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Peeping Into The Box — Exploring Orkney.

24 Jun

The people of the Orkney and Shetland Islands are extremely irritated by atlas publishers. Why is this? It’s because their real location is hardly ever properly shown on  a map of Britain. They are usually stuffed into separate boxes to the right of the main map, giving the impression that they are just off the east coast of Scotland. The truth is that they lie to the north of the mainland and if the map is drawn to scale, these Northern Isles would not fit on the page. So, to many they are outposts that are out of sight and mostly out of mind. They are detached boxes, tucked away and rarely opened. If you travel to the extreme north of Caithness, in mainland Scotland, you literally reach the end of the road. All those charity walkers, runners and cyclists going from Land’s End to John o’ Groats think they have travelled the entire length of the country, from one extreme to another. But they are wrong. Scotland and the UK carries on northwards even when the road ( and the rail) has finished.  Over the sea lie 2 sets of islands that are as much an official part of our country as London, Belfast, Edinburgh or Cardiff. One has to board a boat or catch a plane to get to them. They are Orkney and Shetland, the islands in the boxes. For my wife Chris and I this year, the road to adventure led northwards.

We went to Orkney or the Orkney Islands. Apparently, you are not supposed to say the Orkneys as that is like saying the Scotlands or the Englands. Because of the distance travelled to get there, it was almost like visiting a foreign country. Some guide-books say they have a Scandinavian feel to them. Orcadians, as the residents of Orkney are called, do not regard themselves as Scots but as a proud, distinct nation. There are about 20,000 of them. In fact, up to the later 15th century these islands were actually part of Norway. ( as were the islands of Shetland.) The Vikings had taken them over as they were on their main sea routes from Scandinavia into the north Atlantic.  The first Viking raids into England probably came from Orkney. Then in the 1460s, Orkney and Shetland were named as the security of a wedding dowry for the marriage of a Norwegian princess, Margaret to King James III of Scotland. If the dowry of 50,000 Rhenish florins was not paid then the islands would pass into Scottish hands.  The Scandinavian King, Christian I was impoverished, the dowry was never paid, so in 1468 they were formally annexed by Scotland. Even to this date, Norway has never formally recognised Orkney and Shetland as part of Scotland.

Most people I know invariably  travel south for their hols, seeking out the sun. Just in the last few months friends of mine have travelled to France, Greece, Malta, Spain and Portugal, posting their sun-drenched photos on social media. All these are great destinations. But there are equally intriguing places to explore if one forgets the shades and the sun cream and heads to the cooler  climes of the north. So, when we decided to visit the Orkney Islands, we made sure we packed fleeces and overtrousers, hats, gloves and even scarves instead of the usual hot weather gear. I optimistically packed some shorts but never got round to wearing them, even though it was “flaming June.” So why did we go?

The biggest lure for me is the history. Orkney is the richest site for ancient history in the whole of the UK, if not northern Europe. It is a paradise for archaeologists. We were entering a world of: stone circles, chambered passage tombs, neolithic villages, bronze age remains and iron age brochs. It sounds mysterious doesn’t it?  That’s what makes it so exciting. This is not just history but prehistory. We were visiting buildings that were constructed before people could even write. We encountered places that were created before the Pyramids in Egypt. Their builders are unknown. Their purposes can only be guessed at. It is a history shrouded in mystery.

There are plenty of beautiful beaches in Orkney. We walked on a couple, but didn’t spend our time lying on them, even though the sun did shine brightly on quite a few of our days there. Instead, we spent a fair amount of time crawling down long, low stone- age passages or huddling inside claustrophobic stone tombs that only see the light of day when the sun on mid-winter’s day shines directly down the tunnel to illuminate the gloomy chamber within. How did so called “primitive” people have the astronomical and geometric knowledge to work that one out? Another mystery. The main neolithic passage tomb on Orkney is Maes Howe. One whole side of the passage or tunnel is made from a single huge stone. Before the age of the wheel, how did stone- age man transport such heavy stones to this site? One theory is seaweed. Large quantities of shiny seawood are thrown up on Orkney’s shores during storms and high tides. It’s slippery quality may have made it possible to slide the large blocks along the ground. Maes Howe is also special because its inner chamber is covered with Viking graffiti after a group of Norse warriors broke into it in the 12th century, probably hoping to find hidden treasure.  The normally mundane: “I was here” is a much more powerful and evocative message when it happens to be 900 years old and scratched in Viking runes on to 5000 years old stones!

The only ” problem” with Maes Howe is that it is now becoming a victim of its own popularity. Yes – shock, horror — other people also make the trek north to this isolated archipeligo! Other people means: queues, timed tickets, guides, souvenir shops and the whole mass tourist package. Maes Howe has become something of a packaged experience. This is inevitable as a place becomes more popular. Health and safety comes into play and the ancient site itself has to be protected.  Even though the guide was good and the tomb fascinating ( if you like that sort of thing) , it still felt as if we were being processed and thus took away much of the atmosphere that we might have experienced in days gone by. Luckily, Orkney still has less organised prehistoric sites such as the Tomb of the Otters and The Tomb of the Eagles on the island of South Ronaldsay. We visited the latter tomb, so called because of a large number of eagles’ talons found in and around it. Don’t ask me why, as that’s  yet another unexplained phenomenum. After an interesting talk about how the 5000 year old tomb was discovered in 1957, and a close-up look at some of the stone-age artefacts excavated, we walked out for nearly a mile, unguided, to the actual tomb, near the edge of a sea cliff. Entry was through a short but very low stone passage. I had to lower my 6 foot frame on to a trolley that was like a big skate-board and pull on a rope attached to the roof of the tunnel to haul myself into the chamber. Then I was in the ancient tomb — all alone. Chris didn’t fancy joining me and there were no other tourists. I took a deep breath of the musty air and tried to take in the reality of where I was. I tried to appreciate that I was alone in a place that had been lost, deep in time for 5 millenia; that had been built by stone age people. But then I thought of Chris getting wetter and wetter on the cliff top and I heard the voices of other, approaching tourists, so the moment was lost and I hauled myself  back into the 21st century. It was still a special experience though, albeit a brief one. We were also alone when we visited the Broch of Gurness, on the top of Orkney Mainland. It’s an impressive, circular, dry- stone defensive tower built in the Iron Age in around 200BC. It was a lovely sunny day when we explored it but we had it to ourselves as it’s obviously not on the main Orkney bucket list. It was also at the end of a long, narrow country road, not really suitable for tour buses.

Equally mysterious are the stone circles of the Orkney Islands. On a cold, windy afternoon  we visited the Standing Stones of Stenness, sharing it with a large group of German bikers who kept getting in the way of our photos! 4 mighty stones remain of an original group of 12. One is 5.7 metres ( 16 feet) tall. All are quite slender after being delicately split off from their parent block. The predominant rock on Orkney is sandstone, a sedimentary rock that can be split along its cracks into thinner shards. The standing stones exude atmosphere even when they are shared with others. I should have gone back at twilight when all the visitors had gone. Then I might have experienced the full magical power of the place. But, like most people, I didn’t think to fit this into a busy schedule. Even though we stayed a full 8 days on Orkney there was still little time to just stand and stare. Near to the Stones of Stenness is the even more impressive Ring of Brodgar. A large circle of  weathered sandstone slabs stands on a low hill overlooking 2 big lochs. As this is less than a mile from the Stones of Stenness and quite close to Maes Howe, archaeologists have speculated that this whole area , on a narrow isthmus of land between the 2 lakes, must have been sacred and special in neolithic times. The Ring of Brodgar has 27 of its original 60 stones left in situ. It is thought that different settlements in the area may have contributed their own standing stones to this communal monument. It is surrounded by a grassy defensive ditch and the whole area is carpeted in heather. From the low- lying boggy fields around us we could hear the shrill, piping cries of nesting oyster catchers. As someone said, they are the “sparrows” of the Orkney Islands. As we walked up towards the mysterious stones we saw a flock of oyster catchers harrying a short-eared owl out on a day-time hunting trip. The Ring itself is impressive and it’s purpose only wild guesswork. When archaeologists feel stumped they usually fall back on the sacred ceremony theory. As with Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire so it is with The Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stenness, except the Orkney circles are much older.

One of our abiding memories of the Ring of Brodgar was of the cold wind. It had been warm and sunny earlier on but now the wind whipped up. Orkney is frequently windy. There are virtually no trees and few concentrations of buildings, so there is nothing to break up the winds as they whip off the ocean. One resident explained that she got so used to the wind that when she visited Glasgow on a calm day she felt she could hardly breathe. It was strange and disorientating for her to experience still air. She also felt claustrophobic when surrounded by all those tall, city buildings.

The most famous ancient site on Orkney has to be Skara Brae. It is this new stone- age village that, more than anything, made me want to visit the islands. It is probably at the top of most people’s Orkney bucket list. It’s a remarkable neolithic fishing and farming village, its circular houses huddled together on the edge of a scenic bay and connected by low passages. A fierce storm in 1850 blew away the deep sand dunes that had been covering and preserving it for millenia. It’s probably about 5000 years old and is another Orkney site that pre-dates the Pyramids. Many people, when they think of the stone-age, conjure up images of people crouching in caves, roughly covered in animal skins and wielding clubs. However, here one can see that neolithic people lived in houses that had their own stone furniture and fittings — fireplaces, built-in beds, boxes and even dressers. I wished I could have pinched myself harder to appreciate more fully the remarkable remains from the distant past that were spread out before me. It was a special experience but once again tempered by having to share it with scores of other visiters. Along with the 1st and 2nd War Naval remains at Scapa Flow, Skara Brae is Orkney’s top tourist attraction. It may be in the far north of the UK but increasing numbers are visiting it, meaning that they have to be managed and controlled. So, inevitably, as well as the ancient village itself, we now have a car park, a coach park, a shop, a cafe, an exhibition and a small video theatre. It’s another packaged experience. It’s run, very efficiently and pleasantly by Historic Scotland, but I couldn’t help wondering how thrilling it must have been to visit it in its virgin, newly discovered state. Still, I’ve seen it now — tick!

One major reason for the increase in visitors to Skara Brae and other Orcadian sights is the ever more frequent appearance of cruise ships. Kirkwall, Orkney’s main town, is now the cruise ship capital of the British Isles. The lady running our guest house in Stromness announced several times during our stay that there was a cruise ship in with 1000 to 2000 plus passengers, so it was best to get to Skara Brae early that day. The cruise passengers are disgorged for the day and many do a whistle- stop tour of the main island’s hit parade. The trouble is that when they arrive at a place they swamp it with their numbers and potentially ruin the experience for others. An Australian couple in our guest house wanted to do a tasting tour of the local whisky distillery but were unable to get in because a cruise ship had booked it out for the entire day.  I’m sure that cruise ships bring extra customers for local businesses and make valuable contributions to the local economy, but their presence can spoil the experience for “ordinary” tourists  who have been attracted by the peace and quiet that these islands usually have to offer. Is this a case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg?

As well as history we were attracted to Orkney because of its scenary and wild-life. Apart from the dramatic black hills of Hoy, Orkney is low lying and gently rolling. It presents an attractive pattern of green fields dotted with low-slung sandstone farmhouses ( based on Viking longhouses) and divided by dry stone walls. Some crops are grown, such as an ancient type of barley, but it’s mostly small herds of grazing cattle that catch the eye. We saw numerous family groups of these gentle, calm creatures complete with a muscular bull and adorable suckling calves. Often creamy in colour these cows displayed overt maternal behaviour. Once we saw a cow cradling its youngster as they lay together on the grass. On another occasion when it was windy and rainy, we saw a group of calves sitting down in the corner of a field, being sheltered from the worst of the weather by the adults who were clustered around them in a protective semi-circle. We also saw moorland, saw evidence of peat digging and often heard the haunting, unfurling call of the curlew. Orkney’s countryside is mostly gentle, soothing and peaceful. It is beautiful in its own quiet way. However, the coast is often wilder and more dramatic, especially in the west. We saw beautiful beaches and bays, complete with bright blue and turquoise sea, basking seals, stately swans and eider ducks with their young. But the most memorable places were the high, red sandstone sea cliffs, the stacks, the natural arches and even a couple of dangerous looking blow-holes ( collapsed caves.) We trecked, on Hoy, to see the most famous sea stack of all — the Old Man of Hoy. It’s the tallest stack in the British Isles, standing at 137 metres, a third bigger than Big Ben. It’s a tall, slender sandstone pillar standing on a much harder volcanic base. It and the cliffs opposite are constantly pulverised and shaped by the raging seas far below.

We also saw dramatic sea cliffs at Marwick Head, and at Noup Head on the northern island of Westray. All housed spectacular cities of breeding seabirds — guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars, cormorants, black-backed gulls and gannets, We also heard the raucous cries of kittiwakes. At Noup Head we stood above a colony of 100,000 birds. The gannets with their huge wing span and striking yellow necks put on a memorable flying display as they constantly arrived and departed. As we looked down at the vertiginous cliffs below us, fulmars suddenly reared up in front of us, buffeted by the wind. It was a heady sensation of sight, sound and smell ( the cliffs were stained white with pungent guano.) Meanwhile on the open ground near the cliff edge in both Westray and Hoy, we encountered huge, menacing Great Skuas ( known locally by the old norse name of “Bonxies”) , arctic terns and the ubiquitous black and white, orange -beaked oyster catchers. We were also lucky enough to see and hear skylarks above the meadows, an increasingly rare experience on the British mainland. On top of all this we were delighted with the wild flowers, most of them tiny because of the cool, windy climate. Most striking of all were the bright pink carpets of sea thrift, that mixed with the orangy-yellow swirls of algae on the cliff edge to create a vivid spectacle.

We didn’t encounter many mammals apart from the sheep and cattle in the fields. There are no deer like in much of the rest of Scotland, and I don’t think there are any badgers or foxes. We saw a large hare once, bounding up the lane in front of us and, while trying to take a close up picture of a flower in the long grass of a cliff top, Chris encountered the rare Orkney vole. Apparently it is bigger than its mainland cousin and is seldom seen. I didn’t see it but heard Chris’s yelp. She thought it was a rat! Orkney people liked to tease us with stories of things we might see but never did. “This is where the otters come to feed.” “You might see pods of dolphins or porpoises off that shoreline” “Did you know there was a group of pilot whales that got stuck in Kirkwall Bay for a while?” They found their way out into the ocean just before we got there! However, we were well satisfied with the rich array of birds that we saw. I nearly forgot to mention the pair of rare, nesting, white-tailed sea eagles that we saw on a high rock face in Hoy, courtesy of an RSPB telescope.

On top of all this, Orkney is the UK’s top diving mecca. We wandered why we kept seeing large groups of young men hanging around. It seemed a long way to come for a stag do and one thing Orkney is not famous for is its night-life. Then we realised that these were diving parties. The deep, sheltered waters of Scapa Flow to the east of Orkney mainland and Hoy provided the perfect spot for the British High Seas fleet in both the 20th century’s World Wars. The English Channel was far too busy and dangerous so the fleet headed to the far north. By the end of the First World War, the captured German High Seas Fleet was also corralled there. In June, 1919, their commander ordered his men to deliberately sink their own ships. He believed that Germany was about to surrender unconditionally ( Up to that point there had just been an armistice) and did not want his beloved battleships to fall into enemy hands. His order came when the main British fleet was out at sea. The scuttling of the German fleet must have been a highly dramatic sight. Returning British sailors panicked when they saw the German ships disappearing beneath the waves. They opened fire on the Germans , killing about 6 or 7 ( a possible war crime), but it was too late to stop the scuttling. Many of  these ships have since been salvaged for their valuable metal but about 7 still remain down there on the sea bed, a magnet for marine life and for divers, who just love exploring wrecks. The German ships were joined by  the British battle ship, The “Royal Oak” in 1939 when it was torpedoed to the bottom by a U Boat with great loss of life.  Sadly, most of the victims were young trainee sailors of 16 or 17 years old. After this Churchill ordered barriers to be constructed between the south eastern islands of Orkney to stop further deadly incursions. These were made from concrete blocks and sunken “block” ships. Today they have been turned into causeways carrying roads and provide a link between the main island and the islands of : Lamb Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay. These are called the Churchill Barriers and much of the work was done by Italian POWS. This wartime activity has ironically led to one of Orkney’s most beautiful and popular attractions: The Italian Chapel. Dubbed: “The Miracle of Camp 60”, it is an exquisitely decorated Catholic church made from 2 nissen huts, salvaged metal and wood, and barbed wire. For instance the ornate light shades were made from bully-beef cans. The main artist based the altar piece on a painting in his church back in Italy. He had a picture of it in his wallet. He was invited back in 1960 to complete and restore his beautiful decorations. It’s a very moving place to visit, especially if you are lucky enough to avoid the tour buses.

A lot of 1st and 2nd War History is still to be found at the ex Royal Navy base at Lyness, on the Scapa Flow coast of southern Hoy. Here are rusting anti-aircraft guns, ruined old piers, mouldering cranes , torpedo storage tunnels and ruined barracks turned into cow sheds and barns. It’s great if you like that sort of thing. You can still go into the air-raid shelters built for the service men and women. We heard that the Royal Navy sailors stationed there were initially very slovenly and untidy until a detachment of WRENS was stationed up there and there was a miraculous transformation!  Quite a few relationships and future marriages blossomed in this far-flung northern outpost. Our guide on Hoy told us that she had recently shown round a Canadian tourist who had wanted to come to see the wind-swept place where he had been conceived!

Orkney is a box well worth opening. It is much more than an obscure inset on a map. The history, scenary and wildlife are all outstanding. But our strongest impression was of the serene peace and quiet ( when a cruise ship hadn’t docked) and of the light. The light is wonderful, a result of all that shining sea and those massive skies. Artists and photographers love it. It was a great trip north.  Next time we may well go all the way up to the most northerly edge of the UK  to open the Shetland box. It’s only a 12 hour voyage by overnight ferry from Aberdeen! Another northern adventure beckons!

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