Touching History

Having arrived on Orkney in the glorious sunshine, we were looking forward to a Summery week exploring the islands. Alas the weather had other ideas and though it has not been cold, the sky on the whole has been overcast for most of our time here, you know the sun is there on some brighter days, but it is shyly hiding behind the cloud. This has not dimmed our enjoyment though. Our first day saw us strolling into Kirkwall, the largest town on the islands, to take in some of the history therein. The imposing red sandstone cathedral of St Magnus provided a hushed shelter from the slight mizzle in the air. Though small by comparison to some cathedrals on the mainland, there was an unfussy charm and warmth to the building. We were intrigued by some of the gravestones that had been moved to stand within the wall of the aisle, covered in text with the verbose translations alongside, they go way beyond the ‘beloved *insert relationship* rest in peace’ that has become the norm on modern headstones.

St Magnus Cathedral (photograph taken on a Monday)

Verbose headstone (and translation)

After meandering around the town itself and along the harbour, we sought out a recommended cafe that is a little off the tourist’s radar, and were not disappointed (indeed we have made a return visit since). Refreshed and fortified, we found Kirkwall museum with an entrance fee of our favourite price (free), and spent a good couple of hours being appraised of all aspects of Orkney history, from Neolithic to WWII. There was a fine selection of Orkney chairs, particular to the islands and still made today. Those superior models had two drawers in the base; one for the bible and one for the whisky!

Orkney chair, one drawer for the bible and one for the whisky

The rough and tumble of the Kirkwall Ba’ game!

The next day was again warm, but damp so we decided to utilise the island’s bus service to take us to the tourist hot spot of the Italian Chapel, and then on to St Margaret’s Hope. The Italian chapel was converted from a couple of Nissen huts by Italian prisoners held on Orkney during WWII. It really is an amazing feat of artistry created from scraps and carved concrete, the painted walls inside though are a triumph of trompe-l’oeil, visitors are instructed not to touch the walls as the urge to check that it is indeed not 3D that you are looking at is quite compelling. The Italian prisoners were employed to construct what are known as the Churchill barriers – these are also used as causeways across to some smaller islands down to The Hope (as it is known locally). Having seen the chapel we hailed the next bus and drove at breakneck speed along to the end of the line. We had hoped for a bustling little community, but instead found a sleepy little hamlet where we had lunch in one of it’s two establishments, and relaxed watching the shore whilst we awaited our return ride home.

Cement font, and painted walls

Amazing what you can do with scrap metal!

Cement sculpture of St George

One of the Churchill barriers the Italians built
Block ships sunk to provide some deterrent
The sleepy St Margaret’s Hope

Wednesday was a bit of a dreich day but cleared up by the early evening and an errand over to Stromness to assist the Orkney Historic Boat Society move a dinghy that was the last to be built by a famous Stromness boat builder, in order for it to be renovated, allowed for a detour to take in some of the Neolithic sites. The Ring of Brodgar is a circular henge which is older than Stonehenge. It’s purpose lost in the mists of time and only to be guessed at by modern historians, close by we stopped in on the Standing Stones of Stenness, which are what remains of another circular henge with a hearth at it’s centre.

Ring of Brodgar

Standing Stones of Stenness

After dinghy moving had been executed, we stopped by the marina to check on Matthew’s boat; not that I know much about yachts, but even I can see she is a lovely vessel and surprisingly spacious inside.

An Orkney Yole

We remained in the Neolithic period with a visit to Maeshowe, I had spotted this mound on our first day cycling to Kirkwall and was not sure whether it was a tomb or WWII bunker, such is the impression from the outside of a mound with a small entrance door. It was quite awe inspiring to stand inside this Neolithic building that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. Vikings had damaged the roof when they had broken in to seek shelter from a snowstorm, leaving their runic graffiti on the walls, and the roof was further repaired after excavation works by Victorian archeologists. Before that time the inside of the tomb had been weatherproof, such was the skill of the Neolithic builders; the modern repairs though are not up to the same standard.

Mr V had to crouch a little more than me to get through the entrance tunnel

Neolithic burial chamber or WWII bunker?

The jewel in the crown of Orkney’s Neolithic sites though has to be Skara Brae. The site had been hidden under sand dunes for millennia, only revealed by a storm in 1850. The neatness and organisation of the stone houses and their furniture is striking; indeed you could almost pitch a roof on them and they would be fit for occupation even now. It is intriguing to wonder at the lives of this community which thrived for about 600 years and then disappeared.

Close to Skara Brae is Skaill Home Farm, the residence of the man who discovered the stone dwellings, our ticket included a tour of this sprawling home, which is not your average farmhouse.

Not your average farmhouse. The pink bathroom deserves special mention!

We moved on to Birsay, which has the remains of a monastery and Viking homesteads and a walk up to the lighthouse with impressive views, and from then on to the Broch of Gurness. Brochs were impressive and imposing Iron Age tower like circular structures and we were free to wonder around its network of chambers, stepping in the footsteps of our pre-historic ancestors.

As is often the way, when you start to relax after a hard or stressful stint, the body decides that this is a convenient time to be ill. Unfortunately I found it rather inconvenient having to rest up to see if it would shift the hacking cough that I had developed, but had little choice. Taking it easy though meant that I was up to taking on a short trek from Ingerness Bay to Scapa Bay; the day was again overcast, but warm and we headed out with picnic provisions, and though it started out fine, we did end up a little off course, turning back when we found ourselves surrounded by bog and barbed wire. In retracing our steps, we spotted the error of our way and recommenced on the now very obvious public footpath, which was fringed by wild water iris, and thistles and interspersed by little walkways over the more marshy areas. Despite out exploratory detour, which added about an hour onto the walk, it was a very pleasant afternoon and we congratulated ourselves on reaching Scapa Bay with coffee and snacks.

Where are you going hooman?
We appear to have lost the way … the ‘winter mountain leader’ seems confused by the long grass!
Back on track

Having been on Orkney a week now, it is clear that the designated blue sky day is Mondays. We arrived to glorious weather and we shall be sailing away to Aberdeen tonight after a day of basking in the sunshine and blue skies. Saying that though, the days in between may not have been filled with sunshine, but that has not detracted from the enjoyment and fascination that we have experienced.

Monday means blue sky; bodes well for our ferry crossing …

Conscious though of the truism that house guests are like fish; they go off after 3 days – we are eternally grateful to Matthew for welcoming us into his home and putting up with us well past the expiry date!

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