Photo: Sunset at Yesnaby, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
Leaving Dublin and arriving in the UK, Manchester to be exact, there was only one direction to go, north. Originally, there had not really been much of a plan, only two general ideas: west coast and the Isle of Skye, or northeast and Orkney. As the weather forecast for the following week was on the stormier side, I set my sights on Orkney.
Since my first visit to Orkney in the autumn of 2003, the islands have held a special place in my heart. Returning to the islands in October 2013, it was now just over 10 years since my first visit. Where does the time go? My memory of those days gone by still remains vivid in my mind. And one place more than any other: Rackwick Bay and the rustic Burnmouth bothy, perilously close to the wild sea. Lonely and Isolated, Rackwick Bay is everything I love about forgotten places on the edge of the world. Even in Europe loneliness and solitude still exist, the hustle and bustle of cities seemingly a lifetime away. Most visitors to Scotland will say they have experienced the country after a few days in Edinburgh. But they haven’t…
In my previous visits to Orkney I have always traveled via the Scrabster – Stromness ferry. This time however, schedules worked out a little better to take the Pentland ferry between Gills Bay and St. Margaret’s Hope, which proved both a shorter journey and easier on the wallet. While the route doesn’t pass the majestic cliffs of Hoy, it does pass the haunting island of Stoma, abandoned since 1962, it’s grassy landscape is littered with the remains of abandoned houses from days now gone. I really want to find a way out there sometime.
The weather was less than ideal upon our arrival and soon a light, misty rain was falling from the sky. I know Orkney fairly well, but I’m not as familiar with good car-bivy spots as I am with other parts of Scotland. The only place I knew off the top of my head that would probably be okay to sleep for the night was Yesnaby. I have been wanting to photograph the dramatic cliffs out there for some time anyhow, so it worked out well. After a brief pit stop at the Ring of Brodgar, we pulled the car up to Yesnaby in the gray, fading light of October. I made some brief attempts at photography, but conditions were conspiring against me. Not even a proper rain, but that light, swirling mist which seems to get your camera lens even wetter.
Photo: St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
Morning came slowly as the black of night softened to a dull gray of day. Mist still fell from the sky. With little possibilities for photography I decided to spoil myself a bit and enjoy being a tourist and go visit the Orkney Brewery. The visitor center and tasting room opened in the summer of 2012, and I have been looking to get a ‘Skull Splitter’ t-shirt since I first saw one 10 years ago, but was too cheap to buy one. I would remedy that mistake finally. Being the off season, and also rather early in the morning for beer drinking, we where the only ones there as we took a short tour and partook in some beer tasting. More later…
Leaving the brewery, Kirkwall was the next stop as I wanted to photograph the St. Magnus Cathedral where I could at least get some photos. There is something magical about this building and the red sandstone gives a surreal mood. Despite the small size, it is one of my favorite cathedrals in Europe.
After a brief lunch in Kirkwall, it was time for the next tourist stop on this rainy day; the Highland Park distillery. Perhaps I was a bit enthusiastic about tours after my time in Dublin, as I normally try to avoid paying for anything while traveling, but what the hell, I don’t need my arm twisted too much to taste some single malt, not to mention that Highland Park is one of my favorites. More on the tour later, but I walked away with a bottle of the 15 year old (sorry, Mr. wallet.).
In late afternoon we returned back to Yesnaby for another night sleeping in the car. I finally noticed a break in the clouds as evening progressed and so I headed out for another attempt at photographing these wild cliffs and and brooding sea.
Photo: Yesnaby, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
While the onshore wind was still blowing strongly, I managed to find sheltered pockets here and there where I wouldn’t risk my tripod blowing off the cliffs. What followed over the next hour was improving conditions until a beautiful glow filled the sky behind an approaching set of dark, stormy clouds. Absolutely perfect timing and condition. I got my Yesnaby shot. Yay!
We made the decision to head to Hoy for a few days. While it seems a bit of a waste to take the car, the ferry from Houton to Lyness was not too bad and allowed us to see parts of the island which I hadn’t been to before.
Reading the weather report, a sever gale was approaching.
Photo: Approaching Burnmouth bothy in Rackwick Bay, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
Burnmouth bothy in Rackwick Bay, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
Photo: Worn red sandstone beach at Rackwick bay, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
Photo: Fading twilight over beach at Rackwick bay, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
In the parking lot at Rackwick bay we packed our bags and began the short walk to the Burnmouth bothy. Thankfully, the place was empty when we arrived but soon enough a couple more groups of people arrived. Ohh well, so much for a quiet night. But as soon as the group of ‘art’ students from Edinburgh began to make a fire, they immediately smoked the building out, both from fire and their cigaretts. I tried to instruct them on proper fire methods, but they seemed a bit dense and weren’t interested in listening. And for some reason they annoyed me. So, as much as I was looking forward to spending a night again after all these years, we packed our bags and headed out into the sideways rain and back to the car for the night.
Morning came and the gales continued, with passing showers of hale and rain at regular intervals. We wanted to hike out to the Old Man of Hoy, but decided that this was probably not the day. Wandering back to the bothy, the winds were so strong it became difficult to walk over the slippery, boggy ground. The day was mostly spent sitting around though I made a few attempts at photography between showers. Finally, it was back to the car for another night.
Photo: Watching the rain from Burnmouth bothy, Rackwick bay, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
Photo: Burnmouth bothy in Rackwick Bay, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
Morning came. While the sky still looked threatening, it seemed as if the rain would probably hold off for a while. Just in case, we dressed in full waterproofs and then set off on the trail towards the Old Man of Hoy. My first time there, in 2003, it was so windy that I quite literally had to crawl to the edge of the cliff, unable to stand safely. This time however, the wind was coming from a direction where it seemed to pass over us as it deflected off the cliffs, letting me have a steady enough camera for a few photos. That was until we were just about to leave and I was taking one last picture. A wall of wind hit light a train; from calm to nearly knocking me off my feet and blowing my camera off the edge (not that I needed to kill a second camera on this trip). Trying to stabilize myself and crouch to the ground, I noticed one of our backpacks begin blowing towards the edge of a cliff. Shit! I tried to yell to grab the bag, but the wind was too intense and we were both trying to save ourselves that I couldn’t be heard. The wind nearly blew me over as I ran towards the bag, managing to save it about 2 feet from the cliff. Phew!
That was enough adventure for the day, and so we headed back towards the car, propelled uphill with the winds at our backs and rain making its approach. Rounding the corner back to Rackwick bay I stopped for a moment to watch the dancing of light and shadows over the sea. I remember standing here in 2006 as a passing stranger let me borrow his binoculars to watch a lone basking shark swimming in the crystal blue waters of the bay, the day being slightly nicer. I quietly whispered my goodbyes to Rackwick before descending back to the car.
Photo: Old Man of Hoy, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
Photo: Rackwick bay, Hoy, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
Back on the Mainland (as the call the main island of Orkney) the sun seemed to be making an appearance finally. Still wanting a some exterior images of St. Magnus Cathedral we headed back to Kirkwall. In the lengthening shadows I set off photography. Years ago, I was struck by the impression of the ravens circling the tower high overhead. They were still circling this time, chasing each other in an endless game of cat and mouse, their ‘kowws’ and chirps filling the air. Somehow I managed to myself locked in the cemetery and had to hop a fence to get out again.
It was another brief stop at the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar before heading back out to Yesnaby for our final night not he islands. Still stormy, the clouds briefly parted for the rising moon as I wandered the cliffs in the final darkness.
Morning arrived with clear weather, but unfortunately we had to head straight to the ferry. I was a smooth sailing across the Pentland Firth and past Stoma before landing in Scotland once again. The long drive back to Wales began.
Photo: St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013
Photo: Ring of Brodgar standing stones, Orkney, Scotland. October 2013