Getting (t)here

116-DSC_0422There is an Orcadian term ‘home’ which is used to describe something arriving, as in: ‘your Amazon order will be home next Tuesday’. Your journey ‘home’ to Stromness is all part of the experience, so we would like to share some information about getting home to 11 Graham Place.

This has turned into quite a long page; so we will start off with Parking, then you can either scroll down through the page or jump directly to Ferries, Air, Bus, Train, Driving plus A9 driving highlights. Finaly there is a google satellite map of the location.

Parking

Please check the image so you know what to look for when you get here!

Stromness was built well before cars were around, and grew organically rather than to a prescribed plan. The old town is a tangle of lanes, piers, houses, steps and people. Driving along the main street is best done well below the 15mph limit, with your wits about you, and after you have first walked along it. Most houses here don’t have drives or dedicated parking outside, and 11GP is no exception. In fact we are ‘up a lane’ so cars can only get within about 30m of the house (who wants cars going past anyway!). However, there is plenty public parking; above the house is always the best choice, and this is how we recommend you arrive for the first time:

  • If you are using GPS, the postcode is KW16 3BY. Latitude 58.96143, Longitude -3.30032. From the Northlink terminal, turn right and go to the roundabout (if you are coming in from any other direction, you will arrive at this roundabout, so follow on from here!)
  • Take the first exit, you are now almost doubling back to the ferry but one road higher up.
  • Take the first right, Back Road
  • Drive about 0.5 mile, look for Springfield Crescent on the left.
  • Turn in here (watch the speed-bumps) and drive down to the parking areas at the end just as the road bends to the left – see image. parking
  • The lane down to the house is between the 2 yellow lines in the image.

If you have Google maps, its probably a good idea to check the street view to get a good idea of where the lane is. Google will tell you this is Franklin Road. Be careful if you are using Sat Nav, this part of Stromness is a ‘raffle’ – there are at least 3 parts to Graham Place, not counting Porteous Close and Pigeon Creek!

It is only 30 second walk from car park to front door. If you need help  getting your luggage down to the house, there is a ‘sack barrow’ in the shed. Why not carry a few things down, get familiar with the house and then take the barrow up to bring down the remainder of your belongings …or get the kids to do it.

 

Ferries

Orkney is an island, so unless you fly then one way or another you will be arriving by boat. With a car there are 3 choices – Pentland Ferries from Gills Bay; or Northlink from Aberdeen or Scrabster.  Best to book your ferry (both ways) ahead of time, especially in the Summer. Be aware there is a car check in deadline which is roughly 1 hour before sailing – check the ferry website!

Northlink Aberdeen to Kirkwall.

Runs 4 times a week. We have never used it so cannot really comment, other than to point you to our comments on the Scrabster/ Stromness ferry. Will obviously depend on your route and timing whether this is a good option for you.

Northlink Scrabster to Stromness

066-DSC_0079Our route of choice. Northlink ferry ‘Hamnavoe’ takes a brilliant route past Dunnet Head (most northerly point in mainland UK) then past the magnificent Old Man of Hoy and the neighbouring St Johns Head (one of the highest vertical cliff face in Britain) before entering Hamnavoe itself and then arriving in Stromness in the same way that people have arrived here for centuries. The ferry has a restaurant, a bar (very good draught Dark Island Orkney beer), kids play area, excellent seats, a shop, a special lounge – for an additional payment, you can buy a pass on board for this – and outside deck areas. Feels more like a hotel than a boat, apart from the motion! Go outside at least once on the crossing, or you will be missing out. Once docked in Stromness, the house is only 500m away. See parking below.

Gills Bay to St Margarets Hope

The Pentalina is a twin hulled ferry, crossing takes about 1 hour. On the plus side it is cheaper, faster, a more sheltered route and locally owned. And you will definitely see seals at Gills Bay, never fails.
On the down side, it is just a boat that gets you across the water, compared to the relative luxury of Northlink. Driving on and off the Pentalina is not for anyone nervous of reversing into tight spaces! There is a 28 mile, 50 minute drive to Stromness (which can be viewed as a plus since you cross the Churchill barriers and see quite a bit of Orkney on the way).

 

Air

Flying is of course an option (we haven’t tried it yet, must be spectacular on a bonny day!). Stromness is 19 miles from Kirkwall Airport. Hire cars can be collected both at the airport and in Kirkwall and a shuttle bus runs between the airport and the town. Flybe operate regular flights to and from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Lerwick.
Kirkwall airport itself is worth a visit, even if you are not flying. The wee cafe is good, there are some impressive artworks and displays, and its not often you can see checkin, departures & arrivals (both people and planes!) security and baggage reclaim all at the same time!

 

Bus

There is a Stagecoach service between Inverness and the Scrabster ferry terminal. Takes about 3 hours and the North-bound leg is timed to get you on the evening ferry to Stromness.

 

Train

The Guardian lists the train journey from Inverness to Thurso as one of ‘Britain’s 10 most scenic rail journeys’. “This is the most northerly line in the country and arguably its wildest. The journey takes about four hours and winds through some of the remotest landscape in Britain“. Even if you normally drive, you should find a way to take this journey at least once. Constantly captivating as you switch between wooded glens, open coastline and the unique ‘flow country’ of Caithness.
Thurso Train Station is located about 2 miles from the ferry terminal in Scrabster (see ferry entry).
Train Passengers are advised to pre-book Scrabster taxi travel for ferry connections due to the restricted bus timetable between Scrabster and Thurso. See Thurso train station website for details.
Note that Thurso station is only manned during ‘office hours’ and doesn’t currently have an automated ticket machine. You may need to pay again on the train if you have booked a ticket on the web (ie if you dont have a physical ticket). However, it can all be sorted out once you get to Inverness.

 

Driving

Most people will be arriving by car and if you have never been this far North before then it is worth spending some time considering the choice of routes and potential stopping points. See Driving Highlights below for some suggestions. But first some basics.
The A9 is the obvious and direct route North for most people. The road is mostly single carriageway once you are across the Black Isle north of Inverness, so plan your time for arrival at your ferry terminal at check in time, not sailing time!.
Inverness to Thurso is 110 miles, it will take you about 2.5 hours without stops or unforeseen holdups. That is longer than you might expect from the distance, but is realistic. Plus you will probably want to add a bit more time to allow for stops.Route Options

When you get up to Latheron, you have a choice, depending on which ferry you are getting.
For Scrabster, keep on the A9 for the most direct route and go inland 25 miles to Thurso which will take a good half hour. Or stay on the coast and take the A89 through Wick – adds an extra 15 miles and about 30 mins. From Wick you can go straight inland to Thurso or add in John O’ Groats, another 15 miles and at least another 30 mins (you will want to stop). Unless the weather is terrible, take the longer routes if you have time. It’s worth it.
If you are getting the Pentalina from Gills Bay, its pretty much the same distance and time whether you go by Thurso or Wick. 35 miles Latheron to Gills Bay, 1 hr.

 

Driving on the A9

Scotland’s ‘backbone’ road requires a bit of care. From the end of the M9 at Dunblane, its dual carriageway all the way to just north of Perth. Then you are into a mix of single carriage way, a number of bits of dual carriage way, and a few crawler lanes. Its this mix that can confuse people; it is all to easy to forget whether you are on a dual carriageway where you cannot see the other carriageway (like between Blair Athol and Dalwhinnie) or a single carriage way. Important if you are overtaking!!
Plus of course there are now ‘average speed’ cameras all the way to Inverness…at least the lorry speed limit is now 50mph so there are fewer holdups. I am convinced it’s frustration that causes the accidents on this road, not speed.
And please remember to drive on the left.

A9 highlights

We have regularly traveled from Ayrshire to Stromness in a day without any difficulty. Just as often we will stop overnight with family in Morayshire; as well as giving us a chance to catch up with them, it allows us more time to enjoy the final leg.

While the A9 south of Inverness has choices of its own, lets skip to the A9 north of Inverness.
As you come to the end of the dual carriageway on the Black Isle at Tore, check the sky for red kites as this is a regular place to spot these graceful birds. I would say we see them more often than not, in the vicinity of Tore roundabout.
If you are peckish and have a picnic, stop in lay-by 197 at the top of the hill leading down to the Cromarty firth causeway for a backdrop of mountains and sea. If you don’t have a picnic, then cross the causeway and continue for about 0.5 km. You may see seals on the rocks on this short stretch. Turn right into Storehouse for food that has never disappointed. There is often a queue, but service is normally quite fast. Great deli as well, with an astonishing range of Gin…
Loch Fleet is a surprise the first time you drive across the raised causeway. There is a lay-by half way across which is a great place to stop and look for birds. But the best place to stop is the parking area at the north end, which has information about the construction and history. In summer, watch the skies for osprey.
Golspie has a couple of nice wee coffee shops: Poppies on the main street, and the tiny but delicious Coffee Bothy at the end of the big car park / toilets; also an excellent geology shop (Orcadian Stone) which is definitely worth a visit. The fish shop isn’t open on Saturday but does excellent smoked fish. The chip shop here (the Trawler) is also recommended. Try to spot the shortest double yellow line I have ever seen – you would be hard pushed to illegally park a unicycle here…
On the way out of Golspie is Dunrobin Castle. We have never been but it looks amazing.
Brora rivermouth is very picturesque with a good carpark beside the sandy beach; follow the wee road along the south side of the river.
Helmsdale has a good harbour where you have a chance of seeing salmon jumping as they enter this famous fishing river. You may also see kittiwakes and other gulls bathing in the river as it joins the sea. If you are browsing the shops here, keep an eye out for gold panning equipment – yes, there is still gold here! Helmsdale also has Timespan; we haven’t been in for some time but what we have seen has been interesting.
You now have an option to go inland following the Helmsdale river,  across the flow country and then the Halladale river to Melvich on the North coast just West of Thurso. If you never take the train journey, this is the next best thing. Its a great trip, but be aware it is single track despite being the A897! And don’t attempt it in bad weather.

Staying on the A9 you rise steeply out of Helmsdale. As you get to the top – the Ord of  Caithness – look out to the horizon to spot the only working oil rig complex to be visible from the mainland, with its attendant wind turbines.
A few miles further on is Badbea,  derelict remains of a community that was forced on to this steep sloping land during the Clearances. It is said the children were roped up to prevent them rolling off the cliff..takes about 5 mins walk from the A9.
Next is Berridale Brae; pay attention to the signs and stay in low gear! There is an escape lane of soft sand should your brakes fail – don’t know if that is reassuring or not! Be extra careful on the way up the other side, the corner is difficult and needs 1st or 2nd gear. The sign really means it when it says ‘oncoming vehicles will be in the middle of the road’; if there is a big vehicle coming down, stop until it gets round the bend.
But once you reach the top, you get one of the Top Ten views in Scotland – the Northeast coast of Caithness still gets a ‘WOW!’ from us every time we crest the hill.
The roller coaster isn’t over yet though – Dunbeath is another steep up and down, but thankfully doesn’t have the hairpins of Berridale. Dunbeath harbour is definitely worth a visit. Be sure to go right to the end, there is a wee carpark and seats. Another excellent fishing river…
At Latheronwheel , you have less than a kilometer to make up your mind about the road you are taking north – A9 inland to Thurso or A99 up to Wick. Always the coast for us unless time is really pressing. Did you notice the red deer farm just as you came into the village? And the cottage with the whale jawbone arch? Latheronwheel has a wonderful little harbour and beach, another great place for a picnic and skimming stones. Turn right into the village and go to the end of the main street then down the single track road.

At Latheron its commitment time. Since this is the highlights, its the A99 up the coast now. The road gets a bit twisty and interesting…
Lybster has a big (relatively!) harbour with a coffee shop and good parking. Easy to launch a kayak here. Always a fabulous place for photos of boats and creels and paint and stuff (see gallery!)
Whaligoe with its ‘one step for every day of the year’ is one of our favourite places if the sun is shining and we have time – but for some reason there is no signage from the A9. Turn right when you see the sign for ‘Cairn o’ Get’on the left. If you see a mill + millpond on your right you have just missed it! You need to be reasonably fit to get up and down, but it is fascinating. Take your spinning rod and, of course, a picnic.
In Wick you have another choice – go inland to Thurso, or keep north for even more choices (we go north). For Clubcarders, on the north road there is a big Tesco with fuel; the Tesco in Thurso doesnt have fuel.
Following the coast towards John O’Groats, there are a number of places of interest but one stands out for us – Auchengill has a beautiful tiny natural harbour which is brilliant for snorkelling (in a wetsuit!),  the most bizzare collection of Victorian follies and an Iron age broch!
On to the end of the road. If you have never been, then you probably have to go to John O’Groats. It’s a large car/bus park, with tourist shops. As you come back out of JO’G, you should consider turning left and heading the 2 miles out to Duncansby head. Park at the lighthouse and if you are here in early summer you will be hit with the unmistakeable sound (and OK, the smell) of a huge seabird colony – shags, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and puffins, plus the marauding herring and blackback gulls and probably a skua or two. You will have to walk a bit to see the sea stacks but it’s definitely worth it – another Top Ten view.
Sandside just below the headland is a fine wee sandy beach.
On along the north coast, you are seeing Orkney in full view across the Pentland Firth. The bulk of what you are seeing is Hoy, so check the western end for your first glimpse of the Old Man sticking up above the cliffs.
Gills Bay always has seals out on the rocks, no matter what the state of the tide. If you cant see them, then keep looking. They will be there. If you are booked on the Pentalina, this is your stop.

For those going on to Scrabster, your next point of interest is the Castle of Mey, for years the favourite residence of Queen Mary the Queen mother. Our bairns still refer to it as the Queen mums house. We havent been insde but the walled gardens are interesting, where they produce food and flower for the castle. Notice the way the wind has sculpted the sycamores.
Just beyond Mey is the turn off to the right for Skarfskerry (scarf= shag, skerry= rock) a long ribbon of a village with tiny natural harbours and sea stacks, where we spent many fabulous holidays with the bairns, often wondering what it was like across the water (answer= even better!)

Next along the coast is Dunnet head; despite many folk believing that JO’G is the most northerly point in the British mainland, the lighthouse on Dunnet Head is the true holder of that honour. Definitely worth going out there. If you have time to spare, and a permit, the wee lochs here have some nice brown trout.
Back along the coat is the wide sweep of sand that is Dunnet Bay, with huge rollers coming in from the atlantic if you time it right. There is a ranger station at the caravan site, and a wee carpark halfway along the dunes.
At the west end of the bay is Castletown, with historic industrial buildings from the Caithness flagstone heydays.
Push on now to Thurso; nothing wrong with Thurso, but a town is a town and to us there are more interesting places outside the towns..and 2 miles further on is Scrabster which is the end of the road if you are on Northlink.
All that remains is to board the Hamnovoe, order a pint of Dark Island beer and enjoy the next hour and a half as you cross the Pentland firth.

 

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