Trip Report - Aberdeen and Orkney

May 13th, 2008, 04:39 PM
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Trip Report - Aberdeen and Orkney

Week long trip to Orkney, the island group just off the north coast of Scotland. This trip report is not in strict chronological order, rather itís my memories which will sometimes be sorted around themes rather than days of the week. If you know what day it is you havenít properly settled into holiday mode!

First of all, some thoughts on Aberdeen.

Friday afternoon an uneventful drive to Aberdeen. We had booked online for the Copthorne Hotel just off Union Street. I think we had the same room we got on a long weekend in the Granite City two years ago. The hotel has its own underground car park but the spaces are painted so narrow that everybody takes up two places.
The Copthorne is comfortable though unremarkable. One slight worry was, if I can find a way of saying this delicately, the en-suite plumbing was not the most efficient Iíve seen. Buckets of water when a pull on a handle should have sufficed? Ahem! More worrying, we had reported exactly the same problem last time and they promised to sort it.
The hotel bar is quite stylish but expensive, you would probably find the same standards cheaper in the city. You go through the bar to the restaurant where they serve breakfast. There should be a law against talk radio stations being blasted out in eating places. Breakfast was OK apart from the bacon that had about a monthís recommended daily dose of salt. I think we complained about that last time as well. Like most hotels of a similar grading they have a full cooked breakfast and / or self service buffet of breads, cereals, cold meats etc. I was nearly tempted by some of the cold fish dishes but decided they would be too salty so early in the morning (this was before I tasted the bacon.)
Hotel reception staff were very helpful for us and for several others we saw asking various touristy questions.

On the Friday evening we had arranged to meet the one and only Sheila. We met up in Soul, a bar in a converted church halfway down Union Street. An interesting place, I would imagine it can get impossibly crowded. Donít sit too near the doors. They have swing doors that donít swing closed properly and people going out always leave them jammed open. Aberdeen is not the place to sit beside an open door if you donít want hypothermia.
Sheila, youíll need to help me out with the name of the Thai restaurant you took us to. Wonderful. We were there quite early so it was quiet but it was nearly full by the time we left. A very enjoyable evening. Thanks Sheila, we owe you.

Saturday we had planned to do some shopping in Aberdeen before our afternoon flight. We sauntered down Thistle Street which as Sheila had predicted has lots of interesting clothes shops - independent or semi independent rather than the big High Street chains (theyíre all on Union Street or the nearby shopping malls). Once we reached the bigger shops of Union Street we very quickly realised that we were more in the mood for Orkney than city centre shopping. As it wasnít time for Orkney we did the next best thing and walked out to the sea front and along the prom. A call of nature took us into a huge indoor amusements arcade, quite a surreal experience as it was absolutely empty (so why did they had all the lights and bells guzzling up electricity?). The beach was still quiet so it was a bit of a shock when we walked back into town to see how busy it had become in just a couple of hours.

Union Street is still the main shopping area in Aberdeen. There are several big shopping malls just off the east (bottom) end of Union Street, St Nicholas Centre and Bon Accord Centre being the biggest. Between them they have all the usual big High Street names. They also have the biggest Boots The Chemist Iíve ever seen. We had to ask for directions to find a toothbrush for DB, and it worked out we could have walked less distance by leaving Boots and going to a smaller chemist down the road. There are some interesting eateries towards the west end of Union Street, further down the fast food outlets tend to take over. I also noticed a difference in the side streets. Rose Street and Chapel Street for example, at the west end, have some promising looking one-off ethnic restaurants. Further down towards the east end of Union Street the side streets are more likely to have traditional style pubs. The lower end of Union Street also feels to me as if it has just that wee edge to it. Iíve felt the same thing in some parts of Madrid. Nothing hostile or threatening, but I got the impression that on a Friday or Saturday night the pubs in this part of town would not be for the faint hearted. Iíd be interested to know if thatís how it really is.

After a quick bite of lunch it was time for the short drive to the airport. We left plenty of time, just as well because we hadnít realised that Aberdeen Airpark where we had booked the car in is not in the airport at all. Itís up a country track on the edge of an industrial estate several miles past the entrance to the airport. Their courtesy bus had us at the terminal building with loads of time to spare.

Minor quibble at check-in was that I used the self service check-in machines which accepted my booking reference number etc then gave me completely the wrong desk number to drop off our luggage. At the correct desk they told us self service check-in was not available on this flight. Pity nobody told the machine.

Our departure gate felt like it was a ten mile walk from the main airport hub, down blank corridors. We were there about ten minutes before the official absolute deadline and there wasnít another soul to be seen. DB headed off to find the Ladies and returned about 25 minutes later escorted by a very friendly security lady who asked to see the boarding pass and passport she had left with me. She had somehow managed to get back on the "wrong" side of the security checks who then wouldnít let her back through without a boarding pass. Then they decided that the hand cream and lip salve in her pocket, which she had been allowed to take through the first time, were now highly suspect liquids. They collected samples of both and went behind a screes, presumably to see if they could make them explode, before escorting her back to the departure gate. By this time Iíd been joined by enough likely looking travellers to feel confident that there would be a plane from here soon.

We were about 20 minutes late taking off but still landed early. Not bad for a flight thatís only supposed to take about 50 minutes. The co-pilot must have been pedalling very hard. Full marks also to the single cabin stewardess who somehow managed to get round everybody witht the complimentary drinks before it was time to land.

We landed safely at Kirkwall Airport just four miles from the Capital City of Orkney.
Craigellachie is offline  
May 13th, 2008, 06:46 PM
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A lovely start on your trip report. I'm a big fan of Sheila and hope someday to visit Orkney.

Can't wait to read more. Thanks!
Danna is offline  
May 14th, 2008, 03:50 AM
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Orkneyis also on my list, so am interested in hearing more. Thanks!
irishface is offline  
May 14th, 2008, 05:36 AM
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Nice, detailed report. My husband is from Aberdeen (lives in the US now), so I've been there quite a bit.

Never got the impression you did about the pubs at that end of Union Street. I always felt very comfortable at all of them in Aberdeen (it's areas of Torry that I felt iffy at before...)
amelie is offline  
May 15th, 2008, 04:20 AM
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Hi Craig, enjying your writing & looking forward to the rest as I also want to go to Orkney in the not too distant future.
caroline_edinburgh is offline  
May 21st, 2008, 01:12 PM
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Enjoyed your report - waiting for the rest.
auldyins is offline  
May 23rd, 2008, 03:30 PM
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Episode Two.

Arrival
As Kirkwall Airport seldom has more than one or two small planeloads of passengers at a time, baggage reclaim is much quicker than you would get in bigger airports. Five minutes and we had collected our luggage and met up with our car hire chap.

Car Hire
We pre-booked on line with Drive Orkney. There are several other car hire firms on Orkney with little difference in price or service offered. The best choice will depend on exactly what you want. They will all meet you at the airport - well, nearly. Only one company is allowed to do any form of business within the airport property so Drive Orkney (and presumably most of the others) will ask you to get in the car, be driven off the airport property (about 100 yards!), then sign the paperwork.

Most car hire deals include unlimited mileage as long as you donít leave Orkney. This makes sense. You would have to try very hard to do more than 100 miles per day on Orkney, and youíd be crazy to hire a car on Orkney then pay the ferry fare to take it back to Scotland.

Kirkwall
The airport is about 4 miles south of Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney. Thereís a good bus service, though few buses anywhere on Orkney run after about 5 p.m. If you have booked accommodation on Mainland Orkney they will often collect you from the airport if you donít have a hire car.

The town centre is very compact and is definitely best explored on foot. There are several public car parks around the centre. We always used the free one next to the police station (just off Great Western Road), about 5 minutes walk from the centre. Car parks nearer the centre usually cost and often seemed to be full. The centre of Kirkwall is also confusing to drive round, lots of narrow streets, one way systems and so on. Unless you have mobility problems I would recommend parking around the edges of the centre and walking in.

Our first port of call, as in most new places, was the Tourist Information Centre. This recently moved to a new building beside the "travel centre" (bus station) on Junction Road. As in most Scottish tourist offices, the staff were very helpful. They have a free street map, Kirkwall on one side, Stromness on the other. We bought copies of the two weekly newspapers, The Orcadian and Orkney Today, mainly for the advertisements to see what was going on.

As we were self catering we stocked up at the local supermarkets before heading out to our accommodation. Almost next door to each other on Pickaquoy Road are Aldi (German based, no frills, usually cheap and perfectly adequate) and the Co-op (venerable institution of life in small Scottish towns, the Kirkwall store has a reasonable selection of goods but parking can be difficult). The supermarket between them had recently closed and was in the process of being turned into a Tesco (mega player in the UK supermarket scene, accounts for about 8% of total UK high street retail spend). You pays your money and you takes your choice. Or you could patronise the more locally based shops in the centre of Kirkwall.

Most of the shops are on a single street that curves round St Magnus Cathedral, or on a few smaller streets close by. The street name changes from Victoria Street to Broad Street to Albert Street. Itís partly pedestrianised, though vehicles are allowed on some parts. Thereís an interesting mix of tourist traps (ranging from outright tacky to very high quality), some very good locally owned food shops, and useful places like pharmacists. Thereís even a travel agent, though why anyone would want to escape from Orkney Iíll never know.

Later in the week we spent most of a day in Kirkwall and it was noticeable that the city centre had a "ready to close" feeling by mid afternoon, much earlier than you would find in most towns. This was especially true of the butchers and fishmongers. Like many island communities Orkney produces some sensational fish, seafood and locally grown meat. If you are self catering, donít wait too late in the day to buy it or you might go hungry.

We found that the local independent shops had a better range of the high quality food and drinks for which Orkney is rightly famous - cheeses, oatcakes, beers from the Orkney and St Magnus breweries, Orkney herrings, ice creams. Desert island it ainít. Take time to compare prices in different shops, they can vary by 20 or 30 percent and itís not always the same shop thatís cheapest.

We didnít stay in any of the hotels or B&Bs so I canít comment on them. Kirkwall would be a good base if you donít have a car as nearly all the buses and a lot of the inter island ferries converge here. It should be possible to get to and from almost anywhere on Mainland Orkney on a day trip by bus from Kirkwall.

Visitors can sometimes think thereís a morbid feel to the city because there are so many notices in shop windows telling you about funeral arrangements for departed citizens. Thereís a good reason for this. Orkney is too small to sustain a local daily newspaper and funerals, by their very nature, are usually organised at too short notice for the weekly papers. So instead of an advert in the newspaper they ask the local shops to put a notice in their windows. The shop windows can also be a useful source of information about local concerts, quizzes, exhibitions and so on. You can usually tell which ones are genuinely local and which ones have been put on for the tourists.
Craigellachie is offline  
May 27th, 2008, 04:13 AM
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Interesting stuff, Craig, with lots of useful info. When was it you went ? (Apologies if you said & I've missed it.)
caroline_edinburgh is offline  
May 27th, 2008, 07:19 AM
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Oh, you had dinner with Sheila! Is Sheila in Aberdeen, or nearby? We will be in Grantown-on-Spey in about three weeks - perhaps we can get together as well?
GreenDragon is offline  
May 27th, 2008, 07:19 AM
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Oh, and great information in the trip report! We are headed to Orkney just after Grantown, so I forwarded the info to my travel companions Thanks!
GreenDragon is offline  
May 28th, 2008, 04:27 AM
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GD, Sheila lives in Aberdeen.
caroline_edinburgh is offline  
May 28th, 2008, 09:56 AM
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Thanks, Caroline - I figured she was close by I'll send her a note.
GreenDragon is offline  
May 30th, 2008, 04:09 PM
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Thanks for all the comments so far. Episode three coming up and I've just realised I've been assuming everyone knows where Orkney is!

General Description
Orkney is a group of about 70 islands off the north coast of Scotland. The name "Orkney" derives from old Norse. The word endings "ey", "ay" and "oy" in old Norse mean Island. So "Orkney" is the name of a group of islands. The phrase "Orkney Islands" is inaccurate, and no-one on Orkney uses the phrase "The Orkneys".

The largest island in the group is known simply as Mainland. When people on the other islands talk about "The Mainland" they mean the mainland of Orkney. When they are talking about the Scottish Mainland they say "Scotland".

Legally and constitutionally Orkney is part of Scotland. Historically and culturally it has close links with Norway.

Language
English is the official language. Local people use a lot of words taken from old Norse, so much so that a visitor listening to two locals in conversation may struggle to understand what they are saying. Thereís a strong case for claiming that Orkney has its own language, Orcadian, though others would argue that Orcadian is now a dialect of English.

The Orcadian accent is one of the most musical in the UK. Visitors who spend time talking to locals will probably find that without realising it they are copying the local intonation.

Landscape
If you have spent time in the Scottish Highlands before you come to Orkney you will immediately notice a difference in the landscape. Mainland Orkney has houses scattered everywhere. They make the whole place feel alive, lived in, but not overcrowded. You donít drive for an hour between houses the way you often do in the Highlands. Most parts of Orkney were spared the worst of the Clearances so they have been continuously lived in and farmed for centuries. The whole place is much greener than the typical desolate highland landscape. Most of the land is very fertile and is used for agriculture, mainly cattle and sheep farming. You are rarely out of sight of water which is usually impossibly blue. Add in the browns or purples of the heathland higher up and a bright blue sky and you have a combination of colours that is impossible to describe, even harder to photograph and dangerously addictive. Itís very, very hard to leave Orkney on a sunny spring or summer day. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) on the day we were due to come home we saw the first clouds for nearly a week.
The land is farmed in ways that work with nature instead of against it. Huge areas have been designated as nature reserves and the islands are important breeding or wintering grounds for a wide variety of birds. We counted 63 different species in a week when we were not actively looking for them, and there were probably lots of others that we saw but were not clever enough to identify. Missing from the list were most of the "common" birds we get in our garden at home because there are very few mature woodlands on Orkney. Itís an exaggeration to say there are no trees but these are mostly in peopleís gardens on in small clumps in sheltered spots. Orkney trees always point to Norway because the prevailing winds are from the south west, and when the wind on Orkney prevails, even the trees donít argue.
Guide books often describe Orkney as flat or low lying. "Rolling hills" would be a better description. There are no high mountains but there are enough low hills to give some character to the landscape.

Getting There
There are four main sea routes. The longest and usually the most expensive is from Aberdeen to Kirkwall. Journey time is around 6 hours. Aberdeen has the advantage of better public transport connections to the south.
The other three routes all start from the extreme north coast of Scotland. Furthest west is the sailing from Scrabster to Stromness, the islandsí second biggest town. For the Aberdeen and Scrabster sailings itís best to book in advance, even if you donít have a car. They are also bringing in a requirement that you need photo ID to get on the ship. These crossings go "round the outside" of the southern islands and avoid the narrow, unpredictable waters of the Pentland Firth.

The other two crossings are shorter but use smaller boats and cross the more stormy narrow channel of the Pentland Firth, so they can be uncomfortable if you are prone to sea-sickness. The shortest crossing is from John Oí Groats to the southern tip of Burray, which connects to Mainland Orkney by a series of causeways. The other crossing goes from Gillís Bay, a few miles west of John Oí Groats.

There are several flights per day to Kirkwall from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. These use small planes (usually 30 to 40 seater) so are not suitable for large groups. Space for cabin luggage can be very limited if the plane is full.

Transport on Orkney
Away from Kirkwall we saw little traffic in early May. Even in the height of the season I donít imagine you would get stuck in many traffic jams. Some minor roads are single track with passing places; I canít remember us ever having to stop in one of these.

There are buses on most of the main roads between the towns. Most places are within a few miles of a bus route, though sometimes the buses only run once an hour or less. There are very few buses anywhere after about 5 p.m. It would be possible to do most things you wanted to do on Mainland Orkney using public transport but you would need to plan your transport carefully. Very few of the other islands have any scheduled bus service. Where these exist they are usually timed to fit with the inter-island ferries.

Ferry services between the main islands have improved in recent years. Sailings to the northern islands in the group usually go from Kirkwall. Some leave from Stromness and there are a couple of places dotted around the Mainland that have services to one nearby island. Some of the timetables from Kirkwall to the farther flung islands can be difficult to follow as the sailings at different times of the day could visit more or less the same islands in a slightly different order. If your plans go horribly wrong, there are worse places to be stranded.

Unless you plan to spend a lot of time on one of the other islands itís probably not worth taking a car across. If you need to take a car you should always book it in advance for both outward and return sailings. Except at very busy times, foot passengers donít need to book. We turned up at the ferry terminal in Kirkwall less than 15 minutes before a boat was due to sail and just walked on.

Several of the islands have their own airports with services to Kirkwall and occasionally elsewhere. In the far north of Orkney they hold the world record for the shortest scheduled passenger air service, all of two minutes between Westray and Papa Westray. The flight is shorter than the main runway at London Heathrow and has been officially recorded at 58 seconds with a following wind. Don't assume that because these islands are remote you'll always get a seat on the plane. The planes are tiny, I'd guess the one we saw leaving Kirkwall for Westray would hold about 10 passengers.

Orkney is often said to be great for cycling. It is - if you are reasonably experienced. There are few really steep hills but the roads are not as flat as some guidebooks would have you believe and you will sometimes find yourself staring at a long, straight uphill that goes on for over a mile. Thereís little shelter from the wind which is a regular feature on Orkney and as any cyclist will tell you, the wind always blows against you. If all ths hasnít put you off, go for it. In good weather thereís no better way to get around.
Craigellachie is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2008, 06:31 AM
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This report is fascinating, Craigellachie! Thanks for the fabulous details. Looking forward to the rest.
noe847 is offline  
Jun 4th, 2008, 04:32 AM
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Thank you for all this very useful info ! I like that "when the wind on Orkney prevails, even the trees donít argue" Do you have a view on whether one of the ferry departure points in NW Scotland would offer a more scenic drive from Edinburgh than the others ? The only place I've so far been north of Inverness is Torridon.
caroline_edinburgh is offline  
Jun 4th, 2008, 05:36 PM
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Caroline,
Thanks for your encouraging feedback.
The extreme north-east is somewhere I've never been so I can't comment first hand on its scenic value. All the sea routes from Scotland to Orkney have their plus and minus points. Length of journey from Central Scotland, length of sea crossing, likely roughness of sea crossing, people will choose depending on how important each of these is to them. In my own situation, living within a day's drive of all the potential ferry ports and having been lucky enough to see Orkney during a week of perfect weather, for my next visit I would want to maximise my hours on Orkney even if this pushes up the cost. The logic behind this is that if I ever decide I absolutely must get to somewhere in the far north coast I can get there and back on a long weekend.
Craigellachie is offline  
Aug 18th, 2009, 05:40 AM
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Hi GD. Would you give me details of your accommodation in Kirkwall, please ? Thanks.
caroline_edinburgh is offline  
Aug 18th, 2009, 06:53 AM
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It was actually not IN Kirkwall - it was halfway between Stromness and Kirkwall, in Stenness. It was the Mill at Eyrland, http://www.millofeyrland.co.uk/

The place was very charming, the breakfast was great, and the location convenient to most of the neolithic sites in the area. The island is not big, so it was pretty easy to get just about anywhere. About a 15 minute drive into Kirkwall.
GreenDragon is offline  
Aug 18th, 2009, 08:15 AM
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It's quite some years since I went to Orkney, and, to answer Carolines' question, I remember a panicky dash from Beauly to Scrabster (fearing I'd miscalculated the distance and the time needed) - and it was very flat all the way. Whether you can get a ferry from further west, I don't know, but the far north-west seemed to me a damn sight more scenic than the north east (unless you like the boundless plains of MAMBA country).
PatrickLondon is online now  
Aug 18th, 2009, 08:55 AM
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Thanks for the quick responses, guys.

GD, I do really want somewhere in Kirkwall so we can walk everywhere easily (now planning on attending the St Magnus Festival next year - and rolling home from the pub ).

Patrick, I also thought that driving to Scrabster would be the most scenic option & a colleague whose brother lives in Orkney always goes that way - leaving Edinburgh after work, staying overnight around Inverness & sailing the next lunchtime. (I was confused there - hadn't noticed I'd asked that question last year !!)
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