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ORPHIR BAY COASTAL WALK

submitted by Hugh Halcro-Johnston


This is a circular walk of some 3.2km (2 miles) beginning and ending at Bu Farm in Orphir. This can be found on the Gyre Road, which leaves the A964 at the parish church in Orphir Village and rejoins it at Grindally near the Ferry Terminal at Houton. There is parking for several cars and, whether at the beginning or end of your walk, you should visit the Orkneyinga Saga Centre made from Jimmy Stevenson's old tractor shed. Here you can see displays depicting Orkney's Norse history and push a button in a small cinema to watch a short film telling the saga stories.

Here also you can see the remains of the Earl's Bu where according to the Saga "Earl Paul had a great yule feast, which he prepared at his bu in Orphir. ... a magnificent church stood before the hall door." This is the Orphir Round church, which is thought to have been inspired by the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and may have been built by Earl Hakon in 1123 on his return from a crusade to make amends for ordering the death of St Magnus on Egilsay in 1116. The remains of a Norse horizontal mill (as yet with no interpretation) complete the collection of one of Orkney's most important Norse archaeological sites.



The walk takes you through the graveyard with memorials to many of Orphir's oldest families, along the Bu burn and across a bridge made from cattle slats to the shore of the Bu bay. At low tide you may find a variety of fascinating seashore creatures such as hermit crabs, sea anemones, shore crabs and starfish. Out to sea, Eider Duck are a common sight and a pair of swans recently made an elegant addition to the seabird population. As you proceed along the path at the top of the low cliffs, which form the north shore of Scapa Flow, look out for seals in the waters below. 

The heathery cliffs are covered with heathland vegetation: ling, bell heather and crowberry with small black berries. Creeping willow is common along the way, its low growing habit being very suitable for an exposed Orkney cliff top. The walk provides the best possible views of Scapa Flow with sweeping panoramas including the islands of Hoy, Cava, Flotta and the tiny Barrel of Butter (whose annual rent was supposed to have been one barrel of Orkney butter). You can see the Flotta oil terminal and the tankers, which have brought so much prosperity to our shores.

About half way along to the Brek there is a bench provided by Orphir and Scapa Community Council where you may relax and enjoy the view. As you do, imagine Scapa Flow filled with the warships of two world wars, German battleships on the seabed to the north of Cava, Gun batteries surrounding the Flow and barrage balloons overhead. This is a place that was at the epicentre of British twentieth century history.

At the scatter of houses, which form the Brek, the path signs direct you inland past the little whitewashed cottage that was the home of Mary Gunn. Her father converted the old "magnet hut" once used to test the compasses on the British warships. You then return back along the quiet road that takes you past the fields and woods of the farm of Gyre. You can take a short diversion through the lower plantation with its mature stands of sycamore, ash, rowan and wych elm. Look out for the "woodland path" signs and the picnic area with a table also provided by the Community Council.

Continuing along the Brek road you pass the disused milldam, now silted up and providing a rich habitat for plants insects and birds. Otters have been seen in this area. When you reach the main Gyre road you turn left past the farm buildings and down the hill back to the Bu. This is a popular walk particularly in the summer months so you may well meet friends along the way and be able to pause for a bit of blether!