Late June 2010, Orkney - Mainland.
Monday the 21st was a drizzly day, ideal for trying out the Stornoway leisure centre swimming pool. The staff had assured us that some of the pool lanes would be roped off for the public to swim lengths, even if there was a school lesson going on. This was the case, but the time we chose seemed to also be a favourite for mothers with young children who lurked at the shallow end making lengths impossible. But we had a decent shower out of the visit.
On the previous Saturday, we had resigned ourselves to another week on Lewis as the forecast was for high pressure over the whole of the UK, so little or no wind for as far as it would predict. However, as an example of the poor reliability of long range (5 day!) forecasts, when we checked it again on Monday we had a southeasterly force 4 forecast for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the perfect wind to give us a fast and comfortable sail around Cape Wrath. The plan was to cross first to Kinlochbervie, then the following day to round Cape Wrath (pictured right at 9pm) to Loch Eribol, and then on the third day to get to Orkney. However it did not work out quite like that! The difficulty with the passage is that there are two tidal gates to negotiate. The first is Cape Wrath which has fierce tides and there the sea can get very rough if the wind is against the tide. The second gate is entrance to the Sound of Hoy at Orkney itself, where the tides can flow at 8 knots, and as Innisfree sails at about 5 knots it was important to have it in our favour. We were having such a good time on the Tuesday, sailing along while listening to Test Match Special ball by ball commentary on the first One Day International against Australia using our wind-up LW radio, that it seemed a shame to stop. We even had our colourful cruising chute up at one point when the wind lessened slightly. A quick calculation showed that we would just make the Cape Wrath gate (3pm to 9pm), and as the sea was so calm we decided to just keep going through the night. It was not all plain sailing however, the wind dropped and we had to put the engine on to maintain our speed. This interfered with the radio reception so the cricket had to be turned off. However a small pod of common dolphin heard the engine and came to play at the bow for about 10 minutes, just showing that everything has a silver lining!
Midsummer night is certainly a good time to choose for a night passage, it barely got dark, and all "night" there was a pale glow to the north making it possible to see the land the whole time. The sea was relatively calm so it was possible for one of us to snooze while the other kept watch. Things got rougher as we approached Orkney so we were very glad that we made the second tidal gate with an hour to spare, it would not have been enjoyable hanging around off Orkney for six hours, hove-to while waiting for the tide to turn. We were safely moored up in Stromness marina, and fast asleep by 9am.
Stromness is on the largest island in Orkney, which is called Mainland, and it immediately struck us to be very different from the Outer Hebrides. It has rolling green hills partitioned off into fields, most of which seemed to be full of cows. These are predominantly beef for Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. It is apparently too wet and windy for arable crops, but grass grows very well. The only downside of this is that many farmers have recently taken in a crop of silage, and have been liberally muck-spreading over the last few days. There are a few pockets of moorland left, and even a few small woods in sheltered valleys. The town centres are also very different, appearing much older, with narrow streets and closely packed stone houses, much more reminiscent of Cornwall than Scotland. Stromness main street is very pretty, the central strip of the road is cobbled, then flanked by large flagstones. The houses on the seaward side run down to the loch (Hamnavoe) perpendicular to the road, each being a terrace of three or four houses ending with a small quay with a narrow side street leading to a small landing jetty (see picture left). Those on the other side of the street are much larger and more imposing. These were the houses of merchants and traders supporting the shipping preferring the route around the north of Scotland to the English Channel during the numerous wars of the 18th Century. There is a plaque on the wall next to Login's Well where the ships of the Hudson Bay Company (1670-1891), Captain Cook (1781), and Sir John Franklin (1845) and many others all took water. What is also important, is that there are excellent bakery, butcher and veg shops, not to mention several outlets selling the delicious Orkney ice cream! So far we've tried "Toffee & Fudge", "Marmalade Cheesecake", "Apply Crumble" and "Rum & Rasin" all equally mouth watering!
As well as beef, Orkney is very good at catering for tourists. Mainland is blessed with a wealth of things to see and do, of which we have only scratched the surface. Many of the sites have free guided walks or talks given by rangers or Historic Scotland guides, and we have gathered so many leaflets from the Tourist Information Centres that they cover the chart table. The only thing that lets it down is the uncoordinated bus service, but car hire is cheap so the places inaccessible by bus can still be reached.
The central area of West Mainland is a world heritage site, and contains the Ring of Brodgar (right), Maeshowe (described below), the Standing Stones of Stenness, along with numerous other individual standing stones, settlements and burial chambers (see more pictures). The land around the Ring of Brodgar is owned by the RSPB, where it is farmed to encourage the wetland birds such as curlew, oystercatcher and lapwing. On the day we chose to visit Brodgar an RSPB warden took us around the reserve in the morning, and then in the afternoon a guide from Historic Scotland explained what they know, and don't know about the standing stones. The more they find in archeological digs and surveys, the less they are sure of their purpose!
Another day we visited Maeshowe. From the outside it is just a low grassy mound, but inside is the "finest chambered tomb in north-west Europe" according to the guide book. Entrance is by timed ticket, and guided tour as the tomb only really holds 20 people and a guide. First you walk bent double up a 10m long entrance passage which is amazing for being built using single stone slabs forming the sides, floor and roof. The passage is aligned to the midwinter sunset and timed tickets for that slot must be well sort after! The tomb itself is 4.7m square with the walls built of flag stones with the roof a corballed vault as they had not worked out how to build arches at that time. It is around 5000 years old, or "200 Grandmas ago" as our guide described it.
The tomb was broken into long ago and even when the Norse settlers broke in during the 12th Century it was already empty. However, the Norsemen left their mark or rather their marks on the wall, and Maeshowe now has the world's largest collection of stone carved runes. Most are no different to what modern graffitist would leave - "Ibgigerth is the most beautiful" or "Ofram Sigurdsson carved this" etc, some messages were a real diatribe! Typical of modern day graffiti artists, as well as messages they also drew pictures, of which the dragon or lion (shown left) is the most easily identifiable.
As it had been frequently robbed, no human remains were found at Maeshowe. However other tombs in Orkney had been left undisturbed. We visited the "Tomb of the Eagles" at the southern tip of the island of South Ronaldsay attached to Mainland via the Churchill Barriers (causeways). Here they found the bones of hundreds of people and the claws of many Sea Eagles, hence the name. The dead were not buried, but left outside to "deflesh", (i.e. left outside for the birds to pick their bones clean) and then the bones were interred within the tomb with the skulls in one chamber and the other bones in other chambers. This tomb is privately owned and we were first shown some of the skulls and other artifacts found during the dig. The excavation was carried out by the farmer because the officials said they would do it, but after waiting 18 years after reporting the find, he lost patience and very carefully did it himself! After the talk we were left to walk out to the tomb and explore on our own (see right).
Due to the popularity of the Tomb of the Eagles the outside is well worn, but this is not the case for Wideford (see below) a similar design. Wideford is half way up a hill, and only accessible via a footpath down from the summit so has many fewer visitors.
On the north west shore of Mainland is the Broch of Gurness. This is one of a pair guarding the Eynhallow Sound, the other being Midhowe on the island of Rousay which we will hopefully be able to visit when we eventually leave Stromness. The broch is not as impressive as Carloway on Lewis (see June page) because the sandstone is not as strong, so the walls have collapsed. What is interesting is the broch is surround by a small village of six houses. These have a central living and sleeping area, and smaller store rooms, some with shelves built into the walls. We were tickled by this privy (left) but is probably something else entirely!
Finally we met Bubbles while seeking internet access in Stromness library. Bubbles lives across the road but has found that the library is a much more peaceful place to come for a snooze during the day. The pile of shopping bags appear very comfortable and we were not heartless enough to try and buy one.
There is a lot more to do on Orkney and we are likely to stay here for the rest of the Summer traveling around the attractions on Mainland and the other outlying islands.