Island Destinations - Hoy and Graemsay


...The high point of Orkney

From the summit of Ward Hill on Hoy - the highest point in the county at 1570 feet - every island in Orkney can be seen with the exception of Rysa Little - which, ironically, is the nearest.

Hoy means 'High Island' from the Old Norse 'HAEY'. It is the second largest island in Orkney at 57 square miles. The north and west are hilly and more 'Highland' in character, the south and east low-lying and fertile, more typical of Orkney in general.

Hoy is steeped in history with sites which date from prehistoric times, through the Viking period and into the 20th century. Here you'll find the only rock-cut chambered tomb in Britain and discover Hoy's key role in British maritime history. The richness of heritage is equalled by a treasure trove of natural history, for example you'll find plant communities normally associated with mountain areas. An ornithologist's paradise, a number of northern species can be seen in a natural setting which has few equals in Britain.

Hills and stunning sea cliffs offer excellent hillwalking, the west coast in particular is one of spectacular natural beauty. The dramatic summits of Ward Hill and the Cuilags stand in splendid contrast to the rest of Orkney and can be seen from almost anywhere on Orkney Mainland.


Much of Hoy is composed of Upper rather than Middle Old Red Sandstones which have been weathered into a complex of steep and craggy hills. The resulting landscape is unique within Orkney.

The upland mass of Hoy generated its own glaciers during the last Ice Age. Evidence of this can be seen in the small corries and wide glaciated valleys of northwest Hoy.

Plants and mammals

Hoy's upland character, its northern latitude and great exposure has resulted in a plant community which is normally associated with mountain areas. At heights of less than 1500 feet you'll find several arctic-alpine species such as the Least Willow and Yellow Mountain Saxifrage.

General lack of grazing has encouraged native tree growth and in Rackwick Valley, at Berriedale, you'll find the most northerly natural woodland in Britain, Orkney's only native woodland. Look out for the numerous and conspicuous mountain hares in the hills. Otters are common along the Scapa Flow coastline and have been found in the Rackwick Burn.


The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds own 9700 acres of moorland and sea cliffs which make up their North Hoy bird reserve. The Fulmar is the commonest seabird with many Guillemots and Kittiwakes and smaller numbers of Razorbills, Shags, Puffins and Herring Gulls. You'll find the second largest British colony of Great Skuas or 'bonxies'. The smaller and more dashing Arctic Skua also nests here. At the Burn of Forse in the south there's probably the largest colony of Great Blackbacked gulls in the world. The heather moorland which dominates Hoy supports a variety of birds including Red Grouse. Several duck species are found and birds of prey include Peregrine, Merlin, Kestrel.