Published: July 28th 2009June 2nd 2009
Me and Old Man Of Hoy
Our first view of Orkney!
It literally* took trains planes and automobiles to get Jordan and I started on this journey. The Orkney Isles are at the northern tip of Scotland, and though closer to scotland than Iceland or Norway, they are a far more difficult place to get to. We had to take a train from Edinburgh to Inverness, then switch trains at Inverness to go up to Thurso, then take a bus to the ferry terminal at Scrabster, then take a ferry across the Pentland Firth to the small town of Stromness on the Orkney mainland. Whew!
It was exhausting, but well worth it on the ferry when the bleak yet beautiful Isles came into view. We chatted with a couple from Switzerland who were traveling all over Scotland, camping and hillwalking some of the most beautiful remote places in the country. Our first view of Orkney was the sea stack known as the old man of Hoy, a kind of guardian of the isles and of the puffins and sea birds that nest in the surrounding cliffs.
*In case you're being picky Planes=Ferry in this particular metaphor :-)
Stromness itself was a small, typically island town. We stayed at
the only Hostel on the Island- essentially a converted basement run by a woman who lived on the top floor of the house. It was quite nice, probably due to how small it was, and very well kept. After talking with a few other travelers at the hostel we discovered that there was one small problem with our plan to take in as may of the sites on the island as we could; namely that there were no buses running the next day. We decided, what the heck, we'd get a map and provisions and just walk it, a conviction that was reinforced by the exorbitant rates charged by the lone taxi driver in town. Exhausted by a full day of traveling we fell asleep early, planning on setting out as soon as we could the next day.
In keeping with our plan, the next day we set out as soon as we thought the stores would be open, and wandered around the town fruitlessly for a while, before giving in and asking a local where exactly the grocery store was. Finally we found it tucked away at the end of main street directly before the highway. (For the
record: "Highway" in the scottish isles means two lane road, and "main street" was a small one way cobbled drive) Fully provisioned with fresh breads, meat, cheeses, fruit and two massive water bottles we set out for our first stop, walking along the highway as there were no other roads or pathways to follow.
Our first stop, and the driving reason for us to come to Orkney in the first place was Skara Brae, a stone age village almost perfectly preserved by the shifting dunes along the Bay of Skaill. On our way there we walked through the farmland that makes up almost the entirety of the landscape. It wasn't dull though, as we got to watch the sheep and lambs, and had a particularly charming visit from a few shetland ponies who were very interested in us. After several miles of walking we got to the site, and every step was worth it. The village is so perfectly preserved that you can see the beds, the dresser, and the fire pit, all made of stone. The houses were built so that they all connected through small hallways and were insulated by rubbish packed between the structures. They were
preserved under sand for thousands of years until in the 1800's a huge storm came off the sea and swept away the dunes, revealing the village. It's been cared for and excavated ever since. To stand where people must have stood thousands of years ago, and to see how they might have lived was a fantastic experience. The fact that it was in such a picturesque setting didn't hurt either! The Bay of Skaill has the deep blue water and white sands of the Mediterranean Sea, though none of the warmth.
As we left Skara Brae for our next stop, we set out hardy and willing to walk forever, but the wind soon got the better of us and our foolish bravado. Though the day was clear and sunny the wind howled across the bare hills burning our ears in the process. One of our original thoughts had been to go ahead and rent bikes, but the wind was such that had we been on the bikes we more than likely would have been blown off! As we walked we could only talk to each other if we stood next to each other, if one of us was in
front we had to yell to be heard over the tempest. It made dodging cars all that more interesting, as even diesel engines would seem to be silent until they were right next to you.
There's little to no windbreak anywhere on the island, principally because there are no natural trees on Orkney anymore. The stone age people that had originally settled the island had made them extinct on the island, cutting them down for fuel and building. It's one of the reasons that the village of Skara Brae is made of stone, and not wood- there simply wasn't any wood to use!
The use of stone produced some absolutely fantastic pieces of architecture though. Our next stop was the Ring of Brodgar, a massive stone circle, far larger than it's southern cousin, Stonehenge. It's the third largest stone circle in all of Britain. Today only 27 of the original 60 stones remain, but they are beautiful. The perfectness of the circle is emphasized now by the heather circle that grows inside the ring. There's something uniquely powerful about such places- certainly the people that built them knew what they were doing. On the stones themselves were graffiti
incised into the surface. This made us angry at first, until we noticed the dates- 1852, 1873, 1929... People have been visiting these places for a long time, when it was even more difficult to get there than the journey we took. The amazing part is, that the countryside with it's lochs and hills probably looks exactly the same as it did back then.
Literally across the street from the Ring of Brodgar are the Stones of Steness. The stones are situated as most great scottish attractions are, in the middle of a sheep field. This didn't make them any less imposing though. Despite being erected in the Neolithic, the stones that remain standing are massive in height, almost 20 feet tall! There were other stones standing at the site, but time will take its toll, and did so, leaving only these massive reminders of a time that once was. I cannot imagine how the farmer that lives between these monuments goes about his daily business next to such things.
After our visit to the stones we began our long walk back over the hills to Stromness. It was a grueling walk as the sun was beginning to
"Hallway" of Model House
Note the Massive water bottle strapped to my back...
set. We didn't make it back to our hostel until 7:30 or 8 at night- no worries, even in May the sun was still up, and dusk was just starting to fall when we got back into the town. We had already felt like we'd accomplished something, and were highly satisfied when we looked at the posted milage signs and figured out that our journey had taken us 20 MILES!! 20 Miles of walking, and me in rain-boots. Now that's dedication if I do say so myself.
The next day we were fortunate enough to have the buses running. Our legs were thanking heaven as we boarded the bus to Maeshowe. Maeshowe was within sight of the Stones that we had visited yesterday, part of the area known as the Neolithic Heart of Orkney. Maeshowe is a chambered cairn, utterly beautiful and creepy. There are no pictures allowed to be taken inside, and you must go on a guided tour to enter the cairn, but it is well worth it. The cairn itself is an earthen mound with a door, and yet the stonework inside suggests that the people inside were highly skilled craftsmen. They built it using a
dry stone method, simply fitting together stone pieces without mortar. It has stood like the rest, for thousands of years, and the only addition was a well meaning farmer during Victorian times who replaced the long caved in roof to keep his sheep and the local hoodlums out.
There was graffiti inside this building as well, but this was even more fascinating than the graffiti at the stones. This graffiti was done by viking warriors, who, caught in a snowstorm took shelter in the cairn, and being bored vikings decided that they should carve on the walls. One of the runes was particularly interesting, it spoke of a great treasure that had been buried to the north (near Skara Brae). No one knew if this was accurate or not until early in the 20th century a little boy was out playing and came across a trove of viking treasure, in the same place that the runes had mentioned. So cool!!
After our adventure in Maeshowe, we took the bus to the other population center on Orkney, Kirkwall. The central building in Kirkwall is the massive red brick Cathedral in the center of town. It's nothing compared to the
grandeur of some of the European cathedrals, but it's design is truly unique and the fact that it's brick makes it worth a look.
The Earls and Bishops Palaces were all together with the cathedral in the center of town. Both were in a suitible state of disrepair for a palace, and as we had the place to ourselves we could run through the rooms being as goofy as we so chose. The Earls palace was built by one of the last earls of Orkney, an evil bad man, and the Bishops palace was taken away from him by the Bishop, so that he could have a place near the cathedral. The Bishops palace has more stairs in odd places than I'd ever seen, and the climb up the one remaining tower is harrowing, but the view is well worth the climb.
Having gotten the requisite sightseeing out of the way we settled into an afternoon of wandering the small town. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at a local restaurant- when on Orkney, eat the seafood! And had some of the most excellent Ice Cream ever tasted. It was nice to just wander around and absorb some of
the differences between Orkney and the rest of Scotland. For one thing, it's debatable that the people that live there even consider themselves to be scottish. The flags flying were the Union Jack, and the Orkney Flag. The Orkney flag itself is incredibly similar to the Norwegian flag. This is due to the intense ties of these islands to the Norse and Vikings. There's even an Orkneyinga Saga in the great viking tales that talks about Orkney, and it's independent Norse Earldom. The Scottish Kings essentially just claimed Orkney and taxed it. Little wonder that they share so little with Scotland! Patriotism came to the islands when they were turned into a naval battleground in the second world war, which explains all the Union Jacks flying.
All in all the scenery was beautiful, if bleak, the archaeology was of such remarkable nature that I will probably never see again, and the culture was fascinating! A perfect way to finish off traveling before exams!
There are more photos below