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Europe » United Kingdom » Scotland » Orkney Islands
September 18th 2005
Published: September 16th 2009
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KirkwallKirkwallKirkwall

...time for a mardle
Motorhome News from Europe 36

Orkney 13th September
Orkney - Isles of History



The morning sun shone in greeting as we approached the grey exterior of Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital. But once inside the town we were stunned by an unexpected air of affluence. The red sandstone Cathedral of St Magnus stands proudly above Broad Street, bright with hanging baskets on smart Victorian buildings and elegant modern shops. Shrubs, trees and flowers adorn the town’s gardens and mature sycamores surround the ruins of the Earl’s Palace behind the Cathedral. The shops portray immediate evidence of Orkney’s successful craft tradition; it is famed for its jewellery, knitwear, glass, art and textiles.

At first sight, the mainland of Orkney is a green continuation of the shining sea, with broad fertile pastures, cows and sheep and fields of barley rising and falling like the swell of a rising tide. Rarely is there a landscape more than a line on the horizon, the highest peak being Ward Hill on Hoy, weighing in at a mere 1,577ft. Here and there it is possible to find true wilderness - the remote heather moor on shallow hillsides where short-eared owl and hen harrier roam.
KirkwallKirkwallKirkwall

The red sandstone cathedral of St Magnus


Orcadians are said to be crofters with boats and it is not difficult to see why. Orkney is a fertile land with agriculture at its roots, supported by oil, fishing, tourism and crafts. Many farms breed and rear beef cattle and keep dairy cows and sheep. The hills and valleys are rich in fields of barley (‘bere’) awaiting harvest, combine harvesters, big John Deere tractors, green meadows and hay still for turning. Beside the roads the last traces of ragwort, meadowsweet and ferns, and rosebay willow herb in the ditches, last seen in Norway. There are just a few trees elsewhere on the mainland, mostly leaning down the whistle of the wind, offering scant protection for farm dwellings scattered like corn across every shallow skyline. But, like Shetland, there are no hedges to be seen; just dry-stone walls - and post and wire fencing, shipped in of course, like everything else. Shetlanders, on the other hand, have always been known as fishermen with crofts. Shetland, fifty miles further to the north, still wears a rich Viking heritage with its fishing, music, its unique dialect and its strong communities born of deep inlets and many fishing villages around its coast.
StromnessStromnessStromness

the harbour
They enjoy high standards of social and cultural facilities in Shetland, but have yet to fully exploit the potential of their excellent craft industry, in desperate need of new design and commercial flair. The poor soil and windswept lands of Shetland support little more than sheep, but Orkney cannot match the awesome bleak moors and wild landscapes that make it so rich to the eye, and strong and determined in spirit.



Stromness, Orkney’s second town, is grey and sombre, quaintly Victorian, with flagstone streets not at all suitable for the likes of Smiley, as we would discover! The town has a history of merchant shipping in the 17th and 18th Centuries, whaling late 18th and herring (silver darlings), in their hey-day before the first world-war. Somehow it has become lost in the middle of the last century, though strangely it has a certain fascination. On our first walk through the town from the harbour we were convinced they were having a competition for the best 1960’s shop window and we wouldn’t have been surprised to see men in flat hats and fisherwomen in headscarves.
The campsite at Stromness proved irresistible and we stopped there for four nights, travelling around the west of the mainland and taking the ferry out to Hoy from the jetty. Our front window faced directly to the shore, a picture frame for a pearl-grey sky on a silver sea as the dark outline of fishing and diving boats headed out to Scapa Flow in the morning light. From there we could watch the skuas chasing fulmars, gulls and shag, and terns and gannets diving for their breakfast.



Orkney is just six miles off the Scottish coast. It is made up of the mainland and seventy or so other islands, many of which are uninhabited. The total population is a little over 19,000. 450 of them live on the island of Hoy.

‘Hands up those who have heard of ‘The Old Man of Hoy.’
‘Hands up those who could tell me it’s in Orkney.’

Well, that’s where it is, on the island of Hoy and it’s well worth the walk if you haven’t already been there. Basalt at its base, this imposing ‘skyscraper’ stack rises from the thundering sea to a peak of old red sandstone 137m high. First climbed in 1966, the Old Man featured on television
HoyHoyHoy

..a magnificent hike across the island
when Chris Bonnington and his team climbed it in front of millions of viewers. To the north are Britain’s highest cliffs at St John’s Head; 351m of perpendicular red sandstone, pounded by the Atlantic and beautiful indeed in the early autumn sunshine. Hoy at its most northerly appears as an island of two halves. In the west, the rugged cliffs rise high above the surging Atlantic to rolling grassy plains. In the east, the hills climb gently from the sea across shallow pastures before ascending abruptly to Cullags and Ward Hill, giving the appearance of a pair of hump-backed whales. We crossed the Island from the Linksness ferry on the east coast by rickety bus to the remote village of Rackwick and walked the last couple of miles out to the ‘Old Man’. Our journey back on foot took us over the pass between the hills in glorious sunshine along seven miles of spongy peat footpaths knee deep in purple heather. There were more than 30 great skuas on the Loch at the top of the pass and more soaring in the air above the hills, making the most of the blue skies and fluffy cumulus clouds. Great skuas were
Lord KitchenerLord KitchenerLord Kitchener

..his mother never taught him not to point at people
a common sight on Orkney. A flock of a hundred or more crossed the bay in front of us as we had breakfast one morning. I don’t need to say how much we enjoyed Hoy.

Orkney is great for walking, with some well-marked trails. It turned out to be a Janice and David walking paradise. As you know, we’re very keen downhill and flatland walkers and there are plenty of those on the islands. The walk on Hoy was pretty spectacular, but we also managed a few others between sightseeing trips.

Yesnaby on the north-west coast provided a magnificent cliff-top walk around jagged inlets and windswept headlands. This one would be worth a return visit in the spring when thrift and scabious and the rare Scottish primrose, Primula Scotica, could also be seen in flower. There is a monument to Lord Kitchener (‘Your Country Wants You!’ - his mother never taught him not to point at people) along the coast nearby; a huge granite column, erected just inland from where he died when his ship hit a mine in 1916 as he headed for Russia.

Mull Head, as far east as you can go on the Orkney mainland, was also good, though particularly tough walking into the stiff northerly wind on our chosen day! This was another cliff walk amongst the ling, bell heather, cotton grass and crowberry, out to the Covenanters Memorial, where, in 1679, 200 Presbyterian prisoners from the Battle of Bothwell Brig drowned. They were being shipped to America as slaves when the ship foundered. The crew survived, but the prisoners were unable to break free from below decks.

Whilst out walking one day, we met an elderly Orcadian gentleman with a neatly trimmed beard who had returned to see his homeland with his friend Rodney after an absence of thirty years.
‘It’s a beautiful day,’ I said, looking southwards into the sun across the shimmering sea to the coast of Scotland six miles away. He shaded his eyes with his hand following my gaze and smiled.
‘We say that if you can see the mainland, the weather is going to turn bad,’ he said.
Our evidence would also suggest that if you can’t see it, it already has.



For the tourist, much of Orkney’s richness is the wealth and accessibility of its history. It was time for us to become tourists once again and enjoy some of Scottish Heritage’s better sites. Of particular note was Skara Brae, a well-preserved Neolithic Village dating back to 3,000 BC, its stone houses huddled together along narrow passages. That’s older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids! On the same site was Skaill House, built for Bishop George Graham in 1620 and lived in until very recently. We found Skaill House and its contents fascinating; even Captain Cook’s dinner service in the china cabinet! Somehow, I can relate to the romantic image of things of that period.

Maes Howe, a little way down the road is an amazing burial mound, also dating back to Neolithic times. It was discovered buried deep beneath windblown sand and remains in wonderful condition. We reached the tomb by bending low through a very dark narrow passage into a 15ft square chamber containing relics from 3,000 BC through to the Vikings. We particularly enjoyed that one; and the humour of our local guide who held the torch! One of Orkney’s most famous sights is the Ring of Brodgar. Thought to be of a similar period, the ring is a large circle of 30 standing stones, some up
Maes HoweMaes HoweMaes Howe

...discovered buried beneath windblown sand
to 5m high. I really had no idea that there was so much wonderful history on Orkney and Shetland.





The list of historic sites is almost endless. Janice’s favourite was the Broch of Gurness, surrounded by a Pictish (BronzeAge) village. Perhaps the lucky “groatie buckie” which she found on the adjacent curving sandy beach added to the magic of this site. If you’re into diving, you can get to see the rusty hulls of the German war fleet scuttled there after their internment in 1919. If you’re not, you might prefer the lovely Italian Chapel, built by Italian POW’s during the last world war from two Nissen huts, whilst building the ‘Churchill Barrier’ defences into Scapa Flow.

Fascinating stuff history, isn’t it? If that’s your passion, then get yourself on the ferry. You’ll enjoy the walks, the endless pencil-thin landscapes, the friendly people and the flora and fauna as much as we have.





We left Orkney on the spur of the moment. There was a ferry going to Gills Bay, a couple of miles from John O’Groats on the Scottish mainland, at 5pm and it just seemed to fit
Scapa FlowScapa FlowScapa Flow

The Italian Chapel
the moment. By 6.15 we were back in Scotland on the next stage of our journey.

And I am left with the feeling that I have seen Orkney, yet not fully discovered it, not felt its pulse nor uncovered all its secrets. There is more, though I doubt I shall return to find it. Janice is shell shocked to be back on mainland Britain, following the swallows towards home and a little sad to think that this chapter is coming to a close after 100 days across the oceans. But there is more to come. Perhaps a little of the Highlands, the Isle of Skye, a few days in the Lake District, who knows? We’ll let you know when we’ve made up our minds!

The ear is healing OK, by the way, (I knew you’d ask). We expect to be able to take the stitches out in a day or two.





Janice and David
The Grey Haired Nomads

Some of the birds: Merlin, gadwall, pintail, little grebe, wigeon, golden eye,
New plants: Red hempnettle, meadow vetchling


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Kirkwall

...off to work
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...famed for its jewellery, knitwear and textiles


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