Known locally as ‘Papay’, Papa Westray is only around four miles long and a mile across at its widest point, but it’s a place that punches well above its weight.
With a history stretching back thousands of years, Papay’s more recent past has seen plenty of positive projects bring a sense of vibrancy to the island. There’s an annual arts festival, a fantastic community shop, one of Orkney’s best hostels and a refurbished craft and heritage space, housed on the shore in the island’s former kelp store.
But, as with all of Orkney’s isles, the real benefit of a visit to Papay is the chance to set your clock to island time by slowing down, experiencing the great outdoors and sharing a lazy wave with locals as you pass by.
Even getting to Papay is a delight. It’s the destination for the world’s shortest scheduled flight, with the Loganair Islander leaving neighbouring Westray only 90 seconds or so before it touches down at the island’s airfield. It’s a bucket list attraction for many, but for islanders it’s a vital link with Orkney and the rest of the world. The novelty never wears off, though.
Once you arrive you won’t be short of things to see and do. Papay is home to the oldest stone houses in northern Europe at the Knap of Howar, with the two-roomed remains even older than Skara Brae. Found on the west coast of the island, the structures are similar in style to their more famous cousins in the west mainland, featuring distinct living spaces and stone fixtures and fittings. Lacking the trappings of a traditional tourist destination, the Knap is a low key but completely spectacular place to experience.
The farm of Holland is worth a visit. This complex of agricultural buildings is adjacent to Holland House, the seat of the Traill family, lairds of Papay for three centuries. One of the old buildings at the farm has been turned into a compact museum with a fascinating range of artefacts from the island’s history.
A short distance north of Holland you’ll find St Boniface Kirk, one of the oldest Christian sites in northern Scotland. It’s a 12th century Norse church, possibly built on a Pictish structure. The fact two Pictish symbol stones were found here would support that theory. You can see one of them in the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.
The RSPB reserve at North Hill packs some incredible wildlife attractions into a relatively small space. It’s a major nesting area for seabirds, including great and Arctic skuas, and you can spot fulmars, kittiwakes and more on the craggy coastline at Fowl Craig. Ever-popular puffins are present here during the summer months, and keep your eye out for the rare Scottish primrose on the reserve too.
The southern end of the island is quieter but there are lovely walks at St Tredwell Loch and at the beach at Bothican.
The best advice for a visit is to book a spot on the Papay Peedie Tour with local ranger, Jonathan Ford. The tour takes in all of the sites mentioned above, and Jonathan has a wealth of knowledge about the island’s past, present and future. He is also one of the qualified skippers for the island’s new boat, leading trips to the uninhabited Holm of Papay and its 4000-year-old subterranean chambered cairn.
Keep your eye on the events calendar at the Kelp Store too – there are often talks, film nights and music performances to enjoy.
Find out more via the Papa Westray website.
Papa Westray is well-connected, both to the Orkney mainland and neighbouring Westray.
Orkney Ferries currently operates sailings to the island on Tuesdays and Fridays. There are also daily passenger-only crossings between Westray and Papa Westray, with a connecting bus service linking the ferry terminals in Westray.
Papa Westray also has daily flights with Loganair to and from Kirkwall. If you fly via Westray you'll also get to experience the world's shortest scheduled flight, which clocks in at under two minutes. Advance booking for all inter-isles flights in Orkney is essential, especially during the summer months.