Island homes of early man around a historic harbour
There are some 70 islands in Orkney, of which 18 are now inhabited – a mere shadow of former ages. Archaeological evidence tells of continuous occupation for 6,000 years, from Stone Age peoples to Picts and Celtic priest-kings who made treaties with the Romans, to Viking and Stewart overlords and to Italian prisoners in the Second World War. There are antiquities to explore, excellent fishing, and teeming bird life among the awesome cliffs. not only the houses, but stone beds, cupboards and hearths survive to give a vivid picture of life in that distant era.
A little to the south-east are the lochs of Stenness and Harray, noted now for their wild brown trout but once of much, greater significance. At the southern end of the Loch of Stenness is the Unstan chambered tomb, whose construction is as cunning as that of the pyramids. On the southern shore of the Loch of Harray are two magnificently sited and precisely spaced stone circles, the Ring of Brogar and the smaller Standing Stones of Stenness. Near by is Maeshowe, a 4,000-year-old tomb which is one of the finest pieces of prehistoric engineering in Western Europe. Scribblings left by 12th-century Viking raiders on its walls complain that someone has forestalled the writers and removed a great treasure.
All over the island are the mounds of prehistory, and ruins such as that of Broch of Gurness, a fort occupied in turn over a millennium by Picts and Vikings, or the remains on the Brough of Birsay that link the Norsemen with the coming of Christianity.
There are fine beaches and splendid
With its wild hills of heather and hog and its soaring cliffs wearing eternal clouds of sea-birds, Hoy forms most of the south-western shore of Scapa Flow, one of the finest natural harbours in the world and a vital naval anchorage during both World Wars. It was from Scapa Flow that the Grand Fleet sailed to the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, and it was in the same harbour that HMS Vanguard blew up in 1917. The German High Seas Fleet scuttled itself in Scapa Flow in 1919; seven of the original 74 ships sunk still lie below the surface, and thousands of divers visit Scapa Flow each year to seek them.
In 1939 HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed in Scapa Flow by the submarine U47, which made a daring attack through Holm Sound. The sound was later sealed by the Churchill Barriers, and some of the Royal Oak’s 800 dead are buried, beside those from other battles, in the Naval cemetery near the deserted and decaying dockyard of Lyness. The remainder still lie within the ship’s hull, an officially designated war cemetery.
A far more ancient grave in the island is the Dwarfie Stane, a monument unique in Britain, since its two chambers were hewn out of solid rock, probably in about 1900 BC. Legend, and Sir Walter Scott, suggest it is the home of Trolld, the malevolent dwarf of the Norse Sagas.
The island’s best-known feature is the sheer 450 ft stack, the Old Man of Hoy, first climbed in 1966. Near by is St John’s Head which, at 1,040 ft, is the highest perpendicular sea-cliff in Britain. The Martello towers guarding Longhope sound were built to cover an assembly point of Baltic convoys during the Napoleonic Wars.
Almost a mile offshore is the island of Flotta, almost totally flat as its name suggests, and still bearing the fortifications of two World Wars. It also bears an oil terminal, with enormous tankers in attendance.
Because of its myriad wild flowers, some of them rare alpines, and its bird life, Hoy is designated an area of special scientific interest.
Considering that for much of human history Orkney was considered to lie at the very edge of the world, it is astonishing that the islands have been continuously occupied much longer than a good deal of Scotland. Perhaps their remoteness offered safety, while added attractions were their fertility and their lochs filled with fish.
Mainland, the largest of the islands, cannot have greatly changed since the Stone Age villagers abandoned their settlement at Skara Brae some 4,500 years ago, when a great sandstorm buried their homes. Stone was, and still is, the principal building material on virtually treeless Orkney, and walks, such as the one on Marwick Plead, whose cliffs are a breeding ground for kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills. On the.top is a weatherworn monument to Lord Kitchener, who was drowned near by when HMS Hampshire was sunk by a German mine in 1916. Another cliff adventure is a visit to The Gloup, a fearful chasm in Deerness that can be visited by boat through a tunnel from the sea. On a sunny day, the water in the tunnel lights up to an iridescent green.
The island’s capital, and Orkney’s, is Kirkwall, centred upon a busy harbour in which there is a constant coming and going of lobster boats, coasting ‘puffers’ and ferries. The houses are handsome and steep gabled, and there are some old, narrow streets where cars and pedestrians compete for right of way. Kirkwall’s most impressive building is the Cathedral of St Magnus, built in 1137 as a monument to the Norse Jarl of Orkney and saint murdered 20 years earlier. His skeleton was rediscovered in the building at the beginning of this century; there was an axe cut in the skull, which accords with the manner of his death as described in the old sagas.
Kirkwall also has two palaces, the 12th-century Bishop’s Palace and the Earl’s Palace, built by one of the Stewart Earls in 1600. The Public Library, founded in 1683, is the oldest in Scotland.
Stromness, Mainland’s other principal town, is also a port and consists mainly of a single, long, narrow street, many of whose seaward houses have little jetties of their own. There is a good museum devoted principally to seamen and whalers, and an art centre containing an internationally renowned collection of modern works.
From the south-east end of Mainland, the causeway over the Churchill Barriers connects it with several other islands.
The island is mostly high moorland dotted with pewter-coloured lochans, and over all bright skies filled with birds’ cries. Stone Age cairns and chambered tombs are everywhere. The most impressive of these is Mid Howe, now protected by a modern building yet still maintaining its air of ancient solemnity. The remains of 25 people were found in the 100 ft long burial chamber when it was excavated; carbon dating indicated that they had been placed there around 3000 BC. A Norse cemetery, a Viking ship burial and a Stone Age village have also been uncovered.
There are large sea-bird colonies on the cliffs, and peregrines and hen harriers on the moors. Fishermen may seek permission to pursue the brown trout in the lochs or go sea-angling or skin-diving at the hotel by the pier. Or, more simply, visitors may buy crabs, scallops or lobsters from the processors near by.
Some 10 miles long by 3 miles across, much of it good farmland, Westray is one of the largest and most populous of the islands. The principal village is Pierowall, tucked at the back of its attractive bay and natural harbour that in 1136 attracted Jarl Rognvald and his Iongships at the beginning of the subjugation of Orkney. Some years ago, a large Viking cemetery was discovered beneath the sand-dunes.
A little to the west of Pierowall is Noltland Castle, built by Gilbert Balfour in 1560. He was implicated in the murder of Lord Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1567, and finished his career on the gallows nine years later, hanged for treason. His castle, though ruinous, is still grimly handsome. There are several sandy beaches on Westray, and trout fishing may be arranged in the lochs.
The smaller island of Papa Westray gets its name from the ‘Papae’ or Celtic priests who used to live on the island; among its other claims to fame is the briefest scheduled airline service in the world – 2 minutes by Loganair from Westray. The oldest standing houses in Orkney, and perhaps in northwestern Europe, are the pair at Knap of Howar. They were inhabited by people who kept livestock, grew crops, hunted deer and collected shellfish from the shore some 5,500 years ago.
For such a northerly island, Sanday has a remarkably southern appearance, with miles of shining beaches embracing like a halo the isthmuses of which it is largely composed. The chilly sea does not deter the thousands of wading birds that have made the sands their home.
Most of the island is cultivated, growing root crops and oats, but the plough has spared at least one major antiquity, the chambered tomb of Quoyness. Thedrystone walls of the main chamber are composed of huge, flat boulders built to a height of 12 ft; human remains discovered in the chamber and inside cells indicate that the tomb was in use around 2900 BC.
The island is so low-lying in mist or haze that many old-time manners simply failed to see it until they drove the bows of their vessels into its shores, so providing a welcome addition to the islanders’ economy. Sanday’s income is derived from more conventional sources now, including holiday-makers. Kettletoft, where the ferry comes in, is a pleasant place to stay.
The northernmost island of Orkney, North Ronaldsay consists of some 4 square miles of flat, fertile land, completely surrounded by a wall built just above high-water mark. The wall was constructed to exclude the sheep that must, for lack of other grazing, feed upon seaweed.
There are several prehistoric monuments, including a broch or fort at the island’s southern tip, and no doubt many more have now disappeared under the plough. The candy-striped lighthouse dates from 1789 and is one of the highest land lights in Britain.
HOW TO GET THERE
By air. British Airways: daily services to Kirkwall from Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen, with connections from London, Birmingham and Manchester; Kirkwall (0856) 3359. Loganair: daily services from Edinburgh. Inverness and Wick, with connection from Glasgow: Kirkwall 3457 By sea. P&O: car ferry from Scrabster to Stromness. daily; Stromness 850655. Thomas and Bews: passenger ferry John O’Groats to South Ronaldsay daily in summer. Barrack 619 in winter, John o’Groats 353 in summer.