Thursday, 3 May 2012


The neighbouring islands of Westray and Papa Westray are at the northern edge of the scattering of small islands to the northwest of Orkney Mainland. Both are rich in history going back several thousand years. Westray's most significant treasure is at first sight an unlikely one: a small sandstone carved figurine just 4cm in height dubbed the Westray Wife, also known as The Orkney Venus. The reason it is so celebrated is that it is the earliest example of such a carving to be found in Scotland, being around 5,000 years old. The object was found on the Links of Noltland, which is the site of a Neolithic village. Noltland Castle was built in the 16th century by Gilbert Balfour, Master of the Royal Household to Mary, Queen of Scots. It is an ingenious design aimed at providing maximum protection from all sides, with its Z-shape and 71 gun loops in the walls. The castle is credited with multiple hauntings, such as that of the Boky Hound, a ghostly dog. The village of Pierowall on the east coast is set in a deep sheltered bay and counts among its buildings a ruined medieval church. A Norse leader called Rognvald sailed here in 1136. Noup Cliffs RSPB reserve houses Orkney's largest seabird colony where guillemots, kittiwakes and razorbills vie for nesting sites, while out at sea porpoises and orca are sometimes seen.

Westray's diminutive neighbour, Papa Westray, aka Papay, gets its name from the Papae, or Celtic priests, who once lived there. In spite of its size, it manages to go one better than Westray for ancient treasures: the Knap of Howar, a prehistoric farmhouse, is thought to be the oldest preserved dwelling in north-west Europe. The even tinier island of Holm of Papa is home to a huge megalithic tomb. The RSPB reserve of North Hill on Papa Westray is noted for the wild flowers which grace its heath and dunes, and its birdlife which includes Arctic Skuas and Arctic Terns.

Map of the area.

Noup Head Lighthouse © 2008 Will Craig, via Wikimedia Commons

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