Wild Weekend: Landscapes, History and Beaches on Sanday, Orkney
As the ferry comes around the final headland, the small harbour of Loth comes in to view. A single car waits on the quay, an elderly gentleman sitting with his thermos and rapidly cooling chip supper. He is there most days, waiting for the bustle that the ferry attracts, watching for otters along the shoreline. All the while on the hillside above the wind turbines spin a never ending cycle in this windy corner of Britain. As the ferry makes its final approach cars appear as if from nowhere. The single road down to the quay and the ferry terminal comes alive. There is no reason to go to Loth unless you are taking the ferry off the island.
We head along this undulating road away from the ferry, over the hill and past the wind turbines. The wide sweeping bay of Stove comes into view, our first inkling of what lies in store for us on this small island. Blue sea runs into a deep blue sky with a sandy white beach flanking the edge of the bay. Magical and spectacular all in one moment.
The sun is low in the sky as we arrive at the strangely named Ayres Rock Campsite, just a short drive from the ferry terminal. We couldn’t be further from the Australian outback if we tried. In the warm summer sunshine this little campsite feels special.
With a small rickety stile in the corner of the camping field you are instantly on the seashore. A jumble of boulders and pebbles. The perfect spot for exploring rock pools or sitting to wait for the resident otter to make his evening trip to the bay for a spot of fishing.
As the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean the campsite glows in the orange light of a summer evening. Nowhere else matters right now. The island awaits us, fresh and exciting for our wild weekend adventure.
Sanday really is the ultimate in Wild Weekends. Sitting within the Orkney Island archipelago it is reached by ferry or plane from Kirkwall. These services run every day unless the weather is too harsh, but harsh by Orkney standards is a long way from your ‘normal’ concept of ‘harsh’.
This island is home to about 550 people and is thriving. There is a school, sports centre, a choice of shops (food and every hardware item imaginable!) and a few places to eat. There is also a choice of places to stay from unique Bed and Breakfast, cosy holiday cottages to shoreline camp site.
The island is just 16 miles long making it perfect for exploring in a weekend. There is bicycle hire on the island and an on-demand bus service which makes a car free adventure achievable with some advanced planning. The island is low lying which caused problems for sea-farers in the past who kept bumping into the rocky shores, but this makes exploring easy today. There are no high cliffs and no steep hills to navigate.
What to do in a weekend on Sanday
Explore the Beaches
Sanday lives up to its name with lots of stunning beaches. Some are just little coves whilst others stretch for miles. It would be easy to spend a whole day just exploring one beach, walking, wave watching and exploring sand dunes. The alternative is to visit and explore them all. The size of the island allows you to visit all the beaches in two days quite easily. Whatever your choice just be aware that there are no facilities. Bring snacks, picnics and water plus whatever you need for a ‘tree-wee’ moment.
Visit the Lighthouse
Start Point Lighthouse sits on a headland at the most easterly point of the island. It is unique with its black and white stripes, an attempt to distinguish it from its neighbour on North Ronaldsay. The lighthouse is located on a tidal island so you will need to check tide times carefully before attempting the crossing.
Step back in time at Quoyness
This neolithic chambered tomb is on a headland between Lady Village and Kettletoft. The road down to the tomb is sandy and follows the shores of the Peedie Sea. The road finishes and then it is a short 20minute walk along the coast to the site. The track is obvious and signposted. There is a detailed information board and torches for when you are inside the tomb.
See the Devils Claw Mark
This is a quick stop. At the top of the road that leads to Quoyness there is a ruined kirk. On the side nearest the road there are some steps and at the top of these there are deeps grooves in the stone, said to be the marks of the devil.
Kettletoft is one of the villages on the island and has a small working harbour. It is a lovely place to wander, look at the fishing boats. There are two nice pubs/hotels that serve food within the village as well as a local craft hub. If you are lucky you may see the resident seals hauled out on the rocks below the village.
Visit The Croft and Museum
In the centre of Lady Village is the island museum and The Croft. The museum has lots of information about the island and its people. There is a small section on the wildlife and sea life as well as a small local research room. Next door is The Croft. It looks like a small residential house but is in fact part of the museum. The building has been restored to its earlier days and now gives an insight into how the villagers lived in the past.
Explore the Wildlife
Sanday is full of wildlife. The beaches are home to sea birds and waders. The fields have resident rabbits and if you are lucky you may catch sight of a short eared owl. All along the coast there are seals and from time to time orca, whales and dolphins can be spotted. Sanday Ranger runs wildlife walks throughout the summer. These are advertised across the island are fantastic if you are short on time or want to find something specific easily.
Visit an Abandoned Village
All over Sanday there are abandoned villages. One village, Ortie can be reached from Otterwick Beach. You can’t enter the buildings but to see the structure and size of the older villages and buildings is interesting.
See a shipwreck
Just off the shore at Bay of Lopness is a shipwreck. A World War 1 German ship came to rest in this bay at the end of the war. She is uncovered at low tide and is worth a brief stop on the way to the lighthouse.
Getting to Sanday
Sanday can be reached by ferry from Kirkwall on Orkney Mainland or by air from Kirkwall Airport. Kirkwall Airport has direct flights daily from all major Scottish airports making it possible to fly to Sanday from mainland Britain.
Staying on Sanday
Sanday has a number of options including Bed and Breakfast and hotels. For an easy weekend with freedom to come and go there is nowhere better than Ayres Rock. This small, family run campsite and hostel has lots of options. From basic camping to cosy pods, hostel and self catering there is a range of options. The facilities are clean and the owners have lots of ideas and suggestions for things to do.
Eating on Sanday
There are a number of options on Sanday for food. The easiest is to go self catering. The shops in Lady have a good range of fresh products. If you want to treat yourself then the Kettletoft Hotel has good food in satisfying portions, which aren’t too expensive. They also have a chip shop night. Ayres Rock Campsite also has a chip shop which is open on set nights.
When is the best time of year to visit Sanday
Sanday can be visited throughout the year. Even in the height of summer it is quiet.
In the winter months the island can be wild with storms preventing you arriving or leaving. The beaches are exposed and can be spectacular although caution and care is needed.
In the summer it can be a tropical paradise with blue skies and turquoise seas, but as with any island this can change in a moment. The summer months also bring a range of birds who pass through the islands.
Would I enjoy a weekend on Sanday?
If you want somewhere that feels remote but has facilities then Sanday is perfect. There is lots to fill a weekend and is good for all ages. My boys loved the history but were also happy to romp along the beaches. For those escaping children there are beautiful walks and perfect beaches for romantic sunsets if that is your thing!