As a child, nothing could excite me more than a trip to Hoy. It sounds strange, I know; I grew up on an island; I spent every day cut off from mainland Scotland, and yet when it came to the holidays, what I longed for was not a weekend ‘South’, visiting Inverness or Aberdeen – it was a thirty minute boat journey.
Once every couple of years – maybe more, if we were lucky – my parents would announce to my three brothers and I that we could go to Hoy. It would only be for a couple of days, and yet the excitement which coarsed through my body is something I have yet to recreate as an adult. I always remember the trip being planned with military precision; my dad would be delegated to the garage to perform those duties only he could do – digging out the camping stove, sourcing the kit mats, strapping canoes to the top of the car. My mum would spend an afternoon preparing two sets of food – a secret stash to actually sustain us, and another which would inevitably get eaten within the hour.
Hoy is the second largest of Orkney’s islands, and yet it has a population of less than three hundred. Its colossal hills, coloured purple by heather, loom over the mainland and can be seen from miles away. Though imposing, I used to think of those hills as gentle giants, watching over Stromness from afar – even on misty days, their presence could still be felt.
It was great fun to stand out on deck on Stevie’s Ferry, watching the hills grow in stature as we made the crossing over. I can still remember the thrill of those choppy crossings, clinging on to the railings for dear life as my hair danced freely in the wind and the sea cast salty spray across the deck. It may only have taken half an hour, but it felt like an epic voyage every time.
After docking at Moaness harbour, we would leave the boat with a tentative leap, before beginning our journey by foot. Each time I took in the view felt like the first; I was always amazed by how this land with so few trees could have so much depth and colour, how somewhere so bare and unpopulated could be so complex to behold. We knew that it would be a 5 mile walk to camp, and yet it never seemed to matter.
Without fail, we would stay at Rackwick Bay, where an old stone bothy stands guard over a small, rectangular campsite. The perimeters of the site were marked by a low, stone dyke and yet its purpose was rarely served, as more often than not, we would find the grass to be occupied by half a dozen wild sheep. The camping ground at Rackwick is unusual, in that it is perched high above a beach, giving excellent views out to sea, yet it is also sheltered by the hills – you feel high but low at the same time, both empowered and belittled.
The beach at Rackwick is long and sandy, and more often than not, surprisingly sunny. Though the turquoise water looks inviting, the currents were often too strong to swim in, and so a great deal of time was often spent mucking about in the nearby burn, which wound its way from the heart of the island to the beach. Some of my happiest memories are associated with sunny days by the burn, as we dared each other to jump into the chilly water, or splashed each other from the safety of the canoes. At night, we would return to the bothy to drink hot chocolate and dry our clothes by the old peat fire. It would take weeks for the smell of smoke to leave our clothes – years still for it to leave our memories.
Sometimes we would head inland in search of adventure. In the valley between the hills lies Berriedale Woods, with a microclimate so rare it’s not unusual to find ferns as tall as men, or dragonflies the size of your palm. If you ventured far enough into these woods, you would stumble upon a waterfall, where water cascaded over a rocky drop into a large, deep pool. As children, it was easy to imagine that we were the only people ever to stumble upon this clearing, and so it became our little secret, our ‘enchanted lagoon’. Hours could be spent hopping between the rocks, the stepping stones to our self-penned myths.
There’s definitely something enchanting about Hoy, and yet there’s a strange sadness about the island too – perhaps because of its isolation, or because of its raw, untouched beauty. This sadness was, I always felt, symbolised by the lone grave of Betty Corrigal – a woman who had been buried in isolation after taking her life in the 18th century. For years, the grave was unmarked; it was only during the Second World War that the site was rediscovered and Betty was given a headstone and a simple white fence to mark the place of her interment. It is quite possibly the loneliest grave imagineable, and though it always brought a chill to my spine, there is also a quiet peace about the site – as though by living on in folklore, power has been given back to the girl once cast aside by her community.
The story of Betty Corrigal is not the only one to echo through the island; despite its size, Hoy has had its fair share of dark chapters, from shipwrecks and pirate legacies to casualties of the Second World War; high upon the hill, on a lone, unsheltered moor, you can still find the remains of a war plane which crashed in poor weather – a stark reminder, again, of the poignancy of the island’s remoteness.
And yet it is this stillness and quiet which makes Hoy the place that it is. Even in the midst of summer, we would walk for hours without encountering another being – the only sound other than our own voices coming from the gulls which circled overhead.
While many would hike the coastal paths, our dad would not be content unless we had reached the highest ground. As challenging as it may have been, there was no greater sense of victory than when you reached the summit of Ward Hill – not only the highest point on the island, but in all of Orkney – and got to place a stone atop the Cairn. Our boots would be clarted with mud and our knees grazed from stumbling on heather, but as we gazed out over the panoramic views of mainland Orkney and its smattering of islands, we were always distinctly aware of how lucky we were to be there in that moment, and how fortunate we were to call these isles our home. Thinking about that Cairn now, I wonder how many others have placed a stone upon it before thinking the same thought.