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Day 4: Thurso to Orkney

My alarm went off at 06.30 this morning, which I think is the earliest I've set it for since lockdown began! Breakfast in the hotel in Thurso was generous, and in fact for me it was probably the best breakfast of the holiday so far because it came complete with "potato scone" (potato cake). We were booked onto the 08.45 ferry to Stromness on Orkney, which was due to depart from the ferry terminal of Scrabster, located a mile or so outside of Thurso. Once we'd finished breakfast we packed up and were on our way.

I'd pre-booked the ferry tickets online a couple of weeks ago, so when we arrived at the terminal we just had to show our booking number and we were given our boarding passes. The ferry company recommended checking in an hour in advance of the ferry - and if you don't check in at least 30 minutes in advance then you're not allowed to board - so we then had a bit of time to kill sitting in the car before we were allowed to drive on.

Once we had boarded and made our way up onto the passenger deck, we found that the ferry was nice and spacious. Everything was set up well for social distancing, with one-way systems on stairwells and chairs roped off where you weren't allowed to sit. At some point before we set off, a member of staff came walking around the lounges to make everyone was wearing a mask.

We were lucky enough to find a nice table seat by a window.


The ferry was due to arrive in Stromness at 10.15, so I settled down to what I hoped would be a good 90 minutes catching up on some reading. It was quite a breezy day outside though, and when the captain made his safety announcement prior to us setting off we commented on the fact that we could expect to have "a bit of motion" during the journey.  I think this was code for "it's going to be extremely choppy", because that's certainly how it felt after the first 10 minutes or so!

The water still felt relatively calm as we pulled out of the harbour and left Thurso behind us.


There were some lovely views back towards the north coast as the ferry began to make its way towards Orkney.


As we got further out to sea, the waves became a bit bigger, though.


Trying to look down and read began to feel like it was an error of judgement, so I went to sit outside and get some fresh air.


That turned out to be a bonus, because there were some great views as we approached Orkney. In particular, as we sailed past the island of Hoy (the second largest Orkney island), there was a great view of its famous sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy.


The boat arrived promptly in Stromness at 10.15.


Stromness, with a population of around 2,200 people, is the second largest settlement on Orkney. The largest town, with a population of over 9,000, is Kirkwall. Of the two towns, the guidebook had indicated that Stromness was by far the most attractive.


It certainly looked like a picturesque little place. We parked the car not far from the ferry terminal and got out for a stroll around.


Leaving the harbour behind us, one of the first things we came across was this statue of the Arctic explorer, John Rae, who was born on Orkney in 1813.


Walking past the statue, we found ourselves on the main street of Stromness.


Calling it a main street makes it sound grander than it was :) 


As we followed it along we got glimpses of the sea in the gaps between the houses.


The weather forecast hadn't been too good for today, but so far Orkney seemed sunnier than I'd expected.


It was nice to stretch our legs after being on the boat, but it didn't take long for us to realise we would soon be in danger of walking out of Stromness entirely.


We turned around and retraced our steps back to the main town centre.


I'd planned a last minute Orkney road-trip itinerary for today, mainly based on recommendations from the Rough Guide. There was lots to see, so once we were back in the centre of Stromness, we retrieved the car and put our first destination into the Sat Nav.

We actually got sidetracked on the way to the first destination when we saw a signpost to a lochside viewpoint.


This is the loch of Stenness, which is the deepest loch on Orkney.


Just around the corner from the viewpoint was the place we had been heading to: the Stones of Stenness.


There are lots of ancient sites on Orkney and these standing stones are estimated to be 5,000 years old, which may make them the oldest henge site in the British Isles.


On the one hand, they're not quite as impressive as Stonehenge :D On the other hand, you can walk right up to them, which you definitely can't do at Stonehenge.


Stenness was just the warm-up though, because a mile or so down the road is the Ring of Brodgar, a much larger neolithic stone circle.


There are thought to have been 60 stones here originally, although only 27 remain standing today.


The stones are believed to have been erected some time between 2500 and 2000 BC.


You can't get right up close to them like at Stenness, but there's a circular path which leads all the way around.


This is one of the most popular sites on Orkney, but it wasn't at all busy today :) 


As you can see from the pictures, we almost had the place to ourselves.


Once we'd finished admiring the stones, we got back in the car to drive a bit further along the west coast of the island towards a place called Yesnaby. We were on the biggest of the Orkney islands, known as "Mainland", and the plan was to drive around as much of it as possible today. The Rough Guide had recommended Yesnaby as a place worth stopping to see impressive cliffs and rock formations.


We parked the car in what felt like quite a desolate location and began walking along the cliff-top path.


It wasn't long before we came across some enormous cliffs.


It was one of those days when I wished I'd retained more information from geography lessons, to remember how all these different structures were formed.


Looking at the water here, you could see why the boat had felt a bit choppy this morning!


The sea was beautiful, but some of the waves were really high.


We walked further along the coast and passed some rather stripy rocks.


The path involved climbing over a rather difficult stile. Tim thought my attempts to get across were hilarious xD 


After the stile the path led us through a grassy area where we had some amazing views down towards the cliffs.


Watching the waves crashing, I was starting to feel a bit nervous about another 8 hours on the ferry tonight to Shetland!

It's always fun to watch the sea, but it's slightly less fun when you know you're going to be sailing on it in another few hours xD


As you can probably tell from the photos, it was a rather blustery day.


We could have stayed and watched the waves for hours, but it was after 1pm and we were starting to feel a bit peckish. We followed the road around the top of the island, towards the town of Kirkwall.


We found a nice restaurant to have lunch in and then set out for a stroll around the town. The guidebook had suggested that the only thing worth seeing in Kirkwall was the cathedral.


This is St Magnus Cathedral, the most northerly cathedral in the UK. Construction on it started in 1137, at which point Orkney belonged to Norway.


Across the road from the cathedral we found the remains of the palace where the local bishops used to live.


The site was technically closed today, but we were able to have a bit of a wander round and get some photos anyway.


After Kirkwall, the plan was to explore the Deerness peninsula in the eastern part of the Mainland island. The main attraction in this part of Orkney is something known as "The Gloup".


The guidebook described it as a collapsed sea cave. I'm not sure I really understand how it was formed, but it's certainly a large hole in the ground xD


What I hadn't realised from the guidebook was that, once we were parked on the Deerness peninsula, there was also a nice walk we could do along by the sea.


And the good news was that the sea was looking a lot calmer here :) 


As at Yesnaby, there were some really interesting cliffs.


We could have walked further, but after a mile or so it started to rain so we turned around to head back to the car.


Deerness was the final destination on my route around the mainland island. But, thanks to a series of causeways known as the Churchill Barriers (which were built in the 1940s as part of a system of naval defences), we were able to drive further south across a series of smaller islands onto the island of South Ronaldsay.


Unfortunately the weather had taken a turn for the worse at this point, so we didn't get much of a view as we crossed the causeways for the first time, and by the time we reached the bottom of South Ronaldsay, the rain was torrential. We parked the car up for a bit until the worst of the storm passed, and then began retracing our steps back up towards Kirkwall.


It was still a bit damp on the way back, but the views were better :) The causeways are at the edge of a body of water known as Scapa Flow, which was the site of an important Royal Navy base during the first and second world wars. 


All kinds of ships have sunk here, including a significant part of the German navy which was scuttled in Scapa Flow after defeat in the First World War. The remains of some ships are still visible above water today, although we hadn't read up on this subject enough to know exactly what we were looking at.


By the time we had got back across the causeways, the sun was just starting to set.


The ferry to Shetland wasn't due to depart until 23.45, and although we could check in up to two hours in advance, that still left us with a few hours to kill. We parked the car in Kirkwall and went for another walk.


The cathedral looked really pretty lit up at night :) 


We found a bar to sit in and I made a start on the blog, but I only got partway through before it was time for us to be off on our way again. The ferry terminal for Shetland is situated a couple of miles outside Kirkwall, on the edge of an industrial estate, so it's not quite as scenic a location as the harbour in Stromness. The boat was due to arrive around 11pm, but we were warned at the point we checked in that there was a lot of freight to be loaded on and off. That all had to be completed before the cars were allowed on, so it was closer to 11.30 by the time we were allowed to board.

We had booked a cabin for the night and I was pleasantly surprised by how nice it was. I think we've had hotel rooms in Iceland and Norway which weren't much bigger than this xD 


We settled down to sleep, hoping for a calm sea :) 

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