Answering the call of the Northern Isles

The sight of Leirna heading out from Lerwick is enough to make you want to take the trip to the island of Bressay. All the ferries in the Northern Isles have attractive individual features, and their operators’ websites are easy to read

If you are starting to mull over summer holiday plans, Ken Mills has a recommendation.

Last summer I fulfilled a longstanding wish to visit Orkney and Shetland. We left home shortly before 9am and reached Gills Bay in Caithness in time for the 6.45pm sailing to St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay. The passage on board Pentland Ferries’ catamaran Alfred (the christian name of the father of the ship’s owner, Andrew Banks) was in perfect conditions.

How did she compare with more familiar vessels on the Clyde and west coast? On deck the immediate thing that struck me was the feeling of space, with plenty of indoor seating over both hulls on the main deck. At the forward end between the hulls there is a small self-service cafeteria with an adequate range of food and drinks — enough for a journey of about an hour. Seating on the upper deck, where dog owners are obliged to sit, includes an enclosed sun deck lounge forward.

Covered seating on Alfred: the layout could offer more variety

Passenger capacity is about 450, and the vessel can accommodate about 100 cars or a combination of articulated lorries/buses up to 12 in number with about 50 cars. There are seven lanes — two car/small van lanes over each hull and three central lanes for commercial vehicles. Loading from the rear, cars are moved round the forward end of the ship to take up position facing the stern, so that disembarkation from the rear ramp is straightforward. Commercials have to reverse on (or possibly off). On our sailing a full load was carried  and loading was quick. The single rear ramp did not appear to be an impediment.

There was hardly any detectable movement when sailing, even when crossing the tidal stream which runs fiercely through the Pentland Firth. I would guess Alfred’s speed to be slightly faster than what we are used to on the Clyde.

Would she be suitable for our more familiar waters? For short journeys of up to 90 minutes, she would be fine, but for longer sailings a food area would be a requirement. The seated accommodation would also need some adjustment, to allow more variety of seated areas, rather than the long seated areas over each hull on Alfred. Terminal facilities at either Gills Bay or St Margaret’s Hope seemed basic but adequate. The Pentland Ferries website can be found here.

Kirkwall was our base for a four-day visit. In that time we managed to cover all the principal sites on mainland Orkney as well as fitting in a visit to Hoy, where we drove from Lyness, the ferry point, to Rackwick and from there walked the 4.5 miles to the Old Man of Hoy. We travelled both ways on Hoy Head, an open-deck car ferry which I thought was in some ways very similar to Loch Fyne and Loch Dunvegan. The vessel was obviously well cared for and staffing was minimal. The terminals were basic with adjustable height ramps. On Hoy, which overlooks Scapa Flow, there is still much evidence of the former large naval/military presence dating from the Second World War.

Earl Sigurd at rest at Kirkwall

An evening walk to Kirkwall Harbour gave me an opportunity to view the three vessels serving the Outer North Isles — Earl Sigurd and Varagen berthed on one side of the projecting harbour quay and Earl Thorfinn on the other. Driving through Tingwall on the northwest part of the Orkney mainland, I managed to photograph Eynhallow, the ferry for Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre. In Stromness I photographed Graemsay, which serves the island of that name.

Timetables and other details can be found at this excellent website has up-to-the-minute information on weather disruptions, as well as timetables and helpful information on island destinations. The website gives a description of all the ferries. One thing that struck me was the age of the nine vessels shown, ranging from 1988-1996, with the small Westray/Papa Westray ferry Golden Mariana dating back to 1973. Does this mean that Orkney ferries have an age/replacement problem similar to the CMAL/CalMac network?

For our voyage to Shetland, we joined NorthLink’s Hjaltland at the Haston cruise terminal, a short distance from Kirkwall. While waiting for the ship to arrive from Aberdeen shortly before midnight, I was able to inspect Pentalina, recently returned from her much publicised but ultimately abortive tour of Clyde and Hebridean waters. Berthed at the inner Haston pier, she seemed in many respects to be a smaller version of Alfred.

On board Hjaltland we were immediately ushered to our cabin and told we had to be off the ship by eight the next morning, so there was no time for exploration. The cabin was small but comfortable.

Ample passenger accommodation: the drive-through Yell ferry Daggri approaching Toft terminal on the Shetland mainland

As in Orkney, we used airbnb for accommodation, located a short distance from Lerwick, and managed to cover all the noted sites on the Shetland mainland during our four-day stay. Our visit to Unst, the most northerly island, involved a ferry crossing to Yell and a further crossing to Unst. Once there we drove to Burrafirth, beyond which the road stops, so we walked the short distance to the most northerly point of the island, giving us a good view of the lighthouse at Muckle Flugga, the most northerly point of Scotland. It is close to here that permissions have been recently granted for the development of a spaceship launching site.

Outward to Yell we sailed on MV Daggri, returning to the Shetland mainland later in the day on MV Dagalien. Sailing time was approximately half an hour. Both vessels are open-deck drive-through ferries with adequate passenger accommodation for those not wanting to sit in their vehicles. They are clean and well kept, and the crews were helpful. Terminals were concrete slipways.

We then had to drive the length of Yell to join MV Bigga for the 15-minute crossing from Gutcher (Yell) to Belmont (Unst), known as the ‘Bluemull’ service. There is an alternative crossing from Gutcher to Hamars Ness on Fetlar, which on the day of our visit was being covered by Bigga’s sister ship, Geira. Both vessels are open-deck vehicle ferries with limited passenger accommodation. Traffic was busy, comprising an even mixture of local and tourist traffic.

Lerwick is a fascinating town with a large harbour area and a lot of history. During our visit MV Leirna was spotted heading out to Bressay, a trip I would have liked to make if our time had not been limited. Shetland Island Council operates 11 ferries to outlying islands, including Fair Isle (served by Good Shepherd).

Bigga, at the Gutcher ferry terminal on Yell, preparing to sail on the 15-minute crossing to Unst

There is also a ferry to Foula from Walls on the west side of mainland Shetland, operated on a limited timetable by B K Marine, a sub contractor. Most of the Shetland ferries seem to date from 1985-2003: a list of vessels and routes can be found at and the clearly laid out Shetland Islands Council website gives timetable details.

On our last day in Shetland we drove south to the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head, which has been made into a visitor attraction. En route we diverted to view the much photographed St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland’s best know beach, which was even more stunning to the eye than the glossy brochures suggest. Late that afternoon we joined NorthLink’s Hrossey for the overnight sail to Aberdeen.

What were my overall impressions? The only disappointment was the dearth of places to eat out at night both in Kirkwall and Lerwick. But that’s a minor point.

I wouldn’t hesitate to return to the Northern Isles if the opportunity arose — especially to sail to, and visit more of, the outlying islands. The scenery, especially in Shetland, is of the very best, and there are some beautiful beaches and cliff walks. The people were extremely friendly and helpful when the need arose. We were lucky to have the best of weather, making the views that bit more dramatic.

All photos © Ken Mills

Preparing to board the Pentland Ferries catamaran Alfred at Gills Bay, Caithness

Looking forward over the vehicle deck from the starboard upper deck of Alfred

‘Driving through Tingwall on the northwest part of the Orkney mainland, I managed to photograph Eynhallow, the ferry for Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre’

Graemsay at Stromness. Built in 1996 by Ailsa of Troon, she is propelled by two Volvo Penta diesels giving her a speed of 10 knots

MV Hoy Head at Houton. Built at Appledore in Devon in 1994, she serves the Orkney south isles — including Lyness on Hoy and the oil terminal at Flotta — from a terminal five miles south-east of Stromness

On board MV Hoy Head

View of MV Dagalien heading for Toft on the northern Shetland mainland. Like the CalMac ferries Bute, Argyle and Finlaggan, Dagalien and her sister Daggri were built by Remontowa of Gdansk


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Published on 29 January 2022