On the Roof of Britain - Shetland & Orkney Islands, Scotland - August 2022

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August 8th 2022
Published: August 6th 2022
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To many people on the UK mainland and beyond, the Shetland and Orkney Islands are “somewhere up at the top” of the map of Great Britain. In fact, the Shetland Isles (formerly known as Zetland) are a sub-Arctic Archipelago located in the North Atlantic, as close to Norway as to Aberdeen. Shetland consists of a group of 100 islands with approximately 900 miles of coastline and a population of around 27,000. The Orkney Islands are located six miles north of the Scottish mainland. There are about 70 islands within the Orkney archipelago, 17 of which are inhabited. Both Orkney and Shetland are unique and unlike any other part of Great Britain. They have managed to retain many of their original, unique customs and traditions resulting from their long and eventful history.

A Little Bit of History:

In the early 8th and 9th centuries the Vikings arrived in the Shetland Islands looking for land and for the next 600 years or so, the Norsemen ruled both Orkney and Shetland. Surprisingly, although the Vikings had a reputation as fearsome warriors, they settled down and became farmers. In 1468, the impoverished Christian I, King of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, pawned the Orkney Isles to James III of Scotland in lieu of a royal dowry for 50,000 florins. The Shetlands were pawned for a further 8,000 florins. Christian wanted to buy them back when he could afford it but that didn’t happen, and the two groups became permanently part of Scotland. The Norsemen left their mark on the islands and some of the Norse legends and customs remain alive during festivals held throughout the year on the islands.

The Fire Festival of UP HELLY Aa is held every year in Lerwick, Shetland on the last Tuesday in January to celebrate the end of Yule. Over 900 colorfully dressed “guisers” follow the Jarl’s squad of Vikings and their longship through the darkened streets of the town to the burning site. Here the official ceremony ends in a spectacular blaze as 1000 flaming torches are thrown into the galley. Then follows a night of revelry as each of the 40 plus squads visit the local halls and put on wild and amusing sketches to entertain their hosts.

There are also many other old customs dating back to the Norse occupation that are still followed today. For example, in Orkney, urine is smeared on the plough before cutting the first furrow in Spring, to promote fertility in the soil. At harvest time, the first sheaf used to be made into a kind of porridge, and the last household to finish harvesting had a straw dog, called the “bikko”, placed on its chimney stack. A great insult and humiliation! It is said that the secret society of the ‘Horseman’s Word’, whose initiates are told a word that gives them power over horses, is still strong in Orkney.

Pirates, press-gangs and smugglers were part of life for the people of Orkney and Shetland for centuries. One of these notorious villains was John Fullerton, an 18th century Orkney ship’s captain. He was ruthless and hated all whom opposed him, but his end came when he boarded a Scottish merchant vessel, The Isabella, and killed the commander, Captain Jones. Jones’ courageous wife Mary drew a pistol and killed Fullerton. She was known ever after as the Pirate Slayer. Smuggling was the most profitable of all the island’s trades. As late as the 1860’s customers could buy smuggled gin over the counter of a Kirkwall bank!

On St Ninian’s Isle, mainland Shetland, stands a ruined medieval chapel which is believed to have been Shetland’s first Christian church dedicated to St Ninian. In 1958 a hoard of silver ornaments was found on the chapel site…. perhaps hidden from Norse marauders 1200 years ago?

A Fun Fact:

Fair Isle in Shetland gave its name to the unique, multi-colored knitting designs on the island’s famous woolen sweaters. It is claimed that these designs were copied from the clothing worn by shipwrecked Spanish sailors from the Armada. These men landed on the shore when their ship El Gran Grifon ran onto the rocks below the cliffs at Stronshellier in 1588.

Many of the traditions and customs of Orkney and Shetland have survived due to the relative inaccessibility of the islands in the past. Modern air travel, reliable ferries and cruise ships are now bringing more and more people to these remote northern islands, but it is hoped that these traditions will continue for many centuries to come.

So, what awaits me in Shetland and Orkney? For starters, each has a distinctive culture, natural wonders and a number of fascinating geological sites. Surrounded by crystal-clear waters, these two archipelagos are rather special places indeed. I’m about to take a trip through this charming scattering of islands where I hope to discover some of the most stunning coastal scenery in the world, remarkable wildlife, ancient archaeological sites, pristine beaches and much more.

My island adventure begins with brilliant sunshine, clear blue skies, and a brisk cool wind – perfect for grabbing those incredible pictures – fingers crossed it remains this way for the entire day. Stepping onto land in Lerwick – Shetland’s capital – I see a bustling up-to-date town which dates from the 17th century but with 21st century ideas and amenities.

Authentic knitwear and locally made crafts and gifts are easy to come by in a town that is well-served by independent shops, and there’s a decent selection of bars, restaurants, cafes, and fast-food outlets. The very first fast-food place I spotted was Da Harbour Chippie (self-explanatory). There’s also a small shopping center and two supermarkets, just in case the urge to buy something should occur.

Sheltered by the island of Bressay to the east, Lerwick (means clay bay) has an excellent natural harbor that attracts vessels of all shapes and sizes year-round. The “small boat harbor” and Victoria pier areas are a hive of activity during the summer months. Yachts, pleasure boats and cruise ships are frequent visitors, and this is the main departure area for boat trip operators and the venue for sailing races and regattas. Shetlanders have long been associated with the sea and memorials to islanders involved in both the whaling industry and the fishing industry, stand on the redeveloped waterfront. Lerwick lifeboat is stationed in the harbor, while the old Tolbooth building is now the lifeboat station and shop.

The Swan, with her green paintwork and orange sails, is a big attraction and often berthed in the harbor. Built as a sailing drifter in Lerwick in 1900, she has been restored to her original state and provides an opportunity for sail training cruises and private charter. Another interesting vessel is the Dim Riv replica longship which offers short trips in harbor waters in the summer. The ro-ro ferry to Bressay leaves from the Esplanade, located close to the offices for Lerwick Port Authority and port control in Albert Building. Further along is the Malakoff (a boatyard since the 19th century) and the North Ness area which was formerly the site of gutters’ huts and barreling yards in the boom years of the herring industry. The ferry from Aberdeen arrives in the “sooth mooth” daily and berths at Holmsgarth, in the north part of the harbor, where much of the fish processing and oil-related traffic and quays are also to be found.

The steep, narrow lanes leading uphill from the street were cramped and crowded residential areas for all town dwellers in the 1800s. Much demolition, renovation and redevelopment has taken place over the years and the lanes are now a desirable location. Smugglers’ tunnels run underground and a guided tour of Old Lerwick will explain all – it also provides a few insights into the town’s interesting history and traditions: did you know the sites of today’s Thule Bar and Peerie Shop were once ‘lodberries’ (piers, developed as warehouses, where goods could be directly loaded and unloaded from boats)?

The picturesque south end of Commercial Street still has lodberries, a hotel and houses built into the sea, although when #10 was built in 1730, it was the only house on the ocean side of the street. The Queens Hotel, built in 1860, incorporates Yates’ and Hay’s lodberries. The house called ‘The Lodberrie’, near Bain’s Beach, is probably the most photographed in Shetland, is the home of Jimmy Perez in the popular BBC drama series Shetland.

Boarding my bus for the pre-arranged tour, we made our way inland towards the western coast of the island. The first thing I noticed was the total absence of trees – endless miles of denuded fields and mountains, populated now with peat bog and heather. Timing is everything as the saying goes, and the heather was in full bloom, displaying hues of pale violet thru the deepest purple and every shade in-between. The few groups of trees which do exist have been planted in the last 100 years, in a valiant effort to reforest this region. The largest area of trees in Shetland surrounds the farm of Kergord, higher up the valley of Weisdale. The Kergord plantations, now being managed and extended, attract chaffinches, rooks and other woodland birds which are very rare elsewhere in the islands.

The busy commercial port of Scalloway was Shetland’s capital in the 17th century. This picturesque village is shielded from Atlantic gales by rugged offshore islands, many of which are uninhabited, and its sheltered harbor has long been a place of refuge for ships. Overlooking the new harbor is Earl Patrick Stewart’s Scalloway Castle, built by forced labor in 1599. The castle is a grand example of a Scottish fortified house, but it was occupied for less than a century and is now roofless. I was unable to go inside to explore, as scaffolding and blue tarp covered the roof sections, as renovations are currently underway. Located next to this castle is the Scalloway Museum which tells the story of Scalloway’s past and present – from the ploughs of prehistoric farmers to the latest developments in the agricultural industry. Behind the museum is a fenced-in field with two Shetland ponies who made a point of coming to the fence to be petted and photographed. These days they are generally used to teach children to ride.

Another scenic stop was in Tingwall Valley which, in June and July, is probably the best place to see Shetland’s native wildflowers, including several species of orchids. At the north end of Tingwall Loch (lake) lies the site of Shetland’s ancient parliament. Viking delegates met at the Lawting Holm to make laws and decide on the rights and wrongs of cases. Nearby is Tingwall Kirk, the “Mother Church of Shetland” and its ancient graveyard.

One of Shetland’s biggest and deepest lochs – the Loch of Girista – is famous for its Arctic Char and, the local myth tells us, is named for a Norse girl called Geirhildr who is supposed to have drowned here 1200 years ago.

Anyone ever heard of the “Shetland Bus?”…..it was the nickname of a clandestine special operations group that made a permanent link between mainland Shetland and German-occupied Norway from 1941 under the German surrender on May 8, 1945. The unit was operated initially by a large number of small fishing boats and later augmented by 3 fast and well-armed submarine chasers. Crossings were made mostly during the winter months under the cover of darkness. This meant the crews and passengers had to endure very heavy North Sea conditions, with no lights and constant risk of discovery by German aircraft or patrol boats. There was also the strong possibility of being captured while carrying out these missions on the Norwegian coast. In the early days, it was decided that camouflage was the best defense, and the boats were disguised as working fishing boats and the Norwegian sailors as fishermen. These fishing boats were armed with light machine guns concealed inside oil drums placed on deck. The operation was under constant threat of discovery and several missions did go awry.

The afternoon was drawing to a close, with the weather also closing in. Dark threatening clouds rolled in from the horizon, the wind increased, the temperature dropped (to say it was chilly was a complete understatement!) and finally the heavens opened, and the rain began. Not what I would term a downpour but enough that it soaked thru in a few minutes. Thankfully I had gotten all my photographs during the dry and sometimes sunny periods, so it wasn’t much of a disruption. I called it a day and returned to Lerwick – time to move on to my next stop.

Day Two of my sojourn in these northern Islands, I arrive In Kirkwall, Orkney. Located some 130 miles north of Aberdeen, Scotland and 528 miles north of London, this vibrant capital is a fascinating ancient Norse village. Unfortunately, the morning does not bode well for sightseeing – it’s cold, overcast, windy and raining – at least I have an umbrella and I’m waterproof! The town’s most famous landmark is the first thing you see – the 900-year-old St. Magnus Cathedral, built from pink and yellow sandstone, dominates the town with its towering spire – it can be seen for miles around.

A Little Bit of History:

Founded around 1035 AD by the Norsemen, it was declared a Royal Burgh (town) in 1486 by King James III. Settlements on Orkney’s mainland date back to 3000 BC, with remains of that civilization at Skara Brae, as well as cairns (man-made piles of stone), Bronze Age stone circles and Iron Age roundhouses, at different sites around the Island. The richness of the Orkneys neolithic past has earned it UNESCO World Heritage status.

Independent retailers form the heart of this town, with shops lining the main street as it snakes its way south from the colorful harbor. Need fishing gear or some of the finest local food and drink? Kirkwall is a cosmopolitan place and can supply it all. The town center was even named Scotland’s Most Beautiful High Street in 2019. Close to the cathedral are the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, with the Orkney Museum just across Broad Street. It’s a fascinating warren of exhibitions and artifacts, helping connect the dots of thousands of years of history in these islands. Tankerness House Gardens is a lovely spot to soak up some summer sunshine (if and when it appears!), and don’t forget to visit Groatie House as well, built from the ballast stones of Pirate John Gow’s ship.

Kirkwall’s harbor front is another great location to stop and watch the world pass by. Overlooked by some of the town’s best restaurants and pubs, if you’re lucky, you can see the local fishing fleet heading in and out of Kirkwall Bay. Nearby, the Orkney Distillery offers award-winning gins and tours, with the Orkney Wireless Museum providing a tiny treasure trove of audio equipment from time gone by.

And you don’t have to feel cut off from nature during your time in Kirkwall’s relatively metropolitan atmosphere. The Peedie Sea is home to swans, ducks, and gulls throughout the year, with a network of paths offering a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of the town center.

There are plenty of other attractions to explore beyond the town boundary, in the parish of St Ola too. Grain Earth House is a subterranean structure found in the middle of the Hatston Industrial Estate. Collect the key from Judith Glue’s shop on Broad Street before descending the steps for a quite unique experience. Even further afield is the Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn, a Neolithic burial tomb built into the west side of the hill that overlooks Kirkwall. There is a walking route from the town, and you’re guaranteed spectacular views from the summit. Two beaches can be found in St Ola, Inganess in the shadow of Kirkwall Airport, and Scapa with its views over Scapa Flow, offer fresh sea air within walking distance of traditional town amenities.

I haven’t forgotten you alcoholics! Whisky lovers only have a mile or two to go to find Highland Park Distillery to the south of town, and Scapa Distillery, to the southwest. Both offer tastings and tours and are well worth a visit. There’s a real creative community in Kirkwall as well. You can see Orkney chairs being made at Orkney Hand-Crafted Furniture, Scape Crafts and Orcadian jewelry being created at Aurora Jewelry. Shops in town like Sheila Fleet Jewelry, Ortak and Ola Gorie stock beautiful local crafts as well.

The town is also home to the famous street football game, the Kirkwall Ba'. Four games are played every year, on Christmas Day and New Year's Day, with men and boys from the town and further afield - divided into the 'uppies' and 'doonies' - battling to push, kick, throw or smuggle a hand-crafted leather ball to their goals at either end of the main street. It's a fascinating spectacle, and one with an ancient tradition stretching back through generations of Orcadians.

As usual, I had arranged a bus tour for the afternoon, under the mistaken impression the weather would improve – it didn’t. The soaking drizzle began around 2pm and only increased in intensity for the remainder of the day, not to mention it was cold with a howling wind producing windchill – just what I needed, not. But at least the fog didn’t roll in, so I was able to view the scenery, and having bagged a front row seat once more, I probably had the best view overall.

40 minutes into the drive, we arrived at the Italian Chapel, which consist of 2 Nissen huts transformed into a beautiful chapel by Domenico Chiocchetti and his colleagues, Italian prisoners of war, captured in North Africa and transported to Orkney. In 1939, a German U-boat entered Scapa Flow and sank the British warship HMS Royal Oak, with a loss of 834 lives. At that time, Winston Churchill was First Sea Lord and upon visiting Orkney, he decided to construct barriers to close off four entrances to Scapa Flow, to make the naval base for the home fleet much more secure. A shortage of local manpower to construct these barriers coincided with the capture of thousands of Italian soldiers, with 550 men transported to Camp 60 on Lamb Holm and a similar number to Camp 34 on Burray. Among the Italians in Camp 60 was an artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, and he was assigned the task of transforming the two Nissen huts into a chapel. He was assisted by other tradesmen. In his pocket, Domenico carried a small prayer card given to him by his mother before he left his home in Italy, and it was the image on that card of the Madonna and Child that he based his painting, shown above the altar in the Chapel. Now, decades after the completion, it is one of Orkney’s most beloved attractions, with more than 100,000 visitors each year. The Chapel Preservation Committee hopes visitors will enjoy their time here and make a small booklet available in English, Italian and German which, for a donation of 1 pound, tells this story in words and pictures.

The weather continued miserable but on to the next attraction: the Standing Stones of Stenness, one of four prehistoric sites on mainland Orkney that are part of a World Heritage Site known as the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney”. These incredible megaliths sit at the start of the Brodgar peninsula and all its ancient sites beyond. The Standing Stones of Stenness could be the oldest stone circle in the British Isles. There were originally twelve stones, with some standing up to 20’ feet high, focused on a large hearth in the center. Although only four stones remain standing today, it’s still possible to get a sense of the scale and importance of the area.

Constructed around 5,000 years ago, these four sites are masterpieces of Neolithic design and creation. Together they represent one of the richest surviving Neolithic landscapes in Western Europe, and provide an unsurpassed insight into the society, skills and spiritual beliefs of the peoples who produced them. Maeshowe, Ring of Brogar and Skara Brae are the other three, with Skara Brae being the most well-known.

It was time to head back to Kirkwall. It was raining, cold and extremely windy – a hot rum toddy would down very well about now! I need to travel south and find warmer climes…….did I mention it was wet, windy and cold?

Additional photos below
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6th August 2022

Shetland Orkney islands
Thanks for the travel itinerary. We’ll be heading in that general area on a cruise in June of next year.

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