Compass Buster #6: The Orkney Islands


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Europe » United Kingdom » Scotland » Orkney Islands » Kirkwall
August 15th 2016
Published: March 17th 2017
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We had a fairly early start as we would be cramming a lot in today. Our first stop was, of course, Tesco so we could pick up some lunch and snacks for during the day. The lovely weather that we'd had yesterday seemed to be continuing, so our guide suggested that we buy some disposable BBQs and some food to cook on them. What a genius idea! It would make a nice change from having a bog standard sandwich or wrap. We bought some of those burger and bun sets that most supermarkets do. It totally reminded me of my childhood as I used to have them for my tea every so often. Then we were off to explore the Orkneys, yesterday's sneak preview had left me wanting more.

Our first stop was the Standing Stones of Stenness, which is a Neolithic stone circle dating back about 5,000 years. The circle consisted of 11 or 12 stones surrounded by a wide ditch with a causeway entrance. In the centre of the circle, there was a hearth, which may have been symbolic as hearths were the focal point of a normal house. The single access way to the standing stones meant that who entered the area could be controlled. It is believed that the stones were used for ceremonial purposes, to worship Norse Gods. The stone circle was similar to Standing Stones of Calanais, we had seen in the Outer Hebrides. These stones were really cool and I had fun trying to imagine people gathering there thousands of years ago, I wonder how they transported and erected the stones.

A short drive brought us to the Ring of Brodgar, which is another Neolithic henge and stone circle. Once again not too much is known about the exact purpose of the site whether it was used for ceremonies and/or rituals. They may have been used for astronomy. We wandered around the stones, taking pictures. I liked these standing stones best. The surrounding countryside was gorgeous. There were lots of beautiful pinky-purple flowers growing, was it heather? It surrounded the stones, and was neatly cut back from them. I wonder what it looked like when the Ring was back in use, did the ancient people tend to it in a similar way? The sun was shining and making the water surrounding the Ring of Brodgar twinkle. There was also a small hill, which some of us climbed to get a better view of the surrounding landscape.

Yesnaby cliffs are on the west coast of the main island and we went to explore them. What a stunning place! The cliffs are gorgeous and have a 'sliced' appearance, of layer upon layer, as each one formed. We took a nice walk along the cliffs. Some people in our group are much more hardcore than me and got right up to the edge and were climbing down the little ledges. However the sea crashing at the rocks below and just being a general scaredy cat kept me away. I could see all the way along the coast as the cliffs zigzagged in and out of the water. There are also some sea stacks, but I have to say they didn't look as cool as the ones in Duncansby. There is also a disused gun battery there. We saw lots of walkers there and I think a couple of climbers. It would be so nice to do a longer day hike along the cliffs and the surrounding coastline.

We had already crammed a lot into the morning, but there was one more place to visit before lunch, Skara Brae. Skara Brae was a neolithic village built around 5,000 years ago, which was inhabited before the pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge were built. That is old! It lay undiscovered in modern times until 1850 when a storm hit the Orkneys and uncovered the remains of the village. The 7th Laird of Skaill House, William Graham Watt, discovered the remains and began excavating the area himself. Our first port of call was the visitors centre. This gave us all the background information about Skara Brae. Since the site is so old, archaeologists and historians cannot make any concrete suggestions about what definitely happen there and how the site evolved, so there is a lot of guesswork. I loved all the vague language that was used in the information, 'well it could have been used for this...' It definitely made the place see more mysterious and the fact they don't know why abandoned the site, war? lack of food? migration? There was a mock up of one of the dwellings so we headed in there for a look around and to see what it would have been live to live in one of the houses at Skara Brae. It wasn't too bad inside.

It was a short walk down to the neolithic village. It was so cool, I still can't get over the fact that people had established a community and were living there 5,000 years ago. My mind just can't comprehend the time scale. I did imagine little old women with stooped backs wrapped in shawls battling along in the harsh wind, I bet in reality old women were probably only about thirty if they lived that long. The houses seemed to be sunk into the earth, I don't know if they were built like that to offer them protection from the wind and sea, or if the land has since shifted and grown around them. It was cool to walk among the different structures and see the lay out of the houses. They were pretty small, I wonder how small the people were back then.

A couple of hundred metres' walk from Skara Brae is Skaill House. Since entrance is included in the ticket price we headed over there. The gardens were immaculately kept, they looked beautiful. It was a proper Scottish garden. I love walking through the archway in the wall. The house was first built in 1620 by the Bishop of Orkney. The house was renovated in the 1990s and show what it would look like in the 1950s, when the Laird lived there. I really enjoyed walking around the house, it was quite grand and pretty. The living room/study had a tiger skin rug complete with head. The pink bathroom was awesome! The Laird had been to the Far East and had some interesting things on display. I am glad we made the short walk up to Skaill House. It is situated in such a gorgeous location.

From Skaill House, we headed back through the visitors centre and down to the beach at the Bay of Skaill. It was only about a ten minute walk. I think we were the last to arrive as we had spent ages looking around the house compared to the others, well I wanted to get my money's worth from the ticket price. The BBQs were set up and we found one that was still really hot and cooked our burgers. I think we timed it right as we didn't have to wait for them to warm up. Our burgers cooked in very quick time and we were soon munching on them along with our big back of sea salt & balsamic. The beach was gorgeous and I was really happy to sit there and take in the views. The weather had remained perfect, bright and sunny, and not too hot, not that that problem occurs to often in the UK.

A short drive took us to Marwick Head, where we would be doing a coastal walk. We were dropped at one end of the walk and our guide drove the bus to the finish point. The walk up the hill wasn't too bad. The path sloped gently so there was no steep climb to leave me breathless. On one side the views were of the sea and on the other the surrounding fields dotted with the odd house. Our guide had told us that there may be some puffins nesting on the cliffs, so we kept an eye out for some. I didn't want to get too close to the edge, falling from the cliff and drowning in the sea didn't seem appealing. But the braver folk, lay down at the edge with their heads hanging over, looking for puffins, even just typing that is giving me sweaty palms. There is a memorial on Marwick Head, the Kitchener Memorial. The memorial is square and squat, and looks like a turret. It is 48 feet high and made of stone. It was erected in 1926 and cost £734 to build. It was built to commemorate the sinking of the HMS Hampshire in 1916. HMS Hampshire was sailing from anchorage at Scapa Flow to Russia, when less than two miles from Marwick Head it hit a mine that had been laid by a German U-boat. 737 crew and passengers died, only 12 people survived. The memorial is named after Earl Kitchener, who was Britain's Secretary of State for War. He perished when the ship sank. He had been on his way to Russia for secret talks. The walk down to the carpark was a nice gentle slope. On the way round, I had seen a lighthouse off on one of the rocks, jutting out into the sea. It would have been nice to explore that but I don't know if it is accessible.

For dinner we headed to an Italian restaurant in the centre of Kirkwall. Since we had all pretty much decided to go for a group dinner, our guide had suggested it and the vast majority of us had thought it was a nice idea, we had booked a table earlier in the day. The restaurant of choice was Lucano. Since there was so many of us, we were spread out over a couple of long tables. This place was popular! It was packed, it seemed everyone in Kirkwall was there for dinner. There were quite a few options on the menu that looked good and I plumped for the tortellini. Since it was so busy, there was a bit of a wait for the food but nothing too bad. I was a bit disappointed when my food came, the portion size was tiny. I wish I'd ordered two serving, but that would have been too expensive. The pasta was really delicious, but I was still hungry when I finished it. I should have gotten a pizza, that might have filled me up better. I also sampled a local brew called 'Northern Lights', which was tasty. We decided to go for a couple of pints after dinner. But first we stopped at an open gift shop and bought some ice creams. They were yum. We went to a pub by the water and I had a couple of cheeky ciders. I definitely can't afford to drink in Britain anymore. It was over £3 a drink, I wouldn't mind but they were cans of cider like what you would get at the offy. We headed home pretty early and sat with brews watching more of the Olympics.


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