The Orkney Islands

Land of Archaeological Wonders, Vikings and Otter Crossings by Jamie Ross

It seemed a mysterious, enchanting and magical place. I stood alone amongst the standing stones known as The Ring of Bodgar. A tour bus had just departed, taking with it a throng of tourists. I had the place briefly to myself. The sun was low in the late afternoon sky, throwing long shadows from the weather-worn, textured stones and reflecting golden off the Loch of Stenness behind.

The ground had the feel of history. I stood wondering what ancient ceremonies had taken place here. The Ring of Bodgar is simply astonishing, a perfect circle of megaliths, the third-largest stone circle in the British Isles measuring over 100 metres in diameter, the slabs themselves up to 14 feet high. There are thirty-six stones remaining of an original 60, thought to date back to 3000 – 2000 BC.

The Ring of Bodgar sums up the majesty of the remote, windswept Orkney Islands, a humble archipelago of 70 tiny isles off the northeast coast of Scotland, that have long stood guard and protected the Scottish mainland. The islands rise precipitously from the sea in steep-sided splendour, and are beset by fierce weather and cursed with barren soil. The quiet sandy beaches, stunning scenery, abundance of wildlife, bird and sea life, fresh quality cuisine and warm welcoming hospitality make these islands an ideal place for relaxing or for an action-packed holiday.

Perhaps most impressively, the Islands have archeological wonders around every corner. Just north of the Ring of Bodgar, Skara Brae stands as the most well-preserved prehistoric village in northern Europe, dating back over 5,000 years. It was only discovered in 1850 when a winter storm revealed the structures. The stone dwellings are separated by covered passages and each one holds nearly identical stone beds, dressers, seats and boxes for provisions, recesses for personal possessions and a hearth where dried heather or seaweed was burned.

Maeshowe, one of the world’s greatest Neolithic chamber tombs, is older than the Egyptian Pyramids. A long passageway made out of large stone slabs leads into a beehive shaped inner chamber. This chamber was reused by the Vikings as a tomb in the 9th century. Like modern-day graffiti artists, the Vikings carved their lover’s names on the chamber walls. Another Neolithic tomb is the Tomb of Eagles, managed by the farmer on whose property it was found. Eagle bones and talons are found in it along with the bones of over three hundred people. Visitors can pull themselves into the tomb on a wheeled dolly.

The Orkney Islands also boast some incredible modern history. As I had stood amongst the standing stones, so too, I dipped my feet into the cool ocean waters of Scapa Flow, strategically important during both world wars. The German High Fleet was scuttled in here in 1919 and the Orkneys were given a new lease on life when Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the building of a series of barriers between the islands to block German U-boat’s access to Scapa Flow during World War II. The Churchill Barriers created five causeways that linked the largest of the islands and protected the British fleet.

This huge civil engineering project was carried carried out by Italian prisoners of war who, in turn, left behind one of the most extraordinary objects in deeply Protestant Orkney, a lavishly decorated chapel. The Italian Chapel was built from the meagre resources available to the prisoners. Based on two corrugated iron Quonset huts placed end to end, it was painted inside in rich colours to resemble tiled mosaics.

As a home base, I stayed at Brekk-Ness Guest House in Kirkwall, a well preserved ancient Norse town with road signs warning of otters crossing. Kirkwall is the capital and biggest town on the Orkney Islands group, famed for the red sandstone St. Magnus Cathedral.

The population of this bustling metropolis is a mere 7,500. Nowadays, Orkney is a sophisticated place, supported by money from oil companies, loved by artists and adventurers, filled with craft shops and coffeehouses. The islands boast two golf courses, and opportunities for fishing, diving on the wrecks of Scapa Flow and watching wildlife and seabirds. The whisky connoisseur can take a tour of Scotland’s most northern distillery, Highland Park, follow the process of making the famous spirit and taste the finished product.

The Stone Age seems long ago, but here, on the Orkney Islands, the sun-warmed stones of prehistoric houses, tombs and stone circles seem to connect you with history, and the dozens of ancient ruins whisper secrets from the past.

Northlink Ferries (www.northlink ferries.co.uk), will take you from Scrabster to Stromness on the mainland island of the Orkneys, where many of the best sites are located. The crossing time is around 90 minutes, and on the way you’ll pass by the Old Man of Hoy, Britain’s largest free-standing rock stack at over 450 feet.

Information at www.visitorkney.com and www.visitscotland.com

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