Eating and Sleeping in Orkney


I found this wee house to stay in, on the outskirts of Kirkwall: Innisgarth.  I booked it for 3 nights, at £45 a night, through the website on the strength of its rave reviews on TripAdvisor.

The reviews were outstanding, so I expected something very, very special.  Yet I was still amazed!  Sheila, who runs the property and lives next door, met us with a very warm and genuine welcome and showed us round.  It looks like a show-home: newly-decorated and tastefully furnished, spotlessly cleaned, and with absolutely everything you could need.  With 3 little girls, I was really thankful for little touches like the cupboard of games suitable for their ages, DVDs, the washing machine and tumbler, the toddler cutlery and plates, the perfectly clean high chair and travel cot, and the mountain of towels!  Being able to park the car in the garage meant the minxes could get out in comfort on the day when it was *really* wet and windy.  And The Boss could hoover out the half-beach of sand we’d accumulated in the car without being anti-social (he cleaned out the filter and emptied the hoover as payback).

The kitchen had every single thing you could want.  I really appreciated things like plenty of cleaning equipment, soap, kitchen roll, salt, vinegar, tea, coffee, sugar – you know, the kind of things you normally have to buy when you go self-catering!

I was already wowed (underfloor heating, for goodness’ sake!), but the welcome hamper had me grinning like a kid: a stack of Orkney produce that meant we didn’t need to worry about buying food till the next day.  Things like local ice-cream.  It was just cream, milk, sugar and a bit of stabiliser, so egg-free, which meant Mini Minx could devour it (and she did.  And held her own against her sisters when we let them polish off the last of it for breakfast on the last day.  I am a Bad Mother.  I know.  Whatever).  Butter made from raw milk.  Marmalade.  Local cheese, crackers and relish (yum!)  Local bread (did Sheila know of my white-bread toast and butter craving?!).  Very, very fresh eggs.  Milk from down the road. Fudge (oh my word, the fudge!  It was so good we hunted it down and bought loads more).

I know they’re booked through the rest of the year, so we’ll need to get our skates on to book for next year.  Our biggest problem is that it only has a double and a twin bedroom, so once Mini Minx is too big for a travel cot, we can’t go.  Doom!


Well, we probably should have done our research on where to eat, but decided just to chance our arm.

First Exposure to Evil Chips

First Exposure to Evil Chips

Saturday night we went for a bimble around Kirkwall and peered in to lots of different eateries.  As we were all in the mood for fish and chips we decided just to go to a local chippy rather than go fancy.  And ate really huge, juicy haddock with batter to rival the best I’ve eaten.  The minxes giggled at being allowed to drink a carton of ‘red juice’ (I think the only natural thing in it was the water.  Perhaps).  I hope I’ve got the name right – I think it was the Harbour Fry.  Kids under 5 ate free with paying adults, but only if they ate from a specific menu.  We wanted the kids to sleep that night, so preferred to let the minxes share a portion of what we had, thereby exposing Mini Minx to her first serving of chips…

Sunday we ate a packed lunch in the car waiting for the Birsay causeway to clear – lots of delicious local food provided by Sheila (bread, butter, cheese, fudge – blimey, she even supplied butty boxes!) supplemented with ham , fruit and juice.  The allure of the local van ‘Teas and Tabnabs’ was too much, so The Boss was despatched to bring back cups of home-made lentil and veg soup and sausage butties.

We ate at The Orkney Hotel, Kirkwall, for our Sunday evening meal (Mother’s Day).  We’d just spent the day out in the windy hills, so were weatherbeaten, still grubby round the edges (there’s only so much you can do with nappy wipes) and me and Maxi looking like a haystack dragged through a girl backwards.  We took the time to change from wellies to approach shoes because it seemed quite formal, but the staff made us feel very welcome.  The food was good, but not outstanding: huge amounts of tender meat, leaving not much room for vegetables.  Though maybe we were just missing green veg having had a chippy the night before and too much ice cream and fudge…

First Exposure to Evil Beer

First Exposure to Evil Beer

Monday night lots of places were shut (eg Creel, which we really wanted to try.  Doh!  Next time check out the info beforehand, Trout The Dolt), so we went to The Commodore, who specialise in local, fresh food.  We chose it because the second word of its advertising was ‘family-friendly’.  It sure was – Under 5s ate free and still got a good selection from a proper menu.  They polished off melon balls, vegetable lasagne and an enormous plate of ice cream; me and The Boss had deep fried local cheese and plum chutney (me) and chicken liver pate (him), followed by some juicy, tasty Westray salmon, then the most moreish fudge cheesecake it has ever been my pleasure to eat.

le bistro lemon

Le Bistro lemon

Our food adventures weren’t over when we sadly left the island – oh no.  On the way home, we happened on Le Bistro in Thurso.  I only chose to go in there because it was the first place we saw stumbling out the car park, and it seemed busy.  What a result!  For a start, the staff were all fantastic with all 3 minxes.  Then more importantly, perhaps, the food was really excellent.  Example, I had a baked potato, cheese and coleslaw.  The ‘side salad garnish’ that came with it was fresh, varied, interesting and tasty, well-presented with just the right amount of balsamic vinegar splashed on it.  Someone had really thought about the variety of textures, colours and flavours – it was downright beautiful.

And have I told you about Orkney fudge?  Esp. the vanilla and the hazelnut stuff?!  Only 5 or 6 times, now…?

Getting To Kirkwall

We set off for Orkney in the old battle bus that we’d thankfully packed the night before.  0730hrs, in the pelting rain and freezing cold, with 5hrs sleep and 2 mugs of coffee inside me.  We lifted the kids out of bed and put them straight in the car, with teddies and fleecy blankets to snuggle under.

Grumpy Old Trout

One more rendition of '20 Green Bottles' and I'll show you 'grumpy old trout'!

We’re lucky we got past Nairn – some eejit objected to me driving at 50mph through a flooded road and overtook.  Just as I came across a deeeeeeep puddle on a slight bend.  I couldn’t brake, because another Immortal was badly tail-gating me, I couldn’t swerve because the original Immortal was on my outside.  So I straightened up, inwardly braced and hoped for the best.  The water made quite some wave and we were lucky not to skid.  I think my heart-rate hit normal round about Inverness…

So we stopped in Inverness for breakfast and get changed into normal clothes (kids – me and The Boss never wear normal clothes).  We were some sight in the Tesco cafe: 5 knackered-looking porridge-munchers, 3 still in pyjamas.

As the rain died down to just ‘torrential’, we saw more and more of our beautiful coastline.  Maxi and Midi Minx counted oil rigs along the Cromarty Firth, Mini Minx cried and wailed at not being cuddled for a *whole 20 mins* (the deprivation), while I nagged The Boss to slow down and chill out.

John O'Groats

John O'Groats

We stopped in Wick around midday to buy some ferry provisions (yeah ok – biscuits), just as the rain stopped.  It was only a short wee drive on to Gill’s Bay, just past John O’Groats, to get the Pentland Ferry.  I don’t know why, but I was really surprised to see quite a few of the Orkney islands right there, almost close enough to touch.  I knew they were next to the coast, but I’d never noticed on a map how close.  And once upon a time, I was a navigator.  The shame…

Pentland Firth

Pentland Firth funny water

The little ferry docked and on we drove.  I think its capacity is 75 cars, but only 40 or so boarded.  So exciting, because none of the minxes have ever been on a ferry before!  We went up to the sun deck as the sun split the heavens and me, Mini and Maxi spent most of the hour trip there, away from all the car alarms.  Midi got a bit nervous with the rocking of the boat as we lumped through the maelstroms of the firth.  Crikey, they really were!  Whirlpools and surf in the middle of nowhere!  I looked back to see the Scottish coast under a heavy rain shower, while the Orkneys were bathed in uninterrupted sun.  Hooray!

St Margaret's Hope

St Margaret's Hope

About 10 mins after docking in St Margaret’s Hope, we were on our way, over rolling green hills and over the 4 causeways of the Churchill barriers. 

Churchill Barrier

Churchill Barrier and a rusty wreck or 2

The girls liked the rusting wreck next to one, and didn’t recognise the reality from the rain-lashed, misty images on Google Maps that I’d shown them.  We screeched past the Italian Chapel (photo is a drive-by pic), on past the Highland Park distillery (oooooh, I’ll be back one day!) and on to Kirkwall.

Italian Chapel

Italian Chapel


Birsay Beach Shell

Birsay Beach Shell

Wow, what a place!  I say ‘place’ singular, though it is of course a collection of islands, but we only explored the mainland.  And at that, mostly just West Mainland because that’s the only place we had a map for.

All 5 of us absolutely loved it.  I had high expectations before I left and they were completely exceeded.  Even The Boss is keen to go back again, for longer.  Yippee!

As this blog forms a journal of my wee girls’ life for me, I’ll be going into enormous detail.  Well, would you expect anything less from me?!  But I’ll split it into a few posts, interspersed with the usual daily ramblings, to make it a bit easier for me to find things later.

So, basic details:

We went from Sat 2nd April till Tue 5 April 2011; driving up the north west Scottish coast and getting the Pentland Ferry from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope, then driving over the Churchill Barriers to Kirkwall.  On the journey back we drove from Kirkwall to Stromness and took the Northlink Ferry from there to Scrabster, then drove back down the north west Scottish coast.

So Excited!

Tomorrow morning at the crack of sparrows, we’re driving to the Orkneys for a few days.  I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks.  I’m excited about the drive to Wick, the ferry, the drive over all the causeways, exploring the main island, the lot.  I am like a kid on Christmas Eve.

I primed the girls a fornight ago and showed them some bits of the journey on Google Earth.  We talked about the wildlife we might see (and The Boss saw some dolphins on his way to work the day before yesterday, so hopefully there’ll be more further north!).  Today the kids understood that it’s only one more sleep till we go.  So they apparently talked non-stop at nursery today about: the long, long drive, the ferry, the puffins and the owls.  <Screech.  Reverse> What?  Owls?  I don’t remember talking about owls!  I remember showing them photos of puffins and seals, otters and dolphins, The Old Man of Hoy and the beach near where we’ll be (my word, it looks even better than our incredible local beach at home – did I tell you how excited I am?!).  So I did a quick Google, and luckily there are apparently lots of owls on the Orkneys.  But the puffins won’t be there till May.  So I guess Owl Lover Midi will be happy, but how to break the puffin news to Maxi…

I’ve spent the whole night printing out spotter sheets of birds, leaves, trees, beasts, bugs, that kind of thing.  I feel so inadequate when Maxi or Midi ask “what’s that tree / bird / animal / plane?” and I don’t know.  Now, ask me what that cloud is, and I’ll tell you its name, estimate its cloud-base and forecast the probable weather over the next hour.  But on normal undorky things, I fail.  This website is bloody amazing for that kind of thing.  The minxes are too young for the games and activities, but it won’t be long I’m sure.  Example, here is a link to the ‘picnic’ activity pack: it’s got links to spotter guides, games, site to find your nearest bluebell wood, etc, etc.

I can’t be faffed with taking a buggy, so spent the afternoon practicing back carries of Mini in the woven wrap.  I studied photos, YouTube videos and just bit the bullet and experimented.  My first Rucksack Carry was a lot neater and safer than the second attempt.  Or third.  Or even 4th.  The Reinforced Rebozo (?) looked like a right bozo (me) tied it.  Still, it kept me out of trouble, and forewarned Mini Minx of Events To Come.  (She didn’t like being on my back, but did a very funny comedy-double-take when she looked down and saw my face from round behind my neck.  She obviously didn’t realise that ‘Behind Mummy’ is still Mummy, not some strange creature.  Honest.

Anyway.  Orkneys.  Fingers crossed that we see no evidence of the forecast 800 times <faint> the normal number of midges.  And to anyone who’ll be on the ferry tomorrow, I’m so, so sorry in advance.  Sorry for the mess and the noise and the squealing and the chaos (Mini’s latest trick is to chuck everything she can reach, in a fine overhead lob).

See you in a few days with tales of Orcadian minxiness, I bet.