I quite envied the taxi driver who told us she was Orcadian on the short drive from the small airport of Kirkwall to the centre of the eponymous city capital of these 67 islands, strewn in the seas some 25 miles north east of John O’Groats. The description of these island dwellers harks back to Arcadia, the mythical home of the god Pan, and now used to describe idyllically pastoral places. So do the Orkneys fit this misspelt adjective?
I love small airports so the journey from Inverness to Kirkwall is a delight. Tereza and I flew from Bristol which is now a medium size departure point; Inverness is a small, but bustling airport; Kirkwall is the sort of place where the airport staff greet most of the passengers by first name and stop for a chat. The brief ride to the city is a joy.
Kirkwall does not have much inspiring architecture, but the cathedral of St. Magnus is one of the finest church buildings this episcopal wanderer has seen.
There is a lovely harbour and crafts bob reassuringly among the waves with proper fishing boats manned by proper fishermen.
If you don’t come to the Orkneys for the modern architecture, there is a long list of pluses that made us want to return and see the rest, knowing that we had only scratched the surface of these esoteric isles.
The light is amazing and, as you are never far from water, the reflections that bounce off the waves can capture the imagination at every turn. No matter how many clouds fill the sky – and from time to time they do – the patchwork fields always reveal an area where the sun penetrates and highlights the bucolic charms of this highly agricultural area. Magnificent cows and bulls dot the fields, while the sturdy sheep present the realisation that pretty little lambs grow up into quite substantial pieces of mutton.
The walks are wonderful. We climbed to see the Old Man of Hoy, which gave Tereza an opportunity to indulge her penchant for casual ageism with a photo of two old men together. A great skua wheeled across our path and gulls, both common and herring, waited expectantly for crumbs from the walkers’ makeshift picnics. Hoy has its very own ice cream parlour and an excellent museum and cafe.
Lucky birders will have spotted arctic terns, puffins, guillemots and many more, but we were happy with cormorants, our favourite oyster-catchers, skuas, larks, wagtails and, close to the shore, seals rising from the waves. And we were fortunate to see colonies of fulmars nesting on the cliffs below us, with chicks fluffing up to many times their actual size.
We jumped off the ferry at Graemsay and walked alone round this small island with Graylag geese flying overhead and a lonely abandoned kirk, guarding the graves of previous islanders. We found our path – eventually – and only indulged in mild panic as we saw the last ferry approaching. We shared this comfortable, but utilitarian, conveyance with a man and wife: he going to Mainland, as the largest island is conveniently called, for a school reunion; she going into Stromness, the Mainland’s second city, for shopping. This happy couple comprised 10% of Graemsay’s total population.
We spent a day walking on Rousay, home to 160 Neolithic sites and approximately 220 people, and visited a 5,000 year old burial cairn and the ruins of Norse farms and a Viking drinking hall. Known as the ‘Egypt of the North’, Rousay has important archaeological sites from every period of pre-history and mediaeval times including Bronze Age burnt mounds, Iron Age crannochs and broths, forts, Viking burial boats, a mediaeval church and its own stately home.
The Orkneys possess more Neolithic sites than any other part of the U.K. Stonehenge you say? According to the BBC, it all started here. They have any number of standing stones, together with Skara Brae, a Stone Age village only uncovered in 1850, when violent storms blew away the sands that had covered this Orcadian Pompeii for thousands of years. The Ness of Brodgar; the Stones of Stenness; the Knap of Howar: even the names are out of Tolkien.
We visited the Tomb of the Eagles, so called because of the number of sea-eagle bones uncovered in this pre-historic burial site, where you wheel yourself into the original structure on a trolley through a metre square, three metre long entrance and explore without guide or company. There is an excellent visitor centre and presentations are made by well-informed and enthusiastic guides, including the daughter of the farmer awarded an M.B.E for his work in excavating this fascinating destination.
We drove across the causeways, constructed on Churchill’s orders to obstruct the free passage of the German Navy in World War II, and followed the coast of Scapa Flow, where the Kaiser’s World War I version was scuttled by its admiral in 1919. We visited the Italian Chapel, built, entirely from found materials, by Italian Second World War P.O.W.s in two Nissen huts and boasting a lovely Neo-Renaissance entrance.
We climbed Marwick Head to see the memorial to the 737 sailors and diplomats who died in the sinking of H.M.S Hampshire which struck a German mine on June 5 1916, including Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the hero of Khartoum and the Boer War, who was on his way to a secret rendezvous with Russian allies. These steeply rising cliffs give many opportunities to observe wading birds on the coastline and bird colonies in the rocks.
I hope the message is being received: you have to walk the Orkneys to enjoy these islands. But if you do, then the walking is relatively easy – this crash test dummy found it so – and the rewards are plentiful. Views that last for ever and colours that remind you why it is called the blue sea and the green earth.
Good hotels are hard to find, but we found a few and enjoyed an excellent b & b. – thank you, Marina. Restaurants are similarly scarce on the ground, but the good ones are very good and serve the afore-mentioned Orkney mutton, which is fed exclusively on a diet of sea-weed. They also represent excellent value, with good wines at prices not often seen elsewhere in the U.K. The Orkney brewery is a good lunchtime venue and serves a fine array of beers including the wonderfully entitled Skullsplitter, derived from the ancient legend of the death of St Magnus.
At a time when there are queues to visit the Scottish isles such as Skye, the Orkneys beckon with long, blessedly uncluttered, straight roads; welcoming people and some great tales of Viking derring-do and drinking. And the weather? You will not need shorts, unless you really love your knees on display, but we enjoyed temperatures in the mid-teens Centigrade and very little rain. It is windy, but that keep the clouds moving and the vistas ever changing.
We ‘did’ seven islands – only 60 more to go!