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Issue 45 - 48 hours in Orkney

Scotland Magazine Issue 45
June 2009


This article is 9 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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48 hours in Orkney

Sally Toms suggests what you might do with only a few days to discover Orkney.

Unless you’re one of those enviable people who seem to be on a perpetual vacation, free to spend weeks on end exploring Scotland’s every corner, chances are you’re going to experience this fine country little by little. You might start with Edinburgh and Glencoe; Glasgow and Ayrshire, or perhaps go over to Skye and the Inner Hebrides. Scotland’s more remote regions, such as Orkney, are sometimes are overlooked for being too inaccessible. Yet it is possible to experience these beautiful islands even if you only have limited time. Forty eight hours on mainland Orkney is enough to give you just a taste of the Islands, and will no doubt leave you wanting more.

GETTING THERE For a start, Orkney is more accessible than you might think. Flybe flies into Kirkwall airport from the major British airports, and there are good inbound links from many European and North American destinations. A lot of people fly into Aberdeen airport then get a connecting flight to Kirkwall, which takes only about 50 minutes and is probably the easiest way to travel.

Alternatively you could reach the islands by sea, via a choice of ferry sailings from Aberdeen (6hrs) and Scrabster (90mins), Gills Bay (1hr) or John O’Groats in Caithness (40mins).

Once you’ve arrived, consider hiring a car or a personal guide with a car to chauffeur you around. A professional guide costs from around £100 a day, which sounds like a lot but you really do get a lot out of it. Contact the tourist office for information on this.

WHAT TO SEE ST MAGNUS CATHEDRAL This 800 year-old sandstone building, is the most northerly cathedral in the UK. It took 300 years to build and so reflects two distinct architectural styles: Romanesque and gothic.

The wear around the entrance way indicates that the sea once came right up the steps of the cathedral, which is rather difficult to comprehend when you’re standing outside it, two streets away from the shore (the land was reclaimed at some point in the 19th century).

St Magnus Cathedral doesn’t belong to any particular church, but to the people of Orkney.

There’s no fee to look around, and it is arrestingly beautiful inside. A guide will point out interesting details like the maker’s mark on one of the pillars, a sign left by a man 800 years ago that tells us he was also involved in building other great British cathedrals including Durham and Dunfermline.

SKARA BRAE This astonishingly well preserved Neolithic village lies on the edge of the Bay of Skaill.

Covered up for thousands of years by shifting sand, it was only in 1850 that a storm revealed a complex of interconnecting houses, complete with stone cupboards, beds and cooking hearths. One has been recreated, to allow visitors inside, and you’ll find it surprisingly cosy. It is easy to imagine a fire going in the hearth, and a family sheltering from the raging winds outside. Of particular interest are the Neolithic ‘refrigerators’, square holes sunk into the floor, which would have been filled with water and possibly some shellfish waiting to be cooked.

RING OF BRODGAR A remote stone circle that’s at least 4,000 years old. Although it is thought to have once contained up to 60 megaliths, only 27 remain.

But they are enough to give you an impression of how the ring must have looked.

It is enormous, with a diameter of more than 300 feet. A walk around the stones (a few of which are adorned with Viking graffiti, an act of vandalism which in itself has great historical importance) is a strangely humbling experience.

HIGHLAND PARK The whisky made at this Orkney distillery has become one of the world’s most revered single malts, and a visit to mainland Orkney would not be complete without a distillery tour and a few drams to warm the cockles of your heart.

The distillery was founded in 1798 by Magnus Eunson, a church officer by day and illicit distiller by night. Magnus chose the ‘high park’ above the Kirkwall for the site of his new distillery because it had a natural spring of hard water which was ideal for whisky making.

Whisky has been made here in pretty much the same way ever since (production halted during the Second World War, when the mash tun was employed as a massive bath tub for troops).

Highland Park has its own floor maltings, which is fairly unique among distilleries because it’s far from cost-effective (Highland Park employs a team of 20 men just for this process). The whisky is peated, but has a lot less of the smoky ‘peaty’ flavour found in the famous Islay malts. Unlike Islay, there are not a lot of trees on Orkney, so the peat, used in the fire to flavour the malts, is made up from thousands of years’ worth of decaying heather. This gives the whisky a honey sweetness and delicate smoke rather than the strong medicinal flavour that only diehard whisky fans really seem to like.

ITALIAN CHAPEL On the little island of Lamb Holm is a picturesque little chapel that is worth considerably more than the sum of its parts.

In 1942 more than 500 Italian prisoners of war were brought to Orkney to help construct of the Churchill Barriers, causeways designed to link some of the islands and simultaneously block access to Scapa Flow following the sinking of HMS Royal Oak by a German U-Boat in 1939.

The creative POWs in Camp 60 created a place of worship from two Nissen Huts stuck together. The altar and its fittings were made from concrete and were flanked by two windows made from painted glass. The plasterboard was painted to resemble brickwork and a font constructed from concrete and an old truck spring. The painting and iron work in the ‘sanctuary’ is truly a work of art, even to 21st century eyes and it is incredible to think how must it have looked to the men of Camp 60, far from home and prisoners of a war they had already lost.

WHAT TO EXPECT Orkney is a cluster of 70 islands, on about 17 of which live a total of 20,000 people. This number has been gradually decreasing since World War II, as more and more people are leaving the outlying islands and moving onto mainland Scotland, or into Kirkwall, which currently maintains a population of about 7,500. Maintaining the populations of Orkney’s smaller islands is a constant problem for the council. North Ronaldsay for example has a population of 60. As tax payers they have the same rights and amenities as anybody else in Scotland, but this means their local doctor is on call 24 hours a day, all year. He also doubles up as the island’s RSPB officer. Schooling is also an issue. Most of the islands have a primary school, but to attend secondary school children aged 12 and upwards have to stay in either Kirkwall or Stromness during the week, and go home at the weekends.

SCENERY Without a doubt, Orkney is beautiful. Grass is the best growing crop here, so cattle farming is the main industry. It is flat, with very few trees, a millennia of strong wind and sea salt spray having put paid to them. It can be extraordinarily windy (the women on Orkney laugh that they can only wear their hair in one of two ways: south west or north east). The highest recorded wind speed here was in 1952 when gusts reached 132 miles per hour, causing untold damage.

HOSPITALITY Orkney has a real sense of community and almost no crime. This is the kind of place where no one locks their front doors, and everyone knows everybody else’s business.

The court reports are the most widely read section of the local paper – if a local was caught for some small misdemeanour, like fighting outside a pub on a Saturday night, or for not wearing a seatbelt, he is named in the paper and everyone will know about it.

HISTORY The past is a real living presence in Orkney.

Every era from the Neolithic through to the Vikings through to World War II has left its indelible mark on the landscape.

Scandanavian influences here are strong.

In fact the islands only became part of Scotland in 1468, for 600 years before they were part of Norway. This is logical enough when you conisder that from Kirkwall, it’s 560 miles to London, but only 310 miles to Bergen.

WHEN TO VISIT Anytime really, but out of season a lot of restaurants and some visitor attractions will be closed. Consider visiting at Christmas to witness the Ba game: a frenetic sport played by local men on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. It’s a ball game played with very few rules and a great many injuries. It begins when the Ba, a ball made from cork and leather, is thrown from the steps of the cross outside St Magnus Cathedral, into the throng of players, where anything goes – fighting, hiding it up jumpers, kicking it, throwing it over rooftops, etc.

On these days Kirkwall looks as if it’s about to undergo a siege. Every window along Broad Street has holes in the frames, on which the residents annually attach their barricades. The weight of the players moving around in an enormous scrum has collapsed walls and broken fences, crushed ribs and broken noses.

It is an old game. The two teams, Uppies and Downies (‘doonies’), are decided upon by family allegiances, where you live, or if you’re an outsider, where you first set foot on the island. The Uppies have a slight advantage in that the island’s only hospital is in Uppie territory, meaning that all babies are destined to join the Uppie team. Unless of course pregnant mothers are sent to Aberdeen to give birth, in which case some Downie families have been known to drive all the way around the town to bring their babe into Kirkwall first on Downie territory.

Allegiance to your team is strong.

The ‘goal’ for the Uppies is the wall of a particular house at the top the main street, whereas the Downies must get the ball into the sea at the end of the street. One goal wins the game. Sounds simple enough, but with so many players, games have been known to last all day.