Home   News   Article

OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Finding hills and hail on a winter trip to Orkney

By Ben MacGregor

Register for free to read more of the latest local news. It's easy and will only take a moment.

Click here to sign up to our free newsletters!
Eynhallow and Rousay from Costa Hill.
Eynhallow and Rousay from Costa Hill.

There are no mountains on Orkney Mainland. But there is Costa Hill.

When the weather is grey and wet, Orkney is much like Caithness. So it’s worth waiting for a good day for a trip across the Firth, and at last there was a reasonable forecast.

I’d set off on the e-bike with plenty of time to catch the ferry at Scrabster but hadn’t bargained for icy roads on the first four miles. Concentrating hard, I made it with 10 minutes to spare. But it was a lovely morning, a clear sky and the sun just coming up as we sailed out past Holburn Head.

A crossing on the Hamnavoe is always a joy, the boat is very comfortable and well equipped, the crew friendly and the scenery as you sail past the Hoy cliffs and into Stromness incomparable.

With only six hours before needing to check in for the return sailing, I set off immediately for my ride round the north of Mainland.

The detailed forecast predicted what I call the "lunchtime shower", often a feature of unsettled weather around here. If weather is important for your plans, always look at the output of at least two weather models (I always use the BBC, basically Meteo Group, and the GFS, and often also look at the Met Office).

Never neglect the synoptic charts as well. They showed an occluded front passing around lunchtime, so the showers looked like they might be real. But occluded fronts are wayward things, sometimes they start moving backwards and develop into little lows with many hours of rain. Mostly they are relatively harmless. You need to make your own judgement based on experience and local knowledge.

Sailing out past Holburn Head.
Sailing out past Holburn Head.

The low February sun still shone as I pedalled the hilly roads northwards – you tend to think of Orkney Mainland as flat but there are big areas of rolling moorland between the lochs and the fertile fields. On past Loch of Skaill with the curlews calling to the bay, where a short walk along the coast took me to the famous neolithic village of Skara Brae, worth visiting in winter as there will only be one or two other people about and you can get a really good look at the ancient houses.

Then on, over the hills in the sunshine to Birsay, the causeway to the Brough was underwater at high tide so I carried on along the north coast road.

Costa Hill, only 500 feet high, is the highest point on the north coast and the track up to the top should be a nice challenge for the mountain bike. Indeed it was. The first difficulty was a locked gate, there was a kissing gate for walkers but negotiating a heavy bike through this was not easy.

A muddy track up Costa Hill.
A muddy track up Costa Hill.

The track had been badly churned into two muddy ruts by tractors bringing feed for sheep. Near the top it was steep and I knew if I made any mistake and stopped I’d have to wheel the bike the rest of the way. Inevitably I stopped.

The top of the hill gave a grand view across to the isles of Rousay and Westray, but that lunchtime shower had now enveloped the west coast. There’s an old wartime building on the very summit which gave good shelter from the wind to eat lunch and hopefully watch that shower pass.

Fifteen minutes later the rain looked no nearer, maybe it would not come this way? I set off down the slippery track to be met with a barrage of hail and rain. By the time I was back on the road I was cold, wet and covered in mud. You need to be reasonably smart for that plush ferry… so I wiped as much as I could off with tufts of grass before pushing on.

Looking to the Brough of Birsay.
Looking to the Brough of Birsay.

The tideraces round the little island of Eynhallow were roaring white on a big spring tide – been there in the kayak, done that. Now getting short of time, I climbed on over the hills to Dounby as another fierce hailstorm came on… then the sun came out and on dazzling wet roads I pedalled hard for Stromness, again making the ferry with just 10 minutes to spare.

After that, I could enjoy the luxury of a fish supper on the boat, watching the Hoy cliffs slide past as dark fell while the fulmars coasted almost effortlessly alongside, dipping up and down over the white-wave tops of the tide races and totally at home in the hostile environment.

Do you want to respond to this article? If so, click here to submit your thoughts and they may be published in print.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More