Scrabster-Stromness ferry – dramatic cliffs, soaring seabirds

The Scrabster-Stromness ferry is the most exciting short sea voyage in Scotland – a great intro to Orkney. For ‘exciting’ read ‘choppy’ on occasion. But en route there are huge cliffs and the Old Man of Hoy rock-stack to distract you. It’s all pretty spectacular. And only rough sometimes.

Scrabster-Stromness is a spectacular ferry crossing of 90 minutes (or longer in bad weather – see below) from Scrabster, near Thurso, on the north coast, to Stromness in Orkney.

The voyage crosses the famous Pentland Firth, where the Atlantic and the North Sea tides meet in battle.

We have made this crossing quite a few times now but it’s still exciting. Unless the captain says otherwise – and that happens when it gets rough – I can’t resist standing on deck to watch the awesome cliffs of the island of Hoy slide by on the starboard side. (Pictured below.)

Scrabster to Stromness via the Old Man of Hoy

Cliffs of Hoy from the Scrabster/Stromness ferry.
Cliffs of Hoy from the Scrabster-Stromness ferry.

The famous Old Man of Hoy (pictured below) is the capital letter at the beginning of the dramatic statement that is Orkney, (ooh, get him, with his implausible metaphors) and seems to detach itself from the red cliffs of Hoy as you sail past it.

Come to think of it, that’s a silly thing to write. After all, it is already detached, otherwise it wouldn’t be a sea-stack. But it’s a highlight of the passage to and from Orkney by the Scrabster-Stromness route.

Scrabster-Stromness – a reputation for rough crossings

The rock stack of the Old Man of Hoy
The 449-foot (137-metre) high Old Man of Hoy, as seen from the ferry. It looks big until you sail past St John’s Head further on.

Now, I did mention bad weather on this run. The Scrabster-Stromness ferry has a reputation for rough crossings. 

I think some of this refers to tales told as part of the wartime reminiscences of the members of the armed forces who served up here in connection with the Scapa Flow anchorage.  

They lived under fairly miserable conditions, certainly in the early days, and the storm-tossed crossing was part of the ghastly experience.

For ourselves, we have only experienced a rough day on the voyage once.

Unexpectedly, it was towards the end of May. 

But the ferry was operating and, best of all, the skipper sounded like an Orkney man – which was very reassuring.

And in a calm and relaxed voice over the tannoy he told us just to strap in and enjoy the ride. It was fun. I didn’t see the Old Man of Hoy that day. But we made it safe and sound.

So, and now I am addressing anyone who usually doesn’t feel well at sea, I am sorry for going on a bit about a rough crossing here. Repeat: we’ve had wonderful flat calm days between Orkney and the mainland – so don’t let anything here put you off!

If you’re already feeling nauseous, then quickly scroll down the page where there is a lovely picture of a calm day in Stromness.

Pentland Firth -meeting place of seas

A rough crossing, Stromness to Scrabster
A rough crossing, Stromness to Scrabster

The Pentland Firth that lies between Orkney and mainland Scotland, has always had a reputation for rough waters.

It’s where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. The two of them don’t always get on. But it isn’t often a very big deal on a modern ferry.

Anyway, if you are north-bound, you’ll soon swing to starboard and in to the comparatively calm water of Hoy Sound.

And I will return you to the copy as originally written for a placid crossing…..hope I haven’t dissuaded you in any way from making the trip!

If heading for Orkney, towards the end of the Scrabster to Stromness run, just when you think Orkney is going to be all awesome cliffs and verticalities, everything changes with that serious turn to starboard, east into Hoy Sound.

Out of the swell and into Hoy sound, Scrabster bound.
Out of the swell and into Hoy sound, Scrabster bound.
Stromness golf course
Stromness golf course

Suddenly, on the port side, to the north, it’s (almost) gentle, soft and green, with contained fields and grazing flocks – and even a golf course (pictured here). You may have been tossing on the briny, but these guys have been getting in a round.

See? Life is quite normal hereabouts.

The historic port of Stromness has (gasp) shops, pubs, restaurants and so on – just like anywhere else. 

This is the main island of Orkney, called ‘Mainland’, its name demonstrating a wholly admirable sense of importance. 

Scrabster-Stromness – first Impressions from The ferry

The boat turns to port and north again – and Stromness appears, scattered along the shore, and not looking Scottish at all. What I mean is, it looks Scandinavian.

This is also a problematical statement, as I’ve never been to Norway, so I’m bluffing. (I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.)

But whatever you think it looks like, this is also part of the appeal – Orkney is different. The Scrabster-Stromness journey is just the start. 

Stromness from the ferry
Stromness as the ferry approaches. Island of Hoy distant, far left.
Stromness and distant ferry
Stromness and ferry

(Pictured here) A calm day in Stromness. You get lots of calm days. Yes, really. And there’s the ferry, look – it’s the enormous blue and white boat, docked on the far distant right by the Stromness quayside.

Wait. You didn’t think it was the wee red one nearer the camera, did you?

Anyway, I’m sure it’s the most entertaining 90 minutes sail anywhere in Scotland. Tricky to photograph in places though, as the light is against you in the morning with the cliffs east of the boat, while Hoy lies to the south when seen from Mainland Orkney.

You’ll get better pics of the ‘Old Man’ in an afternoon or summer evening return sailing to mainland Scotland.

Lots more to read about visiting Orkney…we’ve even got a page about North Ronaldsay sheep.

If you are interested in prehistory then the Orkney island of Rousay is a must-see.

And there is another way of getting to Orkney by ferry. From Gills Bay.

Scrabster-Stromness ferry times and prices.