Local tips: Things to do on Orkney

Rhonda Muir lives on the Orkney islands and shares her things to do on Orkney and also the romantic tale of how she met her husband.

How long have you lived in Orkney?

I moved to Orkney five years ago to be with my Orcadian husband, storyteller and historian Tom Muir. I moved from rural Western New York State, where I’d lived my entire life until Tom and I decided that we had to be together. Tom completely belongs to the islands, where I never quite fit in where I grew up, so the decision was easy: I would move to Orkney. I’ve never regretted it.

We’re developing a website together called Orkneyology.com. We started out writing mostly tips for visitors, and though this kind of information will continue to grow on the website, we seem to be venturing further into Orkney’s heritage, its people and its history … and of course, its stories.

Something that might help the curious to get a feel for the lifestyle and lore of the Orkney Islands is to hear some of its stories. Tom has been involved with the Orkney Storytelling Festival from its earliest beginnings. Naturally, I’m heavily involved in this annual October festival now, too. In 2020 our storytelling group produced a series of storytelling films instead of our usual live festival events, which are available to view for free on Orkneyology’s Youtube channel.

Also, during the first round of covid lockdown, Tom wanted to do something to help folk take their minds off their troubles. What did he do best but tell stories? We added several pages to Orkneyology.com under the heading “Tales for Troubled Times.” Almost 200 audio stories are available for free listening. Enjoy!

What’s next? Tom and I are both huge bibliophiles. We have a great (constantly growing) library of our own. What could be more natural than starting our own independent book publishing company? We hope to launch Orkneyology Press during 2021.

Favourite beach in Orkney

Rackwick Beach
Rackwick Beach

Our favourite beach is easy to decide. When I first met Tom (only by email) in 2002, he was helping me in his professional capacity to find information about the specific Orkney location I’d chosen as a setting for a selkie tale I was writing. That place was the valley of Rackwick, with its fabulously beautiful beach, on the island of Hoy.

I visited Orkney for the first time in 2015 when our personal story finally developed to the point of romance. Tom took me to Rackwick Beach for my 50th birthday, and it was on the pink sands of that beach that he proposed to me.

Things to do on Orkney – Best walk in Orkney

Yesnaby cliffs, Orkney

That’s a tough one. There are so many breath-taking walks in Orkney – not many actual paths, mind you, but many wonderful country walks on all the islands. If I had to choose, I’d say my favourite is the walk from the cliffs of Yesnaby to Stromness. The first time I walked that route was on a blissfully beautiful summer’s day while one of my daughters was visiting. She and her boyfriend and I had Tom drop us off at the cliffs and we spent a peaceful afternoon strolling back to our home in Stromness. It’s a beautiful memory and a gorgeous walk.

I have a few maps up on the Ramblr app, mostly walks around Stromness at the moment, but many more to come! You can find my account and all the walks (free) under my user name, Orkneyology.com. (Here’s the link for the Yesnaby walk.)

Most special time of year in Orkney

Strangely enough, I think winter is the most special time for me. It’s then that the place settles down and feels like itself – just small, close communities having fun. Christmas is very much a community event around here, much more so than where I came from, and a lot of fun. During normal winters, there are so many classes, lectures, plays, concerts, art shows, museum events and goings-on of all kinds that you can’t possibly do them all. The days are very short and dark in an Orkney winter, but I think it just makes everything more cosy.

The one thing every tourist should do on Orkney

Italian Chapel, Orkney

I’m going to cheat and suggest two. My husband thinks that the Italian Chapel tells one very poignant part of Orkney’s history beautifully, as well as being a precious piece of wartime art itself – a place of worship built by Italian POWs during a most harrowing time.

Two of the Ring of Brodgar stones near sunset

I would suggest that folk head to the area where the Ring of Brodgar stands. Within a couple of miles, they can experience the Heart of Neolithic Orkney places, plus a few more: the Ring of Brodagr, the Stones of Stenness, the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, an RSPB birdhide overlooking the serene Harray Loch, the Ness of Brodgar archaeological dig (if it’s on at the time), and Maeshowe! Happy Valley is also quite nearby. You can find details about all of these magical places on Orkneyology.com.

Your best wildlife encounter

Not long ago, Tom and I were staying in Rackwick for a short break. This was during the huge works going on in Rackwick for an undersea cable. When I was out walking, I came upon a baby otter that was obviously in terrible distress. We were able to get the poor thing to a friend who runs a wildlife rescue. He surmised that Freya (so he named her) had been chased out of her hole by all the digging going on and the heavy equipment that was everywhere at the time. She never would have been out on her own at such a young age otherwise. The opportunity to see such a beautiful creature at close range, even for a couple of short hours, was a touching experience.

Favourite road or drive on Orkney

I love driving anywhere in the countryside of Orkney. Who knew there could be so many kinds of beautiful? I did have to learn about driving on one-lane roads with passing places, though, as I would advise anyone contemplating driving here to do. They abound.

Most loved view

View of the Hoy hills from the Yesnaby-Stromness walk

My favourite view is of the hills of Hoy. They look like sinuous sleeping animals and are a little bit different every day. I suppose that’s why the Orkney painter Sylvia Wishart never tired of painting them. Stromness rests very near, fortunately for us. We get to see them every day. The hills are visible from many places in the west part of the Mainland. If I ever get turned around while I’m out walking I just head for a hilltop and look for Hoy!

Holiday Scottish Highlands & Islands says…

We love the story of how Rhonda and Tom met and all the great tips. Hopefully, we will be visiting Orkney in the next year so we’ve got some great ideas of things to see.

Find out more about Orkneyology

Visit the Orkneyology website to find out more.

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