Westray seems to find ways of keeping hold of you. Jo, a 20 year resident of Orkney (but originally from Hampshire), and her Orcadian husband, were setting up a pop-up craft shop in the front room of the small hotel and told us about their previous trip out to Westray, when the weather was so bad that the ferries stopped running and they were stuck there for 2 extra days. For us, it was the broken down 9.15am passenger ferry to Papay that caused us to re-think our plans. Other than taking the world’s shortest scheduled commercial flight between the 2 islands (not possible on the 8 seater plane with 2 bikes), there was really only one way to escape the islands clutches, and that involved cycling back 7 miles in the rain to the vehicle ferry terminal for the roll-on roll-off departure at 12.20pm.
We passed the time at the 2 room Westray Heritage Centre, which was a surprisingly interesting bonus activity. We learned about the Queen’s visit in 1960 in the Royal Yacht, when Prince Phillip drove the local school bus. And we saw 2 important pieces of archaeology: the Westray Wife, a tiny carved figurine made from stone that is the earliest human representation ever found in Scotland; and the much larger Westray Stone, found in a local quarry and decorated with spiral carvings found elsewhere only at Newgrange burial chamber in the Boyne Valley in Ireland, and another in Brittany, France. These pieces of art are 5,000 years old; but even then cultural exchange was taking place across the sea! I was so impressed I bought a tea towel.
We popped back to the hotel for a pot of tea to stay out of the rain. Jo was doing great business thanks to a large number of bedraggled passengers from a naturalist cruise ship that had appeared in Pierowall bay overnight. They should have been somewhere else; but the weather had forced a change to their itinerary. And so, for a morning, Westray was an unusually busy little place!
Before the vehicle ferry arrived, we spent a fraught 10 minutes in which Jennifer thought she had left her mobile phone back at the hotel 7 miles away. We didn’t have time to go back and couldn’t get anyone in the hotel to answer either her phone or theirs. Resigned to its possible loss forever, we boarded the ferry and found that we were almost the only passengers. In the small lounge, I tried calling one more time. The signal must have been better on the boat, because the phone rang. Not just in my ear; but somewhere near us, too. But where? It took Jenni another couple of minutes to discover, with some relief, that her phone had somehow managed to lodge itself inside the lower leg of her waterproof trousers, just above the ankle. I haven’t laughed so loud or long for ages!
This boat was, in fact, always intended to be our way back to Kirkwall; but we planned to take it from Papay rather than Westray. It is the only vehicle ferry all week to call in at this tiny island (population 70), and the timetable has a special asterisk to allow for extra loading and unloading of cargo. This turned out to be because everything, including vehicles, has to be loaded and unloaded using the ship’s crane. We watched in fascination as chains and ropes were attached in turn to big bags of building supplies, a container of goods for the island’s shop, and a trailer, and lifted off the boat. Then a skip, a car, and even more excitingly a large green tractor, were lifted up from the pier and carefully lowered through the air and onto the ships’s car deck.
When we finally began the journey back to Kirkwall, we fell into gentle conversation with the only other 2 passengers on the boat, an elderly couple who now live in Kirkwall, returning from Papay. After they had calmly watched their car being lifted off the pier wall, the man, who we guessed to be about 80, told us he was born and raised in Westray and remembered the Queen’s visit. I remarked that he must have seen a lot of change over the years. His reply took me by complete surprise. The biggest change, he said, was the introduction of barbed wire! The island is essentially one very large farm and, before then, all cattle would be individually tied to stakes in the ground. But afterwards, animals would be fenced into separate fields, enclosed by wire. This also meant that you could no longer walk or ride across the island in any direction you wanted between 2 points. He also spoke of the gradual replacement of horses with cars and tractors, and how important and valuable a horse used to be in island life. How things have indeed changed; but what a different perspective!
We reached Kirkwall, and better weather, and went our separate ways, us to a coffee shop and the start of our adventure in OS map 6 Orkney Mainland. We cycled under a big sky into another very stiff wind for an hour and a half, surrounded by sweeping views over the green island and the blue waters to the north, to our home for the next 2 nights just outside the inland village of Dounby. The house lies up a tiny lane on a small hill, with an amazing view south over fields and lakes to the mountains of the island of Hoy, now visible out of the clouds. The sun cast its bright evening rays over everything and it all felt pretty special!