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Issue 64 - Orkney & Shetland

Scotland Magazine Issue 64
August 2012


This article is 6 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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Orkney & Shetland

Local History, what to do and where to go.

Every year, on the last Tuesday in January, a replica Viking longboat is set on fire to mark the end of the yule season following a procession of more than 1,000 Shetlanders dressed in traditional Norse costume. The event takes place in the seaport of Lerwick and is called Up Helly-Aa, Europe's largest fire festival.

There is a world of difference between mainland Scotland and its Northern Isles, the archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland, located across the Pentland Firth. These windswept islands were once occupied by Masolithic and Neolithic people long before the arrival of the Picts who were in turn supplanted by Norsemen in 875 AD. Hungry for land and greedy for conquest, for centuries these Norsemen in their galleys ravaged the coastlines of Britain, Ireland and Northern France.

Interrelating with their conquests on the northern Scottish coastline, the Hebrides and expeditions into the North Atlantic to the Phaeroes, Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, these Vikings governed Orkney and Shetland for over half a millennium. But like all great colonial forces, they eventually over-extended themselves. In 1472, Norway having failed to pay the dowry of James III of Scotland's bride, Princess Margaret of Denmark, the Northern Isles were annexed by the Scottish crown.

That itself was over half a century ago, but it still goes without saying that the people of Orkney and Shetland are strikingly different from those that you tend to find elsewhere in Scotland. Enterprising and generous with their hospitality, conscientious and creative, they have a decidedly more Scandinavian outlook on everyday life.

Only 15 of Shetland's 100 islands are nowadays populated. From Yell, the most northern, to Sumburgh on the south of Mainland, you are never more than three miles from the sea. All of the islands are therefore accessible by ferry, and several by air: “island hopping” as it is called.

There are two airports, Tingwall and Sumburgh, and Northlink Ferries operate a daily service between Lerwick and Aberdeen, regularly connecting with Kirkwall on Orkney. Shetland Islands Council operates a ro-ro ferry service from Lerwick to Out Skerries and Bressay.

Yell, Bressay and Nost, Unst and Fetlar, Whalsay and Old Skerries, Scalloway and Foula, the names in themselves conjour up another worldliness. One third of the islands' population, however, are located in Lerwick, which in Old Norse translates as “Bay of Clay.” This settlement on the Bressay Sound is a natural harbour and prospered with the discovery of North Sea Oil in the 1970s.

North Sea oil discoveries continue to have a major impact on the Shetland economy which is traditionally based on fishing, crofting and tourism. Over the summer months, outdoor activites for visitors include sailing, diving, walking, cycling and bird watching.

There are twenty species of sea bird breeding along the shore line, and eight hundred species of flowering plants, some native only to these islands. In terms of historic diversion, the Broch of Mousa, thought to have been built circa 100 BC and one of the finest examples of its kind, Jarlshof, containing remains dating from 2500 BC up to the seventeenth century AD, and Muness Castle, built in the 16th century by Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie, Sheriff of Shetland, a half-brother of Robert Stewart, first Earl of Orkney, are not to be ignored.

Every October there is the Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival, this year in its 25th year and harnessing a widespread community involvement. That same community involvement and spirit is apparent in its knitwear and jewellery manufacturing industries, and to this end, it is well worth looking in on the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick. On display in the lower gallery is Shetland’s journey from its geological beginnings to circa 1800, finishing in the dramatic Boat Hall which spans both floors. The upper gallery features the story of Shetland from circa 1800 to the present day.

Orkney, to the south of Shetland, is made up of 70 islands, 17 of which are inhabited. There are inter-island flights to six of them and ferry services to the remaining eleven while the principal ferry crossing of the Pentland Firth from mainland Scotland is from Scrabster in Caithness to Stromness on Mainland. There are also flights to Kirkwall with Flybe operated by Loganair, from Glasgow (1hr 20min), Aberdeen (50mins), Edinburgh (1hr 20mins), Inverness (45mins) and Sumburgh (35mins).

Kirkwall is the capital, and it remains one of the best preserved medieval towns in Scotland, dominated by its red sandstone St Magnus Cathedral, which was founded in 1137 in memory of Saint Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney (1108-1117) by Ronald, another Earl of Orkney, who was later also beatified by the church.

Next door stands the former Bishop's Palace which resembles a small castle. Its first occupant was the cathedral's first bishop, William the Old, under the Norwegian Catholic Church. In 1263, King Haakon IV of Norway sought refuge here and died in his bed after the Battle of Largs, which ended Norse rule over the Outer Hebrides. Abandoned in favour of the nearby Earl's Palace, it fell into ruin.

Kirkwall Castle, the remains of which have long since vanished, was built in the fourteen century by Sir Henry St Clair, Lord of Rosslyn, who had inherited the Norwegian jarldom of Orkney from his mother. It was from here that he launched his expedition to North America, returning to his castle of Kirkwall after seventeen years only to be assassinated by English mercenaries, the English government being fearful that he intended to create a Northern Commonwealth. It was Sir Henry's grandson who built the iconic Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian and exchanged his hereditary earldom of Orkney with James III for the castle of Ravenscraig at Kirkcaldy in Fife.

In 1614, the son of Patrick Stewart, second Earl of Orkney, rebelled against King James VI of Scotland. That same year, George Sinclair (the northern branch of the St Clair family now spelling their surname “Sinclair”) fifth Earl of Caithness, defeated the uprising and the Privy Council of Scotland ordered that Kirkwall Castle be destroyed. A plaque marks the site.

Kirkwall has two museums: Tankerness House Museum, which contains items of local historical interest, in particular its Pict and Viking collections. The Orkney Wireless Museum at Kiln Corner houses a collection of domestic and military wireless equipment marking the importance of wireless communications in Orkney during World War II.

Visitors to Kirkwall often comment on the consummate skills of the Orcadians.

Among the local enterprises are the traditional high-backed Orkney chairs, Orkney jewellery, Orkney cheese, Orkney ice cream, Skullsplitter beer from the local brewery and two superb single malt Scotch whiskies – Highland Park and Scapa, the latter named after the stretch of water which formed the UK's chief naval base during the First and Second World Wars.

Following the German defeat in the First World War, 74 ships of the Kaiserliche Marine's High Seas Fleet were scuttled here, no word of settlement having arrived from the Treaty of Versailles. In 1939, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk at her moorings within the natural harbour of Scapa Flow in a German U-Boat attack. In response, Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered the construction of several permanent barriers to prevent any further attacks. Today, this series of Causeways, known as The Churchill Barriers, links Mainland to the islands of South Ronaldsay, Lamb's Holm and Glimps Holm, carrying the A961 from Kirkwall to Burwick.

Another physical survivor from that era is the highly decorated Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, built by the Italian prisoners-of-war who were employed to build the causeway barriers. Two Nissen Huts were joined together. The corrugated interiors were lined with plasterboard and an altar and rail were constructed from concrete. The interiors, restored during the 1960s, were sensitively decorated by Domenico Chiocchetti and remain a lasting testimonial to a sad but in some ways triumphant time.

On the far north west corner of Mainland is the small parish of Birsay, catching the full blast of Atlantic winds. On Birsay Bay is Orkney's second Earl's Palace, this one built in the 16th century by Robert Stewart, an illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland. It remains a remarkable ruin. Off this coastline, in a 9-Force Gale in 1916, sank the HMS Hampshire carrying on board Britain's Secretary of State for War, Field Marshall Lord Kitchener of Khartoum. Nobody knows if the ship was sunk by a German U-Boat or not, and conspiracy theories have existed ever since. A statue was erected in his memory on Marwick Head in 1926.

Mainland's second largest town is Stromness in the south west. A long established seaport it is made up of picturesque houses and streets, and came into its own in the Victorian era when it was visited on a regular basis by the whaling fleets and ships of the Hudson Bay Company en route to northern Canada. Created in 1837, the Stromness Museum on Alfred Street has amassed a unique and fascinating collection of artefacts relating to the Canadian fur trade and natural history.

Another focal point in Stromness is the Pier Arts Centre which houses a remarkable collection of British art collected by the author and philanthropist Margaret Gardiner who died in 2005.

Orkney life is further celebrated in the works of the local author and poet George Mackay Brown who lived in the town.

The composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies also lives on Orkney and was partly instrumental in launching the immensely successful six-day St Magnust Festival which takes place annually in June.

No visit to Orkney's Mainland, however, would be complete without a diversion to Skara Brae, the large stone neolithic settlement on the Bay of Skaill, older than the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge, the neighbouring Maes Howe, a neolithic chambered tomb and passage grave, and the Ring of Brodger at Stennes, built in a true circle, almost 104 metres wide.

It is only when exploring such places that we become genuinely aware of the fleeting nature of mortality and the extraordinary challenges that were endured by our long ago ancestors.

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