Exploring Yesnaby Castle and Cliffs

Yesnaby (Pronounced Yez-na-bee) is located a short distance north of Stromness along a single track road. The high layered sandstone cliffs and sea stacks are buffeted during winter storms making it a wild location to visit. On calm days it is a beautiful spot for a stroll along the cliff tops, birdwatching while keeping an eye out for passing whales.

cliffs and angry seas

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A Bit about Yesnaby

As you drive down the single track road towards Yesnaby the landscape feels like it is wrapping around you. The road follows a shallow valley with green fields on either side that have cattle and sheep grazing at various times of the year. Short-eared owls hunt along the roadside and can be seen perching on the fence posts and gates. The buildings along the road appear to be empty and are slowly crumbling. As you reach the parking area you will see a number of brick built buildings and a concrete hard standing between the buildings and the cliff edge. This is all that remains of the Yesnaby AA Battery. During World War 2, the Royal Navy were based on the cliffs to man the anti-aircraft guns, their placements can still be seen today. The buildings are just a shell now, home to sea birds but there are information boards with the story of the battery.

Yesnaby has a long history before the Royal Navy arrived and to the north of the battery beyond the small Ramna Geo are the remains of the Broch of Borwick an Iron Age broch similar to the Broch of Gurness. To the south of the parking area are the barely recognisable remains of a small chapel.

Walking south Along the Yesnaby Cliffs

From the parking area the path heads down to the small cove at the Noust of Bigging. In calm weather this small cove has clear seas and a little pebble beach. However in a westerly storm the cove is a mass of sea foam and raging sea.

calm seas with cliffs

Brough of Bigging

From the cove the path narrows and follows the fenceline. There are then two options – to fork left to Yesnaby Castle or continue onto the small promontory known as the Brough of Bigging. This small lump of rock has the remains of an ancient fort as well as some of the most spectacular views along the coastline.

Rough seas against rocks with light in sky

This spot allows you to see the layered cliffs below the battery with the lower Devoninan Red Sandstone topped with Lower Stromness Flagstones, evidence of the volcanic activity and sand rippling that was happening over 300 million years ago.

Layered cliffs with deep green sea

In the winter months when storms are passing through this is not the best place to be as the waves break over the cliff top and the winds are some of the strongest in the U.K. Around the parking area there are thousands of pebbles thrown up onto the cliff top by the angry waves.

waves breaking up a cliff

Qui Ayre

These local names get more bizarre and Qui Ayre, a short distance along the coastal path is one such name. This is the first of the sea stacks that become apparent along the coastal path. It is joined by a small rock to the headland, but it won’t take many more storms for this bridge to be taken away. The whole area is a jumble of geo’s (narrow inlets), rock outcrops and blow holes. The path follows the narrow cliff edge and is home to the rare Scottish primrose (Primula Scotica) with its deep purple petals and yellow centre as well as the great yellow bumblebee one of the rarest in the U.K. The remains of crofts and farming in general can be seen with ancient stones and markers dotted around where they were abandoned centuries ago.

Yesnaby Castle

Eventually Yesnaby Castle comes into view. This isolated sea stack is similar to the Old Man of Hoy further south but is smaller and less isolated. This 30 metre high sea stack stands alone in a small cove. First climbed in 1967, the “Castle” is a magnet for climbers looking for a challenge. It currently has an arch at the base but it will only be a matter of time before one of these legs becomes its downfall.
Beautiful in any weather conditions Yesnaby Castle, I think looks its best with calm blue seas showing the rocks below the surface.

Photography Notes

  • Take time exploring this coastline but always remember your own safety on the cliff top especially during stormy weather
  • Long exposure can be used to smooth the movement of the water. This can be done using filters and ensuring your camera is still by placing it on a tripod
  • In stormy weather when there is spray make sure you protect your camera from the salt spray and bring a lens cloth to wipe the lens regularly
  • The cliffs face west making it a fantastic location for the golden hour just before sunset
  • You do not need to venture too far from the parking area to see some of the amazing rock formations and sea stacks

Useful Information

  • Always have a plan B in place before visiting Yesnaby. This is a wild and exposed location so be sensible and stay in the car if it is too windy. An easy indicator as to whether it is safe to walk the cliffs is if you can’t get the car door open or a coat on in the wind then it isn’t safe to walk.
  • Make sure you have warm clothing and waterproofs. Even in the summer months it can be exposed and windy.
  • As well as a camera, binoculars are useful for watching for seals, birdwatching and whale spotting
  • If you want to see Yesnaby Castle as part of a tour make sure you will have time to get there and back. Most tours spend a few minutes at the battery before moving on.
  • There are no facilities, the nearest are in Stromness

Details for Yesnaby Castle Hike

Distance: 2km
Minimum time: 90 minutes
Ascent: 10m
Suggested Map:OS Explorer 463: Orkney – West Mainland
Start and Finish: Yesnaby Parking Area
Road: Yesnaby Road off B9056
Parking: 59.02482°N, 3.35888°W
Nearest Town: Stromness

Getting to Yesnaby

Yesnaby is located about 15 minutes north of Stromness on the west coast of Orkney Mainland. A single track road signposted to Yesnaby is found off the B9056 just after the junction with the main A957 from Stromness towards Birsay.

Follow the road to the cliff top where you can park between the battery buildings. From here the paths are clearly marked heading south towards Yesnaby Castle or north towards Ramna Geo, Broch of Borwick and on towards Skara Brae.

Places Nearby

  • Stromness Town – A great place to explore with cafes and museums
  • Skara Brae – One of the oldest Neolithic building complexes in the world
  • Marwick – Nature reserve with bird cliffs and Kitchener Monument
  • Birsay – A tidal island with lighthouse, Pictish fort and nearby Earl’s palace