7. Papa Westray (Papay)

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Old house and mill on Papa Westray – corncrake habitat (c) Duncan Hutt
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The pub in a cupboard or ‘pubboard’ (c) Duncan Hutt

The ‘pubboard’ was opened at 8pm and Saturday pub night was ready for business. Music started nearly an hour later with an island band practicing some tunes from a soon-to-be-released CD. The whole pub was in a locked cupboard in the corner of the hostel dining room and it opened as we finished our North Ronaldsay mutton sandwiches. It was a long night.

Exploration of the island had begun after the 8 minute flight landed and we found our room at the wonderfully equipped community run hostel but most would wait until the following morning when there was a bit more time to linger.

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Papa Westray Hostel (and Saturday pub location) (c) Duncan Hutt

Papay is a little larger than North Ronaldsay but the land is more fertile and the community here has picked itself out of the doldrums of the 1990s. It perhaps helps that the island is close to Westray so despite limited ferries to Kirkwall the isolation is not quite so extreme.

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Drystone wall marking the runway end, Papa Westray (c) Sally Hutt

Our walk around took us through the middle third up the western coast and back on the more sheltered east. The island fertility is best seen in Holland Farm a model of 19th century ‘improvements’. Here is a tiny museum of island life with a wonderful ragtag of objects interspersed with jam and chutney for sale.

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Knap of Howar (c) Sally Hutt
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St Boniface’s Church (c) Duncan Hutt

Down on the shore is an amazing 5000 year old pair of houses, the Knap of Howar, now overlooking a rough blue sea. These are amongst the oldest dwellings in Europe. Further up the coast is the small, restored, St Boniface’s Church with roots dating back 1200 years when this was a refuge on long lost trading routes. Now the walls around the graveyard were refuge for a wren that flitted around bursting occasionally into shrill song.

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Wren (c) Duncan Hutt

At the north end of the island is the appropriately named North Hill, an RSPB reserve. A weird hide sits on high ground looking north and while its value for watching birds is doubtful there can be no question that it saved us getting wet in a squally shower. An arctic skua flew past but most birds stayed sheltered on the ground.

A chance meeting on the road enabled us to find the minute Scottish primrose tucked low into the short turf, tiny purple flowers in a vast open space.

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Scottish primrose (Primula scotica) (c) Duncan Hutt

Our return along the east coast was uneventful, the corncrake remained silent as we passed its field with flag iris leaves emerging from winter dormancy.

A snow bunting was pecking around the tiny airport terminal building as we awaited the afternoon flight. The first leg of which barely climbed above the sea as it hopped the 2 minutes or so over to Westray, the world’s shortest scheduled flight – we have the certificate! The longer leg back to Kirkwall took us over impressive Westray cliffs and around the moor covered Rousay.

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Evening sun over Westray (c) Duncan Hutt

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