Orkney Islands: Who knew?


Orkney Islands, Scotland 

We left Edinburgh’s Leith harbor about 2:30 pm on Wednesday, July 6 on route to Kirkwall, Orkney Islands. We’re scheduled to arrive at 8:00 am 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.

Arriving in Kirkwell 

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 wildflowers 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 consists of fields and low hills.

Eddie – Our Friendly Craigies Taxi Driver

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 does, however, like to talk about himself. He was born and brought up on the mainland of Orkney, not far from the town of Kirkwall. Although he doesn’t leave the island often, he’s familiar with the US. He went mainly 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.

The Stones of Stenness

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.  Historians know little about the standing stones in this part of the world. They’ve dated nearby Skara Brae at 3100 BC, but were the stones created in the same era, and for what purpose?.

Ring of Brodgar

Next stop is The Ring of Brodgar this Neolithic henge and stone circle is said to be between 2500 and 2000 BC years old.  It’s more significant than the Stenness circle, with more visible stones and the circular shape more defined. Many of the rocks are still standing, others have fallen over or split. The site is flat and surrounded by fields of wildflowers 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 are many lochs on this main island of the Orkneys,  they seem to run into one another, and Eddie tells us some are freshwater but most brackish. The Neolithic sites we’re visiting are close together and are part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” World Heritage Site.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae is next on our tour, with Skaill house next door. Both are close to the coast and surrounded by open fields.
The story goes that there was a significant 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 discovered something old and vital. Soon the archaeologists were uncovering more and more of the ancient village. It’s not possible to know how many houses were there initially because the town 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.

Building materials 500 years ago!

The inhabitants had used the building materials available to build their houses and furnishings. Rock, rock and more rock! The builders used slate for some of the ceilings on the passageways, but it’s speculated the other roofs consisted of whalebone covered with grass. Trees don’t grow on this windy, northern island, so the early builders relied on driftwood, whalebone and anything else that washed up on the beaches,

Procured whale carcasses and driftwood were cleverly re-purposed into tools and utensils too. 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 critical 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.


Skara Brae, older than the Pyramids of Giza

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.
Visitors walk on clearly marked paths, Skara Brae is fragile. Its windy and you can imagine what the weather must be like in the middle of winter with the wind howling from the north sea. Its surprising the sight has remained at all over this many years in this harsh location.

Quick Skaill House visit

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 was impressive in its own right. 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 was remodeled in 1950s era (notice the pink tile bathroom) but with original 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.

World War II and the Italian Chapel

Orkney has an exciting war history, a chapel built by WWII Italian prisoners of war is our next stop. On the way, we drive over Churchill Barrier 1. The barriers constructed in 1940 to keep German submarines out of the natural harbor of the Scapa Flow still stand. Today they’re used to connect the mainland to some of the smaller islands.

The Italian prisoners, captured in North Africa, and held in Orkney built the Churchill barriers and in their spare time built the chapel. Building materials were scarce, so they used their creativity. The main building is an old Quonset hut; corned beef cans became light sconces, a car exhaust covered with concrete became the baptismal font. There were artists in the group, the facade and interior painting is lovely.

Kirkwall and Lunch 

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 handheld credit card reader then frowned at it – held it up above her head waving it around, frowned again and repeated the gesture. It turns out the Internet signal is precarious and has to be right. I thought it was hilarious – okay, you had to be there.

St Magnus Cathedral 

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 small, 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. Built from a very porous red sandstone and I can believe it’s still standing.

The Earl’s Palace

Right across the street from the cathedral is the Earl’s Palace built in the 1600s. Its said that one of the most tyrannical noblemen in Scottish history made it. He used forced labor – on land he didn’t own. He fabricated evidence against the owner of the property and had him hanged.
Not a very nice fellow, but apparently he got his in the end. He and his son were accused of unrelated chicanery and hung.
I was fascinated with the well-preserved palace because of its beautiful lines. There is a massive fireplace in the ballroom, and you can 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.


I'm in my sixties with the world at my feet and thoughts mostly of "where to next?". I retired in 2017, sold my house in Massachusetts and most of my furniture and "stuff." When not traveling you can find me in Florida in the winter and Rhode Island in the summer. Travel has been a passion from a young age, over the years I've discovered I'm a traveler, not a tourist. I prefer traveling solo, with a travel friend, or small groups. Whenever possible I would rather spend time in one place rather than moving around. I'll never turn down an opportunity to go to France, but my travels have taken me all over the world. I've met some incredible people and had some fantastic experiences.


  • Ron July 26, 2017 at 7:04 pm Reply


  • Ron July 26, 2017 at 7:07 pm Reply

    Great 2

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