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Walk to School Week: Orkney pupils with an unconventional route to school

The Papay students' boat pulls into the dock for a pickup.
The Papay students' boat pulls into the dock for a pickup.

Not everyone has the option to walk to school, whether because there isn’t a safe route or because there’s a meddling sliver of the North Sea in the way.

A group of Orkney students set sail on the ferry every morning to get to school from their small island of Papa Westray.

Aidan and Rebecca are two Westray pupils who take to the sea every day. They gave us an inside look at their commute, which can give them a chance to see puffins and great views of the sea, but also leaves them open to disruptions caused by the weather.

If the weather’s too rough for a boat ride or there’s a problem with the ferry, the Westray Junior High students also have the option of hopping on the world’s shortest commercial flight. But they said they haven’t had to resort to that, yet.

Walk to school… if you can

This week is Walk to School Week, an initiative by Living Streets to encourage pupils to walk to school and reap the health benefits that comes with regular activity.

But walking isn’t on the cards for Rebecca, Aidan and their fellow travellers.

Rebecca, 14, described her trip from home island Papa Westray, or Papay, to school on nearby Westray.

It includes two buses and a ferry, with a bit of walking on either side.

Papay students board the bus to take them to school from the ferry on Westray
Westray students board the bus to take to school from the ferry. Supplied by Don Hawkins

“The overall time depends if there are delays due to weather or if the pier is being blocked by other boats. But the overall time would normally be around 45 to 50 minutes including busses, the normal boat duration would be 20 to 25 minutes.”

“Walking to school wouldn’t be possible.”

Sometimes Puffins greet students on their way to or from Westray Junior High.

Despite the occasional unpredictability of the journey, it pays off in other ways.

Whether it’s glimpses of local wildlife, including bright-beaked puffins, fishing vessels or the natural landscape, there’s something to see on every ride.

Change of weather, change of plans

Unlike a school bus, ferry service is much less flexible and more susceptible to bouts of bad weather. Choppy seas don’t always mean the boat will be grounded, but Rebecca said greenhorns are in for trouble.

“The weather can make the journey quite miserable for people when they aren’t used to a rocky boat.”

And when the weather is so bad the boat can’t run, students need to make other plans.

Aidan, 16, said that bad weather can leave them scrambling to make arrangements.

“If the ferry doesn’t go in the morning we stay at home and do work that is emailed to us. If the afternoon boat doesn’t go then we have to stay at a friend’s house overnight.”

The ferry from Papay to Westray
Students have to keep a weather eye on the horizon and be ready for any changes to the ferry schedule. Supplied by Don Hawkins

And another S2 pupil said that, in addition to having to work from home, the weather may cut their school day short.

“Due to the weather, sometimes the boat won’t go or we have to go home early.

“Sometimes the boat has broken down so we can’t get to school.”

Papay to Westray: Students set sail, teachers take flight

The students from Papay aren’t the only ones who travel to and from Westray in ways we don’t often associate with the school run. Acting Head Teacher Don Hawkins regularly travels between Kirkwall and Westray on a quick flight that takes about 15 minutes.

The flight from Papay to Westray is the shortest in the world
Acting head teacher Don Hawkins is up close and personal with the pilots and propellers on his flight from Kirkwall to Westray. Supplied by Don Hawkins.

He takes the same plane which goes on to make the world’s shortest flight–from Papay to Westray–which is officially two minutes long but can be as quick as 47 seconds with the right wind.

Mr Hawkins’ flight offers him some fine scenery, including a stunning survey of the archipelago and birds-eye views of the medieval ruins of St Magnus Church on Egilsay.

Majestic views of St Magnus Church during a flyover of Egilsay. Supplied by Don Hawkins

The scheduling of the world’s shortest flight doesn’t suit Mr Hawkins’ or the students’ commutes. But he said he’s still holding out hope that the weather and the timetable will give him the chance to brave the short, windy journey.

What’s your favourite sight on the school run?

Do you have an interesting way of getting to school. Do you run into anything that stands out along the way?

Get in touch with us at and share your pictures and stories from the school run.

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