Did I say the Orkney weather forecast was for fine weather – wrong! For our two days stay it was windy with rain squalls and cold (although there was brilliant sunshine the morning we flew back to Edinburgh). Having said that this did not deter us from having an enjoyable stay.
Let me start from a roads engineering perspective. The roads on Orkney were overall the best we’ve experienced so far anywhere on our trip. This is probably because of the smooth driving surface and also for not being subjected to heavy traffic volumes. It certainly made for pleasant driving on almost deserted roads which we did from one end of the mainland to the other. We also liked the stone pavements in the centres of the towns of Kirkwall and Stromness. These were narrow single lane thoroughfares used as much by pedestrians as vehicles. Our little hired Ford Focus was a pleasure to drive (a smooth manual gearbox) through the completely treeless countryside where there is water everywhere, either lochs, the coasts of the North Sea and the North Atlantic, or the vast maritime sanctuary of Scarpa Flow. To the south, a number of causeways link the Mainland with smaller islands and eventually South Ronaldsay. Some of these causeways are known as Churchill barriers intended to prevent the entry of German shipping, particularly U-boats, into Scarpa Flow. Nearby is the Italian Chapel, constructed by prisoners of war and another reminder, together with the remains of numerous ship wrecks, of other aspects of that period of Orkney history.
But what else did we experience in Orkney? The two basic aims were to see some of the world’s most ancient historic sites and, on Jenny’s bucket list, to see some puffins. We succeeded nicely in the first but failed to catch a glimpse of those cute little birds. It was probably a little early in the season.
On Orkney some wonderful history has been revealed not only in standing stones and circles but also at the village of Skara Brae and at Maeshowe where neolithic civilisations left their marks from some 5000 years ago. The chambered cairn at Maeshowe under its large earth mound was particularly impressive. This site like many others across the Orkneys also have Norse (Viking) connections. At this site there was Viking runic “graffiti”. The tidal island of the Brough of Birsay has Pictish as well as Viking ruins, but unfortunately we missed another major site at the Broch of Gurness because of the bad weather.
More recent history is on display in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall – it is only 850 years old. This is a church on a grand scale which was quite surprising in this remote part of the world. Nearby are the ruins of the Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces.
The weather was not our friend during our stay and “forced” us the take refuge for a couple of delightful and refreshing interludes at lunchtimes with delicious bowls of soup. Firstly, at the Brough of Birsay and then a most memorable break at the southern end of South Ronaldsay where we were able to look across the water to John O’Groats on the Scottish mainland.
Next it is back to the Scottish mainland and then south.