Orcadians are proud of their islands. When visitors arrive, we like nothing better than giving them a guided tour of some of our favourite places.
That’s especially true for the thousands of cruise ship passengers that set foot on Orkney soil every season. Some travel into Kirkwall to explore the town, but the majority head out on coaches to see the Heart of Neolithic Orkney and our other highlights.
There is another way for them to see the sites though, and that’s by employing their own private tour guide. The growth in the cruise trade locally has led to an increased number of qualified guides, all equipped with their mini-buses and microphones, providing friendly, personal and private tours for day visitors.
Jean Ross is one of them. She launched her business, Great Orkney Tours, six years ago. “I was a tour guide at Highland Park Distillery, then with Historic Environment Scotland. One of my friends had completed the Green Badge Tourist Guide qualification and I thought ‘I quite fancy that’,” said Jean.
“After I was qualified I did the cruise ship coach tours, but I soon realised that I really wanted to work with smaller groups, and with my own vehicle.”
That dream was realised when her partner bought her first vehicle in 2011. Since then, Jean hasn’t looked back, investing in her brand new mini-bus earlier this year. “I just love the job, you get to meet such lovely people,” she said. “With the smaller tours, you can get to know them as well and share a nice laugh.”
Jean obviously takes pride in the service she provides too. Her bus, emblazoned with her business name, is absolutely spotless – both inside and out. She’s constantly keeping it spick and span at her home in Tankerness, ready for the next cruise ship to call in. She does take private bookings throughout the year, but the majority of her work comes directly from passengers looking for a tour of the mainland during their short stop in Orkney.
One of the main advantages of the smaller tours is the opportunity to head off the beaten track to some of Orkney’s lesser known sites – locations the larger coaches can’t reach. Jean regularly takes her groups to places like the Orkney Brewery, Kirbister Farm Museum and the Broch of Gurness. “That’s the nice thing about leading a small group, you can really show them parts of Orkney that others won’t see,” said Jean.
“You can be flexible too – you can make sure you avoid the main sites at the busy times, and you can respond to what the visitors are interested in. I often head to the Brough of Birsay because puffins are regularly high on the ‘must see’ list. I do my best find one for them!”
It’s that personal touch that’s so important for Orkney’s band of private tour guides. There’s no doubt that passengers on the larger coaches get an excellent experience, with talented and knowledgeable guides making sure they are fully immersed in island information during their day here. According to Jean though, those on the private tours get that more intimate experience.
“A lot of the time the passengers want to hear about you and your connection to the place. They love to listen to stories of your family and of growing up in Orkney. It gives them a real taste of life in the islands.” said Jean.
Membership of the Orkney Tourist Guides Association continues to grow thanks to the increased number of cruise ship visitors arriving in the islands, providing a busy summer of bookings for all involved. For Jean, it’s more than just a season of work, it’s now part of her life and a year-round job.
“Without the cruise industry Orkney as a whole would be missing out on a lot of business in various ways, and I wouldn’t be here doing this,” she said. “And this is something that’s very important to me.”