One of the things we have learned whilst we have been journeying around the north of Scotland is that you can’t rely on the weather forecasts that pop up on the mobile phone. For starters they show that rain is forecast for most days. And it does rain or drizzle on most days that it is forecast. But there are also periods of sunshine amongst the Scottish mist. And, so it was on Orkney. Rain was forecast on each of the 4 days we were there, but we got some reasonable periods of sunshine on 3 of them. So we made the best of it and got around to see most of the touristy sights on the main Island.
We caught the early ferry across from Thurso in very unpleasant drizzly conditions. The seas were quite smooth and it took a little over an hour to reach Stromness. Along the way we passed by the Old Man of Hoy, the great big stack just off the island of the same name. Lots of sea mist around and drizzle as we went past. This is the easy way to see the Old Man, the other is to do a lengthy 9 km return walk along the Hoy headland and sea cliffs, so it would have been a lengthy effort for the Old Man of Mt Ommaney.
In Stromness we stayed in Asgard a rather elaborate B & B just outside town. The house was full of nick knacks of all descriptions, one had to be careful of not knocking things over. Phones and Ipads banned from the meal room, but very comfortable establishment. Asgard is actually the home of the Norse gods, so there was a link to Orkneys’ Norse heritage. In fact there is a lot on Orkney dealing with its Norse heritage as well as Picts, Neolithic and earlier stone age peoples. As well as heaps of ruined croft houses and sheep. There are sites everywhere to visit and one could spend days wandering around looking at them. Allthego and Homealone have had a big dose of these places on the journey so far. So we held back and looked at the main ones. The 5000 year old stone age village at Skara Brae beside the side was ‘discovered’ when there was a big storm that washed away some sandhills. The rooms were still intact with stone age ‘furniture’ in place. Amazing place to walk around. Then there were the standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar, a big circular site set up on a hill overlooking a loch and the countryside, and later a visit to the Tomb of the Eagles down at the southern end of the Island. The Tomb is a an ancient burial site discovered on a sheep farm. Getting in is a bit tight. One has to pull oneself along on a sled through a low and narrow tunnel into the tomb. Allthego enjoyed the experience, Homealone stayed outside and took pictures of the process, as well as a couple of videos (for private screening only). A number of skulls and other bones were found buried here. Eagles bones were also found among them. The human bones bore lots of ‘scratch’ marks and was evidence that the humans had been cleaned of their flesh by eagles before burial. As was the practice at the time it seems.
The landscape is also impressive. Rolling green hills and rocky sea shores. We did not see the white sand beaches at their summery best and Allthego couldn’t get his swim in! A bit too nippy. Sea birds everywhere. The highlight was a walk to the lighthouse on the Brought of Birsay, a small island linked to the main island by a causeway that is covered at high tide. We walked across and up the hill to the lighthouse, bit of wind to hinder views over the cliff edge at the top. Plenty of fulmers around but no puffins, which is why we went. They were almost guaranteed to be there. So we walked back down, bit of a trudge. At the bottom we had a chat with a couple of locals Allthego had met at the top. They had seen puffins, a bit further on from where we had stopped. So back up we went and there were two of the little fellows perched on a ledge. Homealone a bit on edge looking over the edge, but they were seen. First time! Cross that one off the bucket list!
Going down south also involved crossing over ‘Churchills Barriers’. These are a series of causeways linking islands creating a barrier that was designed to prevent access to Scarpa Flow by German U-boats during WWII. Scarpa Flow was the harbour that Britain’s Navy used as a base. It was also the base during WWI when the surrendered German naval fleet scuttled itself in the harbour. Nearby is an elaborate chapel built by Italian prisoners of war during WWII, the prisoners participated in building the Barriers.
Orkney is also famous for its whisky. Highland Park is the most northern whisky distillery in the UK. We dropped in and had a look around the visitors centre, didn’t do a tour. Have done the distillery tour thing before and the process has not changed much, we are told, over the last few hundred years. Gin here is all the rage at the moment, particularly the botantical varieties. Straight gin ‘flavoured’ with various plant and fruit essences, also seaweed extract. Mixed with tonic or lemonade. We went into the Orkney Gin distillery centre in Kirwell and enjoyed a fruity gin mix before dinner on the night we left for the Shetlands.
Back in Stromness it was dinner at a local pub where Allthego tried a Ham Hough whilst listening to a local musician in the lounge, somewhat incomprehensible at times. The Hough being a change from Fish n chips and steak and ale pies. In Australia we would call it a Ham Hock. Simply enormous plate of very tender slow cooked ham on the knuckle bone. Just managed to get through it all, left the bone and fat strips behind.
We moved out of Asgard at the appointed hour of 10.30am on our last day.The ferry to the Shetlands does not leave until 11 pm however, as it as an overnight journey north. So we spent the day wandering the Kirkwell township before boarding. St Magnus Cathedral a 12th century church complex was quite an interesting place. It had been a catholic church until the reformation when it was stripped of the gold and all the finery. Now a fairly austere interior, with early 20th century stain glass windows. St Magnus’s bones were found in a box in one of the pillars in the early 20th century. The bones are still in the pillar, but we found the box on display in a local museum. Interesting, display the box but not the relics, very protestant to say the least! Out in the streets a young lady was being carted around on the back of truck on the equivalent of a hen’s party crawl. Known locally as a ‘blackening’ the ceremony involved her being coated in mud and treacle and put on display in the back of the truck. The fellow revellers were also ‘blackened’. Much honking of the horn and singing. Male driver and assistant.
We finally boarded the ferry around 10pm and settled into our cabin for the journey north to the Shetlands. This has been a lengthy epistle, apologies to my readers, but it has been an effort to catch up on a few days of non blogging!