Across this body of water there are 2 ways to get to Orkney with a vehicle: (1) “MV Hamnavoe” which is the larger one run by NorthLink Ferries from Scrabster (mainland near Thurso) to Stromness, Orkney. Journey: 1.5 hours. (2) “MVPentalina” catamaran run by Pentland Ferries from Gills Bay (east of Thurso) to St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney. Journey: 1 hour.
Both ferry companies have comprehensive and well-maintained websites for tariffs, timetables and booking arrangements.
Due to the “Hamnavoe” service being off we were obliged to use the route from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope, i.e. the less commodious ferry. We were 2 people in a VW Golf car and travelled both there and back in the third week of May (2013). It was absolutely fine, i.e. safe, efficient, ran to time, had an above-deck enclosed seating area, toilets and a small kiosk for snacks.
|MV Pentalina at ferry terminus in St Margaret's Hope, South Ronaldsay, Orkney|
However, here are some observations:
 Book ahead:
This particular ferry services to Orkney functions as one of the arterial routes for both residents, visitors and commerce. Depending of time of day and volume of traffic (particularly commercial vehicles) there can be a lot of vehicles involved in the operation of loading, parking on board, then disembarking whilst the queue for the return journey prepares for the next sailing.
 Getting on and off the ferry:
Yes, they pack them in! I was impressed that the man guiding me forward into the open hold. He left exactly (his) one shin’s width between my car and the one in front. Trusting fellow!
On the return journey I had to reverse in, down the ramp into the hold. Large supermarket trailer units had been loaded on first and the cars, vans and motor cycles were (all) tightly arranged in lines for smooth disembarking. Also, it would appear that size of vehicle is a factor as to where you go in the queue. i.e. it may be not be first come, first on.
If you are a visitor queuing up with the trailer section of large lorries, plumbers’ and builders’ vans consider: can you get your car into a suburban garage with a hand’s width of space on either side? Can you reverse? ... down a ramp?... using just your mirrors? (Obviously someone could do it for you, if necessary.)
This photo shows the cars lined up in the hold. Because this vessel has only one way of driving on board, i.e. a ramp at the bow end only, vehicles are loaded and arranged such that they can be driven off the same way as they were driven on. On the lower right of the photo there appears to be one car towing a caravan.
 Factor in the weather: