A holiday… but not from books!

posted in: 2. Illustrators and Authors | 19

For the last two week’s I’ve been on holiday in one of my very favourite places in the world, Orkney. An archipelago of islands just off the Northern coast of Scotland, my girls called it what I have long know it to be: “Paradise!”

Our first sighting of Orkney this holiday - the island of Hoy
Our first sighting of Orkney this holiday – the island of Hoy
Aikerness beach, on the largest of the Orkney Islands, known as "Mainland"
Aikerness beach, on the largest of the Orkney Islands, known as “Mainland”
The largest town on Mainland, Kirkwall (population c 8,500)
The largest town on Mainland, Kirkwall (population c 8,500)
Travelling between islands
Travelling between islands

But being away from this blog (and all of the internet, and even phone connections) didn’t mean being away from books. Indeed, books were everywhere we turned.

On our way up to Orkney we stopped for a night in Inverness where we discovered a magical secondhand bookshop, Leakey’s.





Constrained by the need to choose something slim and light I chose an old Puffin edition of The Children of Green Know by Lucy M. Boston.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to sample the delights of the cafe on the balcony in the bookshop but I know at some point in the future I will be returning here, even if it is an 8-10 hour train ride away.

And talking of long train rides, (from Inverness we had another 4.5 hour train ride up to Thurso, at the very “top” of Scotland, and the nearest town to the ferry port from where we departed for Orkney), what made them a delight for us all – apart from the stunning scenery – was an MP3 player loaded up with audio books.


One of the audiobooks loaded onto the MP3 player was a collection of Katie Morag stories (here’s my review of that particular audiobook). Although these are actually set in the Western Isles of Scotland (which have quite a different flavour to Orkney), they’re a must-have for anyone wanting a taste of Scottish Island Life!

One of the reasons we travelled “off the top of the map”, was so that I could read one particular book on location


…in the neolithic village of Skara Brae. Part of Orkney’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, Skara Brae is a stone-built settlement, which was occupied from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE. It is in an amazing state of preservation, complete with stone beds, cupboards, fireplaces and water storage, and is the setting for The Boy with the Bronze Axe by Kathleen Fidler.


The Boy with the Bronze Axe was just one of several carefully chosen books we read as a family whilst on holiday, and I’ll be returning later in the week with a review of it.

Just next to Skara Brae is Skaill House, a mansion built in 1620 for the local laird and his family. Stately homes don’t really do it for me, but I enjoyed this one for two particular bookish reasons.

I had read about Skaill House’s hidden door in the library bookshelves, and sure enough, it didn’t disappoint:


beststoryeverOne of the books on the shelves summed up what I was already feeling about this holiday; I really was living the best story ever 🙂

(This book, by the way, is by an Orcadian author who wrote prolifically in the first half of the 20th century. It is a set of “entertaining adventures and confusions, including impersonations of a curate, a lord’s valet, a schoolmaster, and a long-lost nephew, the latter achieved by shaking off his asylum minder and dropping into a funeral carriage.” One reviewer said of it, ‘I read it in the bath and nearly drowned myself. It is so uproariously, side-splittingly funny’ [source])

Upstairs I came upon a scene which made me wish I had packed The Tiger Skin Rug by Gerald Rose in my bag.


Back in the largest town on the largest island, Kirkwall on “Mainland”, I came across this in the museum:

 A ticket for a "Special Reading" at the Kirkwall Young Men's Literary Association
A ticket for a “Special Reading” at the Kirkwall Young Men’s Literary Association

No more details were given with this object, but I’d be very happy indeed to become a new member of this association!

I was also very taken by this book in the museum (unfortunately I didn’t note down any details):


Kirkwall’s public library was utterly inspirational. Incredibly well stocked, a wonderfully enticing space to be in, it was the only thing that made me wish it had rained more whilst on holiday! (I’d have had the excuse to spend longer there ;-))



After a week spent on Mainland, we spent a week on one of Orkney’s other islands. Right by the ferry terminal I discovered another wonderful place to sit and read: Betty’s Reading Room.



A local couple turned a ruined farm building into an oasis, in memory of a friend who died unexpectedly. It’s packed literally to the rafters with books of all sorts for all ages and it works like a library-cum-book-crossing; you’re welcome to take any book you like with you with the encouragement you try to leave it somewhere when you’re finished with it so that it can be passed on to a new reader.

Inside Betty's Reading Room
Inside Betty’s Reading Room

Do click here to see a short film from the BBC about Betty’s Reading Room – you’ll see how the reading room has no electricity or heating, so there are lanterns and a woodfire, all of which add to the very special atmosphere in Betty’s Reading Room.

Slightly older stock than in Kirkwall's library, but still full of an excellent range of books
Slightly older stock than in Kirkwall’s library, but still full of an excellent range of books

We took a copy of Avalanche by Dutch author by An Rutgers van der Loeff, and at the end of our holiday we left 5 books we’d read during the fortnight but were now happy to pass on.

I was incredibly moved by this place – what a wonderful way to honour a much loved friend! I dropped some none-too-discrete hints to my husband that this is how I’d like to be remember after I’m gone.

19 Responses

  1. Katherine

    Oh wow, can’t wait to go back up and see Betty’s Reading Room, what an amazing place. I can confirm that Leakey’s cafe is lovely. Don’t know if I’ve mentioned to you before but Mairi Hedderwick’s Peedie Peebles Summer or Winter Book is set in Orkney, or at least the illustrations are of a house there. She wrote it when visiting Orkney in 1987 and stayed with some childhood friends of our family, the youngest known as Peedie Peebles. I remember going to see her do a talk about Katie Morag at the Pier Arts Centre and being totally entranced.

    Stromness Library is being redeveloped so hopefully that will be another great space in the future, Kirkwall Library is brilliant.
    Katherine recently posted..32/52

  2. Mary Irons

    You would love Olivier Dunrea’s “Hanne’s Quest,” a magical adventure with a little chicken protagonist inspired by time Dunrea spent in the Orkney Islands. This is a lovely book full of wonder, and beautifully illustrated by Dunrea.

  3. Zoe

    Thank you Mary – I didn’t know the Orkney connection in the Dunrea book.

    Yes, Katherine, we saw the Stromness library redevelopment – a great location right in the heart of the town. And good to know about Peedie Peebles Summer/Winter Book – I have it, but I didn’t realise it was inspired by an Orkney setting.

    Damyanti, Pip, Veena, thanks for your kind words – hoping you get to visit Orkney one day!
    Zoe recently posted..A holiday… but not from books!

  4. Carol Willshire

    We are off to Orkney at the end of the month,
    This will be our 3rd visit. This time we are taking friends with us to show them the delights of these beautiful islands.
    Looking forward to Betty’s Reading Room.
    Must go and start reading the books we have on Orkney.

  5. Kimberly

    I can’t recall how I stumbled upon your blog, but I so enjoy your posts! I particularly enjoyed this recounting of your recent travels and the wonderful book buying, borrowing, and reading spots you encountered along the way. I would love to visit the spots you mention, but since we live near Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.A., the cost of getting there would be substantial. Are you familiar with the Little Free Library Movement? (http://www.littlefreelibrary.org/) Betty’s Reading Room reminds me of that, though the Little Free Libraries are on a much smaller scale. We set up a “little library” of sorts on our front porch: http://studio5.ksl.com/?nid=71&sid=22512018. That’s been fun, but I’m quite taken with the idea of a Reading Room. Wonderful!

  6. Fiona

    Oh this is just wonderful! I have loved both The Children of Green Knowe (I now have 3 copies!) and The Boy with the Bronze Axe since I was s girl, and have long wanted to go to Orkney. If my family won’t come with me next year, I may just have to run away and go alone! Thanks for such inspiration 🙂
    Fiona recently posted..Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

  7. Zoe

    Hi Kimberley,

    Yes, absolutely – Betty’s Reading Room is like an enlarged Little Free Library. How wonderful that you set up one 🙂


    The Boy with the Bronze Axe was a discovery in adulthood for me, but I’ve so enjoyed it, and so have my girls. There was something very very special about reading it at Skara Brae itself. Hope you get the chance to do that one day!

  8. choxbox

    Sounds awesome Zoe. Some day.. and now its do-able too!

    And we chanced upon this place called Henry Sotheran’s near Piccadilly Circus. Leakey’s looks exactly like that place 🙂

  9. Caroline Lennox

    Wow Zoe, the second hand bookshop was such a find… exactly how every bookshop should be with that impressive staircase and shelves and shelves of treasure!! Such a fantastic holiday for your family… enjoy!!! xx
    Caroline Lennox recently posted..Thing 1 Pop-Up Craft

  10. Summer’s end? – Scottish Roundup

    […] for some snaps to show off our beautiful country!  Lynne Rickards’ family visited Mull and Playing by the Books’ went to Orkney – beautiful pictures in each, making me want to go back to both places. In the […]

  11. Lynne Rickards

    Hi Zoe,
    Looks like you had fantastic weather at Skara Brae. That’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit! Betty’s Reading Room is a brilliant idea, and Leakey’s looks amazing as well. Maybe next summer we’ll venture all the way to Orkney…
    Lynne Rickards recently posted..Singalong with Pink!

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