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Issue 52 - Beyond the mainland

Scotland Magazine Issue 52
August 2010


This article is 8 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.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Beyond the mainland

This issue we look at the two great groups of islands that lie north of Scotland. Damian Riley Smith and Tom Morton take you to these outposts of the nation.

Orkney My image of Orkney was one of remoteness, ruggedness, loneliness and just a hint of the primitive. Yes, it has elements of all of these, but it is, and has, so much more. The overriding memory is that Orkney is the most fascinating, stimulating, magical and broad ranging Scottish island I have visited, and yet at the same time a very modern and historical experience.

To say it is remote is wrong – it is just four miles from the coast of mainland Scotland, and only 40 minutes by plane from Aberdeen and 50 minutes from Edinburgh or Glasgow.

If you have the time, the way to arrive is by sea. You can sail from Aberdeen in eight hours or so, or travel to the far North of Scotland and join a sailing.

Even the climate is not what one expects.

Orkney is surprisingly temperate, the Gulf Stream ensuring they are rarely snowbound even in the harshest winters, although the fierce prevailing Westerlies do keep the trees to the very minimum.

Orkney is not just one island – rather a collection of 71 different isles, 21 of which are currently inhabited, and with a total population of a staggering 20,000 or so.

So much for the image of being small and Spartan – it is the most fascinating mix of modern and magical, mythical and contemporary, stunningly beautiful and historically significant.

The most incredible thing about Orkney is the variety it offers. It is perhaps most famous for its incredibly well-preserved Neolithic monuments, scattered throughout the islands and located in the most magical settings imaginable. There is also the extraordinary recent history of Scapa Floe and the charming Italian Chapel built by prisoners of war. However it is the Norse and Viking history that is most captivating and mysterious, and provides so many insights to the people and buildings, language and behaviour, place names and habits across all the islands.

Make sure you get off the beaten track and explore. Roads are generally good, and car and bike travel are both straightforward – though always plan for the prevailing weather conditions. And remember there are more than 70 islands to explore, which are an impressive 85 kilometres (51 miles) long. If you have the time, do adventure to the smaller islands – your endeavours will be royally rewarded.

Shetland Simon King has a lot to answer for.

The bald-but-be-hatted prince of wildlife cameramen, someone as comfortable facing wildebeeste as Great White Sharks, Great Tits as giraffes, loves Shetland. (Oh, and please note, it’s Shetland, singular, never, ever ‘The Shetlands’. Are you listening, Simon?).

This led him, his wife and daughter Savannah to move to Britain’s northernmost archipelago for a few months, resulting in the book and TV series Simon King’s Shetland.

He made the islands, my home for 20 years, look spectacular. Dolphins, otters, puffins and petrels, orcas and, well, sheep, were brought, vibrantly, to the notice of the wider world. Even the brutal winters, with their tiny blinks of daylight and hurricane force winds, were made to appear cosy and romantic. And since then, tourists by the...well, dozen...have descended on our precious lumps of rock and sought the Spirit of Simon.

Perhaps I sound jaundiced. Cynical.

Resentful. No. It’s just that what Simon and his family saw and loved is just such a small part of what Shetland is, and what it means.

Really, it’s far, far better than his book and his telly programmes indicated. More interesting. Full of wonders that extend beyond the wildlife to the people, the history, the landscape, even the economy. Truly, it’s like nowhere else on earth.

And it’s hard for me to write about. I mean, I live here, despite the numerous inconveniences of being some 200 miles by sea from our mainland port, Aberdeen. You can fly to the Silver City in an hour, at considerable expense (think charter flight to Mykonos, or cheap Transatlantic) and there are direct routes to Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow too. We’re part of the community.

We have secrets about the place that we’d rather not share: That abandoned herring station, miles up a track, in one of the most spectacular locations on earth, full of past tragedy, the history of people’s struggle to survive. The astonishing tombolo (double sided beach) at Uyea Isle, just along from where the pirates buried one of their comrades up the neck and watched the Great Skuas peck his eyes out.

That neolithic axe factory nearby...

Obviously, I couldn’t tell you about those. Oh well, OK then. Shetland is so precious, you see. Can I be sure you’ll appreciate it? You will? Promise? Fine. Read Simon’s book then, and get the DVD. They’re both very good.

Perhaps they don’t go into tremendous detail about the islands’ Scandinavian past, but then neither am I going into. You’ll find everything you need by reading Liv Kjorsvik Schei and Gunnie Moberg’s wonderful book The Shetland Isles. There, you’ll find out about the links with Norway, the vast contrast in culture between Scotland’s Western Isles and Shetland, and the strange tale of how Shetland became Scottish in 1469, as a dowry for a royal marriage that never was.

You’ll need to know about the crofting, fishing, fish farming, and the way the oil industry has provided the community with a standard of living visitors may find staggeringly high. The compensation for the building of Europe’s biggest oil terminal at Sullom Voe which has provided state of the art schools, roads, health and social care, sports centres, swimming pools, a stunning museum complex, an under-construction concert hall, cinema and arts centre, and a buoyant musical culture which is known the world over.

Ah yes, Shetland music. Shetland fiddle music, to be precise. Maybe you’ve heard of Aly Bain, the great musician who has popularised Shetland fiddle playing universally. If you come here, there’s a pub which hosts open sessions every Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon, where some of the best fiddle players, plus any visiting musicians come for ‘a tune’. Music breaks out in concerts and pub sessions elsewhere too, and If you plan for it now, you may be able to get accommodation for the folk festival, the spring explosion of acoustic music which is rated by international musicians as one of the greatest music events in existence. You’ll need to prepare for the ‘simmer dim’, the midnight sun of the summer, when it barely gets dark, or for the brooding darkness of winter. You’ll have to get ready for some of the best seafood in Europe, easily the best lamb (seaweed fed, if you can find it) some wonderful beers from the most northerly island, Unst and a scale of hospitality you may be unprepared for. And how could I forget Up Helly Aa? Not just the huge viking fire festival in Lerwick (the capital, and only town; 11,000 out of the total 22,000 population) each January, but the numerous smaller versions that happen throughout the islands, all the way from mid-January to the end of February? Another secret slipped! We like our festivals, especially the winter ones.

Up Helly Aa means ‘the lightening of the year’ and we need them to brighten the blackness of those long dark, months.

The truth is, I haven’t mentioned the other really big, major attractions: Jarlshof, down by the airport, that fabulous ancient site where you can see some many different ancient settlements exposed by the weather.

St Ninian’s isle, another of those tombolos, this one much bigger, if not more impressive.

The ponies, of course. Ronas Hill, our mountain, which provides the only tundra in the UK. And so much more. I could show the original croft of Norman Lamont’s mother’s family, that’s Lord Lamont, former chancellor, who was born in Shetland and of whom it was once said, ‘he has the map of Shetland written on his face.’ The great roaring flare stacks of the Sullom Voe terminal. Killer whales cavorting, otters scurrying for cover. Look isn’t that Simon King? Come on and I’ll introduce you! He’s been expecting you!

The pride of Orkney Highland Park is made today with the same enduring belief and integrity, to the same exacting standards, as it has been since 1798. The established attitude at Highland Park is one of custodianship rather than management, of tradition rather than novelty. That’s not to say the distillery is stuck in the mud, but innovation is only used when there is a genuine benefit to the whisky not, as is often the way, a benefit to efficiency or profitability.

This approach accounts in some way for the appeal of Highland Park; there is much more to how the remote site of an illicit still became The Best Spirit in the World*. This accolade was no fluke, as we managed to repeat the feat in 2009; it was based on an unbroken tradition of whisky-making stretching back over 200 years. Highland Park is arguably the most respected single malt in the world. As everyone knows, respect has to be earned; our distilling tradition, attention to detail and honesty have combined to achieve just that.

Since being named The Best Spirit in the World (twice), we have also received World’s Best Single Malt* for Highland Park 21 Years Old. The rich, succulent, complexity of this exceptional single malt inspires passion in single malt enthusiasts everywhere. It has balance, character and provenance and, in that, epitomises all that is great about single malt Scotch whisky.

Russell AndersonDistillery Manager, Kirkwall WIN A BOTTLE OF HIGHLAND PARK 25 YEARS OLD Scotland Magazine has teamed up with the creators of the ‘Best Spirit in the World’ to offer one lucky reader the opportunity to win a bottle of Highland Park 25 Years Old and two runners up a bottle of Highland Park 18 Years Old.

First released in 1998 and bottled at 48.7% abv, Highland Park 25 year old (RRP £170) is a phenomenal whisky with a rich amber glow and an unmistakable taste of smokiness and heather honey with, as you would expect from Highland Park, a hint of peat.

Highland Park 18 Years Old (RRP £62) is a perfectly balanced single malt with a toffee sweetness and a mouthwateringly smokey finish.

It was awarded the ultimate accolade in 2005 and again in 2009, when US spirits writer F. Paul Pacult named it the ‘Best Spirit in the World’.

Established in 1798 on Orkney, Highland Park is one of the oldest Scotch whisky distilleries.

At the heart of this single malt lies its remote island location and exposure to the elements.

For more than 210 years, the distillery has combined time old tradition and the very best craftsmanship to achieve perfection and the consistancy lauded by global experts.

For your chance to win, send the answer to the following question along with your name, address and telephone number to, by September 25th 2010.

Q. Where is the Highland Park distillery based?

1. Shetland Islands 2. Faroe Islands 3. Orkney Islands Please enjoy our brand responsibly.

DRINKAWARE. CO. UK * Whisky expert Paul Pacult named Highland Park 18 year old ‘Best Spirit in the World’ for the second consecutive time in his Top 115 Spirits in June 2009 and in his last Spirit Journal rating in June 2005.

TERMS AND CONDITIONS All entrants must be 18 or over. One winner will receive 1 x bottle of Highland Park 25 year old, two winners will receive 1 x bottle of Highland Park 18 year old. Prize supplied by Highland Park. The prize is non-transferable and there is no cash alternative. By entering into the competition you automatically agree to be contacted by Highland Park for future correspondence. All entries must be received by Scotland Magazine. Employees (or their immediate relatives) of Highland Park, The Edrington Group and Paragraph Publishing may NOT enter.

Where to visit
Brough of Birsay
West Mainland
Cross the causeway at low tide to this
tidal island where you will find the
remains of both Pictish and Norse
settlements, including St. Peter’s Kirk.
Tel: +44(0)1856 721 205
Skara Brae
Bay of Skaill
An incredibly well preserved stone
village dating back some 5,000 years
and containing an intricate maze of
dwellings, with stone beds, lintels and
cupboards all intact. The site has an
excellent visitor centre with a shop and
cafe and is open daily.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 841 815
Earl’s Palace
The ruins of a palace built in the late
16th century by ‘Black Patie’, the
unpopular Earl Robert Stewart. The site
is open all year and free to visit.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 721 205
Orkney Brewery
The brewery makes popular Orkney ales
including the award wining Dark Island.
The brewery plan to open a new visitor
centre for 2010.
Tel: +44 (0)1667 404 555
Highland Park Whisky
Take a tour round Scotland’s most
northerly, and one of its most respected,
whisky distilleries.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 873 107
St Magnus Cathedral
Beautiful sandstone cathedral built in
1760, replacing an earlier church dating
from 1137. In summer the cathedral is
open daily, but in winter the key is
available from nearby Palace Stores.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 878 326
Italian Chapel
Lamb Holm
A unique memorial to 550 Italian
Prisoners of War where they were
interned in the 1940s. This beautiful little
chapel was converted internally from
two corrugated iron nissan huts. Open
daylight hours daily and free to visit.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 781 268
Tomb of the Eagles
St Margaret’s Hope
This impressive chambered tomb was
discovered by a local farmer in the
1950s. Dating from approx. 3000 BC,
the chambers indicate that up to 340
people were buried here.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 831 339
Shetland Museum
The first stop to discover the history and
culture of these northerly isles.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 695 057
Muckle Flugga
Fantastic views from the islands’
northern most tip, and a lighthouse built
by the Stevenson family. A boat trip
from one of Shetland’s many providers
is a great way to experience the coast.
Seabirds and Seals
Four star wildlife adventure cruises
around the coast – the best way to get
up close to Shetland’s incredible seabird
and seal colonies.
Tel: +44(0)7595 540 224
Nr. Sumburgh
One of the most important
archaeological sties in Scotland. Unlike
Skara Brae, this complicted settlement
was in use from the bronze age until the
19th century.
Tel: +44 (0)1950 460 112
St Ninian’s beach
One of the most beautiful beaches
anywhere in the world, we reckon. It’s
actually a tombolo – a natural sand
causeway with sea on either side.
Up Helly Aa
Not a place, but an event, on the last
Tuesday in January every year. This
awesome display is the largest fire
festival in Europe.

Where to stay
Merkister Hotel
Hotel on the banks of Loch Harray,
lounge bar for evening drinks and good
food in the restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 771 366
The Orkney Hotel Kirkwall
A characterful 17th century hotel
in the heart of Kirkwall, offering 30
elegant ensuite rooms and a number
of suites with four-poster beds and
jacuzzi baths.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 873 477
Avalon House
Comfortable, modern guesthouse with
rooms starting at £40 per night.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 876 665
Holland House
Five star bed and breakfast accommodation
on the mainland. Offers luxurious
surroundings and friendly, helpful hosts.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 771 400
Iona Cottage
Charming self catering cottage on the island
of Shapinsay, a 25 minute sail from Kirkwall.
Sleeps up to six, £400 a week.
Tel: +44 (0)1224 867 184
Woodwick House
Enchanting small hotel on the west mainland,
set in a peaceful location and offering some
superb dining choices.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 751 330
Busta House Hotel
Busta Brae
A delightful country house hotel offering
genuine home-cooked food from local
ingredients such as fresh sea trout and
Shetland mutton.
Tel: +44 (0)1806 522 506
Orca Country Inn
Hoswick, Sandwick
Family run inn with six comfortable
rooms, also serving good food, real ale
and live music.
Tel: +44 (0)1950 431 226
Snarraness House
Bridge of Walls
A remote but utterly charming
crofthouse B&B. Diners share
a communal table and home-style
meals are served by chef
Evelyn herself.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 809 375
Buness House
Historic 16th century house by the sea. Fine
views from the conservatory sitting room,
and a well stocked library set this guest
house apart.
Tel: +44 (0)1957 711 315
Longwell Cottage
Traditional white-washed cottage available
for self-catering, 50 metres from the shore of
Aiths Voe.
Tel: +44 (0)1950 477 204
Sumburgh Hotel
Dramatic 19th century hotel with 32 ensuite
rooms and a friendly, personal service.
Tel: +44 (0)1950 460 201

Where to eat
Albert Hotel
This hotel’s lounge bar offers good lunches
and suppers for the family.
The Creel
St Margarets Hope
Award winning restaurant serving the
best and freshest local seafood, prime
Orkney beef and seaweed fed lamb
from North Ronaldsay.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 831 311
Dil Se
Popular Indian restaurant
and takeaway. Recommended by
the Which? Good Food Guide
for three years running.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 875 242
The Shore
Light and friendly restaurant and bar on the
waterfront. Also offers modern, comfortable
ensuite accommodation.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 872 200
Skerries Bistro
South Ronaldsay
Lovely small bistro overlooking the
Pentland Firth, specialising fresh local
shellfish and fish, plus a tempting range
of desserts.
Tel: +44 (0)1856 831 605
Cleaton House
Friendly hotel offering good food,
real ales and a well stocked cellar.
Tel: +44 (0)1857 677 508
Phoenix Restaurant
Herrislea House Hotel, Tingwall
Top quality local produce is served
up in a comfortable country
house atmosphere.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 840 208
Da Haaf Restaurant
Port Arthur, Scalloway
The restaurant of the North
Atlantic Fisheries college which,
needless to say, specialises in seafood.
The new Da Haaf coffee bar adds
teas, coffees, sandwiches, soups,
salads and homebakes.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 880 747
The Baker’s Rest
This family run tea room offers a
wide range of hot and cold snacks
including soups and oatcakes, filled
bannocks, sandwiches and six types
of coffee to choose from.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 809 308
Pierhead Restaurant and Bar
Lower Voe
Pub offering friendly service and a good
selection for lunch and evening meals.
Tel: +44 (0)1806 588 332
Osla’s Cafe Bar
Good Italian bistro conveniently located in the
centre of Lerwick. Available for lunch and
evening meals.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 696 005
Maryfield House Hotel
Renowned for a wide variety of seafood
dishes and bar suppers.
Tel: +44 (0)1595 820 207

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