Whisky, cycling and birds in Scotland: Part II Glasgow and Orkney

I and my husband Toni had a fantastic holiday on Islay in July 2016. After that we quite soon decided that we will go again to Scotland in summer 2017. We had several choices but in the end we decided to spend 6 nights in Glasgow and 8 nights in Orkney. From both locations the plan was to do day-trips to nearby places. Glasgow would be a more city holiday (with plenty of walking), and on Orkney we would rent bikes and cycle around (in addition to plenty of walking).


19th June 2017

We had an afternoon Easyjet flight from Berlin to Glasgow. After arrival, we decided to take a taxi to the Airbnb we had rented. That was in Finnieston, and the location was much better than I had expected. There were lots of restaurants and bars within a short walking distance. Also our room at the Airbnb was nice. We were quite hungry and left soon to look a place for dinner. After few minutes of walking we saw Islay Inn. It was the obvious choice right away. And it actually was a very good pub with plenty of different drinks and delicious food.


20th June 2017

We walked to the Glasgow city centre and saw some sights there. We happened to walk past the Shilling Brewing Company and decided to have afternoon drinks there. My Unicorn IPA was very tasty, and also Toni liked his beer. After that we walked to the Lighthouse which had very nice views over Glasgow. It was still early, so we walked to check the George Square and sat down for another beer at The Ark. We did some googling and noticed that the Tennent’s brewery had a guided tour still at 18:00. It was then 17:00, so I called there and asked if there was space in the last tour of the day. Yes there was, so we walked the 20 minutes to the brewery. The tour was very interesting and our guide Tom was nice and helpful. We got to taste four different beers after the tour: Heverlee, Tennent’s Stout, Tennent’s Whisky Oak and Tennent’s Extra. I liked most the Heverlee. Since we were on the other side of the city from our Airbnb and it was getting late, we asked Tom if he had a phone number for a taxi. So, I called us a taxi that drove us to Finnieston. We had a dinner and one more drink, and then it was time to go to sleep.


21st June 2017

For this day we had planned a visit to the Auchentoshan whisky distillery. So, we took a train to Kilpatrick, and with some help from a local person found the walking route to the distillery. The distillery could put one or two signs somewhere for people not arriving with cars. We got places to a guided tour, and it was quite big group, almost 20 people. But our guide Brian walked us all through the difference stages of distilling. And of course, in the end we had tastings of the products. First we had American Oak, then a cocktail with Auchentoshan whisky in it and last the Distiller’s Art. After the visit we walked back to the train station. One of the most surprising bird observations was during this walk. A female bullfinch flew from the forest, pecked something on the road in front of us, and flew back to forest. I hadn’t expected to see that species here. We took a train to Partick to visit the Riverside Museum. It was a great place. Lots of old cars, trains, trams, subways, a model of an old town with shops etc, and the Tall Ship Glenlee. We walked then back to Finnieston for dinner.


22nd June 2017

We wanted to visit Loch Lomond but it was a bit challenging to find out how to manage that with public transport. The weather forecast for the whole day was rather rainy, so we didn’t want to walk any long distances. But everything worked in the end as we had planned. We first took a train to Tarbet. We had there a bit over an hour time to enjoy the view over the lake. Then we took a local bus to Luss. There we had a bit more time and walked around the village, had some ice cream, Toni tasted Loch Lomond whisky and then we took a waterbus across the lake to Balloch. There we first went to restaurant Tullie Inn to warm up and have dinner. There were trains back to Glasgow every half an hour, so we were in no hurry. We walked a bit by the lake to see the Balloch castle on top of the hill, and some birds by the shore. Then we took a train back Glasgow.


23rd June 2017

We did a roundtrip in Glasgow. First we took a bus to city centre, walked there a bit and went for one drink to The Pot Still. It was a quite nice pub but very full, maybe because it was Friday. Then we took another bus to check the Botanic Gardens. Very pretty place and we briefly stopped at a cafeteria there. The main goal on this day was dinner at Kelbourne Saint. The place is famous from Trainspotting where it was a bar. But now it’s a very good bistro restaurant. I had a delicious pulled chicken burger. After the dinner we found our way back to Finnieston with couple of buses.


24th June 2017

This was our last full day in Glasgow. We again took a bus to city centre and then to the Glasgow Cathedral. It was a very nice coincidence that there was just beginning a traditional Scottish wedding. We saw the guests and bride enter the church for the ceremony behind the closed doors in the front of the church. The weather was again quite rainy but we wanted anyway to check the Necropolis next to the Cathedral. The old and even older tombstones on the hill were very photogenic. And there is a great view to the Cathedral from up there. And again we returned to Finnieston with a bus and had dinner there.


25th June 2017

We had a morning flight from Glasgow to Kirkwall, Orkney. We called again a taxi and arrived to the airport well in time. The plane for the one-hour flight was quite small. There were some problems with one of the two engines when we were about to leave but everything was fixed in 15 minutes, so not a big delay. It was no surprise that it was raining in Kirkwall. Fortunately our Airbnb host Annie had promised to pick us from the airport. Our room at her house was perfect. We hadn’t slept that well the past couple nights so we decided to take a two-hour nap before leaving anywhere. That was a great idea. We felt refreshed and walked down to the city centre and first stopped at Judith Glue for coffee and sandwiches. Then we walked a bit around and went for dinner at Bothy Bar.


26th June 2017

Toni had booked us two bikes already in advance and this morning we went to pick them up. My bike was ok but Toni had some problems with his bike, so after we had cycled on top of a hill we had to turn back. We returned to the bike shop and they gave Toni another bike which after some fixing worked better. The plan was not to cycle that much on the first day but that was not what happened. First we cycled to Scapa Flow and I was amazed by the fulmars flying past. We noticed a path going by the bay, so we left our bikes and walked that. It went behind the Scapa whisky distillery, and we noticed that there was an entrance also on that side, steps over the rock fence. So, on our way back we went there and booked a guided tour for Thursday afternoon. Then we continued cycling and ended up to the Highland Park whisky distillery. We booked there a guided tour for Friday. At that point we decided that’s enough cycling (uphill) for one day. So, a quick shower at Airbnb and then we walked to city centre for dinner.


27th June 2017

We did today the cycling trip that Toni had planned to do already yesterday. It was much better that we did it today. We had time to stop to enjoy the views, observe some birds etc. So, we cycled south from Kirkwall to the Barrier Islands. These are small islands connected by barriers made of huge concrete blocks. They were made originally to block the German submarines during WWII and now there is a road on top of each one. On the first island is the Italian Chapel. It was painted and decorated by an Italian prisoner-of-war. Stunningly beautiful! We cycled further south to the next island before turning back. We stopped several times to walk a bit to see a beach, cliffs, birds, grey seals etc. At one point I tried to take a photo of a seal close to the shore when I raised my eyes just to see a great skua flying almost over me. My first ever sighting of this amazing bird species! After returning to Kirkwall we took again a quick shower and headed for dinner in city centre.


28th June 2017

Now it was time to head north, with a ferry to Stronsay. Already at the Kirkwall harbour I noticed a juvenile puffin. At that point I didn’t know that it would be the only puffin I would see during this trip. During the ferry ride I spotted with my binoculars few gannets, fulmars, black guillemots etc. Stronsay was advertised as a perfect island for cycling because it is so flat. Hmm… Maybe a bit flatter that the Orkney main island but there are still hills. 😉 We had some kind of map of the island but it would have been nice if there had been some sign posts to the main sights. We ended up cycling to the southern shore of the island. There was a path that was mostly good enough for cycling, so we cycled on it because we wanted to see the cliffs at Lamb Head at the furthest end of the path. The cliffs were amazing and there were most likely hundreds of fulmars breeding, so we didn’t want to get too close to disturb them. Our map had the path continue further but we didn’t see any, so we returned the same way back. At that point we had to make some decisions what to see, since it was only couple hours before the last ferry left. We wanted to see Vat of Kirbister, so we cycled that direction and then walked a narrow path quite long. But it was worth it. The natural stone arch was amazing! And we made it to the ferry even though we accidentally missed the shortest route. Fortunately Stronsay is a small island. Actually we had time for one beer at the harbour pub before the ferry even arrived. 😉 At Kirkwall we walked straight to a rather fancy restaurant in our sweaty clothes but I’m sure we were not first cyclists to come there straight from the ferry. They did give us the table close to the door. 😀


29th June 2017

After three cycling days this day started very differently. I had a presentation at the Biotweeps Twitter conference. I had already scheduled my presentation tweets in advance but I wanted to be online in case someone wanted to ask something. The ornithology session was great. And I think at least half of the six presenters had some Scotland connection. And I did get some questions. Then it was time to go to the Scapa distillery for the guided tour. It was raining a bit but it was only couple of kilometres, so we walked there. Now we had a small group, only seven people and our guide Eric was excellent. It was not allowed to take photos inside the distillery. After the tour we got tasting of four different whiskies. The first one was not actually whisky because it was straight from the still and not yet casked. Then we tasted Skiren and Glansa. The last tasting was offered straight from a cask. Toni said that was one of the best whiskies he has ever tasted. When we left from the distillery it was raining heavily. But luckily we had to walk only couple of hundred meters when a Scapa distillery car stopped by and asked if we wanted a lift to Kirkwall. Yes, please. Thank you to who ever those two important looking men were. 🙂 At Kirkwall we visited the St. Magnus Cathedral, and had dinner + couple of drinks.


30th June 2017

Now it was time for the other pre-booked guided whisky distillery tour, Highland Park. That was even closer walking distance than yesterday, less than two kilometres. Also the weather was better. Again the tour was enjoyable. There it was allowed to take photos in all other places except next to the stills. We were again a rather big group and our guide Ross was filled with funny stories. I liked most the barn swallows breeding next to the kilns. The workers observe each spring when they arrive to breed and write that date on a board. 🙂 After the tour we tasted again in total four different whiskies. The first two, the 10-year-old (new product) and 12-year-old, were quite standard ones. The third one was called Leif Ericsen. Ross told that normally the fourth would be the 18-year-old but that batch is running out so we tasted the 21-year-old. We were not complaining. 😉 From the distillery we walked to the city centre and visited the ruins of Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces. Then we walked a bit by the shoreline, bought some food for the next day from shop and had dinner.


1st July 2017

This was our last day of cycling. We had several islands we wanted to visit, but in the end the slightly rainy weather forecast and reduced ferry timetable on Saturday left Shapinsay as the only reasonable choice. It was again a bit flatter than the main island but plenty of cycling up and down the hills anyway. The ferry journey from Kirkwall to Balfour was only 30 minutes. From Balfour we cycled first to an RSPB birdwatching hide by a small lake in the middle of the island. It was very well equipped and we saw lots of waterbirds: tufted duck with ducklings, lots of greylag geese with goslings, coot, moorhen, gulls etc. From there we continued cycling to the south-eastern corner of the island and then up the eastern coast. We had some kind of map of the island, and we saw a walking path there. It was excellent finding. We saw lots of fulmars nesting on the cliffs, arctic skua, breeding pair of great skuas, razorbills, shags, black guillemots, golden plover, common snipe etc. And amazing views! We didn’t want to miss the last ferry back to Kirkwall and the weather was getting rainier, so we started our way back well in time. For the first time in this holiday we had to get rain coats from our backbags since there were couple rain showers. The ferry came over an hour before the departure to harbour and we went in right away since there was nothing to do in rain at the harbour area. At Kirkwall we had dinner at a harbour restaurant.


2nd July 2017

This was the last full day of this holiday, and we had not yet seen the most famous sight of Orkney; Skara Brae. The weather forecast was again a bit rainy, and there would have been too much cycling, so we took a local bus to Stennes, and then walked the road on the narrow isthmus between Loch Stenness and Loch of Harray to Skara Brae. That was 10+ km of walking but we had plenty of time. On the way we stopped to see the over 5000 year old remains built by the former inhabitants at Standing Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar. Once we finally arrived to Skara Brae, we first had a cup of coffee and sandwich at the cafeteria. Then we asked from the information desk could they call us a taxi back. There were no buses, because it was Sunday. They said that it usually takes 1.5 hours to see Skara Brae, so they booked a taxi to arrive then. Skara Brae was amazing. How could all those huts and small things have survived over 5000 years? I’m sure we were not the only ones thinking that the place looks a bit like Hobbiton. 😉 We also had time to visit the 17th century mansion, Skaill House, right next to Skara Brae. The taxi took us to Kirkwall and I had one more plate of fish and chips, this time again at Bothy Bar. On this day we walked in total over 18 km.


3rd July 2017

Annie kindly drove us again to the airport. On our way we returned our rental bikes to the cycle shop. We were at the airport well in time. Kirkwall airport is such a small one, that there’s no need to be as early as in bigger airports. We had an interesting flight route back home: Kirkwall-Edinburgh-Birmingham-Berlin. There were several possibilities of missing a flight or luggage but in the end everything went fine.


This was again an excellent holiday. So, in total we visited three whisky distilleries (+ one brewery), cycled something 100+ kilometres, walked 100+ kilometres and observed at least 63 bird species. After these two very successful holidays in Scotland, it is very possible that we will travel there again, maybe already next year. 🙂


Some quick thoughts of our holiday:

  1. Both our Airbnb hosts, Joel in Glasgow and Annie in Kirkwall, were very nice and helpful.
  2. The public transport inside Glasgow is a bit complicated. The buses were the only option for us because no subway station was nearby. There are several bus companies and all of them have their own ticket system. Fortunately we could manage quite ok with the bus company First.
  3. The train connections from Glasgow to the surroundings were much better. We had one station (Exhibition Centre) just few hundred metres from the Airbnb.
  4. Six days was too short time to see everything in and around Glasgow. It would have been nice to see more of Loch Lomond and the island Arran. Next time then.
  5. Cycling on Orkney was easy. Cars passed us with plenty of distance between and roads were mainly in good condition. After a few days we got used to the left-sided traffic.
  6. Orkney was very beautiful place and there were too many interesting places to see in eight days. Now we missed almost totally the western part and the seabird colonies there. And we didn’t have time to visit the island of Hoy. We will definitely travel there again.
  7. All the guided tours on distilleries and brewery were worth the money. Even though we have now seen quite many distilleries, there’s always something extra or different at each one of them.
  8. I lost count how many fish and chips dinners I had. But they were all delicious. 😉
  9. One new bird species observation for me, great skua.
  10. On Orkney rock doves are real rock doves, breeding on cliffs. In Kirkwall city centre there were collared doves.
  11. Orkney is farmland. So there are lots of birds related to fields and cattle, such as curlews, lapwings, skylarks, yellowhammers, starlings etc. You can also smell the cattle in almost everywhere (except not in the whisky distilleries). 😉
  12. Note to the next travel. Get proper paper maps of the places, preferably Ordnance Survey maps.


Birds species I observed and identified

northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), northern gannet (Morus bassanus), great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), European shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis), grey heron (Ardea cinerea), mute swan (Cygnus olor), greylag goose (Anser anser), common shelduck (Tadorna tadorna), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), tufted duck (Aythya fuligula), common eider (Somateria mollissima), red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator), common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), common coot (Fulica atra), Eurasian oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), common ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula), Eurasian golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria), northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), common redshank (Tringa totanus), Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata), common snipe (Gallinago gallinago), great skua (Stercorarius skua), arctic skua (Stercorarius parasiticus), black-headed gull (Larus ridibundus), mew gull (Larus canus), herring gull (Larus argentatus), lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus graellsii), great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), common tern (Sterna hirundo), arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica), black guillemot (Cepphus grylle), razorbill (Alca torda), rock dove (Columba livia), wood pigeon (Columba palumbus), Eurasian collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto), common swift (Apus apus), Eurasian skylark (Alauda arvensis), barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), northern house martin (Delichon urbicum), meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis), pied wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii), dunnock (Prunella modularis), European robin (Erithacus rubecula), northern wheather (Oenanthe oenanthe), song thrush (Turdus philomelos), Eurasian blackbird (Turdus merula), sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus), willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus), common chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), great tit (Parus major), blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), common magpie (Pica pica), Eurasian jackdaw (Corvus monedula), rook (Corvus frugilegus), hooded crow (Corvus corone cornix), carrion crow  (Corvus corone corone), European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), house sparrow (Passer domesticus), chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), European goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula), yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)


© Elina Mäntylä (elkuma@utu.fi), 20 July 2017


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