Friday, 15 August 2014


They say scratch the surface of Orkney and it bleeds history and archaeology.

On a windy day, something of a feature on the Orkney Isles, Pauline and I arrived in Stromness, the westerly port of the Orkney mainland.  We set up our tents for the night in a campground on a small spit of land jutting out into the sea on the outskirts of the town.  The ship we had arrived on was called the Hamnavoe, named after the bay that Stromness is situated on. It is a Norse name, Hamna meaning small island, and Voe meaning inlet.

The narrow main street of Stromness is set back from the sea by a winding row of houses, and it's flagstone-paved road had a ribbon of cobbles running down the centre to prevent horses from slipping on the wet flagstones in days gone by. We cycled east for a few miles to one of Orkney's most famous sites, the Ring of Brodgar. Looking at a postcard or internet image of this stone circle you would be forgiven for thinking it is just a set of standing stones. But when you are there, standing next to ten foot tall slabs of stone, erected some four and a half thousand years ago and lit by the soft glow of the early morning light, there is a real sense of something very special. There are only 23 of the original 60 stones remaining but it was enough to make you wonder how the Neolithic people erected them, let alone got them to the site in the first place. Our timing was perfect as we had the entire site to ourselves and just over an hour later the ubiquitous coach parties started to arrive for their whirlwind visits.

We retraced our route just a mile back down the road to a Neolithic chambered mound, a burial mound to be more precise, Maes Howe. The mound itself is 35m wide and entry is via a low passage way made from giant flagstones. On this occasion we were part of a guided tour, the only way to gain access to the inside. Much like the experience at the standing stones, it was baffling to wonder how on earth, 5,000 years ago, they managed to first of all keep slabs of stone, measuring three foot by 20 foot, upright on their edges, whilst lifting another of the same dimensions, weighing several tons, on top. Inside the main chamber, some five metres square by four metres high, there were three chambers leading off, presumed to be where the deceased were laid. More fascinating for me was ancient graffiti, scratched into the stones by Vikings in the 12th century. It was amusing to learn that they wrote familiar things such as "I was here".

Seven miles to the north west lies probably the most famous of all sites in Orkney, Skara Brae, dating back to 3,500BC. It is Europe's most complete Neolithic settlement, set on the edge of a white-sand beach with aquamarine waters gently lapping onto the shore. In 1850 however, that gentle sea had an altogether different mood. Skara Brae was discovered when a storm in that year washed away the top soil, revealing the outline of the village. 164 years on and it was now swarming with visitors, over 50,000 every year in fact, but that didn't detract from the wonder of such a well preserved piece of history, older than Stonehenge and built before the pyramids in Egypt.

Our camp for the night was on the opposite coast to Skara Brae, not far from the Broch of Gurness, in amongst the sandy dunes of yet another picturesque beach. The wind dropped and I sat in quiet contemplation of the days experiences as the sun set on the horizon.

After a hearty breakfast of eggs on croissants, we set off south east for around 20 miles, to the capital of the Orkney Isles,  Kirkwall. The wind gradually picked up through the day, reaching a challenging headwind of 20mph, and we worked up a sweat powering against it for a further seven miles south of Kirkwall to visit two second world war sites, the Churchill Barriers and the Italian Chapel. After a daring U-Boat attack just months into the start of the second world war, it was decided that four of the entrances to Scapa Flow would be permanently closed off with enormous concrete block barriers, to protect the British naval fleet that regularly anchored there. Scapa Flow is of course world famous as a diving site on the wrecks of the German fleet, scuttled there at the end of the first world war. One wreck though cannot be dived upon, that of HMS Royal Oak, the ship sunk by the U-boat with the loss of 800 men in just a few minutes. Every year since, the Royal Navy replace the ship's ensign as a mark of respect.

At the end of the first barrier is the Italian Chapel, built by Italian prisoners of war in 1943. The prisoners were brought to this spot in the early part of the war to help construct the barriers, and it was decided that a place of worship was needed, so two nissan huts were joined together. What they created is both astonishing and beautiful, and we both felt very moved at the experience.

The following day we travelled by a ferry an hour and a half north to the island of Westray. It was  pouring of rain when we arrived on the island, and the harbour crew kindly allowed us to sleep in the small waiting room at the port for the night. But the following day was glorious, and we set off to explore the island. At a lump of isolated cliff on the east coast called Castle Burian, a large number of seabirds nest. It was late in the season but we were pleased to see a few late nesters of puffins and fulmars. The sea lapping at the edges of the cliff face was the North Sea, and just one mile in the opposite direction we found ourselves on a beach called Mae Sand with the Atlantic lapping onto the shore.

At the north end of the island is the main town of Pierowall, beautifully set in its own bay, on this day bathed in warm sunshine. The final stop was Noup Head lighthouse to the north west, atop high cliffs, home to yet more nesting birds. We returned to the mainland that evening and sadly I knew the next day it would be time for me to leave. Pauline was going on to Shetland but I was returning to  Edinburgh.

The Orkney Isles are a magical place, almost like a different country entirely from Scotland. I had only  scratched the surface of `Orkney, but,  as the ferry rumbled into life and set sail into the darkness, I shed a tear of farewell to these astonishing islands and vowed to return some day soon.

Photos on this Flickr link.

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