Orkney – A Place for Extraordinary Swims ( Part One) Day 1 to 3 of our Swim Adventure

Orkney; a Scottish archipelago drenched in history and stunning scenery, so it lends itself to being a perfect place to explore. It’s a location that requires that slither of extra organisation and planning, so it’s always lovely to hand that over to someone else and become a swim tourist yourself. That’s where Lynda comes in, four days of exploration planned ( + travel days)and all you have to do is book your accommodation and travel and come along.

The first day of the adventure to Orkney though is always the travel, and in Lynda’s case the six hour plus road trip turns into a mindful experience whilst pointing out spots that are ‘on the adventure list for next time’. It’s a wonder anyone gets anywhere in Scotland with so many dook options…. and some in full view of a road!

This road trip was scaling the entire length of mainland Scotland, leaving the Scottish Borders to Orkney via John O Groats. Leaving home with a car fit to bursting with six days worth of kit and four swimmers. The type of full that starts you wondering whether all those different costumes were necessary. Although saying that at one stop, they decided to open up the boot of the car and a solitary jar of gherkins came rolling out.

The obligatory stop at John O’Groats before boarding the ferry to meet Becky (one of the safety team for the weekend) and get a photo before leaving mainland Scotland. These days if you’re documenting it all and taking photos, did it even happen?

Lynda’s contingent for the trip were staying just across from St.Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, a great central spot to be home base for the next few days. Kirkwall is like the capital of Orkney, so even though parts seem remote and sometimes forgotten, you know you’ve got all your essentials and needs met in Kirkwall. It really is the best of both worlds.

Other intrepid mini adventurers were travelling up, some on the island already. This included Debbi the third water safety person. Some were catching the ferry the next day from Thurso, others were flying in to the magnificently miniature Kirkwall airport.

After the mammoth road trip there wasn’t much time for anything other than the evening stroll down to the harbour, adorned with a golden and pink sunset to close the day. Walking past the beautifully lit up red and yellow sandstone architecture of St Magnus Cathedral, where they had to make the obligatory shadow images before settling into their beds for the night.

Day Two….the swim exploration begins…

A gentle start to the day for the ones already on Orkney, having a wander around Kirkwall and being taken in by the craft shops and having a look inside St.Magnus’ Cathedral. This was allowing time for other swimmers to arrive, until they congregated together at 2pm at the usual beauty spot, Tesco. It seems to be a regular for all trips, it just makes sense for comfort stops and stocking up if any travellers need to (as we said in our previous trip blog from Oban)

Each car was ceremonially given a folder with a list of swims and associated what 3 words, so everyone had clarity on locations. Even though Orkney may be small in comparison to the mainland, the roads can still get busy so always best to have a contingency in place, just in case.

Travelling to Inganess Bay you reach the brow of a hill and as you ascend the slope the bay below opens up into a spectacle. The sunken ship Juniata[1] being the focal point, surrounded by the iconic aqua marine coloured water of the Hebrides.  The contrast really is a marvel to behold, especially if it’s sunny. If you’re a fan of boats and/or wrecks Orkney is the place to go, there’s a few dotted around that give excellent backdrops for picturesque swims, or make them even more atmospheric on the gloomier ones.

First swims are an important swim, it’s a chance to gauge how our swimmers get on, check that everyone is comfortable and quench those pre-trip nerves whether it’s shaking off the journey or meeting new people. For this swim, our adventurers had an option to swim around the ship or get up close and personal at the bow and then swim back to shore.

It’s also a chance to see how swimmers warm up, as even though we’re into the summer months it can still have a toll on the body so the longer you can get in between swims the better. With this in mind before heading onto their next swim of the day, the group stayed at Inganess to do more of social introductions. Connections were realised, and on an adventure like this usually the start of great swim friendships too.

The great thing about Orkney is, if the wind’s blowing hard one way, you can just potter to the other side of the island to seek more sheltered swims or better yet there’s some obstacles you can use as organic wind breaks too. That’s exactly what happened for the second swim at Scapa Bay, opting to swim behind the pier for protection.

The water was astonishingly clear, the kind of sea where you would be furious if you forgot your goggles. At this swim Lynda and swimmers spotted some common local wildlife too, Orkney Polar Bears! And before you say “They don’t have any bears on Orkney”, these were a wonderful team of friendly local swimmer from the aptly named Orkney Polar Bear swim group. Always lovely to serendipitously meet a local swimmer whilst exploring, something really special about sharing that ritualised space to hopefully ignite some shared conversation and marvel at the wonder they call their regular “swimming pool”.

This swim was more a splash around, playing mermaid. The type of swim where you just become a big kid again and probably down to the clarity of the water too. Synchronised swimming, making stars in the water, hand stands and even renditions of ‘the whale’.

As the day drew to a close, swimmers headed back to their respective accommodations via Tesco to complete the circuit and also to pick up rations for the evening. Lynda was sharing her accommodation with five others from the trip, so one wonderful swimmer Sian made a vegetable curry to warm the cockles and get everyone prepped for a full day of swimming tomorrow. After a full day on Orkney, fresh air and salt water you can bet each one of those swimmers were out like a light when their heads touched their pillows.

Day Three

 A very Scottish welcome for our two swimmers meeting us from Evie today, wet and windy. Whenever in Scotland you’ve got to thank the rain, as we wouldn’t have such luscious landscapes without it, and also all the swimmers were ready to get wet so it wasn’t really changing any plans. Although saying this to shelter out of some of the weather, Lynda’s plan was to work their way around the west coast of the main island. Many of the locations the group had their eyes on were protected, so would be an adventurous day to all. Although saying this before debarking it was reiterated that FOMO (fear of missing out) didn’t exist on these trips. If any swims were not fancied then they were to be sat out. Sometimes that version of a swim may feel like you’re missing out, but actually watching a spectacle of swimmers trying to wrangle kit as it pours with rain is quite fun from the warmth of a change robe.

On to Waukmill Bay, another beautiful sandy bay. The water could’ve been mistaken for the Mediterranean if it wasn’t raining, although the story beneath the water’s surface was still suggesting you were abroad, although the temperature wasn’t. This particular bay has some steps leading down to its sandy beach, which you always know aren’t going to be fun on the way back up but they really help you warm up after a swim.

Leaving their stuff in the sheltered rocks of the overlooking cliffs, swimmers skipped, ran and danced into the low tide waves. A truly beautiful swim with Debbie modelling a frong of sugar kelp as a skirt and shrug, Orkney’s must have fashion you know!

Setting their new-found organic fashion pieces aside, they journeyed on to Stromness for the second swim of the day, this time at Ness Pier. Parking cars at Ness point before dunking, and this time it was really teaming it down. The swim is directly off a slipway here, so a gentle entry amongst the choppy harbour waters.

Post swim opting for a pootle around the shops before hunkering down in a coffee shop to warm up and dry off whilst treating themselves to the pier’s delicacies. Then meandering back via a few art studios, whilst some swimmers purchased some knitted garments before returning to their parked cars.

Next stop was the geological wonder that is Yesnaby. Here food was the name of the game, already sensing a theme here but swimming is hungry work. Whether it’s pie or cake all the exploring, especially in the wet warrants some lunch. Swimmers sat in the cars overlooking the sea, whilst having nibbles and topping up flasks.

It is renowned for its spectacular Old Red Sandstone coastal cliff scenery which includes sea stacks, blowholes, geos and frequently boiling seas.

During the Second World War an anti-aircraft battery was built on the cliff top at Yesnaby as part of the defences of the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow. The battery was manned by the Royal Navy and some traces of the wartime buildings remain.

From the group’s parking spot it was a short walk along the cliffs to the desired bay. Yesnaby is one of those places that feels quite otherworldy, think Jurassic Park for it’s scenery, so you can imagine how swimmers were getting excited to get into this magical setting. Pair that with the clear azures and you’re pretty certain it’s going to be a special swim. Once down at our spot, one of our guides Becky, identified the path with least kelp for those who were not so enamoured with it touching their limbs. Face down our swimmers loved watching the rocks beneath them adorned with the dancing kelp. This was the day’s favourite with our swimmers.

Having spent longer than planned enjoying the sights sounds and delicacies of Stromness, time had ticked down so a swim at the Bay of Skeill was not feasible with the team having 3.30 tickets to visit Skara Brae. We did stop to enable everyone to admire the view before taking in the history of this archaeological site of high significance. While the adventurers were becoming wiser on the history, Lynda and Becky opted to swim across the bay. The water was so clear and the swim incredibly special. So special that we would offer this as an alternative swim for the next day. Let’s see if it comes up trumps.

  • [1] Juniata worked for the oil fleet and did a good job for twenty years, but at the start of WWII, it was bought by the Royal Navy. Due to the tragic sinking of the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow, she was one of the blockships that were sunk (in her case, in Water Sound) to deter submarines from entering Scapa Flow. In 1949, the Juniata was refloated. However, by this time it was too fragile to be towed very far, so she was taken to Inganess Bay and left on the beach.

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