The Delights of Orkney

When I said I was going to be visiting the Orkney Islands during my trip to the UK the usual response was: Where the hell are they?  And to be honest, I was a bit vague myself – all I knew was they were somewhere in Scotland. Well, turns out Orkney is perched up above the very top of Scotland – see that group of islands where the red tag is, above John o’Groats, that’s Orkney. And, it does take a bit to get there – we had to fly from London to Aberdeen, then hopped on a wee plane to fly into Kirkwall, the main town on the main island, called approriately, Mainland. And even then our journey wasn’t done as we were staying on the island of Shapinsay, so it was then a taxi from the airport to the harbour, followed by a 25 minute ferry ride to Shapinsay, where we were picked up by the lovely Catherine Ann, our BnB host for the next 4 nights.



But, I’ve learnt a lot about Orkney since being here:

1. The Orcadians are very friendly people, and once engaged are not averse to a chat. Which means that transactions can take a while.

2. There are actually a hell of lot of people living in Orkney who aren’t from here, which has struck us as quite bizarre. How on earth do people end up thinking, oh, I’m going to live up the very top of Scotland. We’ve met lots of people from various parts of England, a lady from Wales, a chap from Zimbabwe, heard about a lady from the Philipines, and we have been told there is a Kiwi on Shapinsay. Even our BnB hostess is from Glasgow, brought here by love 30 odd years ago.

3. You can soon pick the born and bred Orcadian as they have a distinctive, and quite lovely, lilting accent. 

4. It is COLD. I have been wearing every item of clothing I brought on this trip, plus a lightweight puffer jacket I borrowed from Sue’s mate Dawn, all at once. I’ve even resorted to wearing the Rolling Stones beanie I bought as a gift for Abby (with the tag tucked up inside so hopefully I may still be able to get away with it as a gift!). And, this is summer!! Although to be fair, we have been very lucky with the weather as no rain until the day we were leaving.

5. The main reason for the cold is the wind, which is Artic. Said wind results in almost no trees on any of the islands, aided and abetted by intensive farming. There is one small clump of trees on Shapinsay which by no coincidence is part of the Laird’s estate. The other side effect of the wind is wind turbines. Almost every farm holding has its own modern windmill and is self sufficient for energy. Orkney is not only self sufficient for energy but it is also a big exporter of it. And little Shapinsay has been selected to be part of a European pilot study that will take the excess energy produced by two community owned wind turbines to produce, store and use hydrogen to run cars and other stuff. The project is called Big Hit – Google it if you’re interested in low energy projects.

6. There is some seriously old stuff in Orkney – they have found prehistoric villages that go back way before Stonehenge.

7. The Orkney’s have played an important strategic role in the two wars. In fact, the main reason we are here is that it is the centenary of the Battle of Jutland – the largest naval battle of WW1. Stu’s Grandad was in the battle – and survived- so he has always had a hankering to visit. The Centenary Commeration seemed as good a time as any, which also happened to coincide with my visit , so I came along for the ride. Some 8,500 sailors died in the battle, and whilst England suffered the lion’s share of losses the British fleet was able to maintain control of the North Sea, which was absolutely vital if it was to win the war.

8. Whilst the countryside is very attractive – green rolling hills, drystone fences, dramatic cliffs – it does sort of all look the same after a while. And, there’s lots of water – well, I guess that happens when you are lots of wiggly islands. The Orkneys are in fact made up of something like 70 islands, of all shapes & sizes, only 20 of which are inhabited. And, the people are rather fond of pebble dash clad houses – not the most attractive building material.

9. It stays light for a very long time in the summer months, and it never really gets proper dark. Their version of dark comes around 10.30/11.00pm at the moment and it starts getting light again around 4 or 5 in the morning. Luckily I brought my eye mask with me or I’d never get to sleep.

10. Driving around is very easy – there aren’t that many roads nor much traffic. Nor does it take too long to get from end to end. So we have managed to see quite a lot of the sights in our 4 days here. So, let me talk you through our visit.

As I said, we are staying in a BnB on Shapinsay, called Hilton Farmstay (http://www.hiltonorkneyfarmhouse.co.uk) and it has been been fabulous. The farm is a working beef farm, and Catherine Ann runs the accommodation side of things and she couldn’t be more hospitable or welcoming. She drives us to and from the ferry (it is about a 20 minute walk otherwise, usually in a gale); she makes terrific home cooked breakfasts and evening meals; she organises for us to be collected by the private ferry for our late night sojourn in Kirkwell. The rooms are cosy, warm and very comfortable. And this is the view from my bedroom window (at 9.30 at night, by the way):


After arriving and settling in we went for a small wander up the road, and discovered a ruined church and an old cemetery – who doesn’t like an old cemetery to wander around? Interestingly, the married women seemed not to take their husband’s surname (or, the headstones only record them under their maiden names). 


Then it was back to the farmhouse for a home cooked meal and a glass of red, and the planning of our tourist campaign for the next day. Plans do need to take into account the ferry timetables as the ferry does not run on the hour, every hour, and the last one leaves Kirkwell at 5.30pm. This slight inconvenience is far outweighed by the pleasure we are getting from book ending our days with the short sea trip:


Not to mention the fact that we’ve become great mates with John, the chap who hands out the boarding passes as you come on to the ferry (a role that is quite distinct from the lass who comes around after the journey has started to sell you a ticket):


Breakfast at the Hilton Farmhouse can be an extravagant affair, and one member of our party (who shall remain nameless, but he is male) is taking full advantage of the full Orkney cooked breakfast aka the Heart Attack special:


Once over on the Mainland we wandered around Kirkwall, poking our noses into shops and getting the lie of the land. The housing style is plain, but almost all the houses have an unusual stepped gable.  Grey is a very popular colour (both in building materials, and the sky – we spotted blue skies when we arrived, then for a short while on Monday afternoon and then again briefly late Wednesday afternoon. The rest of the time the skies were grey). And as mentioned earlier, there is a lot of pebble dash.


Our destination was the Highland Park Whisky distillery, just on the outskirts of Kirkwall. The distillery has the distinction of being the most northerly distillery in Scotland. Now, I am not a whiskey drinker but I found the tour really interesting, from the hand turned malt, to the peat burning smoking rooms, to the storage in sherry casks, to the sculptural beauty of the harmonising vats. At the tasting we learnt that just one tiny drop of tap water from an eye dropper dramatically changes the taste of the Whisky. So, if you must add water to your Whisky you only need a drop or two. But, I’m still not a whiskey drinker!


From here it was a short walk to the Lynnfield Hotel for lunch, where the highlight was our pre lunch drink in the cosy snug. 


A brisk walk was required after lunch so we set off to look at the Scapa Flow, which is Britain’s most famous waterway. The importance of this body of water goes way back – the Vikings would anchor their longboats in Scapa Flow (and scapa is an old Norse word) –  but more recently it was the main naval base for Britain during both World Wars. After the German defeat in WW1, 74 German vessels were kept in Scapa Flow, awaiting the outcome of the Treaty of Versailles. Negotiations took forever, so the German commander of the fleet took matters into his own hands and scuttled the boats so that they wouldn’t fall into British hands. There are other wrecks of battleships, some of them classified as war graves, and as a result, Scapa Flow is now a popular diving site. It was quite moving to look out across the water and think of the battles fought and lives lost.


The next day was the 31st of May, the centenary day for the Battle of Jutland – a big day in British and German naval history, and a VERY big day for Orkney with commemorative services in both Kirkwall and on the island of Hoy. Kirkwall was agog with excitement, and most of the town came out to mark the occasion, which was focussed on the St Magnus Cathedral. The Weeping Window poppy sculpture that had been part of the Tower of London Remembrance Day commemoration has been reproduced at the Cathedral, and looks magnificent:

The Cathedral itself is very imposing inside, with a row of very significant columns lining the main aisle:


We joined the buzzing crowds thronging the streets. First we had the Royal Naval band:


Followed by the German Naval Band – Sue wouldn’t let me take a picture of the enemy band! (But, as an aside we met one of the clarinet players from the band later that day in the pub. He was an absolute sweetie, and quite thrilled to be drinking in a pub on Orkney). They were followed by the Kirkwall Pipe & Drum band, who were splendid  – I do love a kilt and a bagpipe.


All of a sudden the ranks of Secret Service men swelled, and the tension amongst the crowd swelled in unison. Something was going to happen. Next we see David Cameron (PM, UK) and Nicola Sturgeon (PM, Scotland) strolling towards us:


The anticipation then goes up a further notch, and there are now lots of men wearing earpieces standing in front of us, eyes moving constantly, back, forward, up & down (they must hate the era of mobile phones, as it must make watching out for the loony loner so much harder). Then a posse of shiny black Land Rovers sweep in, doors open and close smartly, and there is Princess Anne.  She’s actually quite teeny, but salutes and shakes hands very smartly (guess she has had lots of practice). Prince Phillip had also been due to come but had been advised against it by his doctors – well, he is 94, bless him.


She inspects the troops, followed by David and Nicola, then they all go into the Cathedral for the commeration service. That’s our signal to wander off and collect our hire car for a day of sightseeing around the Mainland island. Today was our seeing all the old stuff day, with a bit of nature thrown in.

We started at the St Nicholas Round Kirk, near Houghton. It is the ruins of a Norse church, built in 1122 in atonement for the murder of Earl (later Saint) Magnus. The Kirk sits now in a lovely old graveyard, with bluebells and lilacs adorning the graves.


Next were the Standing Stones of Stenness, which originally comprised a circle of 12 monolithic stones, but are now down to 4 ( I think farmers in days gone by knocked them down to use for their farming needs). The stones are thought to date from about 3000BC, but Sue was a bit underwhelmed.


Just nearby is the more impressive Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle of 27 upright megaliths (it originally consisted of 60 stones). The monument has clear views in all directions, so it’s location was no accident. 


From here we ended up in the village of Stromness, not by intention, but it was fortuitous as we were in need of a coffee and a bite to eat (the navigator and driver were getting a little tetchy with each other by now). Ferries to other islands, and to Europe,  leave from Stromness, so it has an active little harbour.


Fortified , and mollified, we ventured forth once more, this time to have a look at the dramatic coastline at Yesnaby. It was pretty blowy and hence,darn cold, so we did a brisk walk to the edge, took some photos and scurried back into the car. But, it was enough time to admire the rock formations, and the hardy clumps of flowers.


Back to ancient times – we drove on to Skara Brae, the remains of a 5,000 year old Neolithic village. The remains had been hiding safely away under sand dunes but were revealed in 1850 during a massive storm. They really are very impressive. Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and other Neolithic remains are all part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.


Next to Skara Brae is Skaill House, a 17th century house that is open to the public. It allows a fascinating insight into how the Lairds of the land lived. The current Laird renovated the house after it had fallen into disrepair during the tenure of the widow of the previous Laird. Our current Laird lives elsewhere on Mainland – presumably the ticket sales help him cover the costs of the renovations and taxes.


Onward and upward we flagging tourists drove to Birsay and Marwick Head. On top of Marwick Head is a memorial to Lord Kitchener, the “We need You” guy, Minister of War in WW1. Kitchener and his crew on the HMS Hampshire were sunk by a German mine here in 1916, with few survivors. Lord Kitchener not being one of them.


Stuart and I were on a mission to try and see a Puffin – they breed along the cliffs at Birsay and Marwick Head. We strode off, leaving Mrs D in the warmth of the car. But, our high hopes were dashed – we saw empty burrows but no sign of the notoriously shy puffins themselves. At least we spotted a lone seal lolling about in the sea.

It was time now to head back to Kirkwell – a drink in the bar before dinner at The Foveran restaurant  was calling, but not before this irresistible photo opportunity:


The Foveran turned out to be very nice indeed. I had a starter of local beef carpaccio – yummy – followed by monkfish with a smoked haddock sauce, a Scottish speciality. Despite my reservations, as the name smoked haddock does not have an appetising ring to it, it was delish. And, the other lovely thing about the Scottish is that they give you lots of vegetables as part of the meal. We got chatting to the head waitress, another English refugee. It turned out she was the mother of 4 kids, but only looked like a youngster herself, and she and her husband have recently put the family into a ballot to become the keepers of a Historic Trust property in Wales. 399 others have applied, but she is very hopeful. We ended up with the full story of her life, as you do.

We had to forego pud as not only was our waistband groaning, but we also had to return the hire car and get ourselves on to our chartered ferry at 10pm. Stuart deposited Sue and I at the Harbourside bar, Helgi’s, while he returned the car. This is where we encountered the happily inebriated German clarinet player. It was then a walk over the road to Cornslip to await the Charles-Ann, skippered by Harvey Groat, a dyed in the wool Orcadian.


Of course, in the 25 minutes it took to ferry us across to Shapinsay, Sue and I managed to extract much of Harvey’s life story as well. He is one of the skippers of the Shapinsay ferry but runs a private ferry service to cater for the many out of hour needs of the islanders. His second mate was a lovely looking but painfully shy Eurasian lad – turns out he was Harvey’s son; Harvey married a Filipino woman about 20 years ago, and is the proud Dad of a 17 year old son and 16 year old daughter. Harvey runs the Charles-Ann every night, the one way fare is £7. He had 4 customers on the 10pm on Tuesday night. Not a bad side business, and a much needed service for the people of Shapinsay as the last ferry leaves Kirkwell at 5.30 ( our fourth passenger was a young lad who is a dish pig at one of the hotels, so he needs the service to get home from work each night).

A long and exhausting but great day of being A1 tourists. Orkney is so interesting, both the islands themselves, and the people who live here.

Day 4 dawned greyer and colder, with a biting wind whipping across the islands. The temptation to stay cosied up at the Hilton Farmhouse, eating Catherine Ann’s cakes, was strong, but the other side of the Mainland called us. So, back on to the 9 am ferry we went – by now, we are on first name terms with the staff. John was his beaming self, and gleefully told us he had spotted us on the telly that morning in the film footage of Princess Anne arriving!! 

We took the opportunity to pop into the Cathedral as it had been banned to all but invited guests yesterday, followed by a quick whiz round the Battle of Jutland display in the Orkney Museum, before collecting another hire car (Stuart had had to scour the island for hire cars as all had been booked out – I told you these Jutland ceremonies were a BIG occasion on the islands –  but perserverance paid off, albeit from two different companies).

Today we steered to East Mainland, then down across the island of Burry and onto South Ronaldsay. These islands are connected to each other by the Churchill Barriers. After the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow in 1939 by a sneaky German U-boat (with a loss of 833 crew), Churchill ordered that greater defences be erected to stop enemy incursions within Scapa Flow. Old ships were scuppered to  become barriers, but he wanted more than that. The solution was the construction of concrete barriers that joined the islands but also acted as a barrier to sailing further into those parts of Scapa Flow.


Labour was needed to build the barriers, and Italian prisoners of war proved to be the solution. They were shipped in from Libya in 1942 to construct the huge concrete blocks that were used to make the barriers. But the legacy of these Italian POWs is not only Churchill’s Barriers but also the very beautiful and moving Italian Chapel, built by the Italian prisoners of Camp 60. One of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti, was an artist and he wanted to not only brighten the lives of the prisoners but also provide them with a place of worship.  He, with the help of other prisoners, created the chapel from 2 Nissan huts. He lined them with plasterboard and then got to work on the interior with his paints, creating a brick and marble looking structure with an ornate altarpiece copied from a picture his Mother sent him off to war with. A facade was added to the front of the huts. 


The Orcadians must have treated the prisoners well as Domenico returned to Orkney to visit the Chapel in 1960, and helped restore the internal paintwork. He spoke fondly of both the Chapel and the kindness of the people.

Just near the exit of the Chapel is a cannily situated hut offering tastings of Orkney wine. Of course we couldn’t pass up that opportunity. Talk about cool climate wines! Turns out they are not made from grapes but fruit. Amazingly enough the Orkney Red was actually drinkable, albeit a bit unusual.


We continued on our merry way, down to the charming little village of St Margaret’s Hope (note, that is the first time I have used the word charming as Orkney is many things but few are charming).  We wander round, hunting for somewhere for lunch. Tried The Creel but it is actually a BnB that serves meals to guests and others if they have made an earlier reservation. Owned and run by another English refugee, albeit one with Orkney roots via his Grandfather. He has bought The Creel, and the old bank building next door, which he uses as his residence. Hope business proves good for him – it was pretty quiet when we were there.


We finally found Fred’s Cafe, with its promise of homemade soup and a toastie. Sorry, we’ve had a rush on the soup and we’ve run out! So we had to settle for the toastie.

Fed and watered we drove to Hoxa to check out the famous Hoxa Tapestry Gallery, situated in a beautiful spot, and the sun came out to greet us.


 The tapestries and rugs are beautiful but very expensive, so we kept moving – down to the very end of South Ronaldsay, to a hamlet called Burwick. Tick, done that. Let’s go back now to Kirkwall and have a pint before catching the ferry ‘home’.  Tick, tick. Then another lovely dinner prepared by Catherine Ann, including rhubarb crumble with home made custard, and early to bed.

We rewarded all our excellent tourist efforts on the preceding days with a sleep in and late breakfast on our last day. And, how pleased were we that we were leaving today as we awoke to rain and more wind. We were now seeing Awful Orkney! The previous day we had phoned the Shapinsay Development Authority and booked their electric car for an hour and a half so we could drive round the island. Eileen turned up with the car at the appointed time, but with the bad news that the car was not insured to be driven by Non Shapinsayers. However, she offered to drive us round the island instead. So, we piled in and off we went – not that we could see much in the rain. We did hop out briefly to have a quick walk round the Broch of  Burroughston (a Broch being another Neolithic structure):



Eileen’s tour also included an illicit drive around the Balfour Castle.  The original house  was built in 1674, but in 1846 David Balfour, who made his fortune in India, inherited the estate, which now included the whole island. He transformed the house into the castle we see today, but now the castle has passed out of Balfour hands, having been bought by a funds manager from Shropshire – who do not appear to have integrated very well with the community, hence the illicit drive past the castle and the woodlands full of bluebells.


Then Catherine Ann kindly drove us down to the Cafe and Heritage centre where we waited for the 1.30 ferry. Onto the ferry, then into the waiting, pre booked, taxi to the airport – the rain cancelling earlier plans to find somewhere for lunch in Kirkwell before going to the airport. Luckily the airport has a bar, and a cafe, so we were happy – until we found out our plane was going to be over an hour late. It eventually left 1.5 hours late, amid talk of high winds and heavy loads, not something I wanted to hear. We landed in Edinburgh at 6.10 and our connecting flight to Heathrow was due to depart at 6.30. And of course, our landing gate was as far away as possible from the departing gate. The sight of the 3 of us racing through the airport must have been quite comical but the gods were in our favour as they were calling final boarding just as we huffed and puffed into view. A restorative G & T was required as soon as the plane took off.

We are now tucked up in bed. Tomorrow I have to exit the house at 6.30am to catch a train to Gatwick for my return flight to Barcelona. It has been a truly wonderful 2 weeks , and I shall miss the Dancing Dowdens very much – until next time. Xxxx

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