While we were visiting the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland, we decided to take a day trip to Hoy, Orkney – the second largest island in the Orkney Islands. Normally, we explore on our own, but with just one day to see this beautiful place and wanting to learn as much about it as possible, we decided to take an Orkney tour with Island Tours of Hoy.
On the ferry to Orkney the previous day we had ogled at the Old Man of Hoy – a giant sea stack that is somewhat famous. We were excited to see what else the island had to offer. We knew it was on the edge of the Scapa Flow and that it played an important part in both World Wars, but not much beyond that. That’s where the Hoy day tour came in.
Since we were staying on Orkney Mainland (that’s what the largest of the Orkney Islands is called since it is the main land in the archipelago), we drove to the other end of the island one morning and took the ferry to Hoy from Houton, landing at Lyness, Hoy in around 30 minutes. (See the full details about how to get to Hoy below.)
Looking at the forecast of weather, Hoy day was going to be a wet one, so we brought rain jackets and cold weather gear, despite it being a couple days before the summer solstice. Orkney weather can be cold and rainy at any time, but we heard from several people that because of climate change, winters are milder and spring and summers are wetter. That’s true of all of Scotland, not just the islands of Orkney.
What is Hoy?
The name Hoy is a derivative of a Norse word for high. The landscape on Hoy is different than the rest of the Orkney Islands with its dramatic high hills. South of Rackwick is the ideal place to see two high hills with a deep glen in between them. It’s this mountainous terrain that drew us to Hoy.
Tour Hoy, Scotland
We met Ron from Island Tours of Hoy and hopped in his van. Lyness, where the ferry landed, is riddled with buildings and other wartime structures from WWII. Ron showed us photos from when there were 20,000 people here and ships all over the place. Hoy Island now has 400 residents.
Hoy is one of several islands that ring the Scapa Flow – a part of the North Sea sheltered by the islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay, and Hoy. This sheltered water in rough seas was used by the Vikings more than a thousand years ago and as a strategic naval base for the UK during WWI and WWII. This year is the 100 year commemoration of the scuttling of more than 50 German ships. (If, like me, you don’t know what “scuttle” means, it means they sunk their own ships rather than let the British Navy get ahold of them.)
There is a Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum on Hoy, but it is closed until 2020 for renovations. Until then, there is a temporary exhibit in the Hoy Hotel in Lyness. We didn’t need a visitor center, though, since Ron told us all bout the history and pointed out what different buildings were used for. He showed us netting the British set up in the sea to stop submarines and photos of a bustling port from the 1940s.
Wild Lands on Hoy
One of the things that struck Henry and I about mainland Orkney, is how mowed down it is. People have been living on these islands for 5,000 years. They’ve been farming and raising animals. The island is covered in cows and sheep. We did see some hills that seemed ungrazed, but they were in the distance.
On Hoy, Ron took us up to a nature preserve managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (a non-profit or charity, not a governmental organization). The RSPB protects and manages a lot of places on Orkney Scotland, and these places, while not exactly untouched, do have more wild qualities.
Berriedale Woodland, which we didn’t visit, is the most northern native woodland in the UK. It is a prime example of the aspen, downy birch, rowan, hazel, willows, and roses that grew on Orkney and Shetland 7,000 years ago, according to pollen analysis.
We stopped at the grave of Betty Corrigall, a woman who had a pretty terrible life and couldn’t be buried in a churchyard. The history was interesting and a peak into the way things were, but I was really enamored by the moors and peatland. Peat is so thick and squishy and unlike any landscape I’ve been in. Heather grew all around. Ron said there would have been trees here, too, but there were just a few planted by the Forestry Commission in the distance.
We went a little farther up the road to Lyrawa Hill and took in the view of the Scapa Flow and neighboring islands, Fara and Flatta. The water below in Lyrawa Bay was an almost tropical turquoise. There isn’t much development on Hoy anymore, and most of it is down by the water, so it felt pretty wild up there.
Next stop was at the Hoy Kirk (kirk = church), which is now a community center. One of the coolest aspects of Hoy, besides the landscape, is the community togetherness. With only 400 people on the island, and most of them in South Walls (an island-ette on the south end of Hoy), people really seem to band together. Ron told us the community center hosts all sorts of events (though it is in the northern part of Hoy where a small group of people live.)
He also told us how they got together and bought a commercial wind turbine to make and sell power. The proceeds are used to help people with transportation, medical costs, or whatever else they need. Anyone can apply for a mini-grant, and it seems like they mostly get them. A newspaper clipping on the ferry said the wind turbine had generated more than £800,000 for the community!
We had a tea, coffee, cake, and biscuits (that’s British for cookie), which Ron brought, while he told us more about the history of the island. Anyone can stop in here and there were a few other tourists, who were touring on their own, reading the banners about historical Hoy residents.
Feeling refreshed from our tea and cakes, we cruised over to the Dwarfie Stane on RSPB lands. Ron’s friend and RSPB representative was there with a spotting scope trained on the hill behind the Dwarfie Stane. We got to peak through and spot a Sea Eagle sitting near a nest. I could even see the little chicks moving their heads around. Such a treat.
We walked through the moorland to the Dwarfie Stane, which is just a couple minutes up a path. This megalithic, chambered tomb was very cool. It’s basically a big chunk of Old Red Sandstone dropped by a glacier on the edge of a beautiful U-shaped valley. Neolithic people, or stone age people, carved out chambers in the rock. The boys, and I climbed right in.
Since the chambers are small, there are stories of a dwarf named Trollid living there, hence the name Dwarfie Stane. Other stories say giants were throwing rocks at each other. Either way, it’s a neat part of Neolithic Orkney. It’s such a pretty valley, that we got Ron to take our family photo there.
Rackwick Bay and Cra’as Nest Museum
After wandering around in the moors and peat, we were ready for some lunch (truth: we are always ready for lunch). Ron took us to an old schoolhouse turned museum in front of the Rackwick Hostel. We had a delightful view of Rackwick Bay, another turquoise bay.
The Cra’as (Crow’s) Nest Museum is several stone buildings where people used to live and work. Walking through them, and with Ron’s discourse, we learned how people used to live. Craas Nest Museum includes a traditional croft (a small, rented farm) house and steading (outbuildings) dating from the early 18th century. The house has two box beds and a dresser; the steading includes a byre (barn for cows) and a barn with a kiln for drying oats. I need a translator to talk about this!
This is also where you start the walk to see the Old Man of Hoy if you are on foot or bike as the parking is meant to be just for people staying at the hostel. Others can start below at Rackwick Bay. We didn’t have time to hike to the Old Man, but I’ll give you the details below.
We had reached the end of the road, so Ron turned us around and drove us to Longhope, home to the island’s one store, a hotel, and a lifeboat museum. On the way down, we peppered him with questions. I always think I don’t like tours, but once I get on one, I remember how much I love being able to ask a million questions. Since Ron has lived on Hoy for more than a decade, he knows so much about it and its residents. Plus, he was a teacher, so he was great at involving the boys.
We didn’t go into the Longhope Lifeboat Museum, but we did take a look at one of their boats docked in the harbor. Ron told us about their tragedies and successes. It’s quite a story. We then wandered through the general store – a real island store that sells everything from food, to household goods, and everything in between. We bought some Orkney beers, you know, to support the locals.
Hill of White Hamars, South Walls Nature Preserve
This may have been my favorite part of the trip, even through we got drenched and returned to the van sopping wet. That’s Scotland for you. The Hill of White Hamars was gorgeous and worth braving the rain for.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust preserve is set on the edge of sea cliffs and known for its wildflowers, nesting sea birds, geos, and gloups. You know I love wildflowers and it was pretty amazing seeing the rare and endangered Scottish primrose.
Also very cools were the geos and gloups. Need another translation?
- Geo (with a hard “g”): is an inlet, a gully or a narrow and deep cleft in the face of a cliff. Geos are common on the coastline of the Shetland and Orkney islands. They are created by the wave driven erosion of cliffs along faults and bedding planes in the rock. From Wikipedia
- Gloup: a collapsed sea cave separated from the sea by a land bridge. It looks like a deep hole and you can watch water move in and out with the waves.
Isle of Hoy
That about wrapped up our day on Hoy with Ron and Island Tours of Hoy. We learned so much about the island from the Neolithic times, through the Viking period, to the two World Wars, and life on Hoy today. It was a lot to do in one day and at the same time, just whet our appetite for another trip to Hoy.
Plan a Trip to Hoy
Hoy Tour Guides
We can’t recommend enough spending the day with Island Tours of Hoy. We learned so much and it was nice to leave the driving to someone else while I stared out the window. Steven, the owner, is great and can get you set up. Book a tour with Island Tours of Hoy or ask questions here.
Hoy Ferry Orkney
Orkney Ferries runs two ferries from Orkney Mainland to Hoy.
- Houton in Orphir (Mainland) to Lyness (Hoy) – this is the ferry we took. As walk-ons we didn’t need a reservation, but you may if you are bringing a car.
- Stromness (Mainland) to Moness (Hoy) – The Stromness to Hoy ferry is passenger only.
Hiking to the Old Man of Hoy, Orkney
- 5.75 miles
- 3 hours out and back (with an additional 2 hours to St. John’s Head)
The Old Man of Hoy is a 137-meter (450 feet) sea stack. As I mentioned, the absolute best view is probably from the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness (that’s the way we got to Orkney). I love a good walk, though, and the view from the cliff behind the Old Man is spectacular, too.
In addition to walking to the Old Man, the Old Man of Hoy climb is very popular. It was first climbed in 1966 over three days. The climb was repeated for a live TV broadcast the following year and 23 million viewers watched.
If you want to hike to the Old Man sea stack, you can take the Orkney Islands ferry to Moness and walk to the trailhead or take the ferry to Lyness and drive or catch a taxi to Rackwick Bay. You will need to book the driver ahead of time.
If you arrive in Moaness, it is a 4.5-mile walk to Rackwick Bay via the Rackwick Glen.
Starting from the car park at Rackwick Bay, follow the marked path for the Old Man and head toward the sea. The path gets grassier, but keep following the signs and you’ll come upon the Cra’as Nest Museum (see above). Follow the path through the kissing gate and continue up the hill.
It’s a well-worn path and easy to follow. You’ll see the Old Man of Hoy poking over the cliffs, but still have a little ways to get there. The path goes downhill to a viewpoint of the Old Man. Be a little careful here, as it is a long drop from the top of the cliffs.
If you have another two hours, you can walk to St. John’s Head – the highest vertical cliffs in the UK. Most people turn around at the Old Man, so the trail gets much less defined from here.
Return the way you came to complete the Old Man of Hoy walk.
Thanks to Island Tours of Hoy for hosting us.