“It’s gone technical”

So said the guy as we arrived at the Orkney Ferries pier in Kirkwall at 7am this morning, to see the Westray ferry limping away from the ro-ro berth in need of some engineering attention.

Inter-island ferries are the key transport between thirteen islands of the Orkney archipelago.  Depending upon the length of sea crossing, the vessels range from bath-tub landing craft to sturdy small ships fit to cross exposed open waters.  Services to the very smallest islands are usually passenger-only, although vehicles can be carried on separate cargo sailings.  Some services require you to reverse aboard; ferry staff will manouvre vehicles upon request which helps to reduce the number of vehicles driving into the harbour.  This occurs more frequently than you might imagine:

Boarding the Shapinsay-Kirkwall ferry went horribly wrong for this driver on 4 June 2016 (pic courtesy pressandjournal.co.uk)

Fortunately in the recent case pictured above, a 71-year old retired ex-Met policeman was on hand to dive in and help free the driver from the vehicle.

The ferry timetables are complicated enough to get a railway enthusiast excited: nine vessels serve thirteen islands so most services call at one or two neighbouring islands and daily schedules vary considerably during the week.  The casual visitor needs to be aware that the provision of an outbound service does not automatically imply a return crossing later on the same day – or even several days.  During June-August however, ‘Sunday excursions’ run to many of the popular islands which is a great way of getting there and back on the same day.  Because of the convoluted coastline of Orkney Mainland, ferry services operate from three different harbours; turning up at the wrong one will result in disappointment so it pays to know your North Isles, Inner Isles and South Isles – one imagines local children are tested on this at an early age.

For us, the cancellation was but a minor inconvenience as on this occasion we were able to re-book for the following day when we are confident that the puffins will be just as pleased to see us.  However, we met a lady who was in the process of moving to Westray and her freezer was slowly thawing-out in the back of a removal van.  Another passenger was a frustrated electrical engineer due to carry out some work on the island.

m.v. Earl Thorfinn – one of the ferries serving the ‘North Isles’ – reaches Westray in 90 mins (pic courtesy orkneyferries.co.uk)


An attractive alternative is the inter-island air service provided by Loganair. There are drawbacks however: seats are limited – eight passengers max at a complete squeeze and often fully-booked days or weeks ahead; freight payload is minimal; you will need to have arranged transport at the other end, or be prepared to walk; weather cancellations are more likely; seats on some services are reserved for schoolchildren – how cool is that?  We were frustrated on one occasion trying to fly into Papa Westray – two seats were available on the outbound flight but only one seat on the return later that day!  We are flying into North Ronaldsay at the end of July so more about air services then.

Loganair Britten-Norman Islander Delta-Victor shown here in “Highland Park” livery.       Pic by Jim Hodkinson copyright Flight1 File Library


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