The Pentland Ferries Road Race

The fast Pentland Ferry from Gills Bay near John O’Groats docks on Orkney at the sheltered harbour of St Margaret’s Hope (known locally as “Hup”) on South Ronaldsay and nearly all vehicles disembarking are intent on making their next leg the 15 mile journey from here to Kirkwall.  Google Maps correctly estimates this short distance to take an extraordinary 46 minutes – which presumes an average speed just under 20 mph.  For although the road has many straight sections it is also very undulating with several sharp bends, and is conservative in width, so overtaking opportunities are limited and the first-time visitor may feel slightly apprehensive.

However, delivery van drivers and locals disembarking the ferry are usually anxious to get ahead of meandering tourists exhibiting a lack of urgency on unfamiliar roads, so during embarkation they will if possible try to engineer a position at the bow of the ferry, so as to be among the first off.  Those failing to pull off this trick are left to overtake at every opportunity.

Far from presenting an obstacle, the four “Churchill Barriers” – the narrow wartime causeways a few hundred meters in length connecting the islands of the southern archipelago – offer local drivers a last-ditch overtaking opportunity provided (a) there is no immediately oncoming traffic and (b) the doubtless alarmed visitor keeps resolutely to the left on these very narrow carriageways bounded by Armco barriers and menacing rocks.  One cannot help but feel sympathy for any visitor who is remorselessly overtaken by an assorted procession of speeding vehicles, including the odd Mercerdes Sprinter van with just inches to spare, provided that is, they are not sitting in front of you at the time doing 20 mph….

Outside of scheduled ferry arrival and departure times, South Ronaldsay roads revert to being as typical as any on Orkney in exhibiting considerate driving at (relatively) moderate pace.

Airpro Media Ltd has just released a drone-imaged video of the Pentland Ferries “Pentalina” sailing from Orkney to the Scottish mainland.  Worth a view if you can search for it on Facebook.

The southern part of the Orkney archipelago, focusing on South Ronaldsay, Orkney Mainland and Inner Isles, omitting the Northern Isles.


Community Archaeology Workshop

Tish and I have been working with the University of the Highlands & Islands Archaeology Institute to catalogue fieldwalking finds. More on this in a later posting.

Archaeology Orkney

Community finds workshop held at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute laboratory.

Following the community archaeology fieldwalking carried out last month, local community volunteers received basic training in archaeological finds cataloguing.

Finds from the fieldwalking in West Mainland Orkney included burnt animal bone, possible stone tools and a flint scraper. Further community based field walking and workshops are planned for the summer. If you want to be part of this archaeological project in Orkney then contact us on

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Let’s get on with it!

The journey north

Over 10 days have passed since we loaded up and set forth to Orkney and I had really expected the Orkney Mole to have surfaced at least once before now.

This year is a little different to our several previous trips however, foremost because Orkney will be our home for another three months so there has been less pressure to get out and cram in all the interesting stuff, while nevertheless the last week has been a whirl!  The fall of the calendar meant the Orkney Folk Festival commenced soon after our arrival and this was immediately followed by the Battle of Jutland commemorations.  So with all these distractions opportunity for meaningful blogging has been zero.

After visiting Scotland annually for the last decade, our 720-mile 2-day drive up from Kent is well-rehearsed.  There are numerous options for getting to Orkney from the south of England, ranging from a choice of road routes, overnight stops and ferry ports; flying into Edinburgh or Glasgow for a connecting flight to Kirkwall is relatively quick, taking no more than half a day; or following a similar route by train from London which requires several changes on to progressively smaller and slower lines bound for Thurso – or culminating in a bus ride if you take the tiny coast line to Wick.  Vehicle ferries can be taken from Gills Bay near John O’Groats, Scrabster just outside Thurso, or a less-popular alternative, the overnight Aberdeen-Shetland ferry which calls in at Kirkwall around midnight.  Each ferry company serves a different Orkney port which adds to the already complicated permutations.  I’ll stop here without getting into the intricacies of inter-island travel around the off-lying parts of the Orkney archipelago.  For that matter, intra-island travel is another subject!

It is worth recording that our journey north coincided with the arrival of a week of gloriously fine and settled weather in the north of Scotland and Orkney.  Two days of fine weather up here is easily worth two weeks of the same down south, so it really puts a huge smile on everybody’s face.

Crossing the Pentland Firth doesn’t get any better than this!



Orca sightings are big news around the Orkney coastline, and not at all uncommon during the summer season that we are just entering.  So much so that a major Orca watch was underway from Caithness on the Scottish mainland as we arrived.  An Icelandic pod was spotted near the Pentland Firth as we arrived, but unfortunately not by us.  They had forgotten something however and turned back down into the Moray Firth.  A few days later some of the pod were seen by German tourist Stefanie Matthes from the John O’Groats passenger ferry:

Coming up – getting into the Orcadian rhythm.

Who is the Mole?

Getting under the skin of Orkney

The Orkney Mole is a blog about Orkney – predominantly from the inside – by Nigel Jennings. It originated in 2016 during Nigel & Tish’s first extended Orkney sabbatical and continues intermittently to this day.

Although the original intention was simply to provide news of our touristic perambulations, the Orkney Mole quickly discovered that providing more incisive content about the diverse aspects of life in Orkney appealed to a wider readership.

The disjointed publication of late is due in no small part to the Orkney Mole turning native, as Nigel & Tish have integrated into the Orcadian community and are periodically engaged in archaeological research support for the University of the Highlands & Islands (UHI).  The drawback is that, even as willing volunteers, our days of leisurely exploring Orkney have become subsumed into what might pass as useful activity in the field, or in the bones lab at Orkney College. This is a convenient moment to emphasise that all observations and opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s alone, and do not represent any of the Orcadian organisations with which we are associated.

Despite this shoddy apology for a lack of recent productivity, if you nevertheless enjoy the writing please consider following the blog in order to receive email notification of new content.



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