Orkney – A Place for Extraordinary Swims (Part Two) Day 4 and 5 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 and all you have to do is book your accommodation and travel and come along.

Day Four

Meeting at 8.00am sharp, an earlier time was established to ensure they caught the tide and also got all their swims in. Onwards to Marwick Bay. The stone features are really intriguing here, all in linear rock splits with a line of what looks like man-made tidal pools. Although this turned into quite an in-depth discussion amongst the swimmers as to whether they were man-made or natural, akin to a ‘chicken or the egg’ discussion. A short walk along the coast our group came to the fisherman’s huts made of stone. If you’re not really looking for them they blend seamlessly into the surroundings, leaving the question as to whether fisherman may have unintentionally swapped huts from time to time.

On the 6th January 1896 the Bristol registered steamship Monomoy was wrecked at Marwick Bay. This forced local fishermen to abandon the Bay as a centre for their activities and to move half a mile down the coast to Sand Geo, a narrow, sheltered inlet that faces the Atlantic Ocean. Three huts were built, and boat nousts were cut into the earth at the top of the low cliffs where the boats were to be kept safe from the sea. The stone-built huts were where sails and fishing gear was stored. To make life a little bit easier, a winch was salvaged from the wreck of the Monomoy and placed at the head of the geo, in order to haul the boats up the shore and so to their nousts. The huts have been sensitively restored and add charm to the beautiful scenery. Part of the boiler from the Monomoy was washed ashore at Marwick Bay in 1985 and can be seen on the beach.

After exploring the huts, the group scrambled over the rocks down to the translucent water edge. Sheltering out of the rain by the cliff, which had natural hewn ‘cupboards’ in the rock, perfect for fitting a few smaller essentials primed for their exit.

Their swim consisted of clambering over rocks and kelp to get into the deeper water. The sea bed was coated in wavey kelp which danced on the movement of the water. They even had a seal pop up and join them for a swim too. Not surprising as kelp beds are perfect resting spots for seals and many other marine wildlife. If you’re ever snorkelling or swimming around these spots keep an eye out for animals wrapped up in kelpy sleeping bags. On another trip, a wrasse was spotted wrapped up in some kelp, so it’s always worth watching the dance of the kelp, as sometimes it will reveal its secrets.

On their walk back to the cars, the mist rose enough to enable them to spy the Kitchener Memorial and absorb the beauty of their surroundings.

Then it was on to the Brough of Birsay, an unhabituated tidal island off the northwest coast of mainland Orkney. This was why the group had to be so regimented in timings for meeting, to make sure they caught the right tide to allow an easy crossing of the causeway leading on to the island.

The earliest settlement on the island is thought to have been in the 6th century, perhaps by Christian missionaries. In the 7th and 8th centuries it was a significant Pictish fortress, but by the 9th century the Picts had been displaced by Norsemen.  The extensive remains of an excavated Norse settlement and church overlay the earlier Pictish settlement. Before Kirkwall became the centre of power in the 12th century, Birsay was the seat of the rulers of Orkney

Once our historians were satisfied it was then on the hunt for some wildlife. Debbie, one of our swimmers had been on the island a couple of days earlier and knew the best spot to see some coastal birds. They found a perfect observation spot to watch puffins, together with razor bills and gannets. Sian was on the duty of otter spotting but was disappointed as they remained elusive amongst the sea of birds.

Following the causeway crossing, the group wondered back to their cars and on to Earl’s Palace, where not only did they take in the culture but also a chance for a coffee, tray bakes and delicious macaroni cheese pies; which were noted as being incredibly yummy and the best they’d tasted.

Suitably full they headed on to Evie for the second swim of the day. A completely different landscape to their earlier swim by the fisherman’s hut, a wide-open beach dusted with glorious white sand.

When working out swim locations Lynda tapped into the local knowledge and consulted with Lucy from the Orkney Polar Bears swim group. This swim was Lucy’s favourite spot and soon became a favoured spot with our swimmers. There were patches of kelp dancing under the water, which was the biggest ‘elephant’ size kelp that some of the group had ever seen.

Broch of Gurness was just a hop, skip and jump away, so headed there for our lunch, offering our swimmers another explosion of historical culture, and the opportunity to have a bite to eat. Our team took a wonder around the site, and then lounged on the grassy verge munching on their acquired treats in the sun.

Settlement at the Broch of Gurness began sometime between 500 and 200 BC. At the centre of the settlement is a stone tower or broch, which once probably reached a height of around 10 metres. Its interior is divided into sections by upright slabs. The tower features two skins of drystone walls, with stone-floored galleries in between. These are accessed by steps. Stone ledges suggest that there was once an upper storey with a timber floor. The roof would have been thatched, surrounded by a wall walk linked by stairs to the ground floor. The broch features two hearths and a subterranean stone cistern with steps leading down into it (resembling the set-up at Mine Howe). It is thought to have some religious significance, relating to an Iron Age cult of the underground.

The third and final swim was in the harbour at Tingwall. On arriving, swimmers could see the ferry coming across the wee channel from Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre, some settled into the cars, with some opting to have a wee power nap while the island hopper arrived and emptied its passengers, loaded the new travellers and headed across the waters. This gave the group the security that it would be an hour to get undressed pootle about in the water and get back out again before the next arrival. Although in the harbour with the car park full of cars, the swim seemed private. Some of our swimmers opted to join hands and do a jump off the side of the causeway into the water below. There was much hilarity through complete silliness, fatigue and euphoria from the cold-water swims.

No trip to Orkney is complete without the visit to the Standing Stones of Stenness & Ring of Brodgar, and what a way to end the fourth day of adventure. These are steeped in mystique and magic which is felt when standing next to and under the power of the stones. During their visit to the Stones of Stenness, they shared the experience with a group of Americans, wearing kilts very badly and  whose ancestor had built Skeill house which we had visited the day prior.

Day Five

After a later start to give everyone time to recharge and get ready for the last day on Orkney they headed to Windwick Bay. This is a bay situated by Ronaldsay, the most beautiful stretch of coast with stacks and caves to explore. Although saying that the weather conditions did not lend themselves for exploring so instead, swimmers had an interesting rocky shallow dook with the dramatic back drop of mist and dramatic rock formations.

To warm up the swimmers before the second swim of the day, and one that had been looked forward to with avid interest. The group stopped off at Polly Kettle, a highly recommended coffee shop which uses the finest ingredients from Orkney with a middle eastern theme across some of their dishes. With it being the birthday of one of our swimmers, we had a rendition of the most sung song in the world, and passed on her signed handmade mermaid card.

After cake it was on to the next swim of the day, and turned out to be the most challenging as well as iconic. Churchill Barrier 3 saw our swimmers circumnavigate the wreck of Reginald. As I stated at the start of this blog, if you love a shipwreck, you’re going to love Orkney! There’s a fair few around.

The swim was eery and surreal for the team, with the wind making the swim a little more challenging. Looking at the wreck under the water was thought provoking, knowing that these ships were sacrificed and no lives on them were lost made it easier to appreciate. In reality though, once we were out not many swimmers were talking about the immense presence of the Reginald, but of the amazing amount of sea gooseberries that they shared the waters with, floating past and dancing on the ebb of waves.

Getting dressed along the barriers is always a fun one, no matter how out of the way you think you are, or how quiet you think the roads are, our swimmers did get an occasional toot from passing revellers. If you’re of modest nature and wanting to swim along this stretch always recommend a towelling robe so you don’t have to worry.

Then it was off to the Italian Chapel for another history tour taking us back to the second world war and the creativity of the prisoners of war there.

No sooner had our team started their magical mystery tour around Orkney it had come to the final swim. These adventures away always zoom past regardless of the weather. You start to feel like you’re gaining momentum with each day, getting to know the swimmers, but all great things must come to an end and this swim was at the wonderful Sandside Bay.  Completely relaxed of timings and a no pressure attitude with the use of a beach side sauna.

The team were beautifully looked after by Hazel from Orkney Hot Tubs who kept the sauna fire burning for them beyond their designated time. If ever in Orkney do see if they are at a beach near you and take a slot. Hazel even brought along some tea and cake to enjoy on the beach too, so was a real treat to have our very own sauna and café as our final send off.

The sea here was rocky to get into being low tide, but once in swimmers experienced the most amazing kelp fields and a friendly seal who popped up to see what was happening. Lynda overheard one of the swimmers say ‘that was more kelp than I have ever seen in my life before’. Hearing something like that always makes an organisers day. Something you’ve created bringing such joy to someone else, and in kelp form no less!

Then suddenly like Lynda had ordered it in specially, the sky turned blue and the yellow bright star in the sky decided to put their hat on to the chorus of swimmers below exclaiming “SUNSHINE!”. The pièce de résistance.

After peeling themselves away from the beachside sauna, they all headed back to Kirkwall, totally satisfied, warm and knackered for an obligatory last supper of fish and chips. With the sun being out, it felt compulsory to sit on the benches outside St. Magnus’ Church, having a good ole debrief and chatter watching the sun set on the final day of adventure, and loving the chocolate brownie birthday cake for Debbie procured from an amazing honesty box.

Until next time….

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