The Orkney Islands

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September 30th 2019
Published: October 2nd 2019
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We took the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness in the Orkney Islands, an island archipelago consisting of about 70 islands about an hour and a half ferry ride north off the coast. Mom was really into genealogy and she had been able to trace our ancestors from Orkney during the 1700-1800’s. She also 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 continuously 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. Orkney has over 160 archaeological sites ranging from standing stones to burial cairns to settlements.

The islands are covered in green treeless rolling hills with many coves and bays. It’s heritage dates back to Neolithic peoples and then later became a Viking pirate settlement to stage attacks against mainland Scotland and Norway. It became annexed to Norway for several hundred years before returning to Scotland. The Viking heritage is strongly felt and is interwoven into the society, 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 “safe British” names and then were smuggled to Scandinavia to avoid imprisonment and execution. This was the timeframe our family had left Orkney so we can assume they were Jacobite rebels.

We stayed at the same Bnb Mom and I stayed at, the Schoolhouse in Stromness. This was our absolute favorite of the trip and became our favorite again of this trip as well. We spoke with the owners more at length this time and learned that they were both retired police from England, no wonder they are my favorites! But really their place is just beautiful and across the street from the standing stones. Plus they leave you glass decanters with drams of whisky and sherry and local fudge, who could ask for more?

The following morning we went out to meet our dive guides to take our Dry Suit certification dive course at the Churchill Barriers in Scapa Flow. I learned about the scuba diving here my first visit when I saw a dive shop and then read about the amazing world class wreck diving here. Scapa Flow is filled with wrecks from both WWI and WWII, consisting of both British and German military ships. Famously during WWI the entire German fleet was scuttled here by their own Commander, all 74 ships, making this a veritable ship graveyard. The water here this time of year is about 53 degrees, so it makes diving in a dry suit an absolute necessity so I figured what better time to learn than now.

Surprisingly we were pretty comfortable on both our dives and not too cold, even with our heads and hands being exposed to the water. Thankfully it was a beautiful calm day with blue skies. I had been battling a cold the last few days and worried about being too sick to dive but it all worked out great, and we had a blast, diving on both WWI and WWII wrecks on the same dive!

We went to the Highland Park Distillery and then the awesome Orkney Brewery which had the best loaded fries topped with haggis and cheddar. Later went to the Standing Stones of Stenness, The Ring of Brodgar, and Maeshowe burial mound and Skara Brae village. The stones are absolutely magical, situated on a spit of land between lochs in an absolutely stunning environment. Of course Mom loved these standing stones so a part of her was left there amongst those that came before us for thousands of years, forever part of this incredible historic place.

Finally we went to the Stromness cemetery outside of town. Mom and I had wanted to go previously so she could find some headstones of possible family members, but we couldn’t get there without a rental car. This time I brought the car over on the ferry so transport was much easier. The cemetery was along the ocean beside a lighthouse, and quite easily the most scenic cemetery you could imagine. There was a multitude of headstones that I photographed with plans to research them myself one day, picking up where she left off.

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