Orkney & Shetland 2019 - Day 15

Ferry to Westray


Orkney Ferries runs a RORO service to the island of Westray, sailing from Kirkwall to Rapness at the southern end of Westray. Check in time was 7am so we missed our breakfast at the Ayre Hotel. The ferry had a small cafe that sold instant coffee and filled rolls with hot bacon - which was tastier than the bacon served up at the Ayre. The ferry to Westray takes just over 1 hour and threads through the islands. At Rapness on Westray we drove north and found the turnoff to Castle O' Burrian to look for puffins. From there we drove down all the side roads looking at the coast for birds. We ended up at Westside where there is a ruined Viking church. A low stone wall affored us some shelter from the biting wind where we had a nice picnic lunch. From there we drove through Pierowall to the local airport - the smallest I have seen where the shortest scheduled flight in the world is based - 2 minutes across to Papa Westray. Then a drive out to Noup Head where gannets nest. The road gets progressively worse, but despite the websites that recommend a 4X4 vehicle it can be negotiated easily in a car. We watched the gannets then bounced back along the road to Pierowall and the Pierowall Hotel for our 2-night stay.

We joined the queue for the Westray ferry.
Then drove on through its gaping mouth.
Our car squashed inside.
The Kirkwall waterfront
Sea view of the Ayre Hotel
Rain warning..
St Magnus in the background
The Rapness ferry terminal on Westray
Driving off the ferry onto Westray.

Puffins at the Castle 'O Burrian

Despite visiting various headlands on Mainland Orkney, there were no puffin to be seen. We had high expectations for Westray. The headland at the Castle O Burrian was mentioned as a likely place, so we drove there directly from the ferry. A hand-drawn sign said "Puffins" so there was some hope. At the car park was the white Volvo that had been squashed behind us on the ferry, eager to depart. The 3 occupants were striding off along the track to the cliffs. But they did not stay long and we passed them half way. We presumed there were no birds to be seen but we carried on. There were plenty of Kittywakes roosting on the cliffs. A closer look at the cliffs there they were - PUFFINS, lots of them. We spent the next 2 hours watching them... Clown-like birds with brightly coloured bills prancing, flying around and ripping up piles of grass for their new nests.

The main road (... only road) through Westray with the turnoff to the Castle O'Burrian on the right.
Where to go and what to do.
The Old Rapness water mill
The remains of the water wheel
The coastal headland near the Castle
Then we saw them... Puffins!
"Who you looking at then..."
I'll just collect up some grass for a nest..
Bird watching.
The effects of wind on the grass
Part of the memorial wall
A cormorant
A Kittywake in flight
This puffin was living away from the others.
He/she watched us for a while...
then went back into its burrow.

Bay of Tuquoy and Westray Airport

After the puffins we explored the coast, stopping at beaches and headlands. The Bay of Tuquoy on the west coast is one example. Then we drove to the northern end of the island for the airport.

Where? In the barn? (yes...)
Bay of Tuquoy
Part of the memorial wall
Part of the memorial wall
The international airport terminal
And the island destination of flights (it takes 3 minutes...!)

Noltland Castle

On the hill behind the village of Pierowall lies the ruins of Noltland Castle. It was built by Sir Gilbert Balfour in the 1560s but was never finished. Balfour was at one time master of the Royal Household to Mary, Queen of Scots. The building resembles a strongly defended blockhouse rather than a lordly castle as Balfour had good reason to put more trust in guns and masonry than in the good will of neighbours. He served time in a French prison for his part in Cardinal Beaton's murder in 1546. He was part of the plot to murder Queen Mary's second husband and he refused sanctuary to the Queen's third consort during his flight to Denmark. In 1571, with the collapse of support for the Queen, Balfour fled to Sweden. In 1576 Balfour was executed for his part in an attempt on the King of Sweden's life. Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney seized the castle but was forced to return it to the Balfour family. It was burned down in 1650 after the Battle of Carbisdale. It was given to the sate by the Balfour family in 1911.

A wall of the castle with numerous gun ports
Views from the upper chamber
The kitchen fireplace.
Examples of gun ports. Balfour was clearly expecting trouble...

Noup Head and the gannets

At the end of a bumpy gravel road (one of the few we have ever found in Britain) lies the Noup Head lighthouse. A short walk gives a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean as well at the high cliffs that are home to plenty of Kittywakes, Guillemots and gannets. The birds were naturally segregated with the larger ledges housing gannets, the smaller and lower ledges the black and white birds and the high apartments had kittywakes.

Obvious enough...
Noup Head lighthouse
Local guardian - Arctic skua or "bonxie"
View along the north coast of Westray
The bumpy road with intrepid travellers in a van.
Those intrepid travellers.
The dangerous cliffs...
Are home to thousands of birds - kittywakes...
gannets and
guillemots .
There were also seals basking in the sun.
The rocks are ancient lake sediments..
with fosilised ripples
and raindrops.


The town of Pierowall lies around a small bay.
Noltland Castle in the foreground.
The Pierowall Hotel.
A collection of lifebuoys from lost ships
and anchors from those ships.
The beach at Pierowall.

We arrived at the Pierowall Hotel late in the afternoon. Heavy cloud made it seem later than it was and there was a cool bite to the breeze (being May the sun did not set until after 9pm). The hotel was warm inside, had a small bar and a larger dining room. Our room was fine, what you would expect for an isolated rural hotel. The food too was good.

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Last updated: 24/06/2019