Before we left for our trip, John and Penny encouraged us to see the Orkney Islands in the far north of Scotland. They are at the same latitude as St. Petersburg, Russia and Churchill, Canada—the polar bear capital of the world. They have 8 months of winter and 4 months of summer—no spring and no fall. Our tour guide told us that last year they had a great summer—it was on July 4.
This is definitely a land of the midnight sun. There is even an annual summer charity golf event hosted by Highland Distillery that begins at midnight. As the contestants finish each hole, they are given a double shot of whisky; whoever manages to finish the entire round of 18 holes is a winner. The sun does require a little help from artificial light for a while; but, the sun rises again at 3am!
There are 70 islands with 19,000 Orcadians living on only 16 of them—7,000 of whom are in Kirkwall, on the Mainland. If you squished all the islands together like a jigsaw puzzle, you could fit them inside the ring road around London. These islands were originally part of Norway. King James was to marry Princess Margaret from Norway. Her dowry was to be the equivalent of £60,000. Her father, the King of Norway, could only come up with £10,000. He owned the Orkneys, King James wanted them, so they were thrown in as security until he could come up with the rest of the cash. The rest of the money never materialized and The Orkneys passed to Scotland. Today, the Orkney flag is just like the Norwegian flag except that it has a yellow border rather than white. There is a strong sense of community among these islands and because of tourism, the unemployment rate is only 1%. That guy is really bummed out.
We are grateful to John and Penny for pushing us to go. When we met up with them in London we had already decided to blow it off—too far, too expensive, too complicated. We lucked out by meeting Jill and Mike at the Edinburgh campground who not only told us how easy it was, but gave us a brochure for a bus tour of Mainland, the big island that we would be visiting. They assured us that there was a great campground (one of our better ones, as it turns out) and that it was right next door to the ferry office. Simple!
We walked 200 yards to catch the ferry where we embarked on a 40 minute journey to the island.
We searched the waters for dolphins, whales and puffins but didn’t have any luck this time. Coming off the ferry, our bus awaited us. Stuart, the driver and guide, was exceptional in his delivery, corny jokes and driving ability. It was relaxing, exciting and a wonderful history lesson. The more I learn through our travels, the more I realize how little I know.
We drove over one of the Churchill Barriers at Skapa Flow, where the entire British navy was anchored in 1939. What a pretty place this is! We also saw some of the ships from WW I that had been deliberately sunk by the British to form a barrier against German attack in that war.
In October, 1939, a German U-boat was able to penetrate the barrier because the strong currents had shifted the ships. Because of this, they torpedoed and sunk the HMS Royal Oak, killing more than 833 young men, most of them cadets 18 and under. Their plan had been to destroy as many battleships and destroyers as possible. Fortuitously, all the other ships were out at sea.
Because of this event, Churchill ordered 4 barriers to be built on the eastern entrances to Skapa Flow. Italian prisoners of war were brought in from North Africa to do the job.
Our first stop was in the tiny village of Stromness where we were given 90 minutes for lunch and a wander.
Back on the bus, Stuart slowed down so we could see Rambo, a Jacob’s sheep. He has 2 sets of horns: on top of his head and on the sides of his face! He’s The Man around here and has sired thousands.
Our next stop was Skara Brae, a 5,000 year old Neolithic village discovered by William Watt of Skaill in 1850 after a severe storm stripped the grass from a large mound, revealing the outline of a series of stone buildings. He began an excavation of the site. Professional excavation did not begin until the late 1920s. The stone buildings were discovered to be older than the pyramids of Egypt.
After going through the visitors’ center, watching a video and learning the history of the village, we entered a replica of one of the stone houses. Each house shares the same basic design—a large square room with a central fireplace, a bed on either side and a shelved dresser on a wall opposite the doorway. From there we walked down a path by the beach to the actual village
Excavations of the stone village in the twenties
Skara Brae Village
Entry to stone house
Inside stone house
Included in our ticket (£5.60) was a tour of Skaill House, home of William Graham Watt, 7th Laird of Breckness who unearthed Skara Brae in 1850. Overlooking the spectacular Bay of Skaill, the house was originally built in 1620 by Bishop George Graham and has been added to by successive Lairds over the centuries. The southern wing of Skaill House stands on a pre-Norse burial ground and several Bronze age burial mounds have been found nearby.
I really liked the library with the swing-out bookshelf revealing a hidden place for valuables. There was also a round rent table with a drawer marked for each tenant. The dining room even had Captain Cook’s dinner service.
We had 90 minutes—plenty of time—to see and enjoy this fascinating area. I might add that every place we stopped on this guided bus tour had bathrooms. The entire tour was very well organized and the pacing was just right.
We arrived at the Ring of Brodgar, generally thought to have been erected around 2200 B.C. It was built in a true circle, 340 feet in diameter and is thought to have originally contained 60 megaliths, of which only 27 remain. It is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles. The stones vary in height from 7 to 15 feet.
And wouldn’t you know, just around the corner…another stone circle, The Standing Stones of Stenness! The tallest stone stands 19 feet high but only 4 of the original 12 stones remain standing. They date from 3100 B.C., older than the Ring of Brodgar.
Back in Kirkwall for a 2 hour break to see the town, the cathedral and two palaces, we set off for cappuccinos as the first order of business. Revived, we walked over to the Bishop’s Palace, possibly dating from 1137 but much of what now stands is from 1541-58.
Directly across the street is the Earl’s Palace, begun in 1600. It is hailed as “the finest example of French Renaissance architecture in Scotland.”
The building of St. Magnus Cathedral was started in 1137 by Earl Rognvald Kolsson. It was originally a Catholic cathedral but once in Scottish hands, it became Church of Scotland. The Orcadians were going to demolish it; but because the King was marrying a Catholic, he preserved it. Today, services are held here by Catholics, Protestants and Jews. It is also used for flower shows and dancing.
St. Magnus Cathedral
Our final stop was to see the Italian Chapel, built by the Italian POWs. This was built around two Nissen huts which were covered with cement, then plastered and painted.
The inside walls and ceiling were painted to give a 3-D effect and the lanterns were made from their rations of beef tins. The side walls were made of compressed cardboard and the altar railing from polished concrete. All the building materials were scraps left over from the construction of the barriers. One of the men was an artist; he directed the project and painted the altar from a small card his mother had given him.
Outside the chapel is a statue of St. George. This was created by the lead artist using barbed wire and cement. Amazing!
On the way back, Stuart pointed out a spot from which we could see the North Sea, Pentland Firth, the Atlantic Ocean, Scotland and the Orkneys, all in one glance. We drove on to our ferry, which was just coming in to port. We had an uneventful ride back, futilely searching for Puffins, arriving at 8 pm. Later, we saw the beginnings of a beautiful sunset at 10 pm.
We had a fantastic day with the best kind of weather we could hope for. These islands are known for wind and in fact, had a hurricane in 1952 that swept all their chickens out to the North Sea along with the wind monitoring device that was blown away just after measuring 124 mph. There are no trees to speak of on the islands, unless they are sheltered by buildings. Our day was mostly sunny with lots of puffy white clouds and the occasional big, dark gray ones. Not a drop of rain.
It is 11:38 pm and it is still light out.
In Scotland, when people congregate, they tend to argue and discuss and reason; in Orkney, they tell stories. ~ George Mackay Brown, poet and novelist and native of Orkney.