Westray is a small island, part of Scotland's Orkney Islands, with a population in 2011 of 588. Its two settlements are Rapness, the ferry port near its south end, and the larger Pierowall in the north. A lane stretches the six miles between them. Westray is about 12 miles north of Mainland Orkney and has similar terrain of red sandstone bounded by great sea cliffs and fertile green fields with cattle. Farming and fishing are the main occupations, with only a small tourist presence.
By boat: Orkney Ferries sail between Kirkwall and 1 Rapness two or three times a day May-Sept, taking 90 min. This ferry takes cars. Tuesday and Friday one sailing continues to North Ronaldsay (via Papa Westray on Tuesday). Oct-Apr have only one or two sailings per day and none continuing to North Ronaldsay.
(Useful to know: the little bay next to Rapness pier is called "The Sands of Woo" - how was this movie never made?)
May-Sept some 3 to 6 ferries a day link Pierowall with Papa Westray, taking 25 min, for foot passengers and bicycles only. To travel between the islands Oct-April, or with a car, you need the Tuesday car ferry from Rapness.
By plane: Twice daily Loganair flights link Kirkwall with Westray. The 2 airport (WRY IATA) is at the north tip of the island two miles from Pierowall. These flights also stop at Papa Westray just across the channel, making it the world's shortest scheduled flight at just under two minutes duration.
World's shortest scheduled flight: what does that mean? First, it means commercial aviation: private aircraft larking about their aero club, or Australian farmers checking their far-flung stock, don't count. Second, it means a point-to-point service that you can buy a ticket for. For instance in Kenya in the Masai Mara wildlife reserve, the planes make short low-altitude hops between any safari camps that have travellers that day, before heading back to Nairobi. But you can't buy a ticket between those camps, as effectively they're just separate terminals of a single destination. Third, it means a regular scheduled service: it might be fun to charter a big plane to recreate Orville Wright's first powered flight of 12 seconds, with everyone gussied up in 1903 period costume, but you couldn't claim this particular record.
The Westray-Papa Westray hop is part of a triangular flight coming out from Kirkwall then immediately returning, so normally all passengers are going to and from the Orkney Mainland. Nevertheless you can buy a ticket just for the hop, costing £17. Like the other intra-island flights, this is bookable online now, from Loganair.
This flight has operated since 1967 and used to be in just one direction, Westray to Papa Westray, but nowadays it's both. The flight is scheduled for two minutes but is often less, and the record stands at 53 seconds. If you're collecting these things, the world's second-shortest air route is probably between Stronsay and Sanday, at five minutes. Several other inter-Orkney routes are scheduled for ten minutes, but don't expect dinner and a movie.
A minibus from M&J Harcus ☏ +44 1857 677450, can be arranged to meet the ferry at Rapness to take you to Pierowall and vice versa. Telephone in advance or arrange on the ferry.
Cycling is a good way to get around the island. Hire can be arranged by:
- - Sand O'Gill, Pierowall, ☏ +44 1857 677374.
- - Twiness, ☏ +44 1857 677319.
- - Rapness Manse, Rapness ☏ +44 1857 677494.
- Faray is the low mile-long island seen east of the ferry on the approach to Rapness. A lane runs past its abandoned farmsteads; it's been uninhabited since 1947 and is now an important grey seal breeding colony. Holm of Faray is the divided islet just north, which was just grazing: faerey is from the Norse for "sheep island".
- 1 Castle O'Burrian is a squat tidal sea-stack, well-defended by its garrison of puffins. Scrappy ruins upon it may indicate a fort but are more likely an early Christian hermitage. By road, look for the puffin signpost a mile north of Rapness Pier, then follow the grassy track. You can continue along the cliffs to Tufts Bay.
- 2 Cross Kirk or Westside church is the ruin of a Viking church from mid-12th century. Sagas say it was built by Haflidi Thorkelsson, who farmed the land nearby.
- Lady Kirk in Pierowall is the substantial ruin of a church built in 1674 over its 13th century predecessor, with interesting gravestones around. Pierowall was the site of a pagan Norse cemetery, excavated in the 19th century, but nothing is nowadays visible here - some grave goods are on display in the National Museum in Edinburgh. The Vikings converted to Christianity some time in the 10th / 11th century, probably in mass conversions at the behest of chieftains negotiating the support of other Christian rulers. As of May 2023, only the graveyard is accessible to the public.
- 3 Noltland Castle, Pierowall KW17 2DW. Daily 08:00-20:00. Remains of a castle built to a defensive Z-pattern in the late 16th century, though it was never completed. Its builder Gilbert Balfour supported Mary Queen of Scots, meaning his hands were bloody in the assassination of her inconvenient husband Lord Darnley; he got himself executed in Sweden for similar treason there. The castle was wrecked in the Civil War in 1650 when Royalists occupied it but were burned out by the Covenanters. Free.
- Links of Noltland is an active archaeology site near the beach half a mile north of the castle. May-Sept you can watch them sift through the remnants of a Bronze Age settlement. This is rescue archaeoogy as the sand dunes are eroding.
- Wheeling Steen is an art gallery at Aikerness half a mile from the airport. It's open M-Sa 13:00-17:00.
- 4 Noup Head, 3 miles north-west of Pierowall, has impressive cliffs, a lighthouse and headland, home to thousands of birds including guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills and puffins.
- Wildlife: common seals are, well, common, grey seals prefer remoter spots such as Farray. Otters are seen throughout the island, try watching from Rapness Pier. Westray has been rat-free since about 1970; an accident introduction in 1992 was swiftly dealt with. The island swarms with rabbits.
- 5 Papa Westray is the small inhabited island to the northeast. In summer you can easily day-trip by ferry and see the prehistoric dwelling Knap of Howar.
- Visit the Westray Heritage Trust in Pierowall for traditional crafts and displays on island life, plus small cafe. It's open May-Sep: M 11:30-17:00, Tu-Sa 09:00-12:00 & 14:00-17:00, Su 13:30-17:00. Adults £3.
- There are a couple of mini-markets in Pierowall to stock up in. There is also a potters in Pierowall.
- Royal Bank of Scotland, Pierowall. W 09:15-12:00, 13:00-14:45. Bank branch, but only open one day a week, and no ATM.
- Hume Sweet Hume, Pierowall. M Th 10:00-13:00 & 14:00-17:00, Tu W F Sa 10:00-13:00, Su 14:30-16:30. Knitwear and souvenir shop.
- W I Rendall, Pierowall, KW17 2DH. M-F 08:30-18:00, Sa 09:00-18:00. General grocers, with "Groatie Buckies" cafe.
Eat & drink
- Pierowall Hotel (see "Sleep") has good bar food. Serving May-Sep 12:00-14:00 & 17:00-20:30; Tu evening residents only but does takeaway to 19:30. Oct-Apr 12:00-13:30 & 18:00-20:00.
- 1 Jack's Chippy (Pierowall Fish Ltd), Broughton KW17 2DA. W Sa 16:30-19:30. Wholesale fishmonger, runs "Jacks" fish and chip shop two evenings per week.
- Richans Retreat is an offbeat cafe next to Rapness ferry pier, open daily 08:30-18:30.
- 1 Pierowall Hotel, Pierowall (half mile south of jetty), ☏ +44 1857 677472. Decent 3-star hotel. B&B double £100.
- 2 Chalmersquoy, Broughton KW17 2BZ (south end of Pierowall, a mile from jetty), ☏ +44 1857 677420. Welcoming, well-run place with campsite (tent or caravan for two £16), hostel (dorm £24 ppn), B&B (double from £80). Self-catering is Sat-Sat in Ben End sleeps 4/5 (£350), in the Apartment sleeps 3 / 4 (£300).
- Kilnmans Cottage, Pierowall (just west of Chalmerquoy), ☏ +44 7440 158814. Self-catering cottage sleeping 4. Sa-Sa £300 per week.
Bad weather is the chief hazard, and take care near the cliffs.
As of October 2021, the island has patchy coverage with O2 and Three, but no signal from EE or Vodafone.
- Papa Westray - get away from it even more on a trip to the neighbouring island.
- North Ronaldsay can only be reached direct from Westray in summer.
- You have to return to Kirkwall for all other island connections.