The drive north and east from Ullapool to the Orkney ferry at Scrabster took us through a changing landscape. From a land of wild and barren mountains we found ourselves in rolling farmland of equally impressive proportions. The tiny farmhouses dotted about gave the vast vistas scale. We spotted peat being cut and left to dry near the roadside, presumably to be used for fuel, maybe even in whisky making.
After learning from our host in Ullapool that bracken is not a native to the Highlands, but in fact a noxious invader (harbouring ticks, smothering hillsides, inedible to farm animals) we looked at the patches of brilliant green very differently. Spreading like poison up dark heather covered hillsides, their dense foliage changing the landscape, garish against the sombre native colours.
The road along the north coast is single track and there is no fence between the fields and the road. Sheep and lambs wander along freely, able to cross the road at will and lounge about on the shoulder. The field boundaries are marked by cattle grids and fortunately the fields are enormous so these are far apart. For miles there were lochs and mountains and farms, no towns. Places had strange names, we passed Bad Call Bay, and further around came upon a town named Tongue. There the roads became two lanes and had painted edges!
At Scrabster we boarded a large and comfortable ferry, the sea was a calm expanse. I stood wrapped up outside and watched the Old Man of Hoy (a famous Orcadian rock formation) drift past. Fishing boats dotted the coast like toys beside the enormous cliffs.
We landed in Stromness (which seems like a port with a town attached – Kirkwall definitely has more life) and immediately drove to St Margaret’s Hope where we were staying. The short drive took us through most of the Orkney Mainland and onto the island of South Ronaldsay. Orkney seemed to have far more luscious farmland than the Highlands; rolling hills of vivid green dotted with more sheep per acre than the sparse highlands is capable of sustaining. There were signs for a craft trail and a feeling of thriving community. These things surprised me – I had imagined a rustic backwater, virtually forgotten by the modern world. But instead we were in a thriving tourist centre, with busier roads than the Highlands, and a community which looks to the future despite having so many reminders of the past (standing stones etc).
The blustery Isle that I had been expecting failed to materialise the following day, instead we were greeted with impossibly blue skies and heat! We drove to Kirkwall past fields full of buttercups, over the Churchill barriers constructed by Italian POWs to protect the Scapa Flow from enemy submarines. Pieces of wrecked ship littered the shallow waters. To our right, and visible almost all the way around to Stromness, was a large oil rig, conspicuous against the clean, clear waters. It hovered like some great metal beast. In a land seemingly unchanged in 5000 years it was out of place.
On Kirkwall high street every second shop was a local Jewellers – this seems to be big business in Orkney! Just a short walk from the High Street are the Bishops and Earls Palaces. The Earls Palace is the perfect ruin. Enough remains to understand the grandeur and size of the palace, but it is also clearly old – not a perfectly restored place, but somewhere that invites imagination. The fireplaces were massive, even a tall bloke can comfortably stand in one without ducking!
The Bishops palace was less complete, but one tower remained and from the top there were glorious views over Kirkwall and the surrounding farmland.
Just outside Kirkwall, sitting unobtrusively in a field is Cuween Hill Cairn. Owned by Historic Scotland but unstaffed, the 4500 year old burial mound is free to explore. A wooden box like a letterbox holds a torch (with charged batteries!) for lighting the dark interior. The burial chamber is accessed down a narrow, low passage and inside is cool and damp. The chamber is surprisingly spacious, room to stand after crouching and shuffling in the passage. As our eyes adjusted we could see alcoves which would have held the grave goods. I crawled into one; it was a strange feeling sitting in the dark in what had been the last resting place of an ancient people.
The landscape is riddled with ancient monuments; Cuween Hill is unremarkable on Orkney. I heard stories of standing stones being used to hold up clotheslines, so numerous are they. But there are still places which even in the rich picking of Orkney stand out from the rest, the most famous standing stones are the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. Both are free, and both are definitely worth a visit. They stand very near to each other and mark what was clearly an important Neolithic site; the remains of a settlement of similar age to the stones sits in a nearby paddock (the Barnhouse Settlement).
But more impressive by far are two other sites, Maeshowe Neolithic Chambered Cairn and Scara Brae Village. The standing stones are large and impressive edifices, but the Cairn and village have a more human interest and certainly provide a more personal perspective on the ancient people who once lived here.
Maeshowe is essentially a larger version of the Cuween Hill Burial Cairn, but is accessible by tour only (pre-booking essential in busy months). But what really sets this one apart is not just the size, but the Viking graffiti! According to our guide, in the 12th Century one hundred Vikings broke into the cairn of Maeshowe, entering by removing the capstone roof and clambering in from the top. Supposedly they would have been familiar with the shape of burial cairns as they are also scattered through Scandinavia – so would have known how to get in. For three days these hundred Vikings sheltered in Maeshowe from a blizzard and passed time by graffiti-ing the walls with runes. The hilarious thing is how inanely the runes translate, for example:
‘These runes were written up high’
‘These runes were written with an axe’
(The Viking equivalent of) ‘Call Ingerbjorg for a good time’
Another had clearly started writing thinking he was taller than in reality, so his text written up the wall trailed around a 90° corner and continued at the maximum height his arm could stretch.
The guide was very entertaining, we learnt how the Vikings, having weathered the storm left the cairn, which now roofless filled with debris and soil over the centuries. Then in 1861 a dreadful archaeologist named James Farrer conducted an excavation. He and his team also entered through the roof and in our guides words “made more of a mess than one hundred Vikings” as they cleared the cairn of the built up debris using pick axes and took great chunks out of the walls in the process. Farrer made several discoveries including bone fragments, but when he packed up and headed back to London, he accidentally left all the finds on the train and they were never seen again. The cairn was once more open to the elements and it was a local farmer who took initiative and built a new roof for it, so it is thanks to the farmer that the cairn and its runic carvings are preserved and visible.
Orkney has some brilliant place names: on our third day we drove through Twatt and The Loons on our way to the most famous of Orkney’s historic sites; Scara Brae. The 5000 year old village on the edge of a wild beach with a blowing gale is beautifully presented. Before visiting the real Scara Brae you pass through a reproduction Scara Brae house. This one is built to portray how the houses would have looked with roof and furnishings. The thing which is most striking is how identifiable everything is; it feels like a home. The beds are draped in furs, shelves filled with trinkets and everything is focused around a central hearth. The house consists of one room entered through a stone passage and even has closable stone doors – details which are preserved in the original village!
It is a short walk to the archaeological site. Along the side of the path are stone markers interspersed accurately to take you back in time, we passed the American Independence, the completion of the Great Wall of China, the birth of Christ, the building of the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. It really did illustrate just how ancient this village is.
Scara Brae was discovered in the mid-19th century when a nasty storm ripped the earth off the top of some mysterious mounds near the beach known as Skerrabra. The storm revealed the most complete Stone Age village yet discovered. The houses are connected by corridors to each other but all corridors have stone doors to allow privacy of the occupants. The beds, hearths, shelves and even pots and jewellery are all still in position.
Scara Brae was properly excavated and presented to the public in the 1920s and appears to have been left more or less untouched since then. It is simply but thoughtfully displayed; a path meanders along the edge of the village at ground level, but as the modern ground level is higher than that of the Stone Age (and the houses were probably dug into mounds) you are essentially walking above the homes and as they are roofless it is easy to see in. The village of Scara Brae is incredible, not for its size or grandeur, but specifically because it is on such a human scale and such intimate glimpses of the distant past are so rare. Previously if I thought of Stone Age humans living 5000 years ago I would not have pictured something so recognisably ‘home’. These weren’t the mystical, unknowable stone circles; these were homes of the average Stone Age ‘Joe Blogs’.
The houses are a uniform size and layout, none show greater wealth or ostentation – suggesting this was a society of equals. There is no obvious building of power or religion, aside from the homes there is only one other building, identified as a workshop.
Included in entry to Scara Brae is the Mansion of Skaill House. This was home to the man who discovered Skara Brae after the storm, William Watt, local Laird. The house is worth a visit but aside from some spectacularly hideous pink ‘50s décor in one of the bathrooms is a fairly standard stately home. There’s an impressive collection of P.G. Wodehouse in the library and a secret room behind a bookshelf, but Scara Brae really takes the cake.
In Kirkwall is a famous pub and Music venue, The Reel, there we sampled some rather tasty local whisky (Highland Park) and enjoyed the folk music open night. Local musicians drifted in and joined those already playing, there were violins, guitar and banjo and some good foot tapping songs. The bar quickly filled with spectators, but the busier it got the more obvious it became that the crowd was mainly made up of tourists. While the musicians played in an inclusive manner, the crowd sat still with phone cameras out and seemed to suck the soul from the music. But perhaps I was just tired.
As we drove back to St Margaret’s Hope in the dusk a thick fog began rolling in from the sea, wispy at first but before long all trace of the brilliant sunset was lost in the solid ghostly white.
And that rather sums up our week in Orkney, it is a land of mood-swings and opposites; bright, hot sun or dark, wet fog. Ancient history sits alongside vibrant thriving culture, and the brisk sea air refuses to let anything grow stale.