We took the morning ferry to Stromness in the Orkney Islands, an island archipelago consisting of about 70 islands about an hour and a half ride north off the coast. My mother is really into genealogy and she has been able to trace our ancestors dating from Orkney during the 1700-1800’s. She had DNA testing done which shows Danish and Norwegian reference populations, making perfect sense when you look at a map or are familiar with Viking/Scottish history.
The Orkney Islands have been inhabited for about 8500 years making it an archaeological treasure trove earning it the name “Egypt of the North,” however most of it’s sites are twice as old as the pyramids (without any of the irritating souvenir merchants and camel touts ruining your enjoyment). Orkney has over 160 archaeological sites ranging from standing stones to burial cairns to settlements.
The islands are mostly flat and bright green, that have been stripped bare of trees from Atlantic gales. It’s heritage dates back to a Viking pirate settlement to stage attacks against mainland Scotland and Norway, and then became annexed to Norway for several hundred years before returning to Scotland. The Viking heritage is
strongly felt to this day and even their flag is a combination of both the Scottish and Norwegian flag.
Many of our ancestors had very uncommon “Scottish” names such as Brown, Flett and Allen. We learned that this is because during the Jacobite rebellion many of the clans that were rebels fled to the Orkneys, assumed fake names and then were smuggled to Scandinavia to avoid imprisonment and execution.
We first went to the capital of Kirkwall to go the St. Magnus Cathedral, a old sandstone Viking church where they were having a free Folk concert as part of the larger Orkney Folk Festival we were looking forward to attending. There isn’t a whole lot for kids to do in these remote islands so playing folk instruments is something every single child learns and as a consequence give rise to an incredible music culture here. We ended up chatting at great length with a caretaker of the Church whose wife is a Park Ranger at the sites. It was interesting for him to mention how the American police are the nicest he has ever met and are so friendly and approachable. He said
one wouldn’t dare even approach a cop in the UK and if you did you would get a scowl and growl in return.
After Kirkwall we headed back to Stromness and tried to find the local graveyard for Mom to do some headstone rubbings but to no avail. It was a few miles out of town and there were no taxis or buses out that way and we hated to get stranded if we hitched a ride.
We finished the day walking out to the neolithic sites close to our BnB, our favorite one so far, in an old Schoolhouse with views of the standing stones across the loch. The room was exquisite and the host left us a decanter of whiskey and some fudge, along with bottomless herbal teas and shortbreads which hit the spot after an already long and cold windy day.
We walked out first to the Standing Stones of Stenness and then to the Ring of Brodgar. The stones were absolutely magical, situated on a spit of land between lochs in an absolutely stunning environment. We hitched rides to and fro by passerby’s as it was
biting cold and much further that it appeared in this treeless landscape. We met a nice local girl who comes to the stones to eat dinner regularly by just sitting on the ground and leaning against the stones. These places have had significance for every generation spanning millennia and cultures and it was beautiful to think about how these stones will continue to stand for millennia more, long after we are gone, evoking such wonder and inspiration to all that come in contact with them.
Mom brought some ashes of Grandpa and spread him in the harbor of downtown Stromness just before we left so he could finally visit the land of his ancestors and be part of this ancient and historic land.
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