Orkney Kayak. Section 02. The Western Seaboard
Having checked into the Chalmersquoy bunkhouse in Pierowall on Westray we had a good chance to research the weather forecasts. It did not look promising for days and there was no chance of going down the Western Seaboard without a good forecast. I became a bit despondent. My original plan if bad weather came in was just to hunker down and lay siege to it, staring it in the face until either I or the weather blinked first, and I had both time and provisions to do this. However, after David had joined me on Stronsay half a week ago I had to temper my stubbornness with the weather to take his opinions into account also.
After a few days there was a bit of a discussion about abandoning the the exposed route down the Western Seaboard and instead head down the less challenging inside route, but then the weather blinked first and the forecast indicated that we had another 3-4 days of gales, and then a high pressure and it’s associated stable weather would arrive and allow us down the west. As it transpired we were marooned for 7 days Westray with a series of gales altogether, but Westray was the perfect place to be.
Michael and Teenie at Chalmersquoy upgraded us from their nice bunkhouse to luxurious self-catering. There were neolithic and medieval ruins to explore on the island, There were the truly fantastic bird cliffs at Noup Head with its populations of Gannets, Auk-type birds and tumultuous seas.There were very good local exhibitions, craft shops, galleries and cafes. There was also the pub and a Baptist inspired concert. By the time we left we were starting to recognise faces. Westray had an inspired sense of community and belonging, which for me was reminiscent of some coastal communities in Norway. It was also quite an opulence to have no pressing agendas and enough time to read novels. When the weather finally abated we were ready to move on, but I had thoroughly appreciated my week on Westray.
Before we could head down the Western Seaboard of the Orkney Islands we had to go round Papa Westray, a small island to the NE of Westray. Here is the world’s shortest scheduled flight connecting the two islands which typically takes just 90 seconds; but we had to paddle the 10 km across the Papa Sound and up the east side of the island to the sheltered sandy harbour between Papa Westray and the Holm of Papa, where there was a pier.
We had a quick trip across the sound with a force 5 wind behind us and arrived early in the afternoon. We planned to relax at this pier and wait for the tide to change and explore the pier area. There was the restored Kelp Store building here which was now home to a great Craft & Heritage Centre with informative exhibitions, including one on the Knap of Howar, a 5000 year old neolithic farmstead and probably Northern Europe’s oldest stone building.
There was a bit of unspoken tension in the air as both David and myself realized the time to depart neared and the wind was not decreasing as forecast. However, we could wait no longer if we wanted to go round the northern point on Papa Westray, called Mull Head, were there was the infamous tidal banana skins of “The Bore” and “The Roost”. We aimed to pass through these tidal streams around slack water.
We left the turquoise sanctuary of the sandy harbour, crossed some reefs where the large leaves of oarweed, Laminaria digitata, were exposed and gently swaying in the small swell, and paddled north. We went beneath small cliffs where tystie and fulmar nested and passed beneath Fowl Craig. I could see the memorial to the last Great Auk of the UK which was shot for a collector in 1813. It was a sad reminder that this was one of the first senseless acts which heralded this “Age of Extinction” in which we now preside over.
The swell grew quickly as we neared Mull Head but mercifully the wind had dropped to a force 4. The Bore itself was quite benign as we caught it just at the end of the ebb. We had both been worked up by tales of The Bore from local fisherman who had all had nasty experiences in it and were warned to avoid the ebb tide. However we were spared and it carried us gently west round into The Roost. Here the swell was rebounding off the cliffs, causing clapotis, which was in turn further exaggerated by the northbound current caused by the ebbing tide creating a anti-clockwise eddy. The sea was big and bouncy but slowly we pulled across the Papa Sound towards Bow Head on Westray.
Here the swell built again and we had to keep well out from the spectacular coastline with its cliffs, caves and arches to avoid the surf. The incoming eastbound flood tide was against us here and it took ages to creep round the cliffs and get into the shelter of Rackwick Bay. The surf did not make it into the bay and we landed on a beach festooned in piles of seaweed which looked liked it had been ripped off the seabed and dumped here by “Storm Hector” 10 days ago. There was some relief that The Bore and The Roost had passed so easily and this tempered my concerns for Noup head in a few hours.
It was a gentle and easy paddle down to Noup Head and we flew down the coast towards the lighthouse in what must have been a large back eddy. The Admiralty tidal atlas, the local fisherman and even David seemed quite relaxed about Noup Head but I had worries. It was a very exposed point in a large swell and we were in the middle third of a near spring tide on the flood. We had to go round the skerries at the tip, as there was no way through the surf in the channel the fisherman suggested. Once round the skerries we turned south and paddled back to the lighthouse and the cliffs.
It did not take long for the sea to build. The background swell was perhaps 2 metres, but this was exaggerated by refraction round the headland into 3 metres. Then this swell was smashing into the base of the huge cliffs unabated and bouncing back. Where the arriving swell piled into the swell bouncing back off the base of the cliffs some huge clapotis was created. Frothing claws of surf leapt erratically into the air on one side and deep holes suddenly appeared on the other, and some of our paddle strokes just swept through the air where there should have been water. The kayaks were tossed about like a cork, lurching from side to side and being trust up and down.
We kept a good 300-400 metres out from the base of the cliffs to minimise the effects of this clapotis but it was still intimidating. In addition we were in a tidal stream against us and it was running at about 4 kmph so our progress was worryingly slow. Even if the tide had been neutral it was difficult to paddle fast in these conditions as the boat’s momentum was constantly halted by another climb up a eruption of water. We endured this near-survival paddling for a good hour until at last we made the 2 km to the headland of Russa Taing where the base of the cliffs absorbed some power of the incoming swell on slabs and skerries, which were exploding in huge surf.
I was very relieved when the conditions eased and the tidal current diminished. Noup Head was an imposing and frightening headland in these conditions. I was lucky I was with David Musk and could think of very few others who I could have paddled this section with. David gave me reassurance knowing there was someone else with me, and I had confidence he was at least as able, and probably more so, in handling these conditions. He also confided it had been an intimidating place and a long hour getting through it.
The remaining 10 km of the west coast of Westray saw the conditions gradually ease as the wind dropped right down to a force 2 and the swell returned to 2 metres. We still kept out some 300 metres as it was not so rough here. It was a great shame we had difficult conditions as it would have been fantastic to keep close to the bottom of the cliffs at Noup Head and further down as the coastal architecture was immense, with huge cave and arches, and all covered in a vast bird colony.
When we arrived at the south end of this bit of coast we decided not to cross over to Rousay despite the tidal current being right. It was 2200 hrs and with 42 km under our belts we had had enough. So we rounded Bakie Skerry and cruised up across calm waters for a km in the sunset to Mae Sand. Here there was was a great campsite above the arc of white sand. I was delighted to see that the wind had dropped to virtually nothing and the wind turbines stood still.
The next morning we left around 0900, a good hour or so before slack water and the start of the west going ebb across the Westray Firth to Rousay. I was keen to get across to Rousay and then across the mouth of the Eynhallow Sound before the the full power of the ebb started. It was windstill, but overcast, and the weather forecast was great for the next two days. As soon as we left the protection of Westray and were into the Westray Sound I noticed how much the swell had gone down since last night.
The crossing was quick and smooth. The minimal current did not swing us off course at all and after an hour and a half we had made the 10 km crossing to Rousay quite easily. There was nowhere to land and anyway I was eager to paddle on down the west coast of Rousay and cross the Eynhallow Sound. There was still a 1.5 metre swell and the discharging tide would be ploughing into it no doubt creating some standing waves. Of course further up the channel were two notorious tidal currents each side of Eynhallow Island, the Burger Roost on the south side and the Eynhallow Roost on the north side, but we would only be in the discharges from these.
We cruised down the NW coast of Rousay, David blaise and hugging the coast, and me anxious about the possible tiderace in the crossing, looking for white caps in the eventual standing waves each time the swell lifted me up. I think David thought I was fretting unnecessarily, complaining we were going from headland to headland. As we started across the Sound I saw nothing at first but then I thought I saw a few whitecaps.
Soon enough we were on the edge of a river of tide blasting out to sea. It must have been flowing at around 8 kmph and just short of forming breaking standing waves in the incoming swell. Nonetheless the waves which were being formed were a good 3 metres and quite steep. It was nothing compared to yesterday’s excitement round Noup Head but it was enough to have me bolt upright and alert. The tidal stream was about 1 km wide and it took just 10 minutes to cross it until suddenly we reached the southern edge of it and calm water returned. I think David was surprised just how large it was so far out to sea.
I was expecting another, even bigger, tidal current from the Burger Roost discharge on the south side of Eynhallow Island, and was nervously looking out for it, but it did not materialize. Before long we were approaching the shore of Orkney Mainland just of the east of a huge rampart of cliffs culminating in the 150 metre buttress of Costa Head. Here we managed to find a sheltered rocky bay where we could land and stretch our legs after nearly 4 hours paddling.
The next 10 km of paddling were perhaps the most spectacular of the trip so far and the sea had calmed down considerably, allowing us to go quite close to the base of the cliffs. They were huge and loomed up over us with their northern faces dark and damp. Here and there were a clusters of ledges dripping guano were groups of seabirds were nesting. The calm ocean was full of rafts of Guillemots and Razorbills. The cliffs built in stature culminating in Costa Head. There was an array of caves and chambers along here but the swell was surging into them so we could not enter any.
Before long we got to an enormous citadel of a sea stack called The Standard, which was covered in birds. It was nearly as high as the cliffs but separated from them by a 40 metre channel which was a bit rough when the bigger sets of waves arrived, but we waited until a calmer period and blasted through into the sanctuary on the other side. From here the impressive cliffs slowly tapered off until we got to the end of this coastline at the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island.
We had to go round the Brough of Birsay as the causeway was exposed. I expected it to be choppy with swell and clapotis, and disturbed by the tidal current. However it was benign and we could go round side by side having a conservation while all the daytrippers pointed at us and took photos. Just after the Brough was a deep bay with sandy area beneath a ruined palace. A bevy of swans took flight as we arrived on the sand, their laboured wingbeat eventually lifting them.
It was now time to commit to the West Coast of the mainland; some 20 km without the possibility of landing. However the swell was continuing to fall and was now perhaps just over metre, although the waves were still powerful as the period remained long, at 10 seconds, and the wind had effectively vanished. It is rare to get such easy conditions on the west coast.
After we set off the cliffs started to grow culminating immediately in Marwick Head, a 90 odd metre cliff topped by a large memorial to Lord Kitchener whose ship struck a landmine nearby. Below the crenelated memorial seabirds huddled by their thousands upon ledges in the sandstone cliffs. There is concern that this well studied population of seabirds on Marwick Head has seen a large collapse in numbers over the last 30 years.
The remaining 15 km of coast down to Hoy Sound was full of pleasant surprises. Apart from the Bay of Skaill it was virtually one continuous rampart of imposing cliff. The base of these cliffs was riddled with caves and arches and narrow slots, which Orcadians call Geo’s. One could have spent all day cruising down here were it not for the pressure of time to reach the Hoy Sound by nightfall and the occasional larger swell which would surprise you. Here the whole geology of Orkney was laid bare and one could see level upon level of sandstone strata which had been washed onto the lake bed of the vast Lake Ocadie some 380 million years ago.
With 50 km under our belts we paddled round Brock Ness and the beach at Warbeth came into sight. We had been told the landing was usually OK and it was a nice place to camp. The landing was indeed easier than expected but there was so much seaweed in the surf my kayak looked like a Highland cow with dreadlocks once I was out of it. We had the tents up in time to enjoy a magnificent sunset over the bay with the glow of the setting sun illuminating magnificent and huge cliffs on the north end of Hoy.
When we woke it was magnificent day with no wind and horizon to horizon blue sky. We decided to wait for slack water to cross the Hoy Sound. It allowed us to linger a bit on Warbeth Beach and we did not want to get to the Brims on the southern tip of Hoy and in the Pentland Firth too early, as we would have to wait for the ebb to finish down there anyway in 7 hours time. So we pulled off the seaweed covered beach at about 1030 and set off for the huge cliffs of Muckle Head on what promised to be an superlative day’s paddling.
We were a couple of km into the crossing when I turned round to see the MV Hamnavoe ferry leaving Stromness. Within the space of 5 minutes it was bearing down on us its bulbous bow heaving an arc of water into the air. We stopped paddling to let it go some 200 metres to the south of us and I could see passengers looking and waving at us from the sunny deck.
On reaching Muckle Head at the northern tip of Hoy, we were delighted to see the swell less than a metre and we could nearly hug the base of the huge cliffs, The next 2 hours paddling were some of the best I have ever had, anywhere, and certainly the highlight of this trip. In places the red sandstone cliffs soared 300 metres above us culminating in St John Head which at 350 metres are the highest vertical cliff in the British Isles, although St Kilda, Foula and Slieve League cliffs are slightly higher – but not vertical.
Between these towering headlands the cliffs continued unabated with just the occasional high grassy slopes. They were speckled white with breeding fulmars who had imprenatable nests. I could see birds swirling round constantly far above. Lower down were ledges with the auk-type birds. It was an awesome bit of coastline and one felt miniscule beneath it. Just as I thought it could not get better I rounded another buttress and there was Britain’s most famous sea stack. The Old Man of Hoy, a 137 metre high needle of Old Red Sandstone.
David was already at the base of it, craning his neck to get a full view. It was a teetering column of red sandstone strata placed on top of each other. It did not look stable and I had heard it was just 250 years old, when previously a huge arch on the original headland collapsed leaving the Old Man isolated. Even 150 years ago a large slice peeled off it’s side and its total collapse is predicted with 100 years. We lingered in the calm sea beneath its splendour before continuing a couple of km down the coast to the cave-ridden headland at Rora Head and then on to a surf landing, small by it’s standards, at Rackwick Bay.
There were a few sunbathers on Rackwick Beach and it was only when we landed did we realize what a sun trap it was. There was mediterranean atmosphere to the beach, but it was virtually deserted. We still had 3-4 hours before the tide turned and the flood started at the Brims 15 km to the south so we lingered over lunch, before setting off. This section of coastline was nearly equal to that which we had paddled in the morning. The cliffs were not nearly as high but there were a vast amount of caves, arches and geos along this stretch of interesting architecture. We had plenty of time to lap it before we reached Tor Ness.
I expected there to be a little tide against us here but there was nothing discernable. I was sure then it would be possible to paddle against the end off the ebbing tide at Brims Ness. So I was quite shocked when we got there in another 20 minutes to see the flood was well underway and there was quite a bumpy tiderace to surging east. Luckily it was in our favour and it was already going at 6 kmph.
We had both independently calculated the tide would not turn for another hour, but here we were and it looked as if had turned an hour previous; 2 hours earlier than the Admiralty predicted. Indeed I had noticed that it often turned up to an hour earlier than predicted but Brims Ness was exceptionally early. My conclusion for paddling in Orkney regarding this was one should always be an hour earlier that the predictions-and then perhaps another half hour before this adjusted.time. If it was too early the worst you had to do was wait an hour, but if you were late you would be punished and might have to wait 5 or even 11 hours.
We now flew down the coast of South Walls and covered the 6 km in about 40 minutes to reach Cantick Head. We had intended to go round the lighthouse here and into Kirk Bay where there was a poignant memorial to the 8 lifeboat men of the Longhope Lifeboat who died while on service attempting to rescue the shipwrecked SS Irene in March 1969. However, we found a camp spot near the lighthouse and walked up to the memorial later to pay our respects.
I was apprehensive about the weather, as the last time I saw a forecast 3 days ago the weather for tomorrow did not look good. Now we had a phone signal I was delighted to see that the forecast was perfect. We would be able to hop over the Pentland Firth via the Islands of Swona and Stroma. We calculated our times and estimated we had to leave at 0600, some 6.5 hours before high tide Dover, for the 6 km crossing to Swona.
As promised the weather the next morning was superb, however just over the Cantick peninsula we could hear the roar of the ebbing tide which was a bit disconcerting. As we packed up the roar slowly diminished and and by the time we set off our nerves were more settled. We paddled round the beacon at 0600 and were quickly carried out into the Pentland Firth by the tide flowing south out of Scapa Flow through the Cantick Sound; which should have been flowing north against us!.
Once in the Pentland Firth the tide seemed to be in slack water so we set a transit line with the north tip of Swona and the southern tip of South Ronaldsay. We kept a good speed as if there was some tidal assistance and kept a pretty straight line and within the hour we were approaching Swona. There was a stronger current flowing north up the west side of Swona due to the flood splitting around Swona, and it became quite turbulent towards the tip. However the eddy on the north east corner had not formed yet and we easily broke out into the calm, flat, sunny east coast and cruised a few hundred metres down to The Haven, a natural harbour were we easily landed. One banana skin down two to go.
We fine-tuned out departure calculations. I was keen to get the last of the flood tide as I remembered how much the last of the ebb tide helped me north 2 weeks ago and was hoping for the same, but this time the southerly component. We calculated it for 1130, an hour before high water Dover, but I was keen to increase this to one and a half hours and leave at 1100. It meant we had 4 hours to explore the Island.
Swona was abandoned a decade or so after it’s neighbour Stroma further south. However there was just one family living here and the abandoned houses seemed to be in a worse state on the path to ruin than those on Stroma, and there was no animal husbandry here as there was on Stroma with its sheep.. Old farm implements lay outside the tumble down byres and most of the houses had their roofs collapsing. Those which were open were full of cow dung, in some places up to the window sills. It was a sad scene and I could imagine the community here on a day like this 100 years ago where there would be laughter and fun, all of which was now in ruins.
The last family to leave was the Rosie’s; a sister and 2 brothers, who left for South Ronaldsay in 1974. We found their house and went in. The floor was full of mud but there were letters and receipts in tins, and even a christmas card on the table. The large stones slabs on the roof where falling off and no doubt soon the weather would ruin all in here. When the Rosies left they turned their herd of Shorthorn-Aberdeen Angus cross of 8 cows and a bull loose. As we wondered about the ruins I saw two skeletons from the herd, but no live ones. We had been warned to stay well clear of them as they are now feral with no human contact.
We walked to the south end of the island where there was a small lochan and a large colony of terns. Wildflowers grew everywhere especially orchids and ragged robins. The island looked peaceful and serene in the sun, especially down this end way from the recent house ruins. There were also ruins down this end but they looked older black houses or livestock corrals. In the middle of the island we spotted the feral cattle. I counted 17 of them including 3 calves.
Beyond the south end of island was a skerry called the Tail of the Tarf. The tide was ripping past here creating large overfalls and waves and a huge eddy to the SW of the island. Beyond the overfalls was the Middle Sound of the Pentland Firth and it was a smooth river of unstopable water flooding eastwards. 6 km to the south was the Island of Stroma out next step. The water in the Middle Sound was not moving with the same speed as I remember from 2 weeks ago and although both were near spring tides this one had a smaller coefficient (tidal range).
The was a small colony of puffins on a steep hillside by the South Clett, a stack I remembered from my journey north 2 weeks ago. It was easy to sit above them and watch them come and go, many with mouthfulls of sandeels. In the channel between us and the South Clett stack there were seals swimming and hunting for fish in the south going current caused by the massive eddy. Indeed in the half hour we were here the current increased significantly.
We went round past the cattle again and headed north passing a “gloup” – a sea cave in which the inner portion of the roof had collapsed leaving an arch and a hole and returned to the boats. We did not launch until 1115 and I felt we were already late, but David thought we had good time. When we got to the South Clett I was horrified to see the current had reversed and it was now flowing strongly against us. I powered up it concerned the main ebb had started already. If we had missed the last of the ebb we would be resigned to spending another 5 hours here.
I needed to get a bigger picture so landed and ran up along the edge the tern colony getting pooped on and dived bombed frequently. At the top of the slope I looked out across the Middle Sound to Stroma and could see the flow had nearly slowed to a halt. We were later than I had hoped, for but I thought it was still manageable. We set off at once.
My fears were slightly unfounded as there was still a bit of an westward going flood. It took us south at a fair speed and were were both doing 8-9 kmph. We let the flood take us slightly to the east as I did not want to get caught up in the imminent ebb which would sweep us past the north of Stroma and into the Swelkies which formed there. After some 40 minutes we were level with the lighthouse on the north end of Stroma and then veered towards the most easterly point of the island. By the time we got there the tide was ebbing, but it took now us in the right direction down the east coast.
We rode it into the Inner Sound and decided to skip Stroma and its southern harbour altogether, and cross the infant current to Huna. it was remarkably easy and we hardly had to ferry glide across any of it. This sound was just 2 km wide and we were across before we knew it. Indeed it had just been and hour and a half since leaving the tern colony on the south end of Swona. I pulled into the small harbour at Huna and powered up the sandy beach coming to a halt. It was the end of a great trip. I had my car nearby at a garage and the owner was relieved to see me, as he was considering calling the police. Within a couple of hours the car was loaded and David and myself started the huge drive to Edinburgh, via a few stops, arriving well after midnight and 22 hours after we started our day on South Walls.