Hoy is the second largest of the islands that form Orkney. It is about 10 miles long and five miles wide and is roughly rectangular in shape, not counting the tail of South Walls at its south-east end. Having said that, the B9047, which runs from near the north-west end of Hoy to near the south-west end of South Walls, is 20 miles long, so this is not an island who's size should be underestimated.
The name comes from the Old Norse for "High Island", an indication that Hoy differs in character from all the other islands making up the archipelago. Ward Hill, at 1,570ft or 479m, is the highest hill in Orkney and sits close to the north end of the island. What development exists is largely confined to the eastern side of Hoy, and this includes the small pier at Moaness, terminus for the passenger only ferry to Graemsay and Stromness.
The exception to the "east side only" development of Hoy is at Rackwick, often described as a crofting township. The reality is a scattering of crofts and dwellings behind a broad boulder-strewn bay complete with a fringe of sand. There were 80 residents here in 1900; today only five people live here full time.
Rackwick is framed by imposing sea cliffs. A path from the settlement climbs up behind the cliffs to the north to give views of the Old Man of Hoy, the 450 foot sea stack thought unclimbable until conquered in a televised climb in 1966. (Continues below image...)
On your way back along the single track road to the east side of the island, keep a lookout on the far side of the valley to your right for the Dwarfie Stone. This is a large stone which our Neolithic ancestors hollowed out for a purpose no one has yet quite worked out.
The road along the Scapa Flow or eastern side of Hoy gives a good feel for the undeveloped, open nature of the island as it crosses moorland and descends valleys. Keep a good lookout near the island's mid point for the short path leading inland from the road to Betty Corrigall's white painted grave. In the 1770s she killed herself, at the second time of trying, after her lover left her unmarried and pregnant to go whaling.
As a suicide she could not be buried in consecrated ground, and the lairds of the big estates also refused to provide her with a grave. She was therefore buried in an unmarked grave in high open moorland in the middle of the island, and forgotten. Her grave was discovered by accident in the 1930s, then again in 1941, when she was reburied in her current location. Her grave was was fenced and marked in 1949, and a headstone was added in 1976. The irony is that after lying unknown for 160 years, Betty Corrigall now rests in one of the most visited graves in Orkney.
The main settlement on the east side of Hoy is at Lyness. During the early years of WWII, up to 12,000 personnel were based in and around Lyness to support the defences of the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow and the ships that used it. To put this in context, the population of Kirkwall in 2011 was a little over 9,000. Many of the buildings left from the time have been cleared away, but others remain, giving the impression that nearly every structure owes something to a military architect somewhere down the line.
Lyness is now the main point of entry to and exit from Hoy via the car ferry to Houton on West Mainland. The nearby Scapa Flow Visitor Centre was built as the main oil storage and pumping facility for Scapa Flow.
The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre is a "must see" for anyone visiting Hoy. When we last visited in September 2018, the visitor centre was closed for renovation, and we understand that it is hoped it will reopen in 2020. In the meantime there is a highly informative exhibition open in a room at the rear of the Hoy Hotel, which stands at the foot the the hill to the rear of Lyness. We've included on this page a photograph taken inside the visitor centre in 2002.
South from Lyness, Hoy flattens and opens out a little. The military origins of the buildings is wonderfully illustrated by the Garrison Theatre in North Walls. The black and white Art Deco frontage was once backed by a huge Nissen hut that served as the cinema itself. Now the frontage stands alone.
The southern end of Hoy is marked by the large indentation of Longhope and North Bay, which originally helped separate Hoy from the tidal island of South Walls. The link was more firmly established during the 1800s and a short causeway called the Ayre was built in 1912 permanently linking the two together.
West of the Ayre a side road leading to the old Longhope Lifeboat Station, now a museum. On the south shore of Longhope is the village of Longhope and the nearby St Columba's Church. and to South Walls. The south-eastern tip of South Walls is marked by the Cantick Head lighthouse first lit in 1858 to mark the southern entrance to Scapa Flow.
Nearby is the Kirkhope burial ground, with its bronze statue of a lifeboatman that serves as a memorial to the crew of the Longhope Lifeboat, who were lost at sea on 17 March 1969. Also nearby are the Martello Tower and battery at Hackness, relics of an earlier generation of defences of these islands than most of those seen on Hoy.
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Hoy In Fiction
Bloody Orkney by Ken Lussey (29 June 2021).
It’s November 1942. Bob Sutherland, Monique
Dubois and the Military Intelligence 11 team fly in to review security in Orkney. But an unidentified body has been found.
It becomes clear that powerful men have things they’d rather keep hidden and MI11’s arrival threatens the status quo.
Parts of the novel are set on Hoy.