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
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
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.
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
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. …