Orkney Islands: Who knew?


Day 4 of our Azamara Club cruise of the British Isles.

We left Edinburgh’s Leith harbor about 2:30pm on Wednesday, July 6 on route to Kirkwall, Orkney islands.

We’re scheduled to arrive at 8:00am and have a full day for exploration.   At this point I’m wondering why we need 10 hours on this little island but I soon discover there’s much more to the Orkney islands than I imagined.

The harbor is small and we’re the only ship docked. I can see the town in the distance with St Magnus Cathedral dominating the skyline, otherwise the landscape is rolling hills and very few trees.  Apparently the salt air isn’t very kind to trees and they have a hard time achieving full growth. However the grass is green and as we’ll see later there are fields of wild flowers and oodles of grazing sheep and cattle throughout the mainland. Many more cattle and sheep than there are houses and people it seems.  It’s quite pretty despite the lack of trees. There are several farms and small clusters of homes, but for the most part the island is field and small hills.

Our Craigies taxi arrives on schedule and we hop in to meet Eddie who will drive us to the sites we’ve chosen in the three hours we’ve reserved.  He agrees that we’ll have enough time to see the Stones at Stenness, Ring of Brodgar, and Skara Brae and if we’re efficient he’ll be able to take us to the Italian Chapel as well. I’ve been excited to see Skara Brae, the best-preserved prehistoric village in Northern Europe,  since I learned Kirkwall was one our stops.

Eddie starts out a little reserved but as soon as he realizes we don’t expect him to give us the history of the island he lightens up.  He was born and brought up on the mainland of Orkney, not far from the town of Kirkwall. He doesn’t go off island often but he’s been to the US, he went especially to see Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry.  I guess there are “country” fans even in Scotland.  He’s able to answer a few questions about the island, he admits he knows little about the standing stones and wonders why people come to see them. At one point we pass two people walking on the road, you rarely see people on the long empty roads, Eddie calls them “free range pedestrians. Eddie has a sense of humor.

Our first stop is The Stones of Stenness and there ‘s only one other person there.  It’s peaceful and serene surrounded by fields and water. There are only three stones still standing but you can see the outlines of others and some stone remnants from where others stood.    Little is known about the standing stones in this part of the world. They’ve dated nearby Skara Brae at 3100 BC but they don’t know when the stones circles were created or for what reason.

Next stop is The Ring of Brodgar  this Neolithic henge and stone circle is said to have been constructed between 2500 and 2000 BC.  It’s larger, with more stones visible and the circular shape more defined. Many of the stones are still standing, others have fallen over or split. The site is flat and surrounded by fields of wild flowers and grazing sheep and cattle, it’s peaceful. Our time is limited, so as much as I would like to sit down and think about what life must have been like 5000 years ago on this tiny island so far north we get back into our taxi and are off again.

There’s a lot of water (lochs) on this main island of the Orkneys,  they seem to run into one another and Eddie tells us some are fresh water but most a mixture of fresh and salt. The neolithic sites we’re visiting are close together and are part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” World Heritage Site.

Skara Brae is next on our tour, with Scaill house next door. Both are close to the coast and surrounded by open fields.
The story goes that there was a big storm about 150 years ago (1870). Lots of rain and high winds and once the winds died down the owner of Skaill house (William Watt) went out to survey the damage to his property. He found that the wind and seas had unearthed stone structures and knew he had unearthed something old and important. Soon the archeologists were unearthing more and more of the ancient village. It’s not possible to know how many houses were there originally because the village was built close to a coastline that has eroded significantly over the many years (like 5000!). A retaining wall now holds what’s left from being consumed by the sea as well.

The inhabitants had used the building materials available to build their houses and furnishings. Rock, rock and more rock! Slate was used for some of the ceilings on the passageways, but it’s speculated the roofs of the houses were made of whale bone covered with grass. There were no trees and they didn’t have the means to kill whales, they relied on what washed up on shore. Procured whale carcasses and driftwood were cleverly re-purposed into tools and utensils. Skara Brae has a neat little museum displaying tools, ornaments, and cooking utensils found at the site, some amazingly well preserved.

As you exit the museum on your way to the site there are stones set along the path indicating various important historical dates. These are used to put the age of Skara Brae into perspective. Skara Brae is older than the pyramids, people were living here 5000 years ago. It blows my mind.

By the time we reach the site the buses are arriving and it’s getting somewhat crowded but we’re still ahead of the majority of people.
The area is carefully blocked where they don’t want you to walk and they’ve built a substantial retaining wall right beside the sight where there is a large drop to the beach. Its windy and you can imagine what the weather must be like in the middle of winter with wind howling from the north sea. Its surprising the sight has remained at all over this many years in this harsh location.

We’re on somewhat of a timetable but Eddie’s fast asleep in the parking lot (he warned us he would likely be asleep when we returned) so we dash through Skaill house next door,  which actually was pretty interesting. The house was built in 1620 and added to over the next 400 years. All 12 lairds were related and retained a collection of family furnishings and objects from the 17th century on. The current house is 1950s era (notice the pink tile bathroom) but with antiques and collectibles throughout the house.

Back in the car with Eddie rested from his snooze, we have time for one last stop before going back to Kirkwall.
Orkney has an interesting war history and there’s a chapel built by WWII Italian prisoners of war that we’re headed to now. On the way we drive over Churchill Barrier 1. These were a set a barriers started in 1940 to keep German submarines out of the natural harbor of the Scapa Flow. Today they’re used to connect the mainland to some of the smaller islands. The Italian chapel was built by Italian prisoners captured in North Africa and held in Orkney to help build the Churchill barriers. In their spare time they built the chapel from whatever materials they could scrounge, it was decorated by one of the prisoners. The light holders were made out of corned beef tins. The baptismal font was made from the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete. The facade and interior painting is lovely.

Next stop Kirkwall, St Magnus Cathedral and the Earl’s Palace. Eddie drops us off in front of a cafe/gift shop he recommends for lunch.  The menu is pure Scotland, love it, and we order local cheeses, bannocks, brown bread and tea.

To pay for the meal I gave the person at the counter a credit card. She put the card into the hand held credit card reader then frowned at it – held it up above her head waving it around, frowned again and repeated the gesture. Turns out the Internet signal is precarious and has to be just right. I thought it was hilarious – okay, you had to be there.

Right across the street from the cafe/gift shop is St Magnus Cathedral (it’s huge), the Earl’s Palace next door must have been stunning in its time. For a little, seemingly insignificant group of islands off the northern tip of mainland Scotland, there is an amazing amount of history connected.
The cathedral was started in 1137 and added to over the next 300 years. It’s built from a very porous red sandstone and I can believe it’s still standing.

Right across the street is the Earl’s Palace built in the 1600s. The guy who built it is described as being one of the most tyrannical nobleman in Scottish history. He used forced labor to build the palace – on land he didn’t own. It took the land from the owner by accusing him of a crime, fabricating evidence, and having him hanged so he could get the land. Not a very nice fellow, but apparently he got his in the end when he and his son were hanged for unrelated chicanery.
I was fascinated with the palace because of its beautiful lines, but also because its fairly well preserved and you can almost picture the inhabitants.  There is a huge fireplace in the ballroom and you can actually see the scorched stone from fires so long ago.

By this time my Fitbit was telling us we’d walked quite a bit despite the taxi ride. We caught the bus back to the ship with time to spare and were very happy to have visited, if only for a short while, this interesting and beautiful island.

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