Having spent over a week of intensive sight-seeing on Orkney before, this time we were taking things leisurely, mostly visiting the few things we had missed the last time – or that weren’t even there.
There’s so much to do on the islands, it’s hard to know where to start. The neolithic monuments alone can occupy a seasoned traveller for days. Rightfully inscribed into UNESCO’s World Heritage list, the range of sites spans from grand barrow mounds, through enormous stone circles, to entire neolithic villages, with perfectly preserved little houses. What makes the whole setup perhaps the most unique, is how integral to the life of locals the stones are. In most places, you need to drive, or walk, for some time, out of the way, beyond the main road, across the fields, to reach a site. Here, they are everywhere. You can’t go anywhere from Kirkwall or Stromness – the two main settlements of Orkney – without passing a number of mounds or standing stones along the way.
The chief cluster of sites is spread along a narrow passage – some believe it artificial – separating the lochs of Harray and Stenness. A pair of stone circles, at Stenness and Ring of Brodgar, encloses the causeway, with remnants of stone avenues, perhaps linking the two, remaining in form of single standing stones scattered about the nearby fields. As spectacular as the two rings are – Brodgar’s Ring in particular – it’s what’s between them that intrigues the archaeologists the most these days: ruins of an immense settlement, a real neolithic city spreading underneath the heath fields.
A few miles to the West, on the sea coast, lies the most famous of Orkney’s neolithic sites, the village of Skara Brae; it’s remarkably preserved houses are tiny by today’s standards, but the amenities are easily recognizable: there are beds, cupboards, hearths and even sewer channels under the floor; a real Flintstone-style condominium. Compared to the cozy cottages of Skara Brae, the buildings at Ness of Brodgar and Barnhouse Settlement are like cathedrals. A single excavated platform of one of the largest buildings could fit almost the entire Skara Brae village within its perimeter. The excavations continue, and the purpose of most of these buildings remains unknown, but their impressive size alone has already made the scientists rethink their understanding of the Stone Age culture and society.
There are two massive barrow mounds nearby; both are well preserved and can be entered. The smaller one, at Unstan, famously contained the delicate, laboriously decorated grooved pottery, known hence as Unstan Ware. The larger one, Maes Howe, is impressively built, with a faux-vaulted roof made of 15-tonne blocks of stone; but it’s what scratched on these mighty walls that makes the mound of great interest, and it helps us leap to another important era in Orkney’s history, that of the Vikings.
The Orkneyinga Saga, written in Iceland, tells in one of its chapters a story of a Viking band taking refuge inside a barrow mound during a particularly harsh blizzard; the trapped, and presumably bored, Vikings had left graffiti on the walls of the mound – graffiti which we can still read today in Maeshowe, for that was the barrow in question. The Viking, and later Norwegian, earls ruled Orkney, Shetland and surrounding islands (and bits of mainland) for centuries, first from a tidal fortress at Brough of Birsay (which we finally managed to visit this time, the tides having been unsuitable previously), then the cathedral city of Kirkwall. In Orphir, in the south, remains of a round church and mead-drinking hall, also mentioned in the sagas, remind of the glory days of Viking warriors. Norway finally ceded the islands to Scotland in 15th century, but the Nordic influence remained strong. It’s closer from here to Bergen in Norway than to Edinburgh, after all. The Orkney flag was once the red-and-yellow cross of the Kalmar Union, finally changed to the current, also distinctly Scandinavian one, in 2007. It’s little wonder then that the islands feel almost nothing like Scotland, not to mention other parts of Great Britain; even the local dialect sounds more like the thick Norse accent rather than the Highland brogue.
The one concession to Scottishness of Orkney is whisky. There are two distilleries in Kirkwall, but we are only concerned with one of them – Highland Park, est. 1798, one of the finest spirits in all of Scotland. Its twin black turrets rise prominently over Kirkwall, rivaling that of the Cathedral of St Magnus – an early medieval patron saint of Orkney; the whisky here, peaty, sweet and heathery, remains our definite favourite.
Every era of British and Norse history had left its traces on Orkney; the German High Seas Fleet resting at the bottom of Scapa Flow is but one of the many reminders of the importance of this place during the world wars. There are gun batteries, pill boxes and observatory towers scattered all over the place, including a particularly well preserved one half a mile south of Stromness (access only with a guide – tours end in early September). The small village of Lyness on the island of Hoy is a treasure trove of war memorabilia, having been the main navy base during WWII – there is now a well stocked museum here, in the old steam pump house by the pier.
If history is not your cup of tea, there’s a detailed and well-signed trail of workshops of local craftsmen, mostly jewellers and potters; Orkney is proud of its silversmiths, who take inspirations from the rich heritage of the islands. There’s also a lot of less tangible art produced on Orkney by an army of folk musicians, poets and storytellers.
The last day in Stromness is sunny, peaceful and warm, which makes the seals return to the harbour. The next day, we go to Hoy, and then we return to the capital of Kirkwall, to take the long, overnight ferry ride even further north, even closer to Norway and Vikings: Shetland.
For our final night we took a small ferry to Hoy; the island is now barely inhabited – though remains of crofts crop up everywhere – and is a fantastic place to stay, surrounded by the harsh nature and sea roaring against the tall, jagged cliffs.
A tiny sea-side settlement of Rackwick – now a cluster of empty crofts and holiday cottages, at the mouth of a sprawling glen, almost literally in the middle of nowhere – is the perfect example of what a local community can do to attract tourists; a gravelled car park, a hut with well maintained toilets, and a camping bothy – all free to use – mean that the place which otherwise would attract maybe a few sheep and only the most intrepid among hikers, is bustling with activity. In the morning, a caravan of cars arrives, pouring out a throng of walkers, who all have one target in mind: the Old Man of Hoy, a stack of red sandstone rising from the sea two-hours walk away. Luckily, they all leave in the afternoon, and the place is quiet and empty again: a domain of skuas, gannets and owls.