This is a straightforward walk taking in a fabulous area of coastline, with fine views of the Pentland Firth and its islands.
The coastline of South Ronaldsay offers some of the finest and most varied walking to be found in Orkney.
It features a number of well-established routes, and virtually the entire circuit of the island can be completed by the more adventurous over the course of several days.
This walk takes in just a short section of one of our favourite routes, from Burwick to Sandwick, and in late spring and early summer it lays on one of the most spectacular displays of sea pinks to be found in Orkney.
The route begins at the Burwick pier, where visitors to Orkney arrive from Scotland with John O’Groats Ferries. At the western end of the car-park you’ll see stacks of large concrete blocks used for sea defences. Head to the right of these onto the coastal path which leads on a meandering route to the north.
A short 100-metre walk takes you to a headland called 'the Wing'. From here, look directly west to the tiny island of Swona. Home to a number of families in the late 19th century, the last residents left in the 1970s. The descendants of cattle left behind have become a feral herd with their own fascinating behaviours, returning – like the island – to a more natural state.
Around 400m further north lies the distinctive headland of the Castle of Burwick (0.6km) It’s easy to see why Iron Age inhabitants would have chosen this as the site for their fort. A narrow connecting neck of land must be crossed to access the wider headland, where intriguing lumps and bumps give a hint of the history under your feet. It’s a fine spot to watch seals bobbing and twisting in the clear waters below, mindful of the hunting orca which are an increasingly common sight along this stretch of coastline.
Follow the coast north, past Backaquoy, Green Head, Creara Head and Gillieselly, to arrive at Barth Head – a fine promontory which rises in a graceful and distinctive sweep. The serrated nature of the coastline with its twisted and tortured geology makes it feel like you’ve travelled far further than the actual 3km so far.
If you’re not quite ready for the return journey then it is worth carrying on for 500-metres or so further north, across a wonderful swathe of coastal heath. In early summer you’ll have the sound of skylarks on one side, and fulmars and herring gulls on the other. The headland at Tainga makes a fine spot for a flask of tea and a sandwich, before returning by the same route to the start.
This walk offers some spectacular coastal views, but the path does run very close to the cliff edge at points. Take extra care and never get too close to the edge. The walks should be avoided in windy and wet conditions, or during poor visibility.
Visit the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website for more information and advice on how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly.
- Places of interest
There are plenty of other attractions to be found in South Ronaldsay. A short distance from the start of the walk is St Mary’s Church, built on what’s claimed to have been the site where the first Christian missionaries arrived in Orkney. The church, which has been taken on by a local trust, contains the Ladykirk stone. Legend says that St Magnus crossed the Pentland Firth standing on the stone, but it’s actually thought by experts to have been a Pictish coronation stone.
The Neolithic chambered tomb, Tomb of the Otters, is only a few miles away from Burwick.
Look out for the viewpoint at Olad Summit, around 6km north on the drive to or from Burwick. It offers a great vantage point across Scapa Flow, the Pentland Firth and North Sea. Windwick is another viewpoint around 4km away with views towards sea stacks and a busy seal-pupping beach during the autumn months.
- Food & drink
Skerries Bistro at the nearby Tomb of the Otters offers a wide range of fresh seafood and local produce. The village of St Margaret's Hope, seven miles north of Burwick, also has a number of food & drink options. The Murray Arms Hotel serves meals and refreshments in its popular restaurant. Robertsons on the nearby Church Road also offers meals, drinks and snacks. There are two well-stocked shops in the village too - Doulls and The Trading Post.
- Transport & services
Orkney's X1 bus service runs between Stromness and St Margaret's Hope daily. View the full timetable on the Orkney Islands Council website. There is no public bus service linking St Margaret's Hope and Burwick.
There are no petrol pumps available south of Kirkwall so remember to fill up before leaving the town.
Public toilets are available in St Margaret's Hope and at the Sands o'Wright. There is also a public toilet at the Burwick ferry terminal waiting room, but these toilets are only open between 1 May and 30 September.