In 2009 we took the passenger ferry from John O’Groats to the southern tip of South Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands. We then got on a crowded bus for a day trip around four of the Orkney’s 70 plus islands. We did see several of the main attractions of Orkney, but the bus passed many more with the driver’s comment, “And over there is...”
That one-day excursion was enough to convince us that we wanted to go back and “see” Orkney on our own schedule. This trip we did just that.
We caught a different ferry, a car ferry, from Scrabster near Thurso on the Scottish mainland for our three day, three night tour of Orkney. The one and a half hour transit of the Pentland Firth (part of the North Sea) was not an easy trip. Large westerly swells kept the boat, big enough for 75 cars and several large lorries, rocking the whole way. Anne, who fancies herself seaworthy, was bothered enough that we spent most of the trip on deck so she could get fresh air. We docked at Stromness with almost the full day ahead of us. Over the next two and a half days we managed to see most of the main attractions of Mainland Orkney (the largest and capital island) as well as some sites on other islands.
The highlights of the tour were the ancient sites on Mainland. Most fascinating was the 5000 year old village of Skara Brae on the west coast. The village had been buried for about four thousand years until a strong storm washed away some of the cover in 1850. Excavations revealed an entire village, including nine dwellings and stone furnishings, set into the ground. Research revealed Skara Brae village had been continuously inhabited from about 3100 BC to 2500 BC. Tourists now walk above the in-ground dwellings and imagine how early agrarians lived.
From Skara Brae on the west coast we drove in land to the Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial landscape of the Ring of Brodgar, a henge (mound and ditch) and stone circle made up of 36 (out of an original 60) stones as high as twelve feet. The almost perfect circle 104 meters in diameter is between 4000 and 4500 years old and probably fulfilled a social and ceremonial function possibly associated with the commemoration of the dead.
Not far from the Ring are the Stones of Stenness, a set of obviously shaped larger stones about 500 years older than the Ring. At one point these were probably a part of a grand henge or ceremonial enclosure.
Only a couple of miles by road led us to Maeshowe, the finest chambered tomb in northwest Europe and rivaling the better known Newgrange tomb in the Boyne Valley of Ireland. The ten-meter long entrance passage (about three and a half foot tall) leads to a five-meter by five-meter chamber about 4.5 meters tall. This is not a burial chamber for bodies, but rather with its three smaller side rooms a depository for the bones of the deceased. The main chamber most likely was used also for ceremonial purposes when it was built about 5000 years ago.
There were many other ancient sites that we visited as we toured around Orkney’s islands (Mainland, Lambs Holm, Burray, and South Ronaldsay), but one modern, if 200 years old can be called modern, site was a special treat.
Highland Park Distillery, the most northerly of all the 105 whisky distilleries in Scotland, provided an exceptional tour for just the two of us. Chris, our tour guide, took us through the malting process including drying the malted barley with both peat and coal fires, then to the brewing of the low wines in mash tuns made of Oregon pine, the double distilling into spirit, and finally the storing of the spirit for 12 years in oak casks before bottling it as Highland Park single-malt Scotch whisky. We’ve been on many distillery tours, but this was one of the best both for its information and for the special dram we got at the end of the tour.
For our stay in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, we booked a pleasant B&B, Hildeval House, which had a grand view out to the Bay of Kirkwall and the Wide Firth. Dinner one night at the Kirkwall Hotel was good pub grub, but we more enjoyed our two dinners at a local Italian restaurant, Lucano. We did find an interesting stop for lunch our first day on the islands. Before walking along the edge of the North Sea at Birsay we followed some little red signs to the Birsay Bay Tearoom literally at the end of the road.
Delicious soup and sandwiches using local produce (some of it grown in the greenhouses next to the tearoom) and a fantastic location overlooking Birsay Bay made the little hut a destination.
The trip to Orkney, the one we’d been planning for two years, was in most ways as good as we hoped and in some ways better than we had a right to expect. We got really rained on hard only twice, once on the ten minute walk out to Maeshowe and the other on the first hole of the round we played at the Orkney GC. The rest of the time the weather, which can be wild even by Scottish standards, was rather pleasant. The one story we won’t tell in this entry is about the Tomb of the Eagle--you have to ask us about that story.
Photos from the top: Scrabster Lighthouse, Mainland Orkney, Skara Brae (2), Ring of Brodgar (2), Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, Highland Park Pot Stills, Tour Guide Chris, Birsay Bay Tearoom.