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Issue 96 - Island Hopping

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017


This article is 12 months 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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Island Hopping

Christopher Coates explores Orkney’s isles

Throughout my time visiting Orkney, what I found to be indisputable is that it is a place where history is inescapable.

One may pick a direction at random, start walking and be hard pressed not to trip over a site of some significance. The varied landscape of this cluster of around 70 islands (the number varies depending on how you define an island) is home to Neolithic chambered burial cairns; impressive standing stones at Brodgar, Stenness and elsewhere; Iron Age brochs (defensive towers); Pictish farms; historic churches; an impressive cathedral; and ruined palaces (See: pp.36-44) - not to mention the scuttled remains of the German High Seas Fleet and the memorialised wreck of the HMS Royal Oak, which now lies at peace under the dark waters of Scapa Flow (See: Scotland Magazine #89).

I’m sure you’ll agree that all of this is quite impressive when one considers that Orkney’s total landmass is just 380 square miles (990 km2), which is only about as large as that of Islay and Jura combined. All that, and there’s also two famous Scotch whisky distilleries. What more could a visitor want? Well, as it turns out, there’s even more to be found if one keeps looking.

Setting off from Mainland, Orkney’s principal island (not to be confused with mainland Britain), I was reminded of the importance of the seas to the islands’ inhabitants past and present. To ancient Orcadians, the waters not only offered a source of food but acted as highways between communities that to outsiders may otherwise have appeared isolated. Today, little has changed. For example, unless it’s a Tuesday or a Friday, you’d need to take two ferries to get to the shops in Kirkwall if you live on Papa Westray. Living in even more far-flung spots requires the ownership of your own boat. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the Orcadian community is remarkably tight-knit.

Such is the importance of their status as a seafaring people that it’s been argued the waters surrounding the islands should always be included when calculating the total area of the territory - as opposed to including only the dry land. After all, at least to the islands’ historic inhabitants, earth and water were each as important as each other when it came to the population’s culture and prosperity.

The Norse connection is particularly intriguing. Starting out as a trickle of Viking raids and turning into a significant migration, historians are unsure exactly what happened to the islands’ original inhabitants. Was integration with the resident population gradual and peaceful or was it genocide?

That’s up for debate, but the fact that the vast majority of Orcadian place names are today derived from Old Norse is indicative of which culture prevailed.

While the accomplishments of the Norse Earls and their people were certainly impressive, it is perhaps the runic ‘graffiti’ adorning the stone interior of the Maeshowe burial cairn, at Stenness, that best reminds us that these were real people with hopes, fears, and a sense of humour. ‘Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women’, ‘Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes’, and (my personal favourite, which I have toned down slightly) ‘Thorni bedded. Helgi carved’ are just some of the messages that have been discovered within the tomb. No matter how much time passes, one gets the feeling that some things never change.

Incidentally, the Orkneyinga Saga actually makes reference to a group of Norsemen taking shelter in Maeshoew or ‘Orkahaugr’, as it was then known, during a winter storm. Thus, myth and folklore converge with archaeological fact to shed light the lives of modern Orcadians’ ancestors.

Of course, more than 500 years of Norwegian rule left its mark on the islands’ culture. Even today, when a 70-minute flight links Kirkwall to Edinburgh, Orcadians are notably distinct from Scotland’s mainland and Hebridean populations. Orkney has its own flag - the design of which draws on both the Scottish and Norwegian designs but looks far more like the latter - and, although generally more politically affiliated with Westminster than Holyrood, the islands’ representatives have recently begun reviewing options for greater autonomy in the wake of Brexit. There have even been half-jokes about re-joining Norway!

Further examination of the names on a map of Orkney reveals something of the Norse personality: they were clearly a people who spoke in no uncertain terms. For example, the islands of Hoy (which has a number of hills) and Flotta (which has barely an undulation) take their names from words meaning ‘high’ and ‘flat’ respectively. Which brings us neatly to our first destination.

The second to largest of Orkney’s islands (Mainland being the largest), Hoy can be reached by ferries from the Mainland port villages of Houton, which connects with Lyness and Longhope, and Stromness, which connects with Linksness. Like many of the Orkney islands, Hoy is an important site for birdlife and the northern part of the island is an RSPB reserve. However, perhaps its most famous feature is the magnificent sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy. Reached by way of a superb coastal walk from the crofting hamlet of Rackwick, the Old Man has become one of the archipelago’s most iconic landmarks. Regularly the focus of intrepid climbers, the stack and nearby cliffs offer an important nesting environment for birds such as fulmars and great skuas.

However, Hoy’s more unusual landmark is in fact man made - the Dwarfie Stane. This 8.5m long slab of sandstone was hollowed out around 5000 years ago by the island's Neolithic inhabitants. Their motivations are unclear, but some experts postulate that this is the UK's sole example of a rock-cut tomb - others disagree. Sealed until the 15th Century with the large rock resting by the entrance, it is unknown who opened the stone or what they found inside. Today, visitors can see two divider ridges within the chamber that appear similar to the bed places at Skara Brae.

However, these are only a few feet long so couldn't accommodate anyone of normal size. The mystery of their true purpose is thought to be the source of the tale that the stone was once inhabited by dwarves. Whatever its origin, it is well worth a visit to marvel at the ingenuity of early humans, who must have hollowed out this solid rock with only stone and bone tools.

Joined to Hoy by a causeway is the much smaller isle of South Walls, which is home to the Hackness Martello Tower and Battery. Built to defend merchant ships during the Napoleonic Wars, they were never used but remain as a well-preserved reminder of Scapa Flow’s important role in maritime affairs across the centuries.

Nearby, the isle of Flotta has a population of just 80 people. It was a very different story during World War I, when the island (like the rest of Orkney) had a huge military population. The Buchanan Battery is a reminder of this time.

When returning to Stromness on Mainland from Linksness on Hoy, one will pass the small but picturesque isle of Graemsay. It is home to two lighthouses, Hoy Sound Low and Hoy Sound High, that were both built in 1851 by Alan Stevenson of the famous Stevenson lighthouse-engineering dynasty. The island is still populated, albeit by only a handful of people.

Off the northern coast of Mainland we find the bulk of Orkney’s small isles. Ferries from Tingwall take us to Rousay, Wyre, and Egilsay. Rousay, which takes its name from the Norse for ‘Rolf’s island’, has famously been nicknamed ‘Egypt of the north’ on account of its archaeological importance. There are 166 important ancient sites in all, including the Iron Age Midhowe Broch and the Neolithic Midhowe Chambered Cairn. Today, a permanent population of a few hundred people thrives here.

Wyre is one of the smallest inhabited islands in Orkney and is famous for Cubbie Roo’s Castle. Taking its name from a giant in Orkney folklore, it was built around AD1150 and is one of Scotland’s oldest castles. It is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga and also in other Icelandic Sagas.

A short way to the north is Egilsay, which can also be seen from the main ferry route between Kirkwall and Westray, Papa Westray, and also during the journey to North Ronaldsay. Largely made up of farmland, Egilsay is important historically as the site of Saint Magnus' martyrdom, when he was murdered (reluctantly) by Lifolf at the behest of his master, Earl Haakon - Magnus’s cousin. The beautiful ruin of Saint Magnus Church, with its 66ft high bell tower, is the island’s primary draw for tourists. A Norse construction dating back to the 12th Century, it is said to have been built on the site of Magnus’s murder.

To the south, Shapinsay is well known for the beautiful Balfour Castle, a mansion built in the Scottish Baronial style by the esteemed Edinburgh architect David Bryce. After a stint as a luxury hotel, it was put up for sale in 2008 and is now a private home.

An unusual landmark nearby on the island is the Dishan Tower, known locally as The Douche. It was originally built in the 17th Century as a dovecote but was converted into a saltwater shower.

At the centre of the northern Orkney isles one finds Eday, which is also home to a number of well-preserved ancient sites. Home to 150 people, the island is known for its yellow sandstone, which was quarried for use in constructing St. Magnus Cathedral and the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall. The Eday Heritage walk takes in the visible remains from the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Pictish and Norse periods. Highlights include the Neolithic Vinquoy Chambered Cairn and the austere Carrick House, which dates from the 17th Century.

To the west of Eday we find Westray (known as ‘Queen of the Isles’) and its smaller sister island Papa Westray, or ‘Papay’. Both are home to important RSPB nature reserves and boast superb cliff habitats for nesting seabirds.

Castle o’ Burrian, on Westray, is a particularly popular spot with visitors hoping to get close to those ever-popular and colourful birds that everyone loves: puffins. They tend to be there between late April and mid-August. What’s more, the spot is also a fulmar nesting ground and during my time there I saw razorbills and guillemots too.

The island is also notable for Noltland Castle, which was built in the 16th Century and can be explored by visitors; the Links of Noltland excavation site, which shows parallels to Skara Brae; and the picturesque village of Pierowall, which faces onto a bay that's famous for its turquoise waters. The fish and chips at the Pierowall Hotel is particularly good - a lucky thing as it is one of the only places to eat out on the island.

Now looking to the east of Eday, we find Stronsay. With a resident population of around 350, it is known for the Vat of Kirbister - a natural sea arch - and the abundance of wild flowers that grow here. The Stronsay Heritage Centre explains the details of island life and the local fishing industry.

To the north we find Sanday, the penultimate destination on our tour of Orkney’s principal isles and the third to largest. Home to around 550 people, Sanday has many sandy bays and is well known for its abundance of wildlife. Replete with Pictish and Vikingera archaeological sites, the island is most well known for the Scar boat burial site that was discovered in 1985. This Viking grave dated from around the late 9th Century and contained the remains of a man, an elderly woman, and a child. The bodies were buried alongside numerous grave goods, the most notable of which is a ‘dragon plaque’ made from whalebone.

Our final stopping-off point is Orkney’s most northerly isle, North Ronaldsay. With a population of just 72 at the last census, it is certainly no metropolis. However, the island boasts a well-preserved Iron Age broch, Broch of Burrian, and a bird observatory. It is also home to an usual breed of domestic sheep that's famous for subsisting almost entirely on seaweed!

Thus we conclude our journey around the isles. In truth, such a whistle-stop tour still leaves plenty to explore - but that will have to wait until my next trip.


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