Nothing can fully prepare you for coming to Orkney for the first time but I’m going to try. You probably already know that Orkney has amazing landscapes, wonderful wildlife and breathtaking world heritage sites. Here are the ten most useful things that it would have been great for me to know before I made my first trip here:
You won’t need an umbrella in Orkney. Yes, it does rain a lot and yes an umbrella would usually be useful but the wind means it’ll either soon be inside out or decorating some startled beef steer in the next field. And don’t think that a hat will be any use either, not unless it’s tied to your head with something which won’t strangle you. The rain will fall on you and there’s nothing you can do about it, other than wearing a decent hood. Even with a hood you should still have the expectation of a small trickle of water down the back of your neck if the seams aren’t quite as waterproof as the manufacturer claimed. It’s important to remember that water resistant doesn’t mean waterproof. In fact waterproof doesn’t even mean waterproof in Orkney. In Orkney the rain is horizontal and not vertical; horizontal all the way until it reaches you and then vertical up your trouser legs and up the bottom of your jacket. Don’t bring an umbrella; you’ll either embarrass yourself or the local cattle.
2. Lost Property.
If you lose something in Orkney – especially something valuable – you’ll almost always get it back. Left your wallet at the supermarket? With all your money and identity documents in it? No problem, it’ll still be there waiting for you if someone hasn’t already found where you’re staying, driven over to your accommodation and left it there for you in your room, on your bed. Lost your engagement ring walking on the beach? There’ll be an army of dedicated volunteers giving up their weekend looking for it with at least two people with metal detectors and people consulting maps of your fateful route. The only chance of you not getting something back is if it really is lost to the sea and nobody ever finds it. Even then it’ll probably turn up in the belly of a fish, or at least that’s how legend has it.
Always park facing into the wind. Then you’ll at least stand a chance of being able to push hard and force your car door open and slip out. Be careful you don’t have a leg or a hand amputated as the door slams back onto you with the full force of a westerly. Sounds bad? That’s the best that can happen. Park the other way? With the wind behind you? Expect your door to be blown back with such force that your arm will be wrenched from your shoulder socket, metal will bend and if you’re very unlucky you will see your car door tumbling headlong over the fields and over the cliffs into the sea. Then you really won’t need the air conditioning.
In Orkney, you won’t be ‘getting away from it all’. You’ll be meeting friendly people the whole time. If you live South, in a town or a city it’s likely that you’re almost completely anonymous and few, if any, of your neighbours even know your name. Probably the only thing they will know about you is what car you drive so they can complain about you blocking their drive. If you are murdered South, all neighbours will have to say about you will be, “Seemed like a nice man. Kept himself to himself. Never blocked our drive.” In Orkney people will want to know all about you. They’ll want to know whether you have children, what their ages are, what their names are, what they are doing now and on and on. You’re far more likely to develop deep and lasting friendships in Orkney than you are to get away from it all.
Drivers obey the Highway Code in Orkney. I know, laughable, isn’t it? Drivers will stop for you at crossings, stop for you if you’re already crossing the road and there isn’t a crossing, and even stop for you when you’re not crossing at all, just to chat about your day, comment on the sky or mention something funny that a cow was doing just now. I know it’s hard to believe but people are genuinely polite drivers. I remember the shock I felt in my first week when a driver actually stopped at a pelican crossing for me to cross rather than speeding up to intimidate me against trying it. Someone overtaking a little too fast on the way to the ferry is treated with the same seriousness and attention in Orkney as a fully-fledged road-rage axe-wielding murder would be South.
Almost all normal weather reports are completely irrelevant in Orkney. It doesn’t matter what the forecast is; for sun, rain, hail or snow. That’s not weather here. All that matters is what the wind speed and direction will be. Do you have a weather app on your phone? Does it show wind speed and direction? No? Then delete it. It won’t be any use in Orkney. 16 degrees the forecast says; that’s a healthy room temperature isn’t it? No. Your forecast needs to tell you the wind speed and direction and then say 16 degrees; feels like 6. If the forecast is for beautiful sunshine all day in Orkney, take a windproof coat or you may suffer from exposure.
7. Dress progressively.
Many houses in Orkney are warm inside, despite the rampant fuel poverty here. Wearing your full outdoor gear indoors is likely to make your blood boil. However, going outside without having put your coat on yet is likely to end in you being freeze-dried and in danger of your extremities snapping off. If you have one sleeve on already, going outside partially dressed means you have attached a sail to yourself and will very likely be doing some involuntary kite surfing very soon. Orkney houses often have porches used as an airlock system. They are like a gateway from this life to the next. Treat the outside like the dangerous vacuum of space and prepare for it by dressing in the porch and you should be fine.
Camping in Orkney is only for the experienced. And by experienced I mean the Himalayas. Even then you may be in trouble. If you do buy a tent and make the trip, make sure you’ve bought a tent for extreme environments. Orkney weather laughs at tent pegs. You’ll need tent pegs like Excalibur here. Once you’ve pitched your tent, spend the evening heading down to the beach again and again until you’ve got enough boulders to weigh the corners of your tent down. Then go and get another one; because ‘just in case’ is always the case in Orkney.
9. Opening Times.
The opening times of Orkney’s tourist attractions are of secondary importance; it’s whether there’s a cruise ship at the Pier which matters. If there’s a cruise ship then 3,000 people are heading for the one tourist attraction you wanted to visit in an army of coaches for a fleeting glimpse of one of the surviving wonders of the ancient world before marching four abreast through the narrow, closed-off streets of the town. Check if a cruise ship’s in town first and then check the opening times of where you want to go, in that order. If there’s a cruise ship, arrange not to be a tourist that day. There’s always plenty more to see and to do in Orkney which is outstanding that the crowds never will. You’ll be spoilt for choice.
Kind is the single best word which describes the people of Orkney. Have you arrived on one of the so-called remote islands with no food and the shop’s shut and the owner’s ‘away’? Not to worry, a neighbour will open the shop for you, let you choose anything you want and say you can come back and ‘make good’ later. Have you hired bikes with your family and one breaks when you’re on a lonely road and you can’t fix it? Not to worry. You’ll all be invited in to any house nearby, given tea, traybakes and fancies, lent another bike and offered a lift to your destination. Nae bother. Has your shed blown away and left a large hole in your roof in torrential rain? One brief message on Facebook and there’ll be twelve men with tarpaulins sorting it within 15 minutes. Orkney breeds people who know that one day they might be the ones in dire need, so they always help anyone who needs it with a generosity of spirit and a kindness which is wonderful to behold.
Enjoy your visit to Orkney; it’s a wonderful place. I hope this has made you just a little more prepared for your experience. It might change your life; it did mine.
What was your first experience like? Leave a reply below and tell us all about it!