With an area of 14,318 ha (35,380 acres), the island of Hoy is the second largest of the Orkney Islands. It takes its name from the Old Norse 'Haey' (High Island), the island being hilly in the north and west where Upper Old Red Sandstone has been weathered into steep and craggy uplands. Rising to 479m (1570 feet) at Ward Hill, the highest hill in the Orkney Islands, Hoy is noted for its wildlife and its sandstone sea cliffs which include the famous rock pinnacle, the Old Man of Hoy at 137m (450 feet), first climbed in 1966. Having seen its population drop from 511 (1961) to 419 (1971), the island was sold in 1973 to the Hoy Trust which has tried to encourage resettlement. Crofters have, since then, been able to purchase their landholdings yet, despite a resurgence to 461 in 1981), the population has again slipped back to 450 (1991) and 392 (2001). The RSPB acquired North Hoy Nature Reserve which is noted for its colonies of Arctic and Great Skuas as well as the only mountain hares in the Orkney Islands. Buildings of interest include Melsetter House, a laird's house enlarged in the 19th C., and two Martello Towers which flank the entrance to Long Hope, built to protect that natural harbour from the Americans during the Napoleonic Wars. To the south of Ward Hill and overlooked by crags named the Dwarfie Hamars stands a large block of red sandstone known as the Dwarfie Stone. This is thought to be the only example in the UK of a rock-cut chamber tomb of the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. To the west, is the crofting township of Rackwick which stands beside a fine sand and boulder-strewn beach. To the northeast of Rackwick is Berriedale Wood, the most northerly natural woodland in Britain and at St John's Head can be found the highest vertical cliff in the UK, rising to over 300m (1000 feet). A passenger ferry service links Moness pier near the hamlet of Hoy with Stromness on Mainland Orkney and there are car ferry services to Houton from Lyness, opposite the island of Fara, and the secluded natural harbour of Long Hope.
The Longhope Lifeboat Station at Brims in South Walls, which is now a museum, had a remarkable record for daring rescues and is remembered for the loss of an entire crew when its lifeboat went to assist the stricken Liberian cargo ship, the Irene, in 1969. Lyness was once the site of the shore facilities for the Scapa Flow naval base and much evidence remains, including a military cemetery.