Westray is the most north-westerly of the northern islands of Orkney and one of the most varied. This, coupled with its relative prosperity, have led to it being referred to as The Queen of the North Isles. The more usual name Westray comes from the Norse for "West Island", thought by some to reflect a 45 degree rotation of cardinal points of the compass by the Vikings as Rousay, Mainland and Hoy all extend further west on modern maps.
The relative prosperity of the island is explained in a leaflet available on the ferry from Kirkwall. This describes Westray as "really just one big working farm" whose 600 people are greatly outnumbered by its 3000 breeding cows.
For six months of the year the cows are fed indoors, and for the other six the farms are busy making some 20,000 tonnes of silage for winter feed. There are also plenty of sheep. The large four-legged population make this an island on which you definitely need to watch where you are putting your feet whenever you stray off the roads: and sometimes when you're on them, too.
The ferry from Kirkwall lands at Rapness, near the southern end of the island. From here it is 7 miles along good quality roads to Pierowall, the island's main settlement. But before heading north, you might want to take a look at the cliff architecture around Stanger Head, not much more than a mile north of Rapness. The cliffs here are the best place in Orkney to watch puffins, while the nearby Castle o' Burrian is an inaccessible sea stack with an early Christian hermitage on top.
Two-thirds of the way along the road to Pierowall, Westray broadens out significantly. Overlooking the east coast here is the Cleaton House Hotel, Westray's four star hotel.
The west coast of this part of the island is marked by cliffs and caves, while inland lie a line of low hills, rising to 169m at Fitty Hill. At the Ness of Tuquoy a path leads from a small car park around the shore to the ruins of Cross Kirk, one of Westray's two medieval churches.
The north west point of Westray lies at Noup Head, which comes complete with vast numbers of seabirds, spectacular cliffs and the Noup Head Lighthouse, constructed in 1898 and automated in 1964. The last mile or so of the track to Noup Head is fairly rough going, but passable by car.
From Noup Head the road back to Pierowall takes you past Noltland Castle, a remarkably well preserved (though unfinished) edifice built by Gilbert Balfour in the years after 1560. With no fewer than 71 shot holes this must have been one of the best defended (and most draughty!) castles of its size in Scotland.
Pierowall itself is a fascinating place that feels like stepping back in time. Its largely grey rendered or stone buildings are spread around the Bay of Pierowall and well worth exploring.
The Pierowall Hotel has a reputation for the best fish and chips in Orkney (some say Scotland): you certainly need look no further for your lunch when on Westray. Nearby is the excellent Westray Heritage Centre, while towards the north end of the village are the ruins of Westray's second still standing medieval church, Lady Kirk. Further around the bay is Gill Pier, from where you can catch the ferry to Papa Westray.
North of Gill Pier is the peninsula comprising Rackwick and Aikerness, terminating at Bow Head. Close to the north tip of Westray is Westray's small airfield. This provides a link to Kirkwall Airport. It also holds the World Record as the western end of the world's shortest scheduled air service: the 2 minute hop across less than 3km of the Papa Sound to the Airfield on the island of Papa Westray.
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