Scotland has about 790 offshore islands and I want to visit them all. I often get asked why I tend to visit the same places over and over again (Dolomiti, Scotland, etc.) when there are so many places to see in the world. Honestly, I get hooked and each time I visit I come home with an even larger desire to venture further, delve deeper, and next time stay even longer. I’d rather get to know a few places on this Earth really well than briefly touchdown in destinations all over the world.
I have zero idea where I first heard of the island of Papa Westray (or Papay as it is affectionately known to the locals), but once I stumbled upon it I had to go! I was mostly lured to the island’s tininess, just 4 miles long by 1 mile wide and then I read Amy Liproot’s fascinating memoir The Outrun, about her struggle with alcoholism and her time working as a bird counter on Papay. Turns out Bill Bryson raves about Papay being his favorite place on the British Isles too. I was sold and what better time to visit than my last minute I’ve got to go somewhere cuz I’m turning 40 trip!
During the Spring, there are only two ferries a week to Papa Westray from Kirkwall. I parked my rental car in the longterm lot in Kirkwall and walked to the ferry terminal with my backpack loaded with groceries and no idea what to expect. I was the only one in the ferry line until a minute before loading when I was joined by a delightful family of six and their two dogs. They had just taken the overnight ferry from Aberdeen and were on their way for a week holiday at their Papay cottage. When I asked them why they recently bought a place on Papay, they said, “You’ll see.”
My new friends were relegated to the dog deck and then I had the entire ferry to myself. I paid my fare to the ferry attendant, grabbed a coffee from the canteen window, and then glued my head to the window and watched all the islands roll by. Somehow I got in a fascinating discussion with the attendant about healthcare, politics, and what it means to live near the sea as she pointed out the names of each island as we passed. I’ll never forget her saying as far as healthcare goes, “everyone has the same, you don’t have to worry, you know you’ll be taken care of” What a wonderful and progressive idea. I wanted to give her a hug when I left the boat.
There’s no real ferry dock on Papay. You have to climb off the boat via a ladder of sorts and then the cars and cargo are lowered off with a crane and a sling. My new friends insisted on transporting my backpack to the hostel in their van (the van was fully loaded with luggage and food and only had room for the driver) and then we all made the 2 mile walk to the center of town. The dogs ran wild through the fields as they tell me about the island pointing out this and that and where golf hole number 7 once was, but has now been overtaken by the bog.
The Papay Community Cooperative runs the Papa Westray Hostel and I was its only guest that Friday evening. My room had its own bathroom, two twin beds, and was bright and cheery with a view of the sea. I’d call this more of a bed and breakfast than a hostel that’s for sure. I immediately headed to the Knap of Howar, a nearly 6,000 year old neolithic house, and then circled the northern half of the island and saw seals lazing in the sand. Made some soup for dinner and then heard some noise coming from the Hostel community room and turns out it was movie night and Bohemian Rhapsody was just beginning, so I sat back and watched it for my third time.
The next morning I woke to this little ribbon of pink over the sea from my hostel room bed. Over coffee, I heard a plane land and a few minutes later two guys bust into the hostel still drunk from their wild night on neighboring Westray. Speaking of wild pubs, when I made a reservation at the hostel, I was told, “there is an informal pub night in the hostel dining room every Saturday night from 9pm and you’ll be made very welcome if you want to come along.” From the minute I stepped on the island, I got no less than 10 invites to pub night. Besides coffee morning Wednesdays, pub night was the most happening event on the island. I was told there might even be a band.
I heard the plane land again and a few moments later an American-Scot couple, who had met in New Zealand and recently moved to Orkney, walked into the hostel. They had just arrived from North Ronaldsay where their sightseeing plans had gotten derailed when a local asked if they would like to help herd the sheep. The sheep on North Ronaldsay are a unique breed and have evolved to graze almost entirely on seaweed. These semi-feral sheep are apparently not deterred by sheep dogs so they must be herded by humans and machines.
At 9pm, the hostel dining room closet was opened to reveal a fully loaded liquor cabinet. Community members rotate playing bartender and our bartender for the night was a hoot. When I asked how long he has lived on the island, he said, “I was born here,” and then he pointed down and said, “Like actually here, right in this building.” The 5-person band began to play (which was quite impressive considering it’s an island of only 70 people and 2 members were out of town). The guitar player was one of the smiliest human beings I have ever seen.
The locals took turns buying rounds and conversation turned to hilarious stories about the volunteer fire brigade and the great Papay brush fire and a hero toad and stories of the Great Auk, a sore spot in Papay history. Apparently the last Great Auk, the Penguin of the North, was sacked at Fowl Craig. A plastic penguin now marks the spot. I’ve never laughed so hard (or drank more gin).
There was only one way off the island on a Sunday and it was at 4:30pm so I had another whole day to wander the island. The contrast of greenery, turquoise waters, puffy white clouds, and black cows made my heart ache. Not many places in the world you can enjoy views of both sides of the coast from one spot. Worst part, I forgot my cell charger in Kirkwall (and my camera battery died my first day whose charger was also in Kirkwall) so I wasn’t able to take many photos in Papay. The not getting a photo of pub night or a video of the band or the Sunday morning sunrise almost killed me! Yet three entire days with no Internets nor contact with anything outside this tiny island was, after the initial panic subsided, a blessing.
The airport was a 5-minute walk from the hostel and the keyboard player from the night before checked me in for the flight. She weighed my bag with what appeared to be a bathroom scale and a firetruck took off to clear the runway of stray sheep and seabirds before the 8-seater landed and four of us hopped in (the lovely couple and the bartender from the night before). I’ve never been on a small plane and the experience, although it only lasted about 90 seconds and is the shortest commercial flight in the world, was one of the most amazing of my life. I only wished it lasted longer.
I hitched a ride into town with the couple’s B&B ride and then got invited in for coffee and Kit Kats. If I ever end up in Westray, I will for sure have to stay at the Charlmersquoy B&B. The man said I looked familiar and then asked if I was catching the ferry to Papay from Kirkwall Friday morning. Yes, that was me. And that moment summed up my entire Orkney experience. One of eerie familiarity and unbelievable hospitality.