A Land of Winds without Willows ; on Scotland's Orkney Islands, Getting Where You Want to Go Is Part of the Adventure

Article excerpt

In Scotland's Orkney Islands, there's a method for hanging clothes on the line. "Storm pegs" are used to batten down the washing. Sheets are folded so they fill with air and billow like sails to keep hems from flapping and fraying.

This tiny facet of everyday life is telling in the largely treeless archipelago of close to 70 islands and islets where the dull roar of the wind is constant, and gale-force winds blow 200 days of the year. Sandstone walls surround gardens. Hauled-out skiffs are anchored to the ground, and just about everything else outdoors has to be lashed down.

While the weather can be formidable, Orkney can also be a gentle, pastoral landscape. In the summer, the fields and pastures dotted with sheep and cattle turn a lush green. Temperatures rarely rise above 75 degrees F., making the cluster of islands ideal for biking and hiking. A constant breeze keeps the bugs at bay. In the evening, panoramic sunsets unfold over the rolling hills. Daylight lasts well past 9 p.m.

Besides its unique landscape, Orkney boasts the richest concentration of prehistoric ruins in Britain. The islands are also a haven for bird watchers. Puffins, kittiwakes, Leach's petrel, Arctic terns, and skuas are among the many species that breed here.

Because of its remoteness, Orkney is less known to tourists than Scotland's western isles, the Hebrides. But it makes a great destination for travelers who like to island-hop and for whom part of the adventure is getting there.

Six miles from John O'Groats - Scotland's Land's End - Orkney is separated from the mainland by a wild stretch of sea.

British Airways offers daily flights from Glasgow, Inverness, and Aberdeen to Orkney's largest island, Mainland. But I prefer the long way - by train and boat. It builds suspense, taking you back to a time when travel wasn't so easy, and trips involved multiple connections by land and sea.

My favorite route is one I took as a teenager. Arriving in London, I booked a berth to Inverness on an overnight sleeper.

I remember the porter rapping on my door in the early morning. Still in my berth, I was presented with a cup of hot tea and buttery fingers of Scottish shortbread.

There's no nicer way to arrive in Scotland.

Picturesque and easy to walk around, Inverness makes a good stopover either at the start or return from Orkney. It's a place to load up on kilts, Harris tweeds, Fair Isle sweaters, shortbread, and marmalade.

From Inverness, a train skims along Scotland's eastern coast before heading inland and across the moors to the northwestern coastal town of Thurso. Orkney-bound travelers catch a bus - about a 15-minute ride - to the port of Scrabster where P&O Scottish Ferries' St. Ola sails daily to the islands. Warning: On the balmiest day, there are bound to be sea swells rolling in from the North Atlantic.

Bathed in afternoon light, the red sandstone cliffs of Hoy - Orkney's highest island - come into view. The Old Man of Hoy, a soaring pinnacle of rocks that resembles the profile of an old man's face, stands like an ancient sentry. The 450-foot sandstone formation signals the approach to the port of Stromness on Orkney's island of Mainland.

Island-hopping

Because Orkney is prone to sudden rain showers, it's best to rent a car rather than get stuck at some remote place in a downpour. It's possible to bring a car on the St. Ola ferry or rent one on Mainland.

Centrally located, a half-hour drive from Stromness, Orkney's capital of Kirkwall makes a good base for island-hopping. Orkney Ferries Ltd. offers car service to Eday, Sanday, Papa Westray, North Ronaldsay, and the other sparsely inhabited northern isles.

To plan an outing, arrange the trip through the Orkney Tourist Board in downtown Kirkwall. A short walk from the waterfront, the center has extensive information about the different isles. …