When it comes to my favorite place in all of Scotland, the one place that has a deep, personal meaning I can’t quite explain, none can challenge the Orkney Islands. Specifically, mainland Orkney with its twin towns of Kirkwall and Stromness, twin distilleries of Highland Park and Scapa, and bevy of ancient, eye-popping monuments like Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar, whose purposes are lost in the mists of time. But there’s also an intangible, unquantifiable, mystical something in the air in those northern, sea-girded climes, which, I think, is my true captor.
I returned to Orkney for my third visit on my most recent trip to Scotland. Five years had elapsed since I spent part of my honeymoon here, and I wanted the chance to write about the place for Traveling Savage and show my dad, who had always wanted to see the islands, what I found so compelling. On previous visits, I had bounced around the mainland to various comfortable B&Bs and country houses of middling quality, but this time I wanted to try something different. I thought it would be fun to finish off the three-week trip with a stint in a self-catered apartment and hopefully catch a whiff of what it’s like to live on Orkney.
Orkney is remote. Accommodation, like many things up here, isn’t abundant. You take what you can find; after all, the stars of the show are the islands themselves. But I had a very specific image in mind: To spend a handful of days in a converted Orcadian croft. I know, it sounds like the Scottish equivalent of Under a Tuscan Sun, but the idea had some allure.
And it didn’t take me long to home in on the perfect place, the aptly-named Orkney Crofts.
The Orkney Crofts are the pet project and labor of love of Simon Treasure, a gardener by choice and a man with a singular vision for his 11+ acres of Orcadian countryside. Simon began Orkney Crofts in 2008 and ever since he’s been systematically acquiring additional cottages and land, creating habitats that support sustainable biodiversity and encourage native ecosystems, and renovating the buildings with sustainable materials like turf roofs, copper, and lime. Today there are four crofts of varying sizes and accoutrement – The Byre, East Heddle, Turriedale, and The Bu – and it seems like every year Simon makes another available for rent.
I arrived on a typically blustery day to the Orkney Crofts compound, which sits on the elevated Heddle Road smack dab in the middle of Orkney’s western mainland. I can’t think of a better location: Stromness and Kirkwall are an equidistant 15-minute drive, and the core neolithic sites of Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, and the Standing Stones of Stenness are less than 10 minutes away. In every direction I look there are wide farm fields running toward softly rolling hills or sparkling water.
Simon personally greets me and provides a walk around the property upon my arrival. He’s a big, bluff man with an affable demeanor and a raft of opinions he’s happy to share. The grounds are a gorgeous bouquet of shrubs, perennials, drystone walls, and copses of saplings. Simon’s love for gardening needs no introduction, and I get the sense that the Orkney Crofts’ grounds will forever be a work in progress, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Seeing as how it’s just my dad and me, I chose the cozy, two-bedroom croft known as The Bu, which is an Old Norse farm prefix that indicated the farm was of local significance. Inside The Bu’s unlocked main door I find a majestic room measuring 40ft x 25 ft with a great, arched ceiling laced with timber beams that reminds me of a longhouse (for some reason). Light pours in from large windows to illuminate a space overflowing with knicks-knacks, furniture, and books that give the place a well-lived-in feel. I never quite know what I’m going to get when I read “renovated” or “converted” – it could be a sterile, modern update or actually just improvements to make a space livable – but I find The Bu’s interior to be homey and evocative of its surroundings. I could spend months perusing the library of books on Orkney topics, but I only have four days.
The Bu’s main room leads into a little hallway that connects all of the croft’s living quarters. I turn left, descend a couple steps, and walk into a beautiful, updated kitchen with an amazing slanted skylight. All of the cookware, vessels, and utensils stand on shelves mounted above the sink while the appliances are primed to help us cook us some hearty Orcadian fare during our stay. Later we would find that Simon had provided a starter larder that included local fish, meat, butter, milk, cheese, baked goods, fudge, and whisky, not to mention a useful guide to Orkney by Charles Tait. Such a nice touch and a welcome surprise.
The Bu is equipped with a modest bathroom and shower that tick all the boxes on my needs list, hot water first among them. The bathroom separates The Bu’s two bedrooms, which pack in full-size beds and a massive closet in the master bedroom. I slept like a rock in my room, which I warmed up with the space heater and shuttered to tomb-like darkness. For as exposed and wind-whipped as The Bu is, it kept the heat in and the drafts out better than my home in Wisconsin, which are especially important qualities in Orkney.
It happened to rain during our time on Orkney, which is a common occurrence and something you should certainly expect, but where I’ve gotten antsy at B&Bs I was perfectly content to relax in The Bu with a dram and a book. In the evening, my dad and I cooked dinners like seafood stew and Orcadian beef steaks as the wind howled around the croft then dashed outside to dump our scraps in the compost pile. I could feel the rhythm.
I loved The Bu and the other crofts Simon showed me before I left. I love Simon’s dedication to maintaining the Orcadian aesthetic and identity of the crofts while beautifying the grounds and buildings through natural, sustainable methods. All of the Orkney Crofts are Scottish Tourism Board 4- and 5-star properties, certified Green Tourism Gold, and highly affordable. Not to mention all the character to be found in these buildings that escapes the rating systems.
Self-catering makes perfect sense in Orkney, because you generally want to spend more than a few days at a place that takes concerted effort and planning to get to. Orkney Crofts are my new ace in the hole for Orkney, and I will be staying here for any future trips to the island. When I find treasure, I stick with it.
Disclosure: Simon provided me with a discounted rate for my stay. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.