WHAT TO DO ON HOY
THE ORKNEY ISLANDS
Hoy is unique among the Orkney Islands, its rugged geography more like the mountainous Scottish Highlands than the rolling farmland found in Scotland’s northeast and the rest of Orkney. The island is famous for the ‘Old Man of Hoy’, a spectacular sea stack looking out across the Atlantic. Along with nearby Rackwick Bay, it is the scenic highlight of a trip to Hoy, and indeed a strong contender for the most beautiful spot in all of Orkney. Elsewhere on the island, you can learn about Orkney’s fascinating wartime history, explore a 5000 year old rock-cut tomb, and take a picturesque walk through Rackwick Glen.
Hoy makes for an ideal day trip from Orkney Mainland, but is also a great option for longer stays. There is a fantastic open bothy and an informal campsite at Rackwick Bay, as well as some unique island accommodation options which include a former lighthouse keeper’s cottage and a magnificent kirk. In this guide we’ll cover the best things to do on Hoy. We will also give practical travel tips to help you plan your trip, whether for just a few hours, or a few days.
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THE OLD MAN OF HOY
No trip to Hoy is complete without setting eyes on the Old Man himself. Surrounded by dramatic cliffs and swarming with birdlife, this 137 metre sea stack makes quite the impression. It is reached by a 4.5 km walking trail from Rackwick Bay on the island’s west coast. There’s a bit of a climb initially with around 130 metres of elevation to gain, but after this it’s an easy going walk on a well maintained dirt and stone path.
The scenery along the way is striking, with views back down over Rackwick Bay, out towards the open Atlantic, and along the towering cliff faces ahead. Then there’s the grandeur of the Old Man of Hoy itself. Numerous vantage points allow you to take it in from a variety of angles. The trail leads directly to a viewpoint where you can look close-up at the imposing stack, but you can also veer off the path early for a side-on view from the south, or carry on towards St John’s Head for an alternative view of the Old Man’s north facing profile.
On a fine day look closely and you may even spot climbers ascending or descending the Old Man of Hoy. It’s an incredible feat and one that is fascinating (if a little nerve-wracking!) to watch.
HOW TO GET TO THE OLD MAN OF HOY
The walk to The Old Man of Hoy starts at Rackwick Bay, a remote settlement on the west coast of Hoy. There is a car park and public toilet, otherwise, no facilities to speak of.
You can get to Rackwick by car, bike, or on foot via Rackwick Glen. There is no public bus service. However, there is a private taxi and minibus service which should be arranged in advance (call Mr Clark on 01856 791315).
Rackwick is 9.3 km by road from Moaness passenger ferry pier, and 22 km from Lyness car ferry pier. If you bring your own car from Mainland Orkney, you’ll arrive at Lyness. If you travel as a foot or bicycle passenger, you’ll arrive at Moaness. See the How To Get To Hoy section below for more transport details.
Allow up to 3 hours for the return 9 km walk from Rackwick to the Old Man of Hoy. The route is easy to follow, and we’ve also marked it on our map, which you can download and view offline. Come prepared with water, food, and all-weather gear. There is nowhere to buy supplies in Rackwick. Finally, take great care and do not get close to cliff edges when walking here, or anywhere in Orkney for that matter. Fatal accidents are sadly all too common.
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It is definitely worth planning enough time to wander around scenic Rackwick Bay, either before or after your walk to the Old Man of Hoy. The curved bay sits between towering cliffs, with Ward Hill rising to the east and a lovely burn snaking its way into the distance behind. The beach is sandy at its southern end and strewn with beautiful boulders and pebbles at its northern end. On a wild day, the waves crash in from the Atlantic and make for a dramatic sight.
Only a handful of people live in this remote community, with the majority of Hoy’s population centred around Longhope and Lyness in the southeastern part of the island. The scattered township features a few old houses in ruin, a holiday cottage here and there, and the residents’ homes.
There are no shops or services, but there is a hostel, an open bothy, and a wonderful croft house museum, the Cra’as Nest. This museum is a faithful restoration of an 18th century croft house and steading, the stone buildings complete with turfed roofs. There are old photos and information boards inside, along with traditional furniture in the croft and a kiln for drying oats in the barn. The cluster of buildings are located just up the hillside from Rackwick Hostel, where they occupy a commanding position with an expansive view over the bay.
BURNMOUTH BOTHY AND CAMPING ON HOY
Hoy is one of the best places in Orkney to camp, with an informal beachside campsite and open bothy at beautiful Rackwick Bay. Spending a night or two here allows you to really soak up the scenery. Plus, you can get an early start and beat the crowds on the trail to the Old Man of Hoy.
BURNMOUTH BOTHY (RACKWICK BOTHY)
Burnmouth Bothy is a listed building dating from the early 19th century. It is a traditional stone croft house and is one of the few remaining in Scotland with a thatched heather roof. Maintained by the Hoy Trust, it is generously made available for use as an open bothy. Not sure what this means? We’ve written a dedicated guide to bothies which covers everything you need to know, but in a nutshell, it’s a shelter open to everyone where you can show up unannounced and stay free of charge. Even if you aren’t staying over, you can satisfy your curiosity by popping in and taking a look around – the door is always left unlocked.
Burnmouth Bothy is very basic, with bare flagstone flooring and raised stone platforms along the edge of the room that are used for sleeping. There is a wood burning stove, plus a table and a few chairs. There is no electricity and you must bring all of your own heating, cooking, and sleeping equipment. Essentially, staying in a bothy is similar to camping, but inside a wind and waterproofed shelter instead of a tent. It’s also a bit like staying in a hostel dorm, in that you never know if you’ll have the room to yourself, or be sharing with complete strangers. One little luxury that Burnmouth does have though, in the adjoining byre, is a flushing toilet and a sink with running (stream) water – quite the rarity for a bothy!
The custodian lives nearby and will likely come down to say hello and check up on the place. Please make sure you leave the bothy clean and tidy, remove all of your rubbish, and treat the bothy and any others staying there with respect. You can leave a message in the visitors book, which also makes for interesting reading.
There is a large stone-walled grassy enclosure next to Burnmouth Bothy which is perfect for camping. There is plenty of space and you can make use of the bothy and toilet, while having your own private sleeping space. This area is free to use and there are no facilities beyond what we have mentioned above.
If you’re travelling in a campervan, you are allowed to stay in the car park at Rackwick for up to one week. There are public toilets nearby which are open and free to use.
THE DWARFIE STANE
The Dwarfie Stane (‘stane’ is Scots for stone) is a huge glacial erratic, likely deposited by a retreating glacier at the end of the last Ice Age. It sits in desolate peatland, a few hundred metres away from the road to Rackwick. While such megaliths are always impressive, what makes this extra special is the fact that two bed-like chambers were cut out of it by hand around 3000 years ago, using simple rock or antler tools.
The slab of red sandstone is about 8.5 metres long and 2.5 metres high, and is thought to be the only rock-cut chambered tomb in Britain. Originally, the opening was sealed by the huge stone which now sits just in front. You can crawl inside to see the two small chambers, one complete with a rock ‘pillow’. It’s thought that the chambers may once have contained human remains, although legends also have it that this was the home of a dwarf named Trollid, or (bizarrely, given the size) two giants, imprisoned by a third in his attempt to become master of Hoy.
Inside the right-hand chamber is some graffiti carved by geologist Hugh Miller in 1848, and on the outer right-hand wall is graffiti left by British spy William Mounsey in 1850. He carved an inscription in Persian translating to “I have sat two nights and so learnt patience”, along with his name backwards in Latin script.
There is a car park next to the road and a boardwalk leading 500 metres across peatland to the Dwarfie Stane.
HOY’S WHITE TAILED EAGLES
The crags above the Dwarfie Stane have become the nesting site for two white-tailed eagles in recent years. In the spring and summer months, RSPB Eaglewatch volunteers are based at the Dwarfie Stane car park (usually between 11am – 4pm) to aid visitors in spotting the eagles, as well as other local wildlife.
RACKWICK GLEN WALK
On the southern side of Ward Hill (the highest in Orkney at 481 m) a road connects Moaness and Rackwick, commonly used for car and bike traffic to visit the Old Man of Hoy or the township itself. For those keen to walk from Moaness Pier, take the 7.5 km trail through scenic Rackwick Glen, sandwiched between Ward Hill to the south and Cuilags to the north.
The initial 2.4 km of the walk follows the road west from Moaness Pier before reaching Sandy Loch, home to red throated divers and skuas. An undulating path leads through the glen, passing the most northerly native woodland in the UK before joining the road just before Rackwick. The path is straightforward to follow and is marked on OSM mapping apps such as Maps.me, and on our Hoy map in this guide. Allow about 2 hours one way to complete the walk.
SCAPA FLOW MUSEUM
At the southeastern end of Hoy are the populated areas of Lyness and Longhope. The landscape here is less mountainous and is much better suited to agricultural and community development. There are only around 400 people living on Hoy today, but during World War Two, over 12,000 people were stationed at Lyness. That’s more than half of the entire population of the Orkney Islands as it stands today.
The naval base was known as HMS Proserpine, and the huge influx of people necessitated the building of living quarters, workshops, offices, and of course entertainment facilities such as a cinema and bar. The base was primarily tasked with the repair and provisioning of ships, and it housed an oil depot complete with above and below ground tanks, and a pumping station.
Today, the history of the naval base and Orkney’s wartime heritage in general is documented at the excellent Scapa Flow Museum. For years the museum was housed in the former naval base grounds, including exhibitions in the pump house and one of the huge oil tanks. It is currently undergoing extensive renovation however, and a smaller temporary exhibit is housed at the nearby Hoy Hotel instead. This exhibit is full of fascinating photographs, contemporary accounts, and a detailed timeline of events which highlight Orkney’s significant role in both World Wars.
It is free to enter and well worth a visit.
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WHERE TO STAY ON HOY
Besides the bothy and camping options detailed above, there are a couple of hostels and some wonderfully unique accommodation options on Hoy, as well as a few hotels and self-catering cottages.
Hoy Outdoor Centre is located near Moaness Pier and sleeps up to 32 people in 8 ensuite rooms. Smaller Rackwick Hostel at Rackwick Bay sleeps up to 8 people in two rooms. Each of these hostels is well located for exploring the northern part of the island. They are also ideal budget options for those arriving on foot or by bike on the Stromness to Moaness ferry.
UNIQUE ACCOMMODATION ON HOY
A couple of unique stays on Hoy that we love the look of can be booked through Airbnb. If you’re new to Airbnb, be sure to sign up through our referral link and you’ll get up to £50 off your first booking.
Our top pick is North Walls Kirk, a beautiful home in a renovated kirk (church) just south of Lyness. It’s located close to Lyness ferry terminal, ideal for those bringing a car over to Hoy. The spacious high ceilinged interior is bathed in spectacular light thanks to numerous arched church windows, and the decor is in keeping with the building’s heritage. A truly special place to stay!
A quirky option that we love is Cantick Head Lighthouse Cottage at the very southern tip of the island. This former lighthouse keeper’s cottage sits next to a magnificent Stevenson lighthouse, built in 1856 and still active today (although now remotely operated, hence why you can stay in the cottage). The location is quite spectacular, looking out over the Pentland Firth to South Ronaldsay. There is a sandy beach and the Hill of White Hamers nature reserve nearby.
MORE HOY ACCOMMODATION
Another couple of great accommodation options include The Noddle, an eco-friendly bungalow with lovely sea views and a rocky beach on its doorstep, and this cosy cottage in the small hamlet of Brims, near Longhope. If you prefer to stay in a hotel on Hoy, we suggest the Stromabank Hotel at Longhope, which also has a restaurant.
WHERE TO EAT ON HOY
HOW TO GET TO HOY
First, you need to get to Orkney Mainland, then you can take a ferry over to Hoy. We’ve outlined some different transport options for both of these stages below.
HOW TO GET TO ORKNEY MAINLAND
HOW TO GET TO ORKNEY
You can get to Orkney by car ferry from Aberdeen, Gills Bay, and Scrabster on the Scottish mainland, as well as from Lerwick in Shetland. There is also a summer passenger ferry from John O’Groats.