For our 10th wedding anniversary, my wife and I ventured to Scotland…sans kids. For the first part of our trip, our home base was up north in Orkney at a small bed and breakfast outside the town of Kirkwall.
One morning we decided to take a short trip to visit the town of Stromness. Stromness is on the southern shore of the main island about 15 miles west of Orkney.
If you are coming over from the Scottish mainland you can take a 90-minute ferry ride from Scrabster to Stromness. Since we were already in Kirkwall we had a couple of options: rent a car, hire a car/cab, and bus.
We decided during our time on Orkney that we would attempt to see whatever we could by using our own two feet and public transportation. That meant that renting a car or getting a cab to take us to Stromness was out. 15 miles is a bit far for a morning stroll so we settled on taking a bus.
Stagecoach is the company that runs the public buses around Orkney. The easiest bus to take, and the one we took, is the X1 that departs Kirkwall and Stromness every 30-60 minutes. The ride only takes 30 minutes and takes you through some beautiful countryside.
The bus dropped us off at the Stromness Travel Centre within the Stromness Marina at the north end of town, which was a perfect spot to start our stroll.
FI Road Tip: The Stagecoach website has both an online trip planner and PDF timetables. For many routes, these two tools do not seem to match so you may want to check signs at the bus station or contact Stagecoach directly to check times. Some buses only run once or twice a day on Orkney so it’s best to confirm before you head out.
FI Road Tip: The route between Kirkwall and Stromness on the X1 bus makes a stop at the Maeshowe Visitor Centre. From there you can tour the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and the Ness of Brodgar. Make a day of it; just be sure to check each historic site’s website for tickets and tour times.
Strolling Through Stromness
The great part about a stroll through Stromness is that there is one main road through town. The road hugs the harbor’s coastline so your views are of classic Scottish architecture mixed with windswept seas.
Coffee in hand, we left the travel centre and as we began our walk we saw the Stromness Hotel. This 120-year-old hotel and its 42 rooms have views overlooking the harbor. While we didn’t need a room and, it being a Sunday morning, were a little too early to stop into one of their two bars for a beverage it is definitely on our list to check out the next time we are back in town.
Continuing past the Stromness Hotel you start to experience the charm of Stromness. The main road consists of a single stone-paved lane where cars, trucks, and people share the same space. We didn’t even know that the road allowed vehicular traffic until a car headed in our direction and we quickly scooted over to the side to let it pass.
At 10:30 AM on a Sunday morning, the street was empty of cars except for an occasional service vehicle. There were a few people milling about, holding cups of warm coffee or tea as they conducted some early morning errands.
It was during times like these that the beauty of Scotland struck us. Walking through a sleepy coastal town with narrow streets, sipping a cup of coffee, taking deep breaths of salty coastal air. How easy at that moment to forget the busyness of our daily lives 3,000 miles away.
Walking through the town we noticed a number of blue plaques identifying historical events, buildings, and people that impacted Stromness over the centuries. Some were a bit more pleasant than others like a plaque we found memorializing the location of a temporary hospital to treat “scurvy ridden whale men who had been trapped in the ice for months.” (I assume by whale men they mean men who hunted whales and not people who were half-whale half-man)
Just beyond that awesome plaque, we stumbled across the Stromness Museum so we stopped in. A fantastic find. All of the ancient archeological settlements on Orkney combined with the maritime history of the region added up to a fascinating visit. We saw Neolithic and Stone Age carvings and tools, artifacts from various ships that sank off the coast of Orkney, a large exhibit on the animal and birdlife of the area, and more. At only 5.00 GBP for adults and 10.00 for families I highly recommend taking an hour or two to tour these unique collections.
As we passed through “downtown” Stromness and made our way to the south end of town the road moved even closer to the coast. A single bench on a lonely patch of grass next to “The Cannon” beckoned. We stopped, sat, and gazed out at the bay. The only sound being the constant Orkney wind whipping through our hair. More deep breaths.
Reaching the southern end of the road we found the Stromness Golf Club. Most interesting to us Americans was getting a peek at the Stromness Lawn Bowling (court? field?). With no golf clubs in tow and a non-golfer by my side, I did not get a chance to try out the par 65 course on the property.
We made the turn and walked back to the travel centre along one of the upper residential roads enjoying our return trip through Stromness. Within three hours we said goodbye to the village and boarded the X1 bus for our return trip to Kirkwall.
We were not sure what we would find in visiting Stromness during the Orkney leg of our vacation. What we found was a seaside village full of history, stories, and breathtaking views. The type of town that’s just as perfect for a three-hour tour as it is for a three days’ visit. Make Stromness one of your stops the next time you are planning a trip to Orkney and stop into the hotel for a whisky, play a round of golf, or take a seat on the bench next to The Cannon, close your eyes, and just breathe.