Hoy: archaeology and white-tailed eagles

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

There's much more to Orkney than the Mainland sites, although of course the spectacular archaeology of the heart of Neolithic Orkney - Skara Brae, the henges at the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe chambered tomb - are obvious 'must-see' sites for holidays in Orkney, there's lots of lesser known attractions. On our Orkney holidays we visit other islands, one of which is the island of Hoy. 'Hoy' gets generically applied to the whole island, but it's two parishes: Hoy at the north end (from the Old Norse há-ey high island), and Walls at the south end (further subdivided into North and South Walls). 'Walls' comes from the Old Norse Vágar i.e. voes or inlets, and the area was known as Vágaland. This got corrupted to Wawis in the 14th century, before being written down as Walls by the 19th century mapmakers. The original correct pronunciation of 'waas' was recorded as still in use in 1952 by Hugh Marwick (in his book Orkney Farm Names) 'except by people over-anxious to 'speak proper''. Sadly the old pronunciation has pretty much died out now which is a great shame.

The 'high' part of Hoy is a complete contrast to the rest of Orkney, as a result of slightly different geology and glaciation, which gives it much more of a Scottish highlands look with big dramatic hills – the Cuilags and the Ward Hill – which are visible from most of the West Mainland. Rackwick Glen is one of the most dramatic valleys in Orkney, and perched on the side of it lies the Dwarfie Stane, Britain's only rock-cut tomb:

Dwarfie Stane, Rackwick valley, Hoy rock cut tomb
The Dwarfie Stane looking across to the Mainland

This is one of our stops when we're in Hoy with one of our group tours, and for the last few years we've had the added bonus of a pair of white-tailed eagles nesting in the Dwarfie Hamars (Old Norse hamarr: projecting rock on a hillside) just above the stone. They produced and successfully reared two chicks last year and have just hatched two more this year. The last couple of times we've been in Hoy with one of our holiday groups we've been treated to a low-level flypast by the male eagle, and the RSPB have their eagle watch set up in the car park with a telescope trained on the nest.

Rackwick Bay (from the Old Norse reka-vik - bay where flotsam is washed ashore) is at the end of the glen and again is pretty dramatic right on the edge of the Atlantic with the cliffs towering overhead. There's also a lot of interesting stone types on the beach if you're into geology.

Rackwick bay in Hoy Orkney
Rackwick Bay cliffs and Atlantic Ocean

If you're a keen walker then Rackwick Bay is the jumping off point for the hike out to the Old Man of Hoy, the sea stack off the west coast, so called because it used to have two legs until one leg washed away sometime in the 19th century. This is a fairly long walk and not for the faint hearted – it's pretty steep and rough in places, so we don’t include this walk in our 'Orkney Adventure' holidays but usually manage to get out there a couple of times a year with one of our private Orkney tours.

The Old Man of Hoy in the early 19th century with both legs
The Old Man of Hoy in the early 19th century with both legs

And of course most importantly there's a very good café in Hoy, the Benethill, which is our lunch stop – home-made soup, sandwiches and lots of lovely home made cakes – just what you need to fuel up in the middle of a tour. We don’t do picnics – always feel a bit sorry for the other tour groups heading out of the hotel with their cardboard boxes of sandwiches and crisps in the morning!