Thursday, 28 June 2012

Old Man and The Birds

West Orkney's superlative coast runs in a series of cliffs and bays all the way from Noup Head on Westray, down Rousay and the mainland, and along the entire west and south-western coast of Hoy. Having walked Skaill Bay to Stromness, the logical next step was to head south to Hoy and experience some of its amazing cliff scenery.

The Old Man of Hoy:

As well as the seacliffs, Hoy has the highest hills in Orkney, culminating at 479m on Ward Hill. It has one of Scotland's most atmospheric bays at Rackwick. It also has one of the most singular sights anywhere around the British coast - the Old Man of Hoy.

Hoy held something else for me that I did not count on, but we will come to that...

Rackwick bay and Hoy's hills from the Stromness ferry:

From Moaness, where the the passenger ferry from Stromness terminates, I took to the moorland while everyone else took the road. The steep lump of Ward Hill - highest on Orkney - was quickly climbed. A large bonxie crowned the summit cairn. It flew off unhurriedly at my arrival, having eyeballed my approach without fear. It was nesting season, and not the last bonxie I was to see that day.

From Ward Hill I dropped down to the road again near the Dwarfie Stane (to my shame, I was in too much of a hurry to take the short detour to see this remarkable rock-cut neolithic monument), and headed up Trowieglen towards the Knap, small green fish in the burn. The bonxies gathered. Was that bird aiming for me? It was! I ducked. The next time, I swung my camera bag, and it effortlessly tacked away from my feeble swat. The Knap was swarming with bonxies. It was Inchcolm all over again. I spun round to face their attacks. I was not being physically harmed, but a large bird swooping at me at 35mph and wheeling away for another attack with a cold shark eye was intimidating. As I descended from the summit I realised there were four lining up to divebomb me simultaneously. For the sake of my sanity, I simply ignored them. My hair was pulled, but no more than that. A hat would be advisable next time I visited the hills of Hoy.

Bonxie attack!

At Rackwick there was a merciful interlude from the bonxies. This is a remote and wild feeling place, ringed by seacliffs, waves thundering in. Rackwick, according to George Mackay Brown, was where Orcadians went to get a bit of wilderness. It was a favourite place of poets and painters in his day. The holiday homes in Rackwick today are for hardy families whose children were playing in the surf. Longing to linger, but aware of ferry timetables, I headed out from Rackwick along the path to the Old Man of Hoy and back into bonxie territory.

St John's Head and the Old Man from the Stromness ferry:

The 137m Old Man of Hoy is not the highest seastack in the British Isles, but it is certainly the most famous. I sat in the heather and looked at it for a while, and when the other day trippers walked back to Rackwick and the Moaness minibus, I took a different route back, along the seacliffs of St John's Head. While the Old Man is a singular curiosity, the cliffs of St John's Head are truly impressive: over twice the height of the Old Man, towering 350m sheer from the sea. This must be the most spectacular spot in the whole of Orkney.

A boat gives scale to St John's Head:

From the top of St John's Head, two options are available. I could head down and have a look at the unusual corrie of Enegars - the bottom of which ends in a seacliff - or I could head over Cuilags direct back to Moaness. Time was tight to catch the ferry, so I strode across the moor to Cuilags, ignoring the bonxies. And then I nearly stepped on a bonxie nest, the chick white, uncamoflagued, helpless. For a moment I felt a pang of empathy for the parent and its vulnerable chick. This was why they were attacking me, not because they were evil. Well, perhaps that too, a little bit. Back at the ferry waiting room a bird display suggests avoiding walking these moors in summer to give the bonxies peace. I think I will take that suggestion on board and visit Hoy again out of season. Not in summer when the nights never truly darken, but late autumn perhaps, when the wind cuts black on the moor tops and the waves roar white into Rackwick.

The hills of north Hoy from Stromness:


blueskyscotland said...

Sounds Amazing.Place I,ve always fancied visiting.A few of my climbing freinds have been up the old man.It was always a few grades too high for me though.
A hat on a ski pole raised just above the head worked for me mostly though the gulls on Inchcolm were too smart for that and can draw blood if they hit you
full on.
Must have been a great trip Robert.

Robert Craig said...

Impressed you know people who've been up the Old Man. An intimidating thing to have to climb. I would have thought a walking pole would do the job, maybe a tin hat is needed!