This route features a wonderful, relatively undiscovered stretch of coastline, with unsurpassed views of the Pentland Firth and a sea of wildflowers.
Hill of White Hamars was the first Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve set-up to protect the rare Primula Scotica (Scottish primrose).
It's just one of a number of fabulous wildflowers that can be found on the coast here, which is deeply-fissured with geos, caves and sea stacks.
This walk has been designed to tie-in with use of the island’s bus service and begins at the southwest end of the Ayre, the narrow spit of land which joins the communities of South Walls and Longhope to Brims and the larger landmass of Hoy. If you’re using the bus, ask to get off just before the Ayre. If you’ve brought your own vehicle, park at the small car park at the other end of the Ayre and walk back along the road.
Follow the minor road on the right, which leads off around the south side of the bay of Aith Hope, to head towards the Longhope Lifeboat Museum, housed in the former lifeboat shed. While the modern lifeboat lies moored at the village of Longhope – at the end of our route - this is where the lifeboat was traditionally launched from – a sheltered bay with near instant access to the Pentland Firth.
Tragedy struck here in 1969. The lifeboat TGB was launched into the teeth of a south-easterly gale to go to the aid of a stricken cargo ship. In the darkness she passed below these cliffs heading through the Pentland Firth and into a mountainous North Sea. Her lights were last seen by the lightkeepers on the Pentland Skerries. A short time later the lifeboat capsized, with the loss of all eight crew. The story of the disaster, and of this community’s long and lasting relationship with saving lives at sea is well-told in the wonderful museum. It also houses the former lifeboat Thomas McCunn – the vessel and its home a source of immense pride to islanders here.
From the museum head back to the head of the bay and cross the Ayre towards South Walls. Just after crossing the causeway look for a small car park on the right. A sign here points you towards the coast. The first 200 metres or so are particularly overgrown but things do generally improve after this.
Follow the coast as it works its way around a series of geos and small, rocky bays. The view back towards Aith Hope and the small community at Brims improves as you gain a little height. After around 2km, just after passing Aith Head, look for the great sloping slab of the Axe - just one of a number of features along this coast, including arches, caves and sea stacks.
Carry on around a kilometre further east to reach Garth Head. This provides the topographical high-point of the route, with fine views back the way you came and to the east towards Cantick Head and its lighthouse. Today’s route takes in just part of the South Walls Coast Path. Those feeling particularly energetic can carry on right around Cantick Head and back along the road, adding around 4.5km.
After Garth Head follow the coast as it drops down to the head of Birsi Geo. Immediately after crossing the second of two small wooden duckboards over two small burns, turn sharply left to head inland. Cross the stile and carry on north for around 150m. To your left is Hill of White Hamars. Look out here for white campion, heath spotted-orchid and the distinctive, angular flight of snipe.
Follow the obvious path as it turns right, before passing over a number of stiles and finally through a metal farm gate to the left of a white cottage to arrive at the small car park next to the prominent stone house of Snelsetter. Turn left and follow the track, then tarmac road, for 1km to reach a crossroads.
Turn left here. After 400m you’ll pass the Stromabank Hotel on the right-hand side. After a further 400m take the next turn-off on the right. This takes you 1km to the village of Longhope. Turn left at the T-Junction to walk the last 700m to the heart of the village, where you’ll find a hotel, a well-stocked grocers and a shop selling RNLI goods.
You can catch a bus from the village back to the ferry terminal at Lyness.
Visit the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website for more information and advice on how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly.
- Places of interest
Aside from the Longhope Lifeboat Museum and the Hill of White Hamars, South Walls offers a number of sites well worth seeking out. The Hackness Martello Tower & Battery is a fascinating location, and the Longhope Lifeboat Memorial at Osmondwall Cemetery is a poignant place to pay your respects. Elsewhere, the Beach Gallery offers arts and crafts workshops and inspiration days.
At Lyness, don't miss the Scapa Flow Museum, which tells the story of the Flow's and Orkney's wartime heritage, and the nearby Lyness Naval Cemetery. There is a dramatic change in scenery the further north you go, and given Hoy is Orkney's second largest island, you could quite easily spend a few days taking in its sites and scenery. Places like Rackwick and the Old Man of Hoy are amongst the most popular locations in Orkney, with other attractions including the Hoy Kirk & Heritage Centre, Dwarfie Stane and the Cra'as Nest Museum all worth a visit.
There is an incredible wealth of wildlife in Hoy - from mountain hares to dragonflies and white-tailed eagles - and the coastal scenery is amongst the best in the country. You can also tackle one of our longer walking route, over Cuilags towards the Old Man of Hoy and Rackwick.
- Food & drink
Longhope is home to an excellent shop, JMF Groat & Sons, selling a wide range of goods, including local produce. The shop also sells fuel and is the island Post Office too. The local pub, the Royal Hotel, is also found in the village and serves food on selected evenings. The Stromabank Hotel is found in South Walls and offers a bar and evening meals.
The Scapa Flow Museum at Lyness features a cafe which is available during the museum's opening times.
North of Lyness you'll find Emily's Tea Room, with a menu full of teas, coffees, snacks, light bites and ice cream. The Beneth'ill Cafe at Moaness also offers soup, sandwiches and specials, as well as evening meals.
- Transport & services
Daily ferries keep Hoy connected to the Orkney mainland. A ro-ro ferry shuttles between Houton and Lyness, with a passenger only service operating between Stromness and Moaness. View timetables on the Orkney Ferries website.
There is also a community bus service available.
Public toilets are available at the piers at Longhope, Lyness and Moaness. There are also toilets at Rackwick.
Petrol and diesel are available from the JMF Groat & Sons shop in Longhope.