Published: 27/10/2015 09:29 - Updated: 27/10/2015 09:49

The isles - and smiles - of Orkney

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

Visiting the Orkney Islands has been on my must-do list for a long time. Finally, having made the arrangements, I found that many other folk I spoke to have said the same thing – that they intend to go there but have never managed to yet. My advice is to go – now! It is a great place.

I recently read that Orkney people are the happiest with where they live, the standard of education is extremely high, and the quality of life is also very high. This deserved investigation.

The drive from Keith up to Scrabster took longer than anticipated. The road north is not a fast one, and there are frequent delays behind groups of people cycling from John O’ Groats to Lands End, with their support vans. Arriving at the Northlink Ferries terminal with not a lot of time to spare, it looked confusing – what to do? There is a vehicle check-in cabin, driving up to it the man opened the window and gave me a handful of tickets, saying "good morning Mr Smith – just drive straight through". The number plate recognition system had done everything; I didn’t need to say a word.

This level of sleek efficiency is typical of the Northlink Ferries service. The MV Hamnavoe is a superb ferry, with restaurants and lounges and all the comforts imaginable. The journey is only 1.5 hours, and you sail past the imposing 449 feet high red sandstone Old Man Of Hoy stack of rock that is such a challenge for climbers.

The Old Man of Hoy snapped from ferry MV Hamnavoe.
The Old Man of Hoy snapped from ferry MV Hamnavoe.

In no time we were docked at Stromness and speedily off the ferry and went to explore, leaving Stromness itself for later. The roads on Orkney are very good and well signed, so it was not long before Skara Brae road signs were seen. Skara Brae is a remarkable settlement of 10 houses, dating from around 5,000 years ago, on the edge of a stunning sandy curving beach which protects the site from the open sea. At some time it was covered by sand then, in 1850, a windstorm uncovered it once again.

There is so much remaining that it is easy to see how the houses were inhabited. At a visitor centre where you buy your ticket and learn the background to the site. The ticket also gives entry to close by Skaill House, a well preserved grand stately home. It is fascinating to see it, and how the family lived. On display is a large, finely detailed model of Kirkwall Cathedral.

A little further up the coast you come to Birsay, a small island reached via a concrete pedestrian causeway at low tides. On the island is a Brough, or another ancient site that has been excavated. From the causeway the ground slopes steeply up to the lighthouse, and on to abruptly end in sheer drop cliffs with the Atlantic surging and smashing onto the rocks below.

Next it was a run along the main road on the northern coastline of Mainland, as this principal island is called. The road, as most of them do, leads to Kirkwall, is a bonny town. The centre is pedestrian friendly and clusters around the imposing St Magnus’ Cathedral. To one side is the ruin of Earl Patrick’s Palace and the Bishop’s Palace. The shops are bright and busy, and no empty ones. It is noticeable that everywhere Orkney products and produce are extensively promoted and are on every menu. Good for them! Keep business local and employ local people is the best way to go.

St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.
St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

I popped into a large supermarket close by the harbour to see if they stock Orkney products – one had a shelf of local bakery products, another had nothing but some Orkney cheese, and the third had some products but not much; they should try harder. In the town centre one butcher seemed to sell nothing but Orkney meat, with posters advertising mutton from North Ronaldsay sheep, the ones that wander the seashore eating the seaweed.

There are many good places to eat, and one that I found excellent is the Judith Glue and The Real Food Café on Broad Street, close to the Cathedral. Top class food at good prices, made to order in front of you. While I was there a loud whistling and banging came closer and closer – and a pick-up truck with a ‘blackening’ noisily came past, followed by a second one. It is good that these traditions are carried on.

Orkney has a brewery and two distilleries. Highland Park, the most northerly in the UK, is in the town and has regular tours with tastings. Scapa Distillery is half a mile south, on the shores of the famous Scapa Flow. I’m sure that I saw Orkney wine in a shop too – and there is Orkney soap as well – even in the cabins of the MV Hamnavoe, which also serves local produce.

After exploring Kirkwall, it was a seven-mile drive out past the airport to Deerness and a B&B of Northfield. It is comical that the road deteriorates to a farm type track and you finally come over a ridge to a vast seascape stretching wide in front of you – and there is the modern house of Northfield. This is a high quality B&B that also serves evening meals if ordered in advance. All cooking is done to order, so is very fresh and good quality. The sunsets over the sea to the smaller islands are spectacular.

The Italian Chapel built by Italian POWs.
The Italian Chapel built by Italian POWs.

The next day was spent driving south over the first of the Churchill barriers to the Italian Chapel at Lamb Holm. The barriers were built by Italian prisoners of war. An audacious German submarine captain had evaded the sunken ‘block ships’ at high tide to penetrate Sapa Flow and torpedo the Royal Oak with enormous loss of life, and the submarine escaped back out to sea again. That was when it was decided to build the four causeways to block off Scapa Flow from the east.

As you cross the barrier you see that it is made up of thousands of massive concrete blocks. The prisoners quarried the stone, made the blocks and put them in the sea, finally topping them off with a road way. The chapel that the prisoners built is so moving – no wonder that it is the most visited place on Orkney. It shows what faith, talent, ingenuity and skill can do in adverse circumstances.

The chapel is well preserved by a committee who deserve all the praise possible for keeping it so, despite the appalling vandalism of someone recently stealing some of the Stations of the Cross – unbelievable. That two Nissan huts and some concrete can produce such a marvel is just so impressive. At the moment entry is free and unrestricted, but I hear that next year an entry fee is being planned to help raise money for the ongoing repairs. For more information go to chapel.

Continuing south, I came across the Tomb of the Eagles and Bronze Age House. The visitor centre provides excellent introductory talks and hands-on experience of the old stones and artefacts, before you set off about a good half a mile walk to the sea cliffs, on the way passing the remains of the Bronze Age House – it is as if in Orkney you just have to put a spade in the ground and you unearth some Neolithic remains.

Standing stones at the Ring of Brogar.
Standing stones at the Ring of Brogar.

A local farmer was searching for some suitable stones to use as fence posts (no trees on Orkney – wood fence posts have to be imported) and discovered this tomb. All those thousands of years ago, when you died, your body was put out for the birds (like Eagles, hence the title) and beasties to consume the flesh, and then the bones were taken into this tomb. Skulls were heaped into chambers, all other bones into chambers at each end. Entry is via a small narrow passageway.

There is a skateboard that you can lie on and pull yourself in with the rope over your head – or crawl. Inside, the roof is about 8ft high, with plenty of space, and glass set in the roof admits natural light. The return to the visitor centre can be via a cliff top walk, which is longer but so spectacular.

The last port of call was to the tip of South Ronaldsway, Burwick, where a ferry operates seasonally to and from John O’Groats. Burwick is a disappointment – there is nothing there and it is rather scruffy – so it was back in the car and a gentle run back up across the causeways to Kirkwall, and over to Stromness for the ferry back to Scrabster. It is noticeable how many cattle there are on the islands, and some sheep, but the preponderance of cattle contrast with the lack of cereal crops, kale or neeps.

This summer in particular has exacerbated the problem of lack of over-wintering feed for the beasts, and farmers are having to buy in straw from the mainland. The land is excellent for cattle rearing, but poor for anything else. On the way, the tall standing stones of Stenness were explored, and the remarkable large ring of standing stones at the Ring of Brogar – even more ancient sites that dot the landscape.

This is when I took advantage of Northlink Ferries’ great idea (see The MV Hamnavoe is based at Stromness so the first sailings of the mornings start from there. You can go aboard the night before, from 9.30pm, and have bed and breakfast on the ferry, which is brilliant. You leave your car in a dedicated lane, and give the keys to the terminal staff. You are shown to your cabin, and you have access to the Magnus Lounge, with complimentary snacks, and soft drinks. Alcoholic drinks are available, too, but must be paid for.

Skara Brae dates back 5,000 years.
Skara Brae dates back 5,000 years.

You have a good night’s sleep, as the ferry does not move. Then, in the morning, you go along to have your breakfast as the ferry leaves the islands. The journey is just 1.5 hours, but you have the use of the cabin (en-suite too) until Scrabster. You collect your keys from reception and drive off thoroughly refreshed – a great idea by Northlink.

I came away feeling that there is still so much to see. The many smaller islands are worth exploring. Each has its own cluster of ancient sites, stones, cairns, and broughs. There is a very good inter-island ferry service and Logan Air fly between them as wel, which includes the world’s shortest scheduled flight, from Westray to Papa Westray – you even receive a commemorative certificate.

Papa Westray has the oldest house in northern Europe, a chapel on an artificial peninsular in a loch, and many other fascinating sites. This is typical – no two islands are alike – they all need exploring.

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