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Issue 12 - Windy, wonderful Orkney

Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004

 

This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Windy, wonderful Orkney

Editor Dominic Roskrow visits the Orkney Isles

For some reason lately there seems to have been a spate of television programmes or magazine articles featuring lists of things we ought to have done before we die.

The selections normally have three things in common: they are prohibitively expensive; they are prohibitively exclusive; and I haven’t done any of them. Oh yes, and there’s normally a bit of editorial saying that if you haven’t done at least half of them then you haven’t lived at all. Thanks.

There are few things more annoying than someone telling you that you really should go and see somewhere. Really? And like how, exactly?

Thankfully I’m in the sort of job where the person saying ‘you really ought to go and see somewhere’ is a public relations person and often follows up with an offer to do exactly that. And that’s how I ended up in Orkney.

Now I know you’re not going to like this very much, but you ought to go to Orkney and see it for yourself. Everybody should. And not just see it – feel it.

Orkney is truly remarkable. Spiritual certainly, but not calming. Words such as disturbing, dramatic and animated come to mind more readily than peaceful and relaxing. It is mind blowing.

And Orkney is bleak. You suspect that if it had its own language – and in its own Nordic-Scots sing-song way, it does – it would have scores of words for ‘windy’. It’s always windy on Orkney but if you talk to the locals they’ll tell of the wildest gales you ever heard about. The trees pretty much gave up years ago.

But it’s the wind – and the water – which define these islands. Wherever you travel on Orkney the wind whips up the sea so that little wisps of white waves snake along the roadside and the frenzied water surface invokes a sense of perpetual motion.

Even when it’s sunny you feel that the whole earth around you is moving – like being on the deck of an ocean cruiser, with the wind cutting through you in a numbing but entirely vibrant and exhilarating sort of way. Great for bad hair days.

Then add the context of these islands. Nothing is pretty as such, but beauty rises out of the drama all around you.

Scapa Flow, supposedly a naval sanctuary at the heart of the islands, has become a mass graveyard for the sailors of the Royal Oak, drowned in minutes when a U-Boat breached the Allied defences and sunk her. The German navy, captured here in World War One, was scuppered en masse.

And then there are the ghostly masts of ships sunk on Churchill’s orders to stop that predatory U-Boat getting through. When that failed, the British spent six year making concrete slabs and dropping them in to the sea until they formed a huge wall. A road across the top of them joins three of the islands, but still the sea crashes over in dramatic fashion.

The war, too, brought Orkney its most obvious example of twisted beauty; the chapel built by Italian prisoners. Could anyone have found a more wretched prison for someone of Mediterranean extraction? And could anything more wonderful have been created there?

That’s the recent history. Orkney has the older sort too. Skara Brae is a Neolithic village built before the Pyramids and preserved perfectly. You can see where the inhabitants slept some 5,000 years ago and the stone shelves where they put treasured possessions.

Then there are Rings of Brodgar and Stenness standing proud thousands of years after someone dragged them miles and erected them in alliance with the elements to staggering effect.

Add to that a beautiful cathedral, one of the world’s truly great whisky distilleries in Highland Park and a resilient and hospitable people and Orkney takes some beating.

It would make my top 10 list any time. And there isn’t a day when I don’t think about it.