An Island of One’s Own: Dolly Alderton’s Orkney

An Island of One’s Own: Dolly Alderton’s Orkney

This article appears in Volume 21: The
Islands Issue

was 24 when I first went on holiday on my own. I stood at the
harbour on Gili Trawangan in
and waved my best friend goodbye. I island-hopped for
five days, then got the same boat back to Bali. It was a precious
week; I had never spent more than a day on my own before, and it
felt like a real exercise in independence. I got myself around and
about without the help of a mate. I ate in restaurants
on my own, I snorkelled on my own, I watched sunsets on my own, I
learned to spearfish with local boys. I even managed to spend 48
hours in total silence – a first-time occurrence for a blabbermouth
like me.

A few years later I went to
on my own to spend a week learning how to surf (an
experience that was immortalised in a Sunday supplement travel
section with a photo of me falling off the board, looking like
Miranda Hart). I’ve also visited
New York
on my tod twice. I love discovering all the hidden
nooks of that city, even though I still can’t get my head round its
disastrous subway system.

I’m hooked on solo travel. I never feel as calm, as together, as
self-reliant or as free than when I’m travelling on my own. It’s
where I have my best ideas – and it’s where I can make sense of

But I’ve never gone into the wild on my own. In Bali I was
surrounded by couples sharing plates of barbecued lobster or
beachside massages. It was the same in Portugal (oh how fun it was
to ask a honeymooning couple to help me get out of my wetsuit). In
New York you’re always surrounded by people. You can’t find a
square metre of uninhabited space, even in Central Park.

A trip to the Orkney Islands (never “the Orkneys”, as I would
later find out) is just what I need. I have long been fascinated by
the Scottish islands – uniquely wild and remote, and sparsely
populated, with endless miles of open sea and sky. I am feeling
pretty anxious about writing my first book, and I am craving some
space, peace and solitude to clear my head and get it into proper

Flying into Orkney and looking down on all the islands floating
in between the North Sea and the Atlantic, I realise why there is
only an approximation of how many islands make up this archipelago.
It is estimated that there are about 70, of which 20 are inhabited,
but there are also allegedly “vanishing islands”, magical mounds of
earth that occasionally rise up from the sea. The airport – of
which you could do a full tour in less than a minute – is in
Kirkwall, one of two towns on Orkney’s mainland, the other being
Stromness. I am staying in the latter – a lesser-populated seaport
town with cobbled streets and brightly coloured cottage doors.

Orkney’s dramatic, primeval landscape has always been a source
of inspiration for music, literature, art and discovery. Earlier
this year, a three-part BBC documentary led by Chris Packham was
aired in which he explored Orkney’s wildlife, geology and Stone Age
history. And last year, the Orcadian writer Amy Liptrot brought her
homeland into the spotlight with her beautiful, evocative memoir
about moving back to Orkney, after a decade of chaos in London, to
recover from alcoholism and a broken heart. The book has been a
runaway success, and the Orcadians are delighted for her. I meet
one woman who tells me that they’re in the same outdoor open-water
swimming club, named the Polar Bears. I predict that plane-loads of
people will start descending on Kirkwall for a full-healing “Outrun
experience”, just as Bali was swarming with 30-something single
blondes looking for their Javier Bardem when I visited (the Eat,
Pray, Love effect).

I am staying in the Ferry Inn, a warm and vibrant pub with old
maps under glass table panes, black-and-white photographs of old
seafarers on the wall, fresh local seafood on the menu and bottles
of Orkney beer behind the bar. The rooms are simple but
comfortable, with harbour views and an all-important powerful
shower to warm yourself up after the bracing elements of the
islands. I visit in spring and enjoy bright, crisp, sunshiney days
with perfect golden sunsets as well as a bout of hail in my short
stay. The summer, I am told, is a beautiful time to visit – with
the long days never quite ending and nightfall only descending as a
pale inky wash. It can remain light enough for locals to play a
round of golf at midnight.

One of the most defining features of Orkney is that it is
wrapped up in a rich, fascinating and often mythical history. There
is evidence that the islands have been inhabited for 8,500 years,
and stone circles, shipwrecks and early settlements are scattered
everywhere. The famous Skara Brae is a stone-built Neolithic
settlement that was uncovered by accident during a raging storm in
the mid-1800s. What stands there now are the structures of a small
village, and an insight into how this community would have lived, a
hauntingly similar set-up to family life now – homes with a small
crèche area, a fireplace in the middle of the room and a stone
structure where they would display their most treasured items. No
one knows why the community fled 500 years later, but I quiz a
guide, and he tells me that he thinks it’s because the sea poured
into the loch, cutting of their fresh water supply.

Visiting the Ring of Brodgar, an ancient stone circle older than
the pyramids, is a similarly moving experience. There is
low-hanging mist on the morning that I visit, and two still lochs
on either side. Again, what makes this piece of history especially
mystical is that no one truly knows how it got there or what it was
used for – some have suggested that it was used to tell the time,
others that it was a place of theatre. Unlike Stonehenge, it is
wonderfully unmonitored, and visitors are encouraged to go right up
to the stones and touch them. Amy Liptrot writes in her book about
how, as a teenager, she and her friends would go and drink on these
Unesco world heritage sites once the tourists cleared off every

A 20-minute drive north of the Ring of Brodgar lies the
Kitchener Memorial, which doubles up as a beautiful cliff side
walk. High above the sea stands a tower built in memory of Lord
Kitchener (of “your country needs you” fame), who lost his life
alongside 655 officers when HMS Hampshire sank nearby. If you walk
further along from the memorial you will find the perfect spot for
bird-watching. I take a pair of binoculars and marvel at the
thousands of guillemots – penguins in miniature – lining the
spectacular cliffs. I am yet to see a seal, highly inquisitive
creatures who the locals sometimes sing to, as the sound of human
voices brings them closer (I am not averse to the idea of belting
out a tune to see one). Other eccentric local animals are the
famous seaweed-eating sheep of the most northern Orkney island of
North Ronaldsay – their wool is the colour of the Orkney red
sandstone and their meat is intensely gamey.

While walking along the cliffs I have my first experience of
day- to-day island life when I say good morning to a passing
walker, and she asks me if I was in the Ferry Inn the previous
night. Yes, I reply. I thought so, she says. She remembers that I
had the Shetland mussels and asks me how they were. Delicious, I
say. Cooked in leeks and white wine. I love this tight-knit
community feel of the island, and I think that it’s one of the
reasons why everyone seems so warm and friendly. (Incidentally,
angry Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons is meant to have
Orcadian roots, but I find his temperament to be vastly different
to the islanders who I meet.) A local guy tells me that it would be
impossible to have an affair here – it’s hard to behave badly when
you live on a fairly small island. That night I eat local
vegetarian sausages with delicious clapshot (buttery mash made with
potatoes and turnip) and drink two bottles of rich and boozy Dark
Island beer (which I develop such a taste for that I end up
visiting the local brewery and buying a few bottles to take home).
The beer, along with the heady sea air, knocks me out, and I’m
asleep by half past ten.

The next day I get a very early ferry to the second largest
Orkney island of Hoy (Eurythmics fans may recognise it as the
backdrop for the Here Comes the Rain Again video). I sit on the top
deck and enjoy the bracing sea breeze while I look out at Orkney
Mainland drifting further away. I am delighted when I finally spot
a seal, which pops its head curiously out of the sea, takes a look
around and then dips its head back into the cold water.

The journey is a quintessentially Orcadian experience, with the
mobile library boarding the ferry (which goes to the smaller
islands and has a high turnover of books, I’m assured) and a local
radio DJ’s voice that does the ferry’s announcements. “Thank you
for travelling with us,” the man says. “We hope you’ll join us
again soon.” A fellow passenger mutters: “We haven’t really got a

Hoy is one of the most stunning places that I have ever visited,
but it has a slightly different feel. With its dark earth of peat
and its dramatic, undulating hills, it feels closer to a highland
landscape. First I stop at Betty Corrigall’s grave, a small white
headstone looking out on to a loch and the wide, empty space of
Hoy. The story of her death and burial, which I won’t spoil for you
until you’ve visited it, is a haunting, tragic and eerie tale – one
that has inspired many songs, and one that sticks with me for weeks
after I leave.

Rackwick Bay – on the west coast of the island – is
breathtaking. Covered in large, glistening rocks washed
emerald-green from seaweed, and with turquoise water lapping on the
sand, it is unlike any other British beach that I have ever
visited. It is not surprising that the novelist Will Self is said
to have a place near here where he comes to write his books. Other
than one small family further along the beach, I am completely
alone. I sit on one of the rocks, breathe the ocean in, look out
over mainland Scotland in the distance and feel completely at

Hoy is most famous for its sea stack, which is known as The Old
Man of Hoy, and – despite a sign warning “experienced climbers
only” – I decide to walk high up along the cliffs to go see it. The
walk only takes about an hour, and is entirely worth it. My vertigo
can’t quite handle the narrow jutting of cliff that is closest to
the stack, so I crawl to it on my stomach and stare at the towering
sandstone stack, the side of the rock made of layers that Liptrot
perfectly describes as being like “the pages of a book”. When I
walk back I recover from my walk with a warming co ee and a tasty
egg sandwich in the Beneth’ill Café.

That afternoon I head to the island of Lamb Holm to visit the
Italian Chapel. This ornate Catholic church was built in the Second
World War by Italian prisoners of war, who were captured and housed
on the previously uninhabited island to build the Churchill
Barriers (four causeways designed to provide naval defences). The
chapel was constructed with limited materials – leftover
prefabricated concrete huts and plasterboard form its bones, empty
cans of bully-beef were carved into lanterns that hang at the
altar. When the Italian prisoners left the island, the Orkney
authorities promised to preserve and maintain the newly consecrated
site. They have, and the result is a highly unusual building
constructed with faith and love – I particularly enjoy seeing the
black-and-white photograph of all the young Italian soldiers
standing proudly outside their chapel, in this wild Scottish
landscape that would have felt so far from home.

That night, after a few hours of quiet, undisturbed book-writing
in my room, I lie in my hotel bed – my skin rosy and polished by
sea air – and realise that I don’t want to leave the next day.
Tucked up under the covers, I get out my phone and look at Google
Maps to see where I am right now. I look at where I lie, floating
in the middle of the sea, and I zoom in to scan all the
neighbouring tiny islands that I want to continue to explore. I
want to keep travelling upwards, further and further, until I’m
standing at Britain’s very edge. I want to go to Fair Isle, with
its population of 55, and stay in the lighthouse. I want to go to
the Shetlands and get a plane to Foula to visit its school with
three pupils. I want to fly up to the Faroes – the Danish islands
in between Scotland and Iceland that I recently learned through a
Radio 4 documentary are desperate for women for their men to marry.
I learn the expression “island-bagger”- a person who visits as many
Scottish islands as they can – and I get it. Sign me up. Count me
in. I feel like an adventurer, I’m a convert to wild island

Orkney is the perfect place to travel alone, as you’re never
really alone there. There are the birds that outnumber the humans,
the thousands of stars in the clear night sky and the remnants of
life before today, the communities and homes that are thousands of
years old. As I head back to London with half a book left to write,
I feel connected to all of it – the earth, the sea, the sky, the
wildlife, the stories and, most helpfully, myself.

The Lowdown

For more information, visit Digital Media Orkney Project.

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