Northern Isles^

Places, technique, kayaks, safety, the sea...
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Mark R
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Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Sun Jun 07, 2009 1:26 pm

Okay, Heather and I are currently planning a 3 week+ holiday to Orkney and Shetland in August.

What's with these huge school summer hols? Firstly she's off to attempt the Cape Wrath Trail with a superfit friend, whilst I'm going to try to paddle the east coast of Scotland. All going to plan, we'll then reunite and launch north from John O'Groats for our Orkney/Shetland trip. We paddled in Orkney over a decade ago, but haven't been up there since.

The aim is to see as much as we can in this time, but it would be nice to reach the far north (Muckle Flugga) if possible, and if the weather allowed (unlikely) it'd be nice to paddle the whole way there. We will return to JoG using ferries via Orkney (the ferry also goes back to Aberdeen which isn't a whole lot of use to us).

Obviously I have the Pesda guidebook and a whole raft of charts and pilots - but is anyone able to offer more intimate detail/local knowledge - contacts? local advice? highlights? transport?

Anything will be useful.

Cheers,
Mark Rainsley
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fiona
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Re: Northern Isles

Post by fiona » Sun Jun 07, 2009 5:09 pm

I'll be back home on Orkney by then, might be able to offer you transport if required. I'll PM you a couple of contact numbers too.

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Re: Northern Isles

Post by Mark Gawler » Sun Jun 07, 2009 5:37 pm

The highlights from my trip were:
  • Muckle Flugga.
  • Haroldswick - Unst Boat Haven
  • Haroldswick - Northern Lights Café
  • Lerwick Museum (don't forget to book a table if you eat there!)
  • Braewick café
  • Ronas Voe
  • Betty Mouat's Camping Böd
The book Between the Weathers prove to be an excellent accompaniment to the trip. The Tourist Information radio is worth listening to, honest.
Mark Gawler

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Re: Northern Isles

Post by Halox » Sun Jun 07, 2009 7:29 pm

I dont sea kayak but I know Shetland and Orkney. Noss the island to the east of Bressay and Lerwick is worth a visit. It is a nature reserve and has the highest sea cliffs in the UK. The Puffins there have no predators so are not scared. I took this one with a camera with no zoom. The others before mentioned some good ones too. If you go to Shetland you have to land on Muckle Flugga.

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Also I know you wont see this but I think is is funny. Again I took this last year. Its the most Northerly Bus Stop in the UK. Near Haroldswick on Unst. No one believed me about this until I took a photo.

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Re: Northern Isles

Post by orkfay » Sun Jun 07, 2009 10:24 pm

Where does one begin?
We've yet to complete the Orkney mainland coast!
There's a lot of very interesting coastline within Orkney and Shetland

Here's a few pictures from today (4th Barrier to Sandwick Bay - South Ronaldsay)
http://www.oska.org.uk/photos/?level=al ... log_page=2

Much of the land in Orkney is farmed and there's probably not much opportunity for wild camping at least on mainland

May be able to help with transport within Orkney mainland if you let me know when you're there.
I'll be in Shetland 7-10 August and we're organising an informal gathering of paddlers in Orkney the following weekend.
If I can't I probably know someone else that can.

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Re: Northern Isles

Post by CaileanMac » Sun Jun 07, 2009 10:58 pm

Mark,

I've not much sea kayak paddling experiences to speak about with Orkney or Shetland however I've visited them both several times with work and play.

Kirkwall and Lerwick both have great curryhouses. Kirkwall one on the cobbled high st and in Lerwick, it's called Gurkha Kitchen nr to the CO-OP supermarket.

North Ronaldsay - I imagine your planning to use it to head to Fair Isle from? The lighthouse is well worth a visit, phone the guy up who does the tours it or find him on his tractor driving around the island. He's an ex lighthouse keeper and is a mine of info and stories. The North Ronaldsay lamb is worth trying; the sheep and lambs graze exclusively on seaweed around the island's beaches. Try it at the Bird observatory at the South end of the island. It has hostel and B&B accommodation and internet access.

If you are stuck on Orkney's mainland with high winds or swell, then get yourself to Kirkwall airport (good local bus services) and take one of the cheap sightseer flights on the inter island planes (8 seater, 'go cart' style planes).

Shetland - Submurgh Head lighthouse - worth a visit for the sea birds. The Fair Isle ferry lands near by at Grutness. I would second Mark G's recommendation for the book about the guy travelling around Shetland - 'Between Weathers'. The local radio station - Shetland Islands Broadcasting Corporation SIBC - is well worth tuning into to get an insight into Shetland life.

Otter spotting. Yell, Northmavine and other places in the North of the Shetland Islands are the best places perhaps to see otters in the UK.

Enjoy

CaileanMac

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Re: Northern Isles

Post by lg18 » Mon Jun 08, 2009 11:11 am

Most of the seabirds will be gone by then unfortunately. But at least that means you can explore the caves, nooks and crannies in full without disturbing the shags (unless there are stragglers). Should still be a few gannets hanging around.

Shetland is unbelievable. Every year we try to go somewhere else for a our holiday, but fail, as we are drawn back every year. All the best places are in the book, so no point in me re-iterating them! Shetland is very un-touristy - outside Lerwick (and S Mainland) there aren't that many B&Bs and cafes. Wild camping very possible all over the place; there's a real camp site in the grounds of the Braewick cafe with great views
http://www.eshaness.shetland.co.uk/
Camping Bods are great to stay in (must pre-book and you have to pay a tiny amount).
http://www.camping-bods.co.uk/
Lunna House near Vidlin is (IMO) one of the best B&Bs in Shetland (it is where the "Shetland Bus" was based in WWII) (but the blasted Beeb have block booked it for June/July for filming Simon King's Shetland Diaries, so we can't stay there during our visit in July!). You MUST go to Da Bod (was The Booth) in Hillswick for tea/cake/lunch - v quirky.

You will have a very very real chance of seeing killer whales, especially if you make a point of keeping on scanning the sea. And otters. You won't want to leave!

Lucy

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by ol » Mon Jun 08, 2009 12:30 pm

My cousin is a (or could be 'the') school teacher on Papa westray. If you needed any info for that area I'm sure I could help.

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Coastie » Sun Jun 14, 2009 10:35 pm

Hi Mark

I've sent a PM with some details and web sites.

Dave

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Thu Jun 18, 2009 4:57 pm

Coastie wrote:Hi Mark

I've sent a PM with some details and web sites.

Dave
Nothing received so far????

Cheers,
Mark Rainsley
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Wed Aug 12, 2009 4:57 pm

I'm now in Stromness with Heather. It's c14 years since we were in Orkney, we forgot what a wonderful place it is! I wouldn't be entirely surprised if we never make it to Shetland, but instead end up simply spending the next few weeks here in the Orkney isles ...

We were delayed launching for a day, as the car started spewing oil everywhere. We killed two birds with one stone by leaving it at a Thurso garage for the duration - car will be fixed on our return, and Cailean's driveway won't be covered in oil.

Luckily, despite the delay, the weather held long enough to enable the crossing of the Pentland Firth. This was a fantastic experience, the screaming tide races dragging us from John O'Groats to the southern tip of Hoy (far end of the firth), despite the fact that we pretty much paddled in the opposite direction for the duration. We came up to Stromness via Scapa Flow, and today is a 'tourist' day as the wind is giving it some - been off this morning to reacquaint ourselves with various Neolithic wonderments.

All good.
Mark Rainsley
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Tue Aug 18, 2009 4:48 pm

We're currently in Orkney's North Isles, camped within sight of the spot where St Magnus was martyred with a butcher's axe. Getting up to these relatively sheltered waters required some mildly heroic paddling in big swells around the west and north cliffs of Orkney's Mainland, but we're still here to tell the tale.

We're currently enjoying a shore day - we've been enjoying lots of these, given the persistent strong winds. All good though, there is heaps of archeologically themed exploring to be done ashore in Orkney and when you tire of that, there are worse ways to spend the afternoon than by photographing yawning/wailing/snoring seals.

We decided early on to ditch the planned visit to Shetland and to just 'do' Orkney on this trip - partly because the ongoing weather pattern makes it blatantly obvious that our hopes of a settled week of high pressure in which to cross to Shetland are non-existent, but mainly because Orkney is rather great and it would be a crime simply to paddle past this vast area of islands without exploring properly. In any case, we refuse to go further north until we have read the complete works of George Mackay Brown.

Orkney's winds - 3
Our expensive hi-tech tent poles - 0
Mark Rainsley
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by naefearjustbeer » Wed Aug 19, 2009 12:18 pm

If you get a chance to sample the Orkney wine http://www.orkneywine.co.uk/ I can highly recommend it. Best to savour your time in Orkney and leave Shetland for another trip. I went to Shetland in July and had a fantastic time without any kayaking. I did however get to roar around the fantastic roads on a big brute of a motorbike.
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I did however say almost every day thet I if I lived here I would have to have a boat ready to go at a moments notice for paddling up and down the voes!

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Sat Aug 29, 2009 8:54 am

Now escaped from Scotland after six weeks north of the border, the second half of which spent in Orkney.

Heather and I basically ambled from JoG to the very top of Orkney (North Ronaldsay) over a long fortnight, by a roundabout route and with plenty of weather-enforced tourism/walking stops. We found our way back to Thurso via a series of ferries.

Great journey, wonderful place. About a million seal photos to follow when I get home.

Eventual total - 7 pole breaks in our fairly new expensive designed-for-Himalayan-mountaineering tent.
Mark Rainsley
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by fiona » Sat Aug 29, 2009 9:46 am

Sorry I didn't get the chance to meet you while you were up. I've been working flat out - not been out in my boat for weeks! I'm looking forward to seeing photos from your trip.

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by MikeB » Sat Aug 29, 2009 1:04 pm

Mark R wrote:Eventual total - 7 pole breaks in our fairly new expensive designed-for-Himalayan-mountaineering tent.
Tut - bad.

Tops the 3 broken poles and flattened tent / bent poles I experienced with my MkII Vaude.

Mike

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Sun Aug 30, 2009 6:13 pm

We're back home at last; in my case, first time I've been home in over six weeks.

Meanwhile, back at the far end of the country ...


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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Mon Aug 31, 2009 5:04 pm

A few pics telling the story of our journey through Orkney, all the way from John O'Groats to North Ronaldsay. I developed a bit of an unhealthy obsession with lying on rocks harassing seals with a camera, but I've forced myself to be restrained and just included a handful of my 100s of seal pics here. I'll bore folk with them some other time.

As I sifted through these, I realised that I'd missed a whole card of pics - so, no doubt more pics will follow of wonderful North Ronaldsay island.

Paddling in Orkney (on our trip, at least) was an interesting beast, not always easy at all - more on this at a later point.

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Mark Rainsley
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Mon Aug 31, 2009 5:42 pm

Mark Rainsley
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by soundoftheseagull » Mon Aug 31, 2009 6:28 pm

Great photos cheers
Dave

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by fiona » Mon Aug 31, 2009 6:59 pm

Some excellent photos there. Thanks for sharing. Looks like you managed to see a lot of Orkney in your time here - despite the weather taking a turn for the worse after a great summer.

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Mon Aug 31, 2009 9:48 pm

Trapped on North Ronaldsay - the remotest inhabited Orkney isle - for days, waiting for the ferry to come?

Then, that's your bad luck, as there is absolutely b&gg%r all to see or do there.

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by naefearjustbeer » Tue Sep 01, 2009 12:31 am

Fantastic pictures! Obviously got a seal theme going on! But not surprising really there are loads of them around!

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Mark R
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Tue Sep 01, 2009 11:25 am

A few notes on our trip and what we learned from it ...

It was certainly the most challenging sea trip we've done together, for various reasons.

We originally had planned to try the whole Jog > Orkney > Shetland trip, but that had pretty much fallen by the wayside before we even met up to begin, as;
- the weather patterns indicated that the big crossings were not likely to be on for both of us.
- we had agreed that we wanted to prioritise exploring/visiting rather than pushing ahead whatever. The numerous bad weather days helped this aim, somewhat!
In the event, what we completed was a roundabout trip of only just c120 miles linking John O'Groats with the very northern tip of Orkney, North Ronaldsay. The route and pace was completely dictated by weather and tides, we hadn't planned this! From North Ronaldsay we couldn't face an extended return journey back into the face of all the continuing weather, so we took a series of ferries back south.

Paddling

The paddling was not the picture postcard cruising experience, indeed it was usually relatively challenging. It tended to fall into one of two categories ...

1. Biggish swells.
We paddled along much of Orkney's exposed west and north coasts, which feature some incredible cliffs, caves and stacks. However we viewed it all from a distance of 500m to a mile offshore, as this paddling was always done in short hops from bay to bay, taking advantage of short gaps between periods of strong wind - hence we were always paddling through the tail end of some storm or other. Between Stromness and Bay of Skaill, the waves were exploding halfway up the cliffs. They are 200-300 foot high! However, we didn't have to make any dodgy surf landings as we picked our spots carefully.

2. Crazily strong tides.
This we should have realised (it's all there in the pilot and guidebook) but we still struggled on occasion. Mixed with unsettled weather, this created some pretty rough water. We were well aware of the strength of the Pentland Firth beforehand and (given that we were at Springs) planned our crossing carefully. It was only later in the trip that we appreciated just how lucky we had been to have a rare perfect day for this – even in these conditions we had to surf across lively tide races continuously for 3.5 hours – I dread to imagine what even a hint of swell or wind would have meant. What we didn’t properly grasp, was that the tides get extremely strong again, through Orkney’s north isles. In particular, the Westray Firth/Stronsay Firth gap which bisects the isles is every bit as strong and rough as the Pentland Firth – we blundered into this (at Springs) late one evening and hence had a minor epic which resulted on us stranded on a small midstream island with limited fresh water. The following day we planned properly and tried to cross again at time and conditions of our choosing, but still failed and had to retreat! Thankfully I was paddling with a strong WW paddler, or you would certainly have read about us on the news.

The Pesda guidebook

This is pretty good for Orkney, describing the coast and surrounding waters very clearly and accurately. It also gives lots of info that gives a ‘taste’ of what the isles are like ashore, which is of course the real reason that you are there. The limitations of the book are
- A few small areas aren’t covered
- It’s written from a purely circumnavigation perspective, rather than an island hopping perspective – what I mean is, the tidal info is great for paddling around the isles, but sometimes unclear/incomplete for paddling between. This is one occasion where I’d recommend also shelling out £50 for the Admiralty Pilot (which we had).
- On a related note, there isn’t much (any?) advice on using the various ferries (see below).
- It doesn’t tell you where the services are on each island! This may sound like a silly point, but finding food can be a real issue. Each island usually turns out to have a single shop, invariably unmapped and many miles away from anything else (like the quay), opening at limited and obscure times.
- To supplement the guidebook, I recommend picking up ‘The Islands of Orkney’ a fantastic free publication detailed guide to every outlying island. It’s also online here ...
http://www.visitorkney.com/placestovisit/index.asp
Sample page - http://www.visitorkney.com/brochure/isl ... SLANDS.pdf

Ferries

Unlike with CalMac and the west coast, kayaks were (surprisingly) a relative novelty to the ferry operatives and employees we dealt with. All were helpful and friendly. No company charged us for carrying boats, although each time we called ahead to check they had space. The interisland ferries (run by Orkney Ferries) often have to crane luggage aboard (including cars and cattle) due to lack of RoRo facilities on all isles, although our boats were wiggled aboard via a side hatch. Northlink is the ‘big’ ferry company running to Thurso, Aberdeen and Shetland. We trollied boats down their ramp into the car deck.
Mark Rainsley
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Thu Sep 03, 2009 7:57 pm

Something I didn't mention in my notes - insanely cheap subsidised flights. Kirkwall ('capital' of Orkney) to North Ronaldsay (most northerly isle, 35 miles away) = c£14 return. Cheaper than the ferry and more regular at three flights daily rather than two ferries weekly! It's even half price for kids, the son of the Bird Observatory warden was flying to school in Kirkwall every day. I'm not sure that they carry sea kayaks, though ...
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Sat Sep 05, 2009 3:03 pm

naefearjustbeer wrote:Obviously got a seal theme going on!
I suspect that the seal population has sadly decreased. A few days after our departure ...
http://northronbirdobs.blogspot.com/200 ... ugust.html
http://northronbirdobs.blogspot.com/200 ... ugust.html
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Douglas Wilcox » Sat Sep 05, 2009 5:01 pm

Hello Mark, what a trip and what a magnificent set of photos. Given the summer I have had I am now insanely jealous.

Your points about the Pesda Guide are well taken. In the guide to the SW of Scotland, which I am writing (and of course in my articles in the magazines and in my blog), I include not just sea kayaking pubs but locations of shops, showers, water etc. One problem in these remote areas is that businesses, especially hotels and restaurants come and go relatively frequently. I recommend the Rough Guide to Scotland which is updated about every two years. (8th edition 2008)

With regard to tidal planning I am mostly not going to recommend leaving at a certain time, so that you arrive at a headland at slack water. I am simply going to give the times tides change and leave it to the user to decide and then work out for themselves whether they want a mellow or exciting time.

Douglas

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Mark R » Sat Sep 05, 2009 8:52 pm

Douglas Wilcox wrote:Given the summer I have had I am now insanely jealous.
Not back in a boat yet?
Douglas Wilcox wrote:Your points about the Pesda Guide are well taken. In the guide to the SW of Scotland, which I am writing (and of course in my articles in the magazines and in my blog), I include not just sea kayaking pubs but locations of shops, showers, water etc. One problem in these remote areas is that businesses, especially hotels and restaurants come and go relatively frequently. I recommend the Rough Guide to Scotland which is updated about every two years. (8th edition 2008)
Sounds good. I feel a bit silly saying, "I wish that the guidebook said where the shop is", but the reality was that with the outlying isles, we simply couldn't ascertain these things until we'd landed and located a local 'in the know' - only to usually find it was a two hour walk away on the other side of the isle, only opening on Thursday afternoons, and only selling tinned peas. I took a lot of stick from Mrs R from this, as I'd persuaded her that we didn't need to stock up on loads of food at Kirkwall Tescos, before hitting the north isles.
Douglas Wilcox wrote:With regard to tidal planning I am mostly not going to recommend leaving at a certain time, so that you arrive at a headland at slack water. I am simply going to give the times tides change and leave it to the user to decide and then work out for themselves whether they want a mellow or exciting time.
Agree 100%, and tried to do that where possible in SWSK.
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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by tizereyes » Mon Sep 07, 2009 10:21 am

Mark R wrote: I took a lot of stick from Mrs R from this, as I'd persuaded her that we didn't need to stock up on loads of food at Kirkwall Tescos, before hitting the north isles.
When it comes to food, Heather needs a very large stick to give you a good beating. You're not to be trusted! Ever.

Fantastic photos though, even if you did have to eat seal to survive...

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Re: Northern Isles^

Post by Jim » Mon Sep 07, 2009 11:02 am

Fantastic photos! I'm starting to wonder why I still bother taking a camera away, I get one or 2 decent/interesting shots in a week away...

Point of interest, Northlink Ferries are part of the Calmac group, but run as an independant fleet.

Jim

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