I was having a snooze. It had been an early start that morning and I can sleep anywhere. A busy ferry with noisy passengers, diesel engines and a rolling swell – no problem. Still, it was a light nap and I woke easily when the ferry engines suddenly shut down. We couldn’t be there already, we were maybe only halfway, had we broken down…..?
“Ladies and gentleman, Orca off the port bow” said the ships Captain over the PA system. The ferry lurched violently 45 degrees to the side as every single passenger runs over to gaze, admire and go “wooooooow!”
And so begins another trip to the fabulous islands of Orkney. The journey up through the mainland is an adventure in itself, but it’s only upon boarding the ferry the anticipation really cranks up.
It’s maybe no surprise the job of driver/guide has taken me to some new parts of my own country, and Orkney is probably the finest example of this. It really did take me by surprise. I know the West coast islands well. Their feeling, their nature, their pent up aggression, their ability to bite. Surely Orkney will be of a similar character? Actually no. Not even close. A much greener, softer and more developed landscape than expected with ribbons of road tracing a most dramatic coastline. Fields full of crops and animals including, bizarrely enough, Brian and Peter, the charismatic hairy Hungarian pigs! Damn these boys are cute. Geology is laid bare around the extensive coastline telling a story of a wet, tropical past and the wind, it blows, sometimes hard.
Orkney is an archipelago consisting of almost 70 individual islands situated around 60 degrees and 10 miles North of the Scottish mainland. Strangely none of the islands themselves are called Orkney and the name applies to the group as a whole. The largest and most inhabited is called Mainland, home to the big centres of population Kirkwall and Stromness. Mainland itself is connected to several other nearby islands by causeways, whilst a comprehensive inter-island ferry service can get the independent traveller wherever they need to be.
In my mind, many of the various islands we visit around our coast have their own themes. Skye for fairies and dramatic scenery. Mull for pure wilderness and wildlife. Lewis/Harris for that Edge of The World feeling and it’s incredible beaches! Orkney? Orkney has history. History and herstory. The air is thick with it. For lovers of such things, you’re in for a treat.
We spend nearly two full days on Orkney and a large part of the focus is on visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The site comprises four different venues:
- Skara Brae – the best preserved example of Neolithic housing in Northern Europe.
- Maeshowe – beautifully preserved Neolithic burial chamber with Vikiing graffiti carved inside.
- Stones of Stenness – one of the oldest stone circles in the UK.
- Ring of Brodgar – the iconic henge with it’s huge 104m diameter.
Whilst individually each of these sites is impressive on it’s own right. When looked upon collectively as part of a larger settled, harmonious community it becomes even more so. As humans resettle these lands after the retreat of the last Ice Age, and re-establish after the brutal Storegga Slide, the knowledge of farming arrives and with it the opportunity to live a different life, raise more children, develop larger communities and specialists and begin to alter our landscape. Here on Orkney that story is told unlike anywhere else in Scotland and with the exciting discoveries still unfolding at the ongoing Ness of Brodgar site that story continues today.
Orkney, along with Shetland, was the last part of the Scottish jigsaw puzzle that brought together the final map of the country. From Viking colonisation late in the 9th century, until the late 1460’s Orkney was under the authority of various Scandinavian and Danish leaders. Only upon the marriage of our King James 3rd to Princess Margaret of Denmark did Orkney pass into Scottish hands as part of the dowry arrangement. Now, that was only around 600 years ago and I’m not entirely convinced Orcadians see themselves as fully integrated into the national landscape. I mean look at their flag, now look at the flag of Norway. See what I mean? Lol.
In terms of both first and second World Wars Orkney played a pivotal role during both occasions. Concrete look-out towers are in evidence as you view from the ferry. The great natural harbour of Scapa Flow, the eye of Orkney, was home to the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy and the final resting place of the German fleet from WW1 after scuttling by their own crew. Italian POWs from WW2 helped construct the causeways that link Mainland to some of the surrounding islands. These are known as the Churchill Barriers and also provided as defences for the fleet in Scapa Flow. They also built the monumentally pretty Italian Chapel from sticks and stones yet made it turn out every inch the traditional wee thing it is.
Lively locals, great food, beer, whisky, towering sea cliffs, powerful oceans, historical gem and best of all…..it’s nearly always windy, so nae midgies!
I love the place, come fall in love with it yourself!
Written by Mark Ruis