Orkney is famous for its curiously temperate climate. Thanks to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream, temperatures here rarely drop below 2°C… but don’t imagine that means our weather is temperate too. Flung in the middle of the North Sea, where it rises to meet the Atlantic Ocean, our islands are constantly battered by ferocious sea winds, reaching 100mph and more at this time of year.
Drawn to the natural drama of winter-torn landscapes at this time of year, Kendra Towns – our intrepid local photographer – is making the most of the few hours of daylight in the winter months to explore her favourite spots. However, with the weather being predictably unpredictable, she recommends shorter forays to minimise the chance of getting caught, far from shelter, in rain or hail or howling gale.
Standing Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar
The Ness of Brodgar is one of the most important Neolithic sites in the world and spans a 2.5 hectare area stretching between the Stones of Stenness – four upright stones each around 6m in height - and the Ring of Brodgar – a ‘henge’ and stone circle, almost 104m wide and comprising 27 stones remaining out of an estimated original 60. In comparison to Stenness, the Brodgar stones are somewhat smaller, varying in height from around 2m and up to 4m. Part of an enormous, prehistoric ceremonial complex, this is one of most fascinating glimpses in the world into civilisations that existed nearly 5,000 years ago.
The Orphir coastal walk is a firm favourite for Kendra and her family, and it’s a bit of a festive tradition too, as it’s close to where her Grandad lives. Starting at the Orkneyinga Saga Heritage Centre, the two-mile walk takes in Orphir Round Kirk (Orkney’s sole surviving medieval round church), neighbouring Earl’s Bu (the great Viking drinking hall), and the low coastal cliffs overlooking Scapa Flow. These ancient buildings are packed with history and, as Orkney.com observe “You can picture some wild Viking nights here more than 800 years ago!”
Cliffs of Yesnaby
According to Kendra, “Walking at Yesnaby is always interesting in winter as it’s a great spot to see the big waves.” Orkney.com recommend either heading south on the coastal path from the small car park near the Yesnaby Road, going past the Brough of Bigging for dramatic views of towering sea cliffs and continuing until Yesnaby Castle – not a man-made structure but a two-legged sea-stack with a natural arch. Alternatively, if you walk north from the car park to Broch of Borwick you’ll enjoy superb views out towards Marwick Head and the Brough of Birsay. Whichever route you take, do follow Orkney.com’s advice and enjoy the scenery from a safe distance as the ground near the edge of the coast can be very unstable.
This six-mile walk, which walkhighlands.com recommend as a great ‘there and back’ climb, takes around three hours – so check the weather forecast before you leave. According to Kendra, it’s a popular excursion on New Year’s Day and the rewards of the uphill climb are panoramic views over Kirkwall and the opportunity to explore the fascinating chambered cairn on the far side of the hill. Hop onto the walkhighlands.com link and you’ll find the route mapped out in six clear stages. Don’t forget your camera and a stout pair of walking boots!