Tuesday , March 21 2023

Notes from a tranquil island: slow walking in Orkney

The wind is fierce, making it weather to move fast in, but Louise Hollinrake and I are moving as slowly as we can along the deserted Bay of Furrowend on the island of Shapinsay. I say deserted, but now that we’re doing virtually nothing, save concentrating on our slow walking (a Buddhist meditative tool, says Louise), it’s clear how busy the place actually is. I’m aware of a cacophony of sound from a flock of long-tailed ducks, the crash of the waves and the sound of Louise’s dog’s paws on the sand. The blues and greys of the sea and sky seem more pronounced, and the wind’s power is awesome (it’s not unknown in Orkney for gales to tear car doors off).

Shapinsay is one of Orkney’s more than 70 islands: it’s seven miles across, with a population of 300. It has no pub, no restaurant, no cafe, and there’s only one place to stay. But it may soon have more tourists, thanks to a new guide to mindful travel called Shapinsay Reflective Routes, written by residents including Louise who want to share the island’s peace, wildness, nature and space for contemplation with visitors.

Shapinsay is a good place to spot puffins. Photograph: Jenny Hall/Julia Meason

You don’t have to stay on Shapinsay to enjoy its walking and cycling routes, beaches and wild swimming: most visitors come for the day, on a 35-minute ferry crossing from Kirkwall. First, though, there’s the long journey to Orkney itself. Even from Glasgow, where I live, it’s a six-hour drive to Scrabster, then a 90-minute ferry ride to Stromness and a drive across to Kirkwall.

The guide’s authors encourage visitors to see the journey as preparation for the experience. “There’s something about the time it takes you to get here that removes you from the busyness, and sets you up for a different perspective on life,” says Julia Meason, Church of Scotland minister for Shapinsay. “The island’s old Norse name was Hjalpandisey, which means ‘helping’ or ‘guiding’ island. That was one of our inspirations for the project.”

Julia lives in Kirkwall, so she and I meet on the ferry, standing on deck to watch the long, low green island getting closer. We dock in Balfour, which anywhere else in Britain would be a hamlet, but here is the capital: a single street of stone houses below its 19th-century castle. First stop is the village store, which as well as all the usual staples sells rhubarb and strawberry jam made on the island. Behind the counter is Carol Moncrieff, one of the guidebook’s photographers.

Boat docking at Shapinsay
Passengers reach Shapinsay after a 35-minute ferry ride from Kirkwall. Photograph: Doug Houghton Orkney/Alamy

On the walk to Furrowend to meet Louise, the only people Julia and I see are a couple who have hired electric bikes at the harbour (£7.50 a day); there’s plenty of ground to cover in a day on Shapinsay, and a bike is a good idea ( car are allowed, but cycling or walking gives a better sense of the island). As well as the slow walking, Louise, who moved here 35 years ago, originally to run outward bound courses, has contributed a water route to the guidebook. Shapinsay’s “teardrop”, Helliar Holm, is peppered with caves, beaches, coves and passages ripe for exploration.

Next stop is the Old Kirk in the centre of the island. It’s now a ruin, though worship here dates back to the 1400s, and the present roofless church was built in the 19th century. Sheila Garson is the author of the kirkyard section of the guide. Apart from a brief spell in Kirkwall, she has lived on Shapinsay all her life. “I’m Orcadian first, Scottish second, and British third,” she says.

It’s still windy but the sun is peeping round the clouds, brightening the pretty wild flowers and the seascape beyond the stone arches. Sheila shows me some of the graves, including that of William Borwick and his three young daughters who, on 3 November 1822, crossed to Kirkwall to attend a church service: all four of them, plus eight others, were drowned when their boat overturned on the way back.

Time and again, the guide’s authors link what a visitor sees and feels on Shapinsay with their broader life. On the walk from the pier to Weland Beach, which will take around two hours, you’re encouraged to sing out loud because it improves mental health, reduces stress. The guide suggests doing this to synchronise your life with the nature around you, and, when you go home, singing more often. You’re encouraged to focus inwards rather than outwards: instead of thinking about the pictures you can post on social media, think about what the crashing waves, the empty field or the single flower links to in your own life. Revel in the sounds you hear, the scents you smell and the sights you see; and when you leave, take your renewed appreciation for nature with you.

The church on Shapinsay
The church on Shapinsay, where worship dates back to the 14th century. Photograph: Iain Sarjeant/Alamy

Many residents rarely leave the island. “I go across to Kirkwall every month or so – it feels as busy as London,” says Louise. That makes me laugh (Kirkwall has a population of 8,500); but when I arrive back there on the last ferry, the early-evening bustle takes my breath away. That’s when I know I’ve had a proper reset, Shapinsay-style.

Shapinsay Reflective Routes (£6) is available from the Orcadian Bookshop, or at the island’s shop. Travel was provided by northlinkferries.co.uk, which sails between Scrabster and Stromness (and also between Kirkwall and Aberdeen). Orkney Ferries runs from Kirkwall to Shapinsay. Kevock B&B (doubles £72) in Kirkwall is run by Jane Liptrot, whose daughter Amy’s memoir The Outrun is being filmed on Orkney, starring Saoirse Ronan. On Shapinsay itself Iona Cottage sleeps six from £300 a week

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