slow walk in the Orkneys

slow walk in the Orkneys

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The wind is strong, making the weather go fast, but Louise Hollinrake and I are moving as slowly as we can along the deserted bay of Furrowend on Shapinsay Island. I say desert, but now that we’re doing practically nothing but focusing on our slow walk (a Buddhist meditation tool, says Louise), it’s clear just how busy the place really is. I’m aware of a cacophony of sounds from a flock of long-tailed ducks, the lapping of waves, and the sound of Louise’s dog’s paws on the sand. The blues and grays of the sea and sky seem more pronounced, and the force of the wind is incredible (it’s not unknown in Orkney that gales rip off car doors).

The time it takes to get here takes you out of the hustle and bustle and prepares you for a different perspective on life.

Shapinsay is one of the more than 70 islands of Orkney: it is 11 kilometers long, with a population of 300 inhabitants. It has no pub, restaurant, cafe and there is only one place to stay. But it could soon have more tourists, thanks to a new conscientious travel guide called Shapinsay Reflective Routes, written by locals, including Louise, who want to share the island’s peace, wilderness, nature and contemplation space with visitors. .

You don’t have to stay in Shapinsay to enjoy its hiking and biking routes, beaches and wild swimming: most visitors come during the day, on a 35-minute ferry crossing from Kirkwall. First, though, there’s the long journey to Orkney. Even from Glasgow, where I live, it’s a six-hour drive to Scrabster, then a 90-minute ferry ride to Stromness and a drive to Kirkwall.

The guide’s authors encourage visitors to view the journey as preparation for the experience. “There’s something about the time it takes you to get here that removes you from the hustle and bustle and prepares you for a different perspective on life,” says Julia Meason, Church of Scotland minister for Shapinsay. “The Old Norse name of the island was Hjalpandisey, which means ‘helper’ or ‘guide’ island. That was one of our inspirations for the project.”

Julia lives in Kirkwall, so she and I met on the ferry, standing on the deck to watch the long, low green island approaching. We dock at Balfour, which anywhere else in Britain would be a village, but here is the capital: a single street of stone houses below its 19th-century castle. The first stop is the village shop, which, in addition to all the usual products, sells rhubarb and strawberry jam made on the island. Behind the counter is Carol Moncrieff, one of the guide’s photographers.

Boat mooring in Shapinsay

Passengers arrive in Shapinsay after a 35-minute ferry ride from Kirkwall. Photography: Doug Houghton Orkney/Alamy

On the walk to Furrowend to meet Louise, the only people Julia and I see are a couple who have rented e-bikes at the harbor (£7.50 a day); there’s plenty of terrain to cover in a day on Shapinsay, and a bike is a good idea (cars are allowed, but biking or walking gives a better feel for the island). In addition to the slow walk, Louise, who moved here 35 years ago, originally to take one-way courses, contributed a water route for the guide. Shapinsay’s “teardrop”, Helliar Holm, is dotted with caves, beaches, coves and passageways ready to be explored.

The sun is peeking around the clouds, illuminating the wildflowers and seascape beyond the stone archways

The next stop is the Old Kirk in the center of the island. It is now a ruin, though worship here dates back to the 1400s, and the current roofless church was built in the 19th century. Sheila Garson is the author of the Kirkyard section of the guide. Aside from a brief period in Kirkwall, she has lived in Shapinsay her entire life. “I’m Orcadian first, Scottish second and British third,” she says.

It’s still windy, but the sun peeks through the clouds, illuminating the beautiful wildflowers and seascape beyond the stone archways. Sheila shows me some of the graves, including that of William Borwick and his three young daughters who, on November 3, 1822, crossed into Kirkwall to attend a church service: all four, plus eight others, drowned when their boat turned on the way back.

Time and again, the guide’s authors link what a visitor sees and feels in Shapinsay with their wider life. On the walk from the pier to Weland Beach, which will take about two hours, you are encouraged to sing out loud because it improves mental health, reduces stress. The guide suggests doing this to sync your life with the nature around you, and when you go home, sing more often. You are encouraged to focus on the inside rather than the outside: instead of thinking about the pictures you might post on social media, think about what the crashing waves, the empty field or the single flower relate to in your own life. Delight in the sounds you hear, the scents you smell and the sights you see; and when you go out, take your renewed appreciation for nature with you.

The church in Shapinsay

The church in Shapinsay, where worship dates back to the 14th century. Photography: Iain Sarjeant/Alamy

Many residents rarely leave the island. “I go to Kirkwall every month – it seems as busy as London,” says Louise. It makes me laugh (Kirkwall has a population of 8,500); but when I get there on the last ferry, the bustle of early evening takes my breath away. That’s when I know I’ve had a proper reboot, Shapinsay-style.

Shapinsay Reflective Routes (£6) is available from the Orcadian Bookshop, or at the island store. The trip was provided by navigates between Scrabster and Stromness (and also between Kirkwall and Aberdeen). Orkney Ferries departs Kirkwall to Shapinsay. Kevock B&B (double £72) in Kirkwall is run by Jane Liptrotwhose memories of daughter Amy the overcoming is being filmed in Orkney, starring Saoirse Ronan. In Shapinsay itself Iona Cottage sleeps six from £300 per week

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