My great-great-grandfather was born in Orkney, gifting me a slender genetic connection to the country I call home, and providing my son with another dose of Viking heritage, which might explain his passion for pirates. I love the wild, raw beauty of the Orkney Islands – it’s unlike anywhere else, but with strong, gusting winds, a temperamental ‘summer’ and almost no cycling infrastructure. It might not be an obvious choice as a family cycling destination. But really, who wants to read another blog about safe and easy cycling holidays in the Netherlands?
Aberdeen and losing the will to move
We started our journey by train from home in East Lothian to Aberdeen, where the nice people at NorthLink ferries let you roll on with your bike and take you to Orkney (or Shetland if you fall asleep) for a surprising small amount of money. Unfortunately this means going to Aberdeen with your bike, which should not be undertaken lightly. I was pretending to be an organised cyclist, so the usual train/bike/booking tension didn’t arise but Aberdeen presents significant mobility challenges to anyone not encased in a metal box. After several attempts to escape the train station, on its island in the sea of traffic, we gave up and spent our two hour wait outside on the station plaza. We decided that it was less damaging to be surrounded by toxic fumes than risk the more imminent danger posed by the cars. My son, a cycle campaigner of few words, provided a summary comment for Twitter:
Once boarded, it was literally plain sailing and six hours later we were in the “not dark at 11pm” excitement of Kirkwall where I demonstrated my powers of organisation again and had a taxi waiting to whisk us to prepared youth hostel beds.
Weather with you
This was my fourth visit to Orkney so it was obvious to me that the resident weather gods had recently gone AWOL, leaving Orkney to enjoy a rare summer of sunshine and low wind speeds. On previous trips I had wondered how people managed to walk anywhere, let alone cycle, as you have to brace yourself against the wind to stay upright for eight months of the year. To increase our chances of not being cold, wet and windswept at the same time I’d booked two nights camping and two nights in a wooden chalet at the superb Pickaquoy Campsite plus the initial youth hostel room and a final night on the boat taking us south again. This regular movement maintained the feeling of cycle touring without going very far, and indulged my passion for packing. Posting our tent home after use reduced our luggage and enabled the purchase and carriage of a large quantity of puffin related items home.
Bikes + ferries = simples
Orkney is a collection of 70 islands, 20 inhabited, spread 50 miles from north to south and 10 miles off the mainland of northern Scotland. You can fly between some of them but for us the boat and bicycle combination was magical, transforming each journey into another part of the adventure.
We visited two islands, Sanday and Shapinsay, on different days and found they were perfect for family cycling, with low levels of traffic and barely a hill. With very little wind we were able to cover the miles easily, enjoying the wild, open landscape almost alone on the road. The ferries were easy to find, simple to take bikes onto and had adventure written all over them. No booking, no bother. <insert irate comment about bike booking policy on trains here>
We found shops, cafes and a pub for refreshments plus locals that were keen to talk and share their experience of living in this wild, beautiful place. My son chased a male chicken with a new found friend of the same age on Sanday, giving him the ideal opportunity to shout ‘it was a cock!’ repeatedly at dinner later that day.
Mainland Orkney, home to 75% of the 21,000 population, proved more of challenge to cycle around than the smaller islands. Cars dominate the two main towns, Kirkwall and Stromness, and the cruise ships provide a regular influx of coaches on the narrow roads. Unlike our part of Scotland (which has a network of low traffic roads in addition to the main roads) the main roads are often the only roads, leaving little choice for finding a family friendly route.
For a small town it’s remarkably hard to cross the road in Kirkwall and quite easy to find yourself surrounded by cars on a road that looks like its pedestrianised. I’m aware that the weather gods decree that walking is an endurance sport for much of the year, but it seems a shame that its isn’t easier to get about this lovely town. There have been plans presented to improve conditions for walking and cycling and I hope that eventually Kirkwall will be able to show off its highlights free from vehicles impeding the views.
Not separation anxiety
One of the main considerations of the week was how to get ourselves from Kirkwall to Stromness for our ferry south. After canvassing the opinion of everyone we spoke to, including a Dutch born Orkney resident that stopped us in the street to tell us we were ‘very brave’, I decided on the longer, hillier route to avoid as much as possible of the fast and frightening A965*. I rationalised that an exhausted child was better than a squashed one in any circumstances. However, I underestimated the Viking potential and my 6 year old sped through the 18 miles, only concerned that we hadn’t managed to get through many of the snacks we’ve purchased for the journey.
Orkney doesn’t have the cycling facilities of the Netherlands, reliable weather or the dramatic mountain scenery that draw so many people to Scotland. But the sense of freedom, of being alone on the edge of the world, sandy beaches with turquoise sea and islands where no one thinks to lock a door – that’s worth coming back on my bike to visit again and again.
*There is a desire from the Council to provide a separated route on the main road, linking the two towns and providing an excellent opportunity to increase cycle tourism. It would be an expensive undertaking per capita of population, but one that could start to put Orkney and its raw beauty of the cycle tourism map. Ebike facilities and an off road route around the main neolithic sites are also being discussed, and all these could enable Orkney cycle tourism to flourish outwith the main tourist season.
Disclaimer: I did meet several political representatives from Orkney Islands Council whilst on holiday and should declare that they gave me a lovely cup of tea, as well as a fascinating insight into some of the planned cycling developments.