I’ve wanted to go to Orkney for quite some time, so on the morning of Thursday 17th April I hopped on a ferry from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope, where I had managed to snag some fairly cheap off season self catering accommodation at the Bellevue Inn, a friendly wee place that had all the essentials for base camp.
The weather that day was not particularly on my side, very windy and cold, but I still managed to go on a nice walk about at Sands of Wright near Hoxa Head. By this point I had already noticed how much more wildlife there was on Orkney and how much richer and cleaner the environment there seems to be. I watched many Lapwing, Oyster Catcher, Curlew, Shell Duck, Eider Duck, Redshank and masses of Starlings and Meadow Pipits around Hoxa, having already seen many sea birds as I had come in on the boat. All this in fairly blustery weather made me wonder what it would be like if the sun came out and the wind calmed down. I was in for some pleasant surprises!
Hoxa Tapestry Gallery is well worth visiting. Leila Thomson is a very talented artist and crafter and the work she had on display was a wonderful mix of painterly style (which amazed me to see in tapestry form) with abstract shapes, figures of humans and animals interwoven with a peaceful, nostalgic and hopeful feel. Overall the work had a very distinct sense of place and personality that I very much enjoyed.
Strong winds and the cold brought an end to any outdoor wanderings in the late afternoon so I decided to retreat back to the Inn via two very friendly local corner shops. I’m normally a fairly strict vegetarian, mainly because I find the way the majority foods are produced to be unnecessarily cruel. However, I will occasionally eat free range organic produce as this has to meet very high standards of animal husbandry. I found the local produce on Orkney very agreeable in this respect and ate very well while I was there! The dairy products were lovely and had little effect on my stomach, as most mass produced products do, the fish was delicious, as was the very small amount of beef I tried (Orkney steak with melted Orkney cheese and mashed potatoes, yum!) and the eggs were possibly the best I’ve ever had, especially for making omelette. With such good fresh food available locally I did a lot of cooking at the Inn, rather than eating out, which I only did once.
After a very peaceful night in a lovely warm bed and some scrumptious omelettes I made my way across the Churchill barriers to the Italian Chapel. I had heard a lot about it and was curious to see it for myself. It is an ornate chapel built by Italian prisoners of war during WW2 while they were on Orkney to build the Churchill Barriers, a series of causeways that connect the islands (as well as, coincidentally, acting as naval defences). Considering the material they had to work with it is quite a feat of craftsmanship and artistic skill, with many of the 2D decorations looking believably 3D at a distance.
I then travelled onward to the main island and Maes Howe, which is entered with a guide and no photos are allowed, unfortunately. A chambered tomb more than 5000 years old, it’s a fascinating place and well worth visiting, which I’d always wanted to. The guide was particularly entertaining. I also discovered while I was there that you can buy an Explorers Pass and see all the Historic Scotland sites on Orkney for £18, which is a great deal so I went for it and was then able to plan most of the rest of the trip around it.
Across from Maes Howe are the Stones of Stenness and the famous Ring of Brodgar, another place I’d always wanted to see, so off I went! These are free to visit and fascinating to see up close and wonder what the ancient people who erected them, as well as Maes Howe, were up to, I entertained many theories as I wandered around…
After some walk abouts watching Lapwings and Common Seals and some wanderings along the south coast I somehow ended up at Orphir at the ruins of the Earl’s Bu, a Norse Earls residence from the 12th Century, next to the ruins of the only round church in Scotland. Nearby was the beautiful Waulkmill Bay, where I watched Great Skua and walked along the shore enjoying the view of thousands of Lugworm casts, Sand Mason tubes and Razorshell holes, I had never seen such a huge display.
My Explorers Pass included the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces in Kirkwall, so off I went to see them. I had been somewhat avoiding the more populated areas but was drawn in by the good deal. These rather impressive ruins are next to the equally impressive Saint Magnus Cathedral, which appeared to have a very Hecate-esc statue over one of its main gates. I’ve seen ruins like the palaces before, but not ones you’re allowed to roam about in or go up the towers of, so that made them particularly fun, as did reading about the political intrigues of their heyday.
Down the street from the palaces I found a place called Cafelolz@21 and the name alone meant I could not resist going in. I had a wonderful Saithe and garden pea risotto followed by Orkney fudge cake and mocha. Yum!
Buzzing with caffeine and fudge I made my merry way to Skara Brae, a neolithic settlement near the spectacular white beach of the Bay of Skaill. The best preserved group of prehistoric houses in Western Europe did not fail to impress, I could imagine that life there may have been harsh at times but richly rewarding in such beautiful and bountiful surrounds. I also visited Skaill House, which has rather welcoming carving of Athena at its front door and features many artefacts collected by the family since the 17th Century, a great library and some impressive taxidermy of a Peregrine Falcon and a Golden Eagle.
From there I headed north to the Brough of Birsay, an important ancient settlement for both the Picts and the Norse. On the way I stopped along the coast to admire the view and watch hundreds of Golden Plovers flying around and flocking in the fields near some magnificent cliffs. Unfortunately the Brough of Birsay was closed as the causeway is being repaired, but my ticket is still valid for another visit so I moved on. The weather was gorgeously sunny and had been all day that day and Friday (with sunset at nine, making the day very long) but it was getting quite cold, so I enjoyed the views of the East side of the mainland as I made my way back to base camp and some very deep sleep.
On Sunday morning I headed back up the East coast of the main island to the Broch of Gurness. One of the most outstanding surviving examples of an Iron-Age settlement in northern Scotland, this was probably my favourite of the historical sites I visited. What struck me most was how well the buildings had survived, you could imagine someone repairing them and moving in still. Also, there was the strange similarity of this once living village to Maes Howe, the sort of place we believe these ancient people would have entombed the bones of their dead, not only as if returning them to the womb of the earth to be reborn, but also entombing them in a place that reflected where they would have lived, as though they were going home.
After this I moved east, heading to see some wildlife at Loch of Tankerness and Mull head, but my luck with the weather was finally running out. It was too cold and stormy to do much in the way of wandering, especially by the coast at Mull Head, so I headed back to the Churchill Barriers, where I watched more Eider Ducks and saw a Great Northern Diver for the first time. In Norse mythology they are supposed to turn up as an omen of bad weather!
The Workshop and Loft Gallery was just down the road from where I had been staying so I made sure to pop in before I left as it looked like an interesting place and it was. I bought a few locally crafted gifts for friends and looked at the current exhibition; this was some very quirky and characterful work by Mark Scadding. I then headed on to make the most of my last day.
By this point in the trip the only Orkney dairy product I had yet to try was the ice-cream, so I headed to the first place advertising it, which happened to be The Orkney Wine Company. The ice-cream was indeed as spectacularly yummy as I had been lead to believe but the really interesting thing was the wine. I had not drunk wine for three years until I went to this shop because I am sensitive to sulphur and this turned out to be one of the very few specialist wine producers in the world that make sulphur free wine. I had been unaware that such a thing existed. Having sampled a few of their wines and liqueurs and successfully trialled a bottle of very nice red I will likely be a regular customer as they deliver!
Then it was off to Mull Head again, with only a few hours until I needed to catch the ferry. The weather was still a bit bleak, but it was well worth the visit. I could have stayed there all day, it was covered in Fulmars, and I love Fulmars. There was a place where I sat for ages where they were roosting just a few feet from me and flying up on a draft right in front of me. Suffice to say I have a lot of sketches of them to upload! Mull Head itself has some pretty spectacular cliffs, made all the more so by the bird colonies. Apart from Fulmar there were lots of Razorbills, Shags, Guillemots and Eider Ducks, a few Puffins and the biggest Raven I have ever seen – I honestly thought it was a bird of prey.
After a few hours there it was back to the ferry time, with a very sleepy crossing back to the mainland. I will be scanning in my sketches and posting them along with some pieces inspired by the trip in the near future, so keep an eye out!