July 2010, Orkney - Mainland and Hoy .
Scapa Flow, the natural harbour bounded by the southern Orcadian islands, was an important naval base during both World Wars. In 1939 the German U-Boat U47 negotiated the block ships in the channels to the east of Scapa Flow and sunk the Royal Oak with the loss of 833 lives, where it remains today as a designated war grave in Scapa bay. As a consequence Churchill ordered the construction of massive concrete causeways between the islands and several hundred Italian prisoners of war brought to Orkney to build what are now known as the Churchill Barriers.
Two Nissen huts were made available to the PoWs for use as a Chapel, and in their limited free time they transformed the ugly corrugated iron huts into a beautiful chapel. The inside is just painted plaster board, but gives the appearance of three dimensional brickwork and sculptured stone with the colours used to imitate shadows and reflected light (also see more pictures).
In contrast to the tiny Italian Chapel is St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. This is an imposing red and white sandstone building which towers above the surrounding town. Work started on the cathedral in 1137 by St Magnus's nephew, so some parts are over 850 years old. It has been modified and extended over the centuries, but it's age can be appreciated in the fantastically shaped stones that have been sculpted by centuries of water drops (see more pictures). The inside is equally impressive with beautiful stained glass windows, intricate carvings and imposing pillared archways. What tickled us though were the iron rings hammered into the pillars near the choir stalls. These were used during the civil war by Oliver Cromwell's troops to tether their horses! A bit of a contrast from your conventional stables design!
Opposite the cathedral are the 12th Century Bishop's palace, and the Earl's palace (left) built around 1600. Both of these are now only ruins, but have restored stone staircases and flagstone floors enabling you to wander around the upper galleries to get a better impression of the size and magnificence of the rooms. The protruding circular windows with their now glassless window panes must have been very impressive in their day. These are some of the many sites on the islands owned by Historic Scotland. There is a special priced "Orkney Explorer Pass" that gets you into the six sites with an entrance charge, so if you visit all there is a considerable reduction. This is considerably cheaper than an annual membership, or other available Historic Scotland deals. From our point of view, the best thing is that there is no time limit, so if we don't manage to get to all six before we leave (though we have only one more to visit ) then perhaps we can continue when we return next year.
One of the other Historic Scotland sites is the Brough of Birsay (below). This is a small tidal island off the north-west coast of Mainland. It can be reached by a narrow concrete causeway that can be crossed two hours either side of low water. We had hired a car that day so could time out visit and not rely on the bus schedule. Arriving at 9.30 we found a tour bus already there. We admire the people on the tours because it must be exhausting. They only had about 20 minutes here before driving off to the next site. They must visit in one day what we manage in a fortnight!
There is the remains of a small Norse settlement on the corner of the island nearest the causeway, along with the ruins of a 12th Century church and traces of an earlier Pictish settlement of the seventh and eighth centuries. Not much is visible of the buildings now, so we were very glad of the guide book to bring it alive. As soon as we left the settlement to walk around the rest of the island we quickly left the tour bus party behind. It was easy walking with mown paths through the grass meadow leading to the pretty little light house (see more pictures) on the far side of the island.
The whole of the Mainland west coast is good for walking, and on one day or another we have now walked nearly the whole length. About half way down is the Bay of Skaill and Skara Brae. This is the best preserved neolithic village in northern Europe. It is about 5000 years old so was inhabited before the Egyptians built the pyramids, and many centuries before construction started at Stonehenge. The village dwellings are so well preserved because firstly, they were buried in sand soon after they were abandoned, and secondly all the furniture was made of stone due to the lack of trees on Orkney. The picture (left) shows the stone dresser where prized possessions were stored and displayed. In the centre is the hearth surrounded by stone seats, and around the sides of the room are box beds with storage alcoves set into the walls. Presumably they took all their cushions with them when they left!
South of Skara Brae the geology changes and the coast is peppered with arches, stacks and geos. Tim posed on this narrow ledge for a photograph, Judith did not have the guts because what is not clear from the photograph is that the surface is far from horizontal! Some of the sea stacks still have ropes attached from where more intrepid rock climbers have ventured to the top. The most challenging of these is the Old Man of Hoy (left), which at 137m is the tallest sea stack in Europe, and was recently featured on the BBC "Coast" series. There was no one climbing it on the day we visited, but then it was raining, so probably not good for getting a grip! Hoy is the second largest Orcadian island, and forms the western side of Scapa Flow. It's name is Old Norse for "High Island", and has the highest hills in Orkney. It is easily accessible by passenger ferry from our base in Stromness, so we visited for walks a couple of times. Typically the day we chose to climb the hills was the day the forecast was unreliable. The rain promised in the late afternoon, arrived in the late morning just as we were furthest from shelter. Needless to say, despite waterproofs, we got rather wet, but being in a marina has compensations, the shore power enabled us to plug in our little fan heater and our clothes quickly dried.
In Orkney, being an island community, you see lots of recycling and unusual use of what is available. The sedimentary rocks, that split easily, have been put to many uses. Some are in the place of fence posts and you see long lines of little standing stones linked by barbed wire. They are also used in place of slates and the old houses have flagstone roofs. Drift wood is used in all sorts of odd places, and dry stone walls are often topped with old fishing floats. But the best we saw was this old microwave being used as a post box at the the end of the track to the farm house.
There are several museums dotted around Mainland. The main "Orkney Museum" in Tankerness house in Kirkwall is a traditional type of museum with lots of display cases and information boards. It was rather dry going, and we found the pre-reformation house itself with its multitude of small rooms, winding corridors and twisting staircases much more interesting than the contents! More lively are the two farm museums. These look like they might still be lived in. The main house in Kirkbuster still has the peat fire lit in the central hearth (right), with the fish hung up to smoke above. The whole room was filled with the pungent peat smoke, which apparently helps to discourage the bugs in the thatch! Corrigal Farm has a band of independent chickens. We found one calmly wandering around the living room (see below and more pictures). The warden said it was looking for the cat food!. Later we saw the tame sparrows eating the chicken food, so we wondered what the cat ate - sparrows presumably!
Another feature of Orkney is the wildlife. We have done a couple of guided walks around some of the RSPB reserves and also been watching the bird life around the marina. The montage below shows a few of our closer encounters!
(Corrigal Farm Chicken, Curlew, Arctic Terns in Stromness marina, Black Guillemot, and Common Blue Butterfly).
We still have the Scapa Flow naval museum to visit in Lyness on Hoy, but after that we will be looking for a good weather window to start heading south. There is still so much to do here in Orkney as we have not visited any of the northern islands, but that will be something we'll leave until next year.