It’s Day Three of my attempt to walk the entire coast of the island of Westray. It’s not actually that far; under 50 miles, but I’m taking my time, taking photographs as I go and enjoying every moment I can of the experience. I’m part of a tradition in walking the entire coast of the Island. Peter McIntyre did it in a day 50 years ago. I’m told two young people tried it more recently, and had to be met. They were still heading along the cliffs at 2am, with the aid of torches. When I hear that, I’m glad I’ve split it into five sections over this week.
Today I’ll be walking from Gill Pier in the village of Pierowall to the crumbling Mill at Rack Wick. It’s a large part of the east coast of the Island. I drive to the Mill, drop off my unlocked bike and drive to the village. After yesterday’s cattle and nettle trauma, with rain and sombre weather I’m feeling more realistic about today’s walk. I’m also in some serious pain with my big toe. It’s red and septic; nothing to do with the walking, it was like that before I even started.
My mood changes as soon as I begin. What a glorious place this is to be alive:
I start and it’s already four in the afternoon. I’ve established a pattern of not being able to get ready the night before and spending the morning eating, packing, pottering and nursing my sore toe. Life gets in the way despite our best intentions.
First along the bay is Lady Kirk, a 13th Century church remodelled in the 17th century, which is when the spectacular gravestones there were carved..
Pierowall bay was the most perfect harbour for Vikings. It’s at the north of the Island, nearer to Scandinavia. It’s shallow and perfect for Viking longships. It’s also sheltered. It’s no wonder the Vikings landed, conquered and then occasionally fought over the Island. It’s all documented in the Orkneyinga Saga in typical Icelandic fashion. The Hofn, or Haven, mentioned in the Saga, is Pierowall.
It’s a haven today.
Here’s what it looks like from the air from a trip we took in a light aircraft:
I’ve walked almost in a circle and am just across the water from where I started. It’s 4:35 pm when I walk along Broughton, where the seals haul out in the Bay. They are doing what I wish I was doing right now. Flopping out and enjoying the warm sun.
These Common Seals have amazing reflective coats and thick whiskers like violin strings.
I pass the sign for Jack’s Chippy, the fish and chip shop at Pierowall Fish, the wonderful fish processors on Westray. It says they are open until 7:30 tonight. I look at my watch. There’s no way that I’m going to be able to finish the walk in time. Even if I do, I’ve got to get on my bike and cycle the six miles to the Village. I’ll never be back here in time. That’s desperate. Suddenly the cheese rolls in my rucksack seem really unappealing. Then I notice it says they are open from 4:30. They are open now. I can eat fish and chips and then do a really strenuous walk. It’s a few hundred yards along the road and all the time I’m walking I’m weighing up whether to have fish and chips or go without.
I’m distracted by a rainbow over the village:
It’s a difficult one, at least it is until I see Jack’s Chippy and walk straight in and place my order. I’m pleased to see they call it what it is, here; Catfish.
I probably haven’t walked a mile yet and here I am, already eating a huge meal. I wonder if it’ll slow me down?
The Island is full of ruins. Depopulation since the 1970s has left the population half of what it was. I seem to remember that mains electricity came here in 1984. The ferry brought the possibility of Kirkwall Grammar School, and the prospect of a university education for young people. Mechanisation of agriculture has meant there aren’t the jobs for the hundreds of people there would have been. Modern building materials mean there are warm and cosy buildings separate from the shared animal-barn-and-human-house of previous generations. The shipping of roofing tiles and slates meant that disastrously heavy stone slab roofs were no longer an essential part of building.
It’s always the heavy stone roof which is the first to go.
I walk past Scarfhall Point, the Ness of Brough and round the Bay of Cleat. The map says the Bay of Cleat has something called the Height of the World. I have no idea what that is or whether I saw it.
The Height of the World? On a day like today in Westray you’ll feel like you’ve been there, wherever it actually is on the map.
There’s a Curlew on the seaweed. It’s our largest wader and at severe risk of extinction. Orkney is the place it is most likely to finally become extinct. There are just 1 in 10 Curlews left in Ireland, and only 18 chicks fledged there this year instead of thousands. Only 1 in 5 are left in Wales and 1 in 2 left in England and Scotland from just 20 years ago. In France they shoot 7,000 during the winter.
Its call is the last sound of Britain’s wilderness. We need to act before that eerie “Whaup, whaup” call, echoing across the bay, is gone forever.
I stop to take my coat off and hang it over the back of my rucksack. As I stumble along a beach I suddenly see two large seals heading off down the rocks into the water. I watch them go, regretting that I’ve disturbed them. Then I realise there’s a pup next to me. I take just two instinctive photographs and then head away from it as quickly as possible.
Those deep eyes are incredible. They aren’t animals we should be shooting in the head to make farmed salmon cheaper. My view is that you shouldn’t shoot a seal until you can see the whites of its eyes… because they don’t have any white in their eyes.
I walk on as it flares and contracts its nostrils at me.
I’m a man who has a favourite ruin. Is it okay to admit that? I love the silhouette and some of the details on this building. Inside there’s a curved wooden lintel. I wonder if that’s from a shipwreck or whether there’s a different explanation? Then on the outside there’s a double stone lintel, with a smaller narrow one followed by a much larger broader one. I’d love to know what was going on there.
This year there’s no Raven’s nest here:
As I walk on there are many beautiful rock pavements of fossilised beaches, with ripples in the sand from 380 million years ago turned to rock, here:
I hear the clatter of something plastic behind me but turn and can’t see anything. There’s surprisingly little plastic on the coast here, although there are many nets and ropes scattered at the top of the tideline.
It’s getting dark as I begin my scramble to the Mill and my bicycle. There are rabbit holes as deep as my inside leg measurement and gulleys full of barbed wire. There’s what looks like a path but which is actually a drainage channel outside a barbed wire fence. The sun is behind me and my long shadow looms over the headlands.
I think it’s going to rain but it doesn’t. It’s raining somewhere though, because there’s another rainbow ahead of me:
I never get bored of Fulmars. Their name in Orkney is Mallimacks or ‘badmouths’ because of their habit of spitting rancid fish oil at intruders to the nest. I like calling them Short-winged Albatrosses, because that’s what they really are:
There’s one of the privately owned wind turbines on the higher ground here. It’s an impressively large machine:
Below me on the beach beyond Mayfield is a small rock stack. I’ve scrambled down there before at dawn to photograph the early blue light. I’m not going to scramble there tonight. It’s too dark now.
Scattered over Rack Wick bay are beautiful red sandstone pebbles. There are no red sandstone rocks on Westray, so all of these have come from Eday. They look beautiful against a grey background.
I’m so close to the Mill now I rush headlong and fall head first into the purple heather. It’s springy and cushions my fall. I don’t want to get up, I want to embrace it, but I climb to my knees, look around me and get up and continue. Do you look a fool if there’s no-one there to see you fall?
I want to walk on the beach rather than up on the shallow cliff, so I scramble down and walk along. It’s only when I get to the end that I realise I can’t get up off the beach and have to walk all the way back again and climb up. My phone app with GPS notices I’m not moving forward and says, “Pausing workout” from my pocket as I struggle up the vertical slope, straining with the effort. I say a few bad words back to it.
I feel an enormous sense of achievement as I stumble back to the Mill. It’s only a mile or so on my bicycle to home, as the sun sets.
Today’s walk was mostly a pleasant walk along shallow-sloping rocks and sandy beaches and was only ruined by the lack of a path, rough heather and grass tussocks at the end and being unable to get off Rack Wick beach and having to backtrack just when I thought I’d finished. Falling down a rabbit hole and having to get over a couple of barbed wire fences exactly at crotch height wasn’t too much fun either. It was just under ten miles and took me 3 hours 40 minutes of walking. I’ve hardly stopped to take photographs today.
Back home I peel my sock off my toe, crispy with blood. Tomorrow I’m going to find out what Westray’s health service is like. I’ve still got to retrieve my car from Gill Pier so I’ll pop in to see them when I cycle the six miles into the village.
That clatter of plastic behind me during the walk? That was my interchangeable lens camera falling out of my coat pocket. Despite my well-deserved reputation as the man who never swears, I say a rude word for the second time today.
I lie in the bath and try to relax while I listen to the mice chewing my house from inside the walls.
Why did I do it? This is why:
This chapter was brought to you courtesy of a catfish supper from Jack’s Chippy at Pierowall Fish. I would normally have been humming inanely, but instead spent the entire time moaning with pain in my toe. The song Dreamhouse by Steve Poltz was the ultimate relaxation mood-changer back home.