Pierowall, Westray: Island beaches and castles


We arrived in Westray by airplane from Kirkwall, on the Orkney mainland (the Orcadian name for the largest of the Orkney Islands). And then we promptly left to take in the world’s shortest commercial flight. A couple hours later, however, and we were headed back in to the harbour of Pierowall, Westray, the largest town on the island. All I could think of as we pulled in was that the water was too clear, the blues too bright and the sand too white. The waterfront looked Mediterranean, not Orcadian. At least not what I expected to find in the Orkneys. I was quite mistaken in my expectations, as I would come to discover several times during our 18 hours on the island.

We had a lovely lunch of fish & chips at the Pierowall Hotel and then headed on to The Barn to check in for our stay there. A bit of confusion as there was no one at reception but we made the best of it, relaxing on the breakwater for a bit before eventually finding someone to get us a key so we could stow our bags and head out to explore a bit. Here’s the path we hiked:

We started at our guest house (1), The Barn. It isn’t really a barn, though it is built on the edge of a working farm. Our room was small but clean and it had enough space for us and our bags. Plus it was way less expensive than the other hotel options in town. It is just on the south side of town and an easy 5-10 minute walk to get up to the north end of town where the kid’s park is.

From our hotel we headed north, up the main road through town to the Lady Kirk (2). Lady Kirk is one of two medieval era churches on the island of Westray. While most of the ruins visible today are from a reconstruction of the building in 1674 there are parts of the foundation and the south wall that date back to the 1200s. The church is right on the coastline and is surrounded by a cemetery with tombstones dating back to the reconstruction in the 1600s. Among the preserved tombstones is one from Michael Balfour, of the family that basically owned the islands in the 1500s and 1600s. The entire structure is pretty well preserved considering that it doesn’t have a roof, door or windows. And there were signs of repair and restoration work going on as we passed through. Plus, walking through the grounds and reading about the folks who lived in the area 400 years ago and how they met their demise was rather interesting.

From the Kirk we headed further north and then west, out to the beach on the other side of the island. While there is a shore line in Pierowall there isn’t really anywhere to walk in the sand. But just about a mile away there is a wide, deep beach (3) with sand that is bright white and more beautiful blue water. There are also huge rock formations in the middle of the beach which disrupt the sandy experience a bit but which also add to the dramatic views that you get on the beach.

 

Leaving the beach we headed back south and then a bit more west, to Noltland Castle (4). The castle appears to be rather run down but it is not all that much removed from where it was when construction was halted hundreds of years ago. The castle construction was initiated by Gilbert Balfour after he was installed as the Sheriff of Orkney and he started to rile up opponents with his behavior. There are more than 70 gun placements in the lower level, providing the ability for the castle to be defended from any angle.

The building changed hands several times throughout its early history as the Balfour family went in and out of favor with the Crown and as its members plotted and schemed various coups. Various sections may have been completed at some point in time as people lived there over the years, including in the four story tower where the resident of the moment lived. There is also a rather impressive internal spiral staircase in the opposite corner.

 

It is likely that the main hall was never completed, leaving it much like it appears today.

The castle is quite an interesting little bit of history to check out during a stay in Westry. The main door is locked but the key is held by the farmers across the street and they’re happy to give it out to visitors.

From Noltland Castle it was back into Pierowall and to the hotel to relax before dinner. Having dined at the Pierowall Hotel for lunch we decided to pay a visit to the Cleaton House Hotel for dinner. The Cleaton House gets great reviews for its food – including a mention in the Michelin Guide – but none of the reviews I saw mentioned one critical detail: reservations are mandatory for folks not staying at the hotel. We made the 2.5 mile hike out to the hotel without that information. Once we arrived the gentleman who answered the door was kind enough to inform us of such. After the 2 miles that morning on Papa Westray, the 3.5 miles around Pierowall and then the 2.5 miles to the hotel we were not amused.

We settled in for a pint to get over our misfortune and had the hotel ring a taxi for us to make it back into town for dinner at the other option – the Pierowall Hotel. Conveniently enough the taxi driver was the same guy as we had made arrangements with to drive us to the airport the following morning. Apparently we appeared upstanding enough that he rolled our fare for the cab that night into the fare for the following morning with a, “Just pay it tomorrow,” as he dropped us off at the hotel. In all my travels that was most definitely a first for me – a cabbie putting off the payment of a fare to the next day. Turns out he also works part-time as crew at the airport and then collects additional fares for the ride back down to town. Not a bad gig at all.

Despite the setback with dinner at the Cleaton House Pierowall was a great place to spend an out-of-the way day in the Orkney Islands. If you’ve made it all the way to the Orkneys you may as well get the Westray – Papa Westray flight in and then spend some time out in Westray. No need to rush back to the mainland with this much beauty in the outer islands.

For more from our visit to the Westray islands, read part one of this report here.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

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