hour I had breakfast on board and took my time to disembark before getting underway by 8.30 am, the deadline for leaving being 09.00 (I still hit all the traffic). It was a cool, grayish, eastcoastish sort of morning as I struggled to escape the city. It took me an hour and I had to ask the way several times but at last I was cycling through rural Aberdeenshire on the B9119 through Elrick, Echt, Auchorie and numerous other small villages. The 11 o'clock, cuppa-tea-cake feeling came on but miles of searching failed to reveal any sort of café or shop, I was off the tourist trail yet again. I also discovered that I had forgotten to fill up my water bottle so by the time I reached Alford, at lunchtime, I was moderately dehydrated. The Coffee Pot Cafe soon sorted me out with a large pot of tea and a baked potato and I was on the road again. I worked my way over hill and down dale to Auchleven and Old Rayne and then eventually to Meikle Wartle where my friends John & Ann live. Rural Aberdeenshire is a very pleasant scenic area, not the Highlands but interesting enough for a cyclist and it has trees. These were a welcome addition to the landscape after my two day sojourn on treeless Orkney. Ann & John made me very welcome, fed and watered me and we talked of times gone by when we were younger, of times to come when we will be older and of our respective families. Ann's business is mushrooms so if you would like to get some via mail order check I slept well and comfortably in their caravan.

Day 5 - Meikle Wartle to Newtonmore - 80 miles

Annes Logs (artistic!)
Behind the Bar of the Cabrach Hotel

John is a born again cyclist. Like me he cycled and even raced when he was younger and then, like me, gave it all up to climb mountains and rock faces, ski down hills and kayak rivers, so our plan was that we would cycle together some of the beginning of the end of my journey. John had things to do in Huntly so we drove to there and then on to Rhynie before starting cycling. There was a fair contrast in our uphill speeds, with John bounding up hills on his lightweight bike and me plodding behind on my touring bike loaded with 5 days worth of kit. However John is a laid back sort of character and didnt mind waiting for me. The extra weight was no handicap on the downhill; in fact I think I was faster because of it. The Rhynie to Dufftown road is one I have long wanted to cycle and it didn't disappoint. You climb gradually out of rural Aberdeenshire, to the height of 1370 feet, into what is probably the start of the Highlands. The views are superb and you then get a long swooping downhill slope to the Cabrach Hotel at Ardwell. We stopped there for tea and scones, served by the friendly staff. Their bar is a must if you are in the area. I have never seen such a huge stock of whiskies (we were now definitely in whisky country); even if you don't drink any of it, it is well worth a visit. Suitably refreshed and up-to-date with all our news, we parted company at Dufftown, John to make his way back to Rhynie and me to press on home. Dufftown to Craigellachie is mostly downhill and there are signs of whisky manufacture everywhere. I crossed the Spey and picked up the road on the river's north side. This is one of my favourite routes, winding up and down and round about through Robertstown, Cardow, Knockando, Ballindalloch and eventually Grantown-on- Spey. You spot many whisky names on this route. The weather was fine and yet again the wind was at my back so I bowled along quite happily. Somewhere near Ballindalloch I rounded a corner and got my first view of the Cairngorms, still with snow on the tops. At this point I knew my journey was almost over. I refreshed myself at Grantown and switched to the south side of the River Spey onto what I call my 'Bridges Route'; passing through Nethy Bridge, Coylumbridge and Feshie Bridge. A familiar road but much loved for its beauty; it never disappoints. I was home by 8pm, tired, happy and wanting more. I think a year is too long to wait for the next 'expedition' so maybe this autumn?

© Peter Main

Thanks to Kathryn for proof reading and correcting my incoherent ramblings

Newtonmore, Scotland August 20004

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The Tickets The Route