The Standing Stones at Stenness, Scotland

Orkney - The Prehistoric Wonderland of Scotland - Northern Isles Part 2

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 29th June 2021

Orkney

The Orkney Islands sit about six miles off the northern coast of Scotland. But mainland Scotland isn’t called the mainland. That’s the largest island in Orkney. Mainland Scotland is ‘doon sooth’. There are about 70 islands in the archipelago (about 19 of them inhabited). They’re a great deal flatter than Shetland, as seen from the air, the grass is greener and lusher in the meadows and delightfully patterned with buttercups. The name Orkney means Seal islands, according to some sources, though this is debated People from Orkney are known as Orcadians.

Orkney is a historian’s dream. There are more archaeological sites here per square mile than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Most of these belong to prehistory. but there are also plenty of Norse remains. Orkney was annexed by Norway in 875 and only later came back to Scotland in lieu of a defaulted dowry payment in 1472

I’ve arrived by a small prop plane on Loganair from Shetland.

Merkister Hotel

The Merkister Hotel is set on the banks of Loch Harray. It’s surrounded by very low banks, giving an air of wetlands. It’s a country house hotel with a reputation for fine dining. There’s a briskly efficient if not welcoming check in and an attentive manager. One member of staff goes to great lengths to find out some travel information for me. All good.

The hotel seems to have been refurbished in contemporary style as I don’t see the any evidence of the dated decoration referred to on trip advisor. I’ve a view of the loch and my room is tastefully decorated, so I’m happy with that, but there’s only just enough space to navigate round the bed. There’s no place to put my case . The ‘flat screen’ TV is a postage stamp perched high above the wardrobe. I need binoculars to see the picture. And I can’t watch on my laptop as the Wi-Fi is terrible. That’s unforgivable in this day and age. To add insult to injury there’s continuous noise from the dining room below.

The breakfast is delicious. Excellent black pudding and divine scrambled egg. But sadly, I’m struggling to see why the food at dinner gets such good reports. The dining room is full to bursting every night and I can’t get a table when I make a late decision not to go out. My dinner is not bad enough to send back, but it’s also unforgivable to charge 23 pounds for scallops and overcook them.

Prehistoric Orkney

Standing Stones of Stenness

The all night twilight in Orkney is called the grimlins. And it’s the midsummer solstice, so the days are very long indeed. The loch is visible all night, in dusky splendour and there’s an orange pink sunset band that lasts for several hours. and now I'm off to ravel back in time.

Harray Loch is separated from Stenness Loch by a scenic causeway, the home to several Neolithic World Heritage sites and sundry solitary standing stones. The Standing Stones of Stenness are over 5,000 years old - possibly the oldest henge in the British Isles. It’s a smallish circle and only four of the original 12 or so gigantic stones, roughly six metres high, survive, with a couple of outliers. Nevertheless, the chamfered tips are extraordinarily dramatic against the blue sky that has followed me. The megaliths surround a central hearth and were originally themselves encircled by a ditch. Theories abound as to their purpose and they seem to have been associated with mystical tales and rituals over aeons. But in reality no-one is quite certain.

Ring of Brodgar

Just a little further up the spit (the stone age people obviously liked this area) is an even larger circle - The Ring of Brodgar. This one is the third largest henge in the UK. There are 36 out of an original 60 stones remaining here, though the stones aren’t as large as the ones at Stenness. It sits in an amphitheatre, surrounded by a huge ditch that must have taken considerable amounts of manpower to create. It’s slightly newer than Stenness at only 4,500 years old and again no-one knows what it was built for. Some theories propose that it was a lunar observatory but there’s no real proof. I’m free to come up with any idea I like as l wander around, sticking, as instructed to the path.

Skara Brae

Further north still from the two henges, on a sandy beach at Skaill Bay, is Skara Brae, a properly ancient fishing village. Dating from 3,100 with almost intact Neolithic roundhouses it’s one of the most important sites in northern Europe. It was covered in sand by a storm 4,000 years ago and then unveiled by another storm in the nineteenth century that fortuitously blew the sand away . Who knew that the Flintstones was so accurate? The stone age peoples actually made their furniture out of stone because there was no wood. Beds, tables, a fish tank (!) and even a dresser to display their treasures. Astonishing.

Skaill House

Included in the ticket for Skara Brae is Skaill House, the home of the lairds of Breckness, one of whom was instrumental in exploring and promoting Skara Brae, on his doorstep. It’s a seventeenth century mansion furnished in the main for 1950s living and is fascinatingly eclectic mix of objects. One of the most interesting is a dinner service from Captain Cook’s ships, which was donated in gratitude for assistance when they landed. I’m amazed that a fine china dinner service survived at sea intact.
And I’ve learned a new word from the volunteer manning the entrance to the house. He tells me to enjoy my bimbling.

Maes Howe

The other important Neolithic site around here is Maes Howe, a burial chamber. But it’s closed, due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Yesnaby

These islands are renowned for stacks and blow holes. I’m not sure I’ll make it to the Old Man of Hoy - it involves car ferries and long hikes. But there are smaller stacks on West Mainland at Yesnaby, set amongst some stunning cliff scenery (not everywhere in Orkney is flat) and accessible on a coastal ramble. The largest is magnificent Yesnaby Castle, complete with arch like legs.

The Brough of Birsay

Islets demand to be circumnavigated and the Brough of Birsay is no exception. This one is joined to the mainland by a concrete causeway, which is rather too crumbly in parts, and which (too excitingly) is covered when the tide comes in. Deep rock pools on either side testify to this. There’s a sign on the island instructing anyone who is stranded to dial 999 for the coastguard. I hope there’s a phone signal.

There are Pictish and Norse remains just the other side of the walkway and several narrow paths to the summit of a hill and around the island. There’s a lighthouse atop the hill that looks just like the one at Esha Ness on Shetland. Unsurprisingly, it was designed by the same person, David Stevenson. There’s some lovely cliff scenery(not all of Orkney is flat), a crevice or two and a fruitless search for Tammie Nories (puffins).

Marwick Head

I continue the puffin hunt at Marwick Head, where a mile long ascent brings me to yet another spectacular view. The 90 metre cliffs here are under the protection of the RSPB and there’s a huge colony of gannets, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes, skuas and guillemots, all crying, wheeling and performing for our entertainment. Presiding over the whole cacophony is the Kitchener Memorial, a tower built in memory of the war minister who died here in 1916, when his ship, on a mysterious mission to meet the tsar in Russia, encountered a landmine. Its an incredible sight, worth the haul up the slope. But Orcadian puffins are elusive.

Stromness, the Second Town of Orkney

I’m seeking rest and sustenance after all this walking, in Orkney’s second town, Stromness. It’s billed as a charming town, built in terraces, up from the sea, but it’s exceptionally quiet. Many of the shops in the long cobbled high street are shut and eateries are as difficult to find as puffins. Eventually, I discover a bistro that has chilly outdoor seating under a canopy. It’s a good place to watch the few boats in the port. And there is a ferry unloading.

Orphir

There’s the remains of a round turf roofed kirk (church) at Orphir. Legend has it that it was built by The Norse Earl Haakon Paulsson as penance for murdering his cousin and co-ruler, Magnus Erlendsson. The tale is told in the Orkneyinga Saga, which relates the history of the Jarls (or earls) of Orkney and their lives in Shetland and Orkney. Scholars debate the accuracy of these tales, many of which have mystical elements,. However, they refer to a magnificent drinking hall, the Earl’s Bu, the remains of which are adjacent to the church, so parts at least are true. Magnus later became St magnus and the church was dedicated to him.

Scapa Flow

Orphir looks out over Scapa Flow, a huge natural harbour, sheltered by several islands, including Hoy. The Vikings anchored their longships here. It was the main base for the British fleet during both World Wars. At the end of the Great War, the Germans sailed their whole fleet of 74 ships into the harbour after having surrendered. They then scuttled the lot.

The best view is from the beautiful, but wind swept Scapa Beach. It looks to be a favourite spot for dog walkers.

Kirkwall, the Capital of Orkney

Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, with its dark stone buildings, is particularly dull on this overcast day. Utilitarian rather than pretty. The sprinkles of fluttering bunting are not sufficient to rescue it. Kirkwall is even quieter than Stromness. It’s hard to tell if this is due to Covid, it being Sunday or if it’s always like this. Very little is open. There’s a port which looks remarkably similar to the one at Stromness and a paved high street lined with shuttered shops.

The main attraction is St Magnus Cathedral (named after aforesaid saint), which was founded in 1137. It’s built of red and yellow sandstone and is definitely the brightest thing in town. In fact, it’s known as The Light of the North. It’s the most northerly cathedral in the British Isles.

Opposite are the remains of the contemporary (to the cathedral) Bishop’s Palace. This was restored and then ruined again. It’s main claim to fame is the death of Haakon of Norway who made it this far after being defeated by Alexander III. Across the way from the Bishop’s Palace are yet more remains. This time it’s the early seventeenth century Renaissance style Earl’s Palace. This is the same Scottish Earl of Orkney who built Scalloway Castle in Shetland using slave labour – he did the same here. Most guide books refer to him as a tyrant and he met an appropriate end. He was eventually executed.

The islands’ three main supermarkets. LIDL, Tesco and the Co-Op form a line behind the Peedie Sea, which is in turn separated from the harbour by an embankment. Peedie is another great Scottish word that means little.

Travelling Round Orkney

As in Shetland most of the roads in Orkney are single track with passing places. And there are very few parking areas or designated viewpoints, which is frustrating when I'm admiring the watery vistas. Both Shetland and Orkney also boast numerous micro distilleries for gin (still up and coming as in England) and whisky (of course) and there’s even a rum distillery outside Kirkwall. I feel it’s my duty to sample the craft gins before dinner. There are some interesting seaweed varieties.
I’ve also noticed several Orkney flags flying around the island. It’s an amalgamation of the Scottish coat of arms and the Norwegian flag and disappointingly it’s only been in use since 2007. It was the result of a flag designing competition.
South Orkney

Today’s another of those days when it’s alternating sun, rain and cloud. The only consistent aspect of the weather is the wind, which make stepping outside a reliably chilly affair. South across East Mainland, the road skirting the edge of Scapa Flow (no stopping places-aargh) over a mile of causeway (definitely no stopping allowed) to the tiny island of Lamb Holm. There's a chapel built by Italian prisoners taken in Africa during the Second World War. It's known as the Italian Chapel (what else ?) and was constructed out of two Nissan huts, paint and cement, with an intricately decorated facade attached. The prisoners were brought here to help construct the Churchill Barriers at Scapa Flow, after a German submarine snuck in and torpedoed HMS Royal Oak.

Southern Orkney

Next, another road over an embankment to a minuscule island, Glimps Holm, which seems to have nothing on it but grass (and sheep of course). You can glimpse however (see what I did there,) several wrecked ships from an immaculate stretch of white sand. So many beautiful beaches and so little sunbathing weather.

A further causeway to Burray Island, which has a few dwellings, mainly in Burray village, and then yet another over water road to South Ronaldsay. This is the most southerly of the inhabited islands. (Oddly, there's a North Ronaldsay too, the most northerly Orkney island, famous for its lamb, which has a unique flavour, as the sheep feed on seaweed. They're kept away from the grassy meadows by purpose built dykes.

In a northerly bay in South Ronaldsay is a quaint village, named St Margaret's Hope. It has a population of 550 people and still comes in at third largest settlement in Orkney. This is where they brought the body of the seven year old, so called Maid of Norway, the Queen of Scotland. She died at sea on her way to marry Prince Edward in 1290 and thus ( in theory) unite England, Scotland and Norway.

At Burwick on the southern-most tip of South Ronaldsay, I'm six miles from John O'Groats. There are a few old stone houses, a small church and a couple of fishing boats moored on a gusty bay. It’s not really a place to linger.

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