Orkney No Rain - Scotland Day 6


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Published: May 15th 2015
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The day started cold because we are staying in a cold caravan. But that doesn't matter because we managed to visit the Orkney Islands on one of the 112 days per year that is doesn't rain.

The passenger ferry from John O'Groats took just over an hour and we arrived at the very uninspiring Burwick on South Ronaldsay. The 'harbour' is a cracked concrete jetty with piles of rocks, obsolete fishing gear and rusty piles of scrap metal.

We'd booked a day trip as it seemed easier, especially when you consider it took us almost 2 hours to just get to John O'Groats. Our coach driver, Stuart has won awards for his tours, but not his jokes. Good god, no.

There's a bunch of causeways in the Southern Orkneys around Scapa Flow due to Churchill ordering Italian POWs to build them during WWII. They weren't built to keep the Germans out of the natural harbour, oh no, that would not be legal to make prisoners build barriers for the war. Previously old ships had been sunk at the eastern entrances to the North Sea to protect the massive fleet that was anchored there and one German U-boat did manage to slide past and sink one ship, killing many sailors.

However, when Italy changed sides, the Italian prisoners were free, but only free to stay on Orkney and finish the Churchill Barriers. But at least they now got paid.

So due to these various causeways, the coach took us over 5 islands without us really realising it. We looked out over Scapa Flow, admiring the rusted remains of scattered sunken boats and ships poking out of the water.

After a brief toilet stop at Kirkwall, we headed to Stromness for lunch and a wander about. It was pretty quiet with a good few friendly cats (at last!!) and Glyn and I went for a pub lunch. We meandered up alleyways that give the appearance of being pedestrianised, but are not. We found the 'Kyber Pass', a tiny alley that once was the red light area. The biggest shop we found was The 'Cats Protection League' so all in all, a good place.

I can't believe how Glyn could be unimpressed by Skara Brae and he only took a few photos. This pre-historic village predates the pyramids and gives an amazing insight as to how people lived around 5,000 years ago! But Glyn got bored of 'a few holes in the ground' pretty quickly! I didn't and I also liked being able to walk around the replica building so I could really get a feel of it. There certainly is far more to it than holes in the ground btw, it featured around 6 houses, with a communal work area and adjoining tunnels. You can see stone furniture including beds and sideboards. Oh yes.

At the Scara Brae site is the home of the rich guy who had lived there in the 1850s, Skaill House; the time when a hard storm first exposed the ancient village. It was still used as a home until the early 1990's when his last relative died. We were able to walk around it and it had low-end historical stately home stuff. (Glyn has just reminded me that it contained Captain Cook's crockery, so I should class it as a high-end!)

The THIRD biggest stone circle in the UK was our next highlight.... the Ring of Brodgar. It's around 141 meters in diameter and originally had 60 standing stones, but only 36 stand now - or so the sign says - Stuart reckons it's 27 and I didn't count. They are made of sandstone and prone to being hit by lightening or ditzy farmers. I think it pre-dates Scara Brae by 1,500 years, or thereabouts. As always with these things, no one has a clue to their purpose.

Stenness Stones were our next stop and Stuart said that they are the tallest standing stones in the UK - what bigger than Stonehenge? Well I find that hard to believe so I will probably google it someday. This circle, though tall, was a lot smaller than the Ring of Brodgar, with just 12 original stones and far less now.

Driving past more prehistoric stuff, I realised that Orkney is chocker full of ancient sites and this would be why the local University offers degrees in archaeology. I was surprised that they had a Uni, they also have a few high schools and 13 infant schools, with 4000 children living in Orkney. The infant schools are on all populated islands, but the older kids who live on the outer islands have to take a ferry to the main islands and board during the week. The size of the islands would fit inside the M25 (London ringroad to non-southerners) yet the population is around 26,000.

In the winter they have about 5 hours of daylight, rather gloomy considering it usually is raining with horizontal winds as there are no mountains to block them racing in from the North Sea. The few trees are more like stumpy hedges, but there is one plantation of trees in a sheltered area, so that the children know what walking in the woods feels like.

The summer has around 21 hours of daylight and can be light at midnight. On midsummers day they have a charity golf event throughout the night to prove they can see to play golf through until the morning. Only they disprove what they claimed to be proving right at the start by having glow-in-the-dark golf balls. Mind you, all players guzzle whiskey with every hole, so I don't think anyone really cares about such minor details. The winner is whoever manages to finish.

We had a fair bit of time in Kirkwall where the museum was free and covers history from pre-history to last century, it was pretty good. The cathedral was also free and huge compared to the town it is in, with a fair amount of skull and cross-bones on the gravestones. With the sun still shining and only a cold breeze (instead of a harsh wind) we partook in Orkney ice cream which was lovely and also fairly cheap.

The final stop was the Italian chapel. Now I hadn't high hopes for this, I've seen so many places of worship over my travels and very few have impressed me - probably two (Sagrada Familia and Sao Lourenco). But I was to be very surprised. The Italian prisoners as mentioned before asked the British if they could build a chapel and were granted permission. There were given two huts that they stuck together, but then they used anything they could find to make it look amazing. Fortunately one of the prisoners was an incredibly talented painter, but not only did he create vivid religious imagery, he also painted the smooth concrete ceilings and walls in such a way it results in an illusion that they are covered with bevelled ceramic tiles. There is fake stained glass and floor tiles salvaged from the loos of nearby sunken war ships. Another prisoner was a metal worker who pain-stakingly smelted down old screws, nuts, bolts etc from the local wrecks and created intricate filigree type gates. Given that they had scarce resources, it is wonderful what they managed to achieve.

The tour drew to a close and we headed back down to Dornoch, happy that we'd had a full day with no rain as we experienced a golden sunset over the gorse yellow landscape. We stopped only once so that I could photograph Glyn putting his finger over a certain letter on a 'Passing Point' sign and stand as if he was p*ssing.

Tomorrow we head home, for we have Dylan Moran tickets and it's an 8 hour drive.

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