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Issue 11 - Aberdeen and Grampian – rugged, remote and remarkable

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 11
November 2003


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Aberdeen and Grampian – rugged, remote and remarkable

It's a vast area to cover in one issue, but the mainland that makes up the Grampians is a gateway to Orkney and the Shetlands. Gavin Smith reports

The region that makes up the Grampians and the northern isles beyond are often neglected at the expense of the superficially more romantic Hebrides, yet anyone choosing to travel up to Aberdeen and visit the Orkney or Shetland islands will find themselves richly rewarded.

Many journeys to Orkney and Shetland begin in Aberdeen, as the port offers NorthLink ferry services to Orkney and serves as the company’s principal terminal for Shetland.

Aberdeen airport provides regular British Airways links to the islands, and BA flights also operate from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Wick.

Aberdeen is the capital of the Grampian region, as well as Scotland’s offshore capital, being the centre for much oil-related activity, and is Scotland’s third-largest city after Glasgow and Edinburgh.

It manages to be truly cosmopolitan, home to many students and incomers tempted north by the oil boom and related commercial developments.

It offers an eclectic range of exciting and imaginative eateries and sources of entertainment, yet retains its traditional links with commercial fishing and with its rich agricultural hinterland.

Aberdeen’s nickname of the ‘Granite City’ tends to suggest a grey, dull place, but in reality its granite facades are things of confident beauty, almost glittering in the sunlight.

The phenomenon is best experienced by taking a walk along the city’s principal thoroughfare of Union Street.

Named in celebration of the union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, Union Street was completed four years later, and such was the expenditure lavished on it that the city was almost bankrupted as a result.

Marischal College, St Machar’s Cathedral and His Majesty’s Theatre are all fine, formal examples of the city’s granite architecture at its most imposing.

By contrast Old Aberdeen and the former fishing village of Footdee are quirky, domestic and filled with local character.

The area is marketed by the Aberdeen and Grampian Tourist Board as ‘Scotland’s Castle and Whisky Country’, and was profiled comprehensively in detail in Issue 2 (July/August 2002) of Scotland Magazine.

Having sampled a few of the delights of Aberdeen and Grampian, it is time to head for Orkney or Shetland, or best of all to both, and experience something altogether different.

It is not just that the two groups of islands are geographically detached from mainland Britain, there are also significant differences of history and culture. Speech and attitudes in Orkney and Shetland are informed by a heritage that is more Norse than it is Scottish, and even today, many Orcadians and Shetlanders do not see themselves as Scots.

Both Orkney and Shetland were part of Denmark until 1469, when they were gifted to King James III of Scotland as a dowry when he married the daughter of the Danish king.

The principal sea crossing to Orkney from the mainland is from Scrabster in Caithness by way of the Pentland Firth, a frequently turbulent stretch of water feared and respected by mariners through the ages.

The journey is worth any amount of turbulence, however, providing a great introduction to the islands as the state-of-theart NorthLink ferry from Scrabster sails close to the magnificent 450-feet high red sandstone stack of the Old Man of Hoy and then threads its way past the island of Graemsay into the quaint harbour of Stromness.

To the surprise of many visitors, Orkney is remarkably fertile, with farming as its economic mainstay, alongside tourism.

The islands are renowned for the quality of their cattle and cereal crops.

Orcadians have been described as ‘farmers with boats’, while the less rich land of the Shetlands means that Shetlanders were often regarded as ‘fishermen with crofts’.

Orkney is made up of no fewer than 70 islands, 17 of which are inhabited.

There are inter-island flights to six of them and ferry services to the other eleven, so it is not difficult to explore. It would be a pity to visit Orkney without leaving ‘mainland’.

To the north of mainland Orkney lie Rousay, Wyre and Egilsay, with Rousay being home to more than 160 sites of archaeological interest.

Other principal islands include North Ronaldsay, the most northerly island of Orkney, Stronsay, Westray and Sanday.

Part of the ‘otherness’ of Orkney stems from the fact that the distant past somehow manages to seem recent and relevant in these amazing islands.

Historical sites abound as nowhere else, many being fantastic feats of ancient engineering, and reminders of a mystic past which we can still only partially comprehend.

Most fascinating are the Stone Age chambered tomb of Maeshowe, the 4,000 year old Neolithic village of Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brogar, and the Tomb of the Eagles in South Ronaldsay, which dates from around 3,000BC. Amore recent historical site that should not be missed is the tiny and famous Italian chapel on Lamb Holm.

During the Second World War two Nissen huts were fashioned into a makeshift chapel by Italian prisoners, using scrap material.

Much of the quite inspired decoration was the work of Domenico Chiocchetti, who returned to the chapel in 1960 to restore his paintings before its rededication.

The islands’ capital of Kirkwall was created by the Norsemen, and it remains one of the best preserved medieval towns in Scotland.

It is home to some 5,000 people, a quarter of Orkney’s total population, and is best known for the magnificent red sandstone St Magnus Cathedral, which was founded in 1137.

Less venerable, but just as worth a visit is the nearby Highland Park distillery, which produces a beautifully balanced, heathery, delicately smoked single malt whisky ideal for dealing with the occasional vagaries of the Orkney weather.

Highland Park was established in 1798, and is currently the most northerly Scotch whisky distillery in Scotland.

Its ‘make’ is rightly regarded as one of the great Scotch single malts.

Stromness is Orkney’s second town and ferry terminus, and the straggling, idiosyncratic port grew fishing hamlet roots in the later 17th century to a prosperous trading centre, with ships from the Hudson’s Bay Company using it as its British supply base before making the arduous Atlantic crossing.

Whaling ships heading for the Davis Straits, the Arctic and the northern Atlantic also called at Stromness.

Stromness was home to the late Orcadian poet, novelist and playwright George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996 and whose work so perfectly captures the history and spirit of his beloved Orkney isles.

No visitor wishing to capture the soul of the place should leave without reading at least one of his beautifully crafted books.

Orkney is famed for the high quality of its local produce – increasingly being used with confidence and flair in the island’s hotels and restaurants. Specialities include seafood and beef, not to mention cheese and ice cream.

Each September, Orkney hosts a food festival, to promote the best of the islands’ fare.

If you feel the need to work off some calories, opportunities for walking, cycling, windsurfing and sailing abound, while the angler can fish for fine brown trout in a wide variety of lochs or go sea-angling for cod, skate and pollock.

Diving on wrecks in the shipwreck world-famous waters of Scapa Flow is another popular pastime.

The Orkneys are rich in wildlife, with 94 species of bird to be spotted, and there is an RSPB reserve on the island of Shapinsay, where pintail ducks, black-headed gulls and a variety of waders are joined in winter by hundreds of greylag geese and Whooper swans.

Orkney is home to a variety of music festivals, embracing jazz, ‘country & Irish’, blues, and folk.

Orkney’s Folk Festival in May is now in its 21st year, and in addition to local musicians it also attracts top international acts to perform in theatres, pubs, hotels and community centres throughout the islands.

The St Magnus Festival in June is a midsummer celebration of music, art and drama. It is held at the time of the summer solstice, when there is almost perpetual daylight in the islands.

Geographically much more remote from the rest of Britain than Orkney, the landscape of Shetland is closer to that of Scandinavia and the hospitable locals speak a marvellous grave, wondering kind of dialect that takes a little getting used to.

Shetland is half way between Aberdeen and Bergen in Norway, and as in Orkney, place-names, traditions and culture betray a significant Nordic influence. Shetland may be only 200 miles from Norway yet it is nearly 1,000 from London.

The islands have been occupied for some 5,000 years, with the first settlers arriving during the Neolithic period. For anyone interested in the history of Shetland, a visit to the archaeological site of Jarlshof, near Sumburgh airport, is a must.

Jarlshof spans the historical legacy of 3,000 years, from Neolithic times to the coming of the Vikings in 800AD.

The best-known Viking legacy in Shetland is the annual January fire festival of Up Helly Aa, when a replica longship is set ablaze after a thousand flaming torches have been carried through the streets of Lerwick by ‘guizers’, led by the Jarl Squad in Viking costume.

Following the burning of the longship, a night of revelry is embraced in village halls the length and breadth of Shetland.

More than 100 islands make up the Shetlands’ archipelago, and they cover 550 square miles of land, surrounded by 3,000 miles of coastline.

From the north coast of the northernmost island, Yell, to Sumburgh, in the very south of the Shetland mainland, is 70 miles, yet, remarkably, nowhere in Shetland is more than three miles from the sea.

Only 15 of Shetland’s islands are populated, and the principal ones to explore include Bressay and Noss, east of Lerwick, Yell, Unst and Fetlar in the north, Whalsay and Out Skerries in the east, and the bird-watchers’ paradises of Foula, south-west of Sumburgh, not forgetting Fair Isle, west of Scalloway.

Each has its own magic and unique attractions, all being accessible by ferry and some by air.

Lerwick is the islands’ characterful capital, and its population of 7,500 comprises around one-third of the total for all the islands.

Scalloway is Shetland’s second centre of population, and was once the islands’ capital.

It was home to prosperous merchants and landowners who built their mansions there, and its ruined 17th century castle and busy harbour provide focal points for visitors.

Traditionally, fishing was the most significant employment of the Shetlanders, along with crofting, and today it remains an important staple of the local economy, with the bulk of the fishing fleet based on Whalsay.

But the North Sea oil boom provided income to improve the islands’ infrastructure and services, many of them for tourists.

As in Orkney, visitors are spoilt for choice in terms of outdoor activities, with a plethora of watersports, sailing and diving opportunities on offer, as well as birdwatching, horse-riding, cycling and walking.

Shetland is renowned as one of the best areas in Britain to catch brown trout, and more than 350 lochs beckon the fly fisherman.

Sea angling for skate and shark is considered some of the most rewarding in Europe.

Shetland, too, is a great place for lovers of unusual wildlife. More than 20 species of sea bird breed in Shetland each year, and the islands are home to 800 species of flowering plant, some rare and native to Shetland.

Traditional music is very much a feature of Shetland life, and every April the Shetland Folk Festival attracts leading musicians from all over the world, while October brings the sweet sounds of the Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival.

There can be no doubt that both Orkney and Shetland provide a different experience.

One Sunday newspaper journalist was summing up Shetland, but could just as easily have been describing Orkney as well, when he wrote “it feels like another country altogether”.

It is a country which is just begging to be explored and savoured.

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