Queen o’ the isles
Westray is sprinkled with wonderfully atmospheric locations for you to explore. Spectacular sea cliffs, sandy beaches, rocky shores and undulating hills offer spirit-swelling locations for photographers, artists and lovers of empty places.
A voyage out along the old Viking sea route to Westray is an essential element in any Orkney adventure.
Here the unique flavour of Orkney’s island fringe can be experienced to the full. The exquisite workmanship and artistic talent of the ancient peoples we have encountered on other islands is illustrated by the Westray Stone, a rock carving found in a tomb at Pierowall, the island’s largest settlement, in 1981. The spiral and lozenge design is the finest of its kind in Scotland and is permanently on display in the Westray Heritage Centre. Of the earliest Christian settlers the best evidence is again found in the lonely rock-stack or island hermitages such as at the Castle o’ Burrian (also a marvellous place to see Puffins) and on the Holm of Aikerness.
The Orkneyinga Sagas, the tales of the Viking occupation of Orkney paint a vivid picture of Westray during the early 12th century and Westray families operating from power bases at Rapness, Pierowall and Tuqouy played important roles in the political life of the isles.
Plant & animal life
The western cliffs and hills behind support a rich variety of northern maritime vegetation. The spray-sweep has created unusual clifftop salt marshes and behind this the maritime heath. Vikings are thought to have brought angelica to the island and it can still be found growing around Pierowall Bay. Seals, of course, are plentiful around Westray but whales, dolphins and porpoises are occasionally seen. Other attractions are the otter families and tell-tale tracks through rough vegetation will indicate the presence of the indigenous Westray vole.
Noup Head cliffs are first port of call for birdwatchers. Huge numbers of nesting seabirds can be seen between April and July. It is also possible to see Peregrine Falcons on the island’s cliffs and Ravens successfully breed each year, raising their young in nests often built from barbed wire. The rare corncrake with their characteristic call has been heard on summer evenings. Among the smaller birds the Wheatear can be seen skipping along the drystane dykes. Puffins are a great attraction at the Castle of Burrian and at Noup Head. Gannet numbers have increased dramatically in recent years at Noup.
Westray is one of the most productive farming areas in Orkney with beef cattle a main contributor to the island’s economy. Sea-faring is also deep rooted, a trait inherited from the Norse ancestors and the island has developed a modern fishing industry which includes white fish trawling and creel fishing for crab and lobster. Velvet crabs provide a significant contribution to the local economy and are exported to Europe. The modern factory at Gill pier exports processed crabs throughout Britain and Europe, and visitors are welcome to look around the facility. W. F. M. Brown is a family-run bakery at Gill Pier, which supplies daily bread and other baked products to local and mainland Orkney shops and also exports their shortbread, biscuits and cakes to shops further afield.
Westray’s tourist industry plays a vital part in the local economy, providing facilites for camping and caravans, two hostels, two hotels, several B&Bs and self-catering cottages.
The Craft and Heritage Trail tempts visitors to explore the island and see the varied shops, galleries, jewellery makers, knitters and straw-backed chair making, returning to Pierowall village to the newly enlarged Heritage Centre next to the Pierowall Hotel.