Approaching the land of the Finmen and Selkies the cry of “are those mermaids mum?” couldn’t have been more apt. Small figures with brightly coloured hats bobbed beneath the huge bows of the MV Hamnavoe as it slipped into the harbour, its decks still full of passengers that had scrambled outside to photograph the famous Old Man of Hoy on its wildlife-filled passage from mainland. This was the welcome from the town’s wild swimmers and the first taste of the vibrant life and character that bursts from every corner of this fabulous Orkney town. You may see them on this circular walk past the town’s cultural attractions that seamlessly transition into coastal path views of the tall peaks of Hoy, the town’s favourite beach and one of Orkney’s finest viewpoints that overlooks the colourful harbour of Stromness.
Start from South Pier and walk left along the main street. A labyrinth of old passageways wind uphill through the town’s terraces and intriguing short alleyways lead seaward to wave-lapped stone piers and historic wharves. Explore any of them to immerse yourself in the lives of the explorers, merchants and whalers that once lived here. Leave the town, continue around the harbour and pick up the coast path at the Point of Ness Campsite. From here the peaks and crags of Hoy rear up ahead, whilst the flat island of Graemsay lies just across Hoy Sound. Continue west past a small gun emplacement and buildings, a reminder that Stromness was once the wartime command Centre for the British Home Fleet. Today volunteers use the viewpoint to watch for whales and dolphins in the Sound. Continue on the coast path past the car park and Warebeth Cemetery then on to Warebeth Beach – a lovely sandy beach with plenty of rocks and pools.
Return on the lane north of the cemetery, turn left onto Warebeth Road then right at the T-junction with Outertown Road. Take the first exit on the mini-roundabout following the footpath along Back Lane. Just after the University buildings turn left up Downies Lane then left again to follow the footpath signs to Brinkies Brae. Walk uphill through the fields, follow the stone wall to the right to reach the trig point. Here stunning views of Scapa Flow stretch away from the houses that crowd around a harbour full of colourful fishing vessels, ferries and dive boats. Trace steps back to Downies Lane, cross Back Lane and take the steep alleyway downhill past the University buildings to Franklin Lane, turning right onto Bank Lane to return to the waterfront. If you have the energy you could always join the town’s wild swimmers for a dip near the Point of Ness (first published in The Times, Scotland)
Stromness special blue space
The waters round Stromness are part of the Scapa Flow Marine Special Protected Area, designated to protect rare and vulnerable migratory birds. Orkney is one of the UK’s biggest hotspots for breeding seabirds. In the summer, around a million seabirds flock to the islands and they are an important home to populations of red-throated divers. In the winter, its seas are home to internationally important populations of wintering birds including eiders, long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers, red-throated and great northern divers, European shags and Slavonian grebes. This walk also sits within the Hot and West Mainland National Scenic Area.
Need to know
Full route map: click here
Map: OS Explorer 463 Orkney West Mainland; Landranger 6 Orkney Mainland
Terrain: Circular walk exploring Stromness town, coast path and quiet back lanes. Optional footpath ascent to viewpoint.
Start: Stromness Pier, Ferry Road, Stromness, KW16 3AA. Grid ref. HY 25489 09198
Getting there: Ferry Daily services on Northlink Ferries from Scrabster to Stromness – more info here
Pitstops Bayleaf Delicatessen, Stromness, great bread and island produce on the main street; tel. 01865 851605. More info here