An easy circular walk around Mull Head, a Local Nature Reserve.
Distance 4 miles (6.4km)
Minimum time 2hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 93ft (28m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Continuous, 4 kissing gates, 2 stiles
Landscape Moorland, cliff edge
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 461 Orkney - East Mainland
Start/finish HY 590079
Dog friendliness Dogs not allowed due to wildlife
Parking Mull Head car park (free)
Public toilets None on route
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1 Leave the car park at the right-hand corner and follow the direction sign along the gravel path to The Gloup, where you will find two viewing platforms and an information plaque.
2 Past The Gloup you will see a red-painted kissing gate and a directional sign pointing left; this will lead you along a grassy footpath to the Brough of Deerness (pronounced broch), but a more interesting route, perhaps, is straight ahead and then left along the cliff edge, also following a grassy path.
3 At the Brough is another information plaque and, in the cliff edge, a precipitous stone staircase which takes you down the cliff and, by turning right at the beach, into a sheltered stony bay, Little Burra Geo. You will see, in the edge of the Brough wall, a steep dirt path which you can climb with the help of a chain set into the rock. This will take you to the top of the Brough so that you can explore the ancient site here.
4 Having climbed back to the main route, another red-painted kissing gate on your right shows the footpath leading along to the cairn at Mull Head. From the cairn the path turns left and becomes much narrower, although still clear, taking you along the northern cliff edge.
5 The path turns sharp left just before a wire fence and climbs uphill through moorland to another red-painted kissing gate.
6 Turn right here and go down to yet another gate you can see in the fencing above a derelict farmhouse, East Denwick. Here turn left along a wide track and climb the hill until the track becomes very overgrown and a left turn travels downhill to a small red-painted gate on your left.
7 The narrow grass path through the gate and between wire fences turns sharp right and leads back into the car park.
This walk follows the story of the landscape. The Gloup for a start - from the Old Norse word 'gluppa' meaning chasm - is not the only collapsed cave in Orkney, but at 100ft (30m) deep, it is the most visited and a remarkable feature formed entirely by the force of the North Sea. The parish of Deerness where it lies is a peninsula joined to Orkney's Mainland only by a very narrow spit and the land has been affected constantly by people and the climate. The Orkneyinga Saga mentions Deerness several times and nearby excavations by archaeologists have turned up an Iron-Age settlement, a Pictish farm, obvious Norse remains and a hog-back gravestone in the kirkyard dating from ad 1100. The first people to have an impact on Mull Head were neolithic. The ancient scrubland was grazed by animals, then Norsemen played their part, followed in their turn by folk 'paring' - stripping off the top soil for use elsewhere - during the 18th century. Thus Mull Head has been continuously grazed, creating a mature heather heath and very impoverished soil.
Mull Head was declared a Local Nature Reserve by Orkney Islands Council in 1993, the ninth in Scotland, and because it has been spared modern agricultural 'improvement' it is now very rich. The rocks themselves, which you will see as you walk the headland, are 350 million years old. There are two types: Eday flags, which are coarse red sandstone, and Rousay flags at the south end of the reserve, both formed from conditions when Lake Orcadie covered this land. Visible ripples in the stone are characteristic of formation in shallow flowing water.
The plants which survive here are determined by the location too - how close to the sea they are, how fertile the soil is where they grow, how marshy it is and how influenced by humans. Plants that have to withstand the salt spray at the cliff edge, such as sea pink or thrift, will hug the ground. As well as salt tolerators and salt haters, plants which prefer marshy conditions, such as grass of Parnassus, grow here.
Mull Head has never been ploughed, although Clu Ber, the first range of cliffs you will see, has been burned, cultivated and fertilised to allow grazing for stock, and even though this was done generations ago, the heather's destruction means that grass and different herb species thrive. The final influence on the plants are the activities of some of the birds. Islands of lush grass found on the heath are where great black-backed gulls roost each night, the grasses benefiting because they fertilise the soil.
The Brough of Deerness is well worth a visit as long as the tide is right, but take care as it can become almost cut off. The bays give you an excellent insight into rock striations. The chapel here is thought to be Norse, stone replacing an earlier wooden structure, and excavations showed upwards of 21 huts around it with a 'street' dividing them, implying this may have been an early Christian monastery. A hoard of coins was found dating between 1642 and 1860, although it is known that the island was used into the 19th century. Note that the protective wall shows signs of a gateway and an earlier land bridge to the mainland.
The great skua is the largest of the skuas, with dark brownish plumage and white wing flashes. Its exotic name first appeared in 1605 and in Orkney it is more often called a bonxie. The great skua feeds by pursuing other birds and snatching their food, although it also takes live fish, eggs and smaller birds. It nests on the hill at Mull Head and can be quite aggressive when breeding during August to October. If you are dive-bombed raise your stick, your hat or your arm to ward it off, although you probably won't have a problem if you follow the route.
There is nowhere in Deerness to eat and drink and you will need to take your own provisions, but you could use the nearest pub, the Quoyburray (grid ref HY 508055) which is open all year, although lunches are available only on Saturday and Sunday in the winter. It's best to book (tel 01856 861255).