Orkney’s Southern Isles
It was a beautiful summer’s evening to take the 13 minute flight from Westray back to Kirkwall on Orkney’s mainland. We flew over several of the outer Orkney islands on route, and the sun sparkled on the calm sea below us.
Kirkwall’s airport is a little out of the town, so I jumped on a bus to take me back to the harbour where my car was waiting for me. This time around I was staying in a B&B, and it took a bit of going around in circles to find the narrow road that it was hidden down. I hadn’t stayed in a B&B since I was a kid, as I usually stay in hostels or cheap hotels when I’m on my own, but even back in January, I had struggled to get accommodation for Kirkwall on this first weekend in June and couldn’t understand why. It turned out that my trip coincided with the centenary events to commemorate the Battle of Jutland, a significant battle involving the navy in the first world war. The Orkney Islands played a strategic role in ship and submarine movements due to its location near the north of the British mainland, and its gateway for vessels to move from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, there is as much evidence of early 20th century history in the archipelago, as there is from the Neolithic and Viking eras.
I set off early the next morning after a hearty breakfast, heading south down Mainland to the southern coast and reaching the first of the causeways that links a chain of islands together. Crossing to Lamb Holm, then Glims Holm, then Burray and finally on to South Ronaldsay, I continued south until the road nearly reached as far south as it could go. Following the large and obvious signage, I found my way to the Tomb of the Eagles (also known as Isbister Chambered Cairn), where shortly after opening time, I was the only person in sight. Discovered in 1958 by the local farmer, he unearthed the remains of a neolithic chambered tomb, estimated to have been built around 5000 years ago. Containing 16,000 human bones and 725 avian bones (predominantly sea eagles, hence the name), this is one of Orkney’s most famous tourist attractions. I’d been here before with my family when I was little, and I had a vague memory in my head of looking at a skull there, but that was all I could remember.
Part of the experience involves an introductory talk by some guides at the visitor centre by the farm, where artefacts and human remains from the site are on display. As much as science understands, the guides give information on what is thought to have happened here, and how the site was used over time. Evidence suggests the tomb was in use for over 1000 years, and the timeline in history is just staggering to comprehend. The set up at the visitor centre was different than I remembered, and whilst a few artifacts were handed round for inspection, the skull that I remember my brother holding in his hands, is no longer available to touch in an effort to preserve it better. Still on display in a case, it was interesting to see the bone cyst that the skull had, an affliction that would likely have caused a lot of pain and problems for the lady who’s skull it was.
Incredibly, the same farmer also uncovered a Bronze Age site on the same property, built 3000 years ago. The remains of a building with a hearth and a trough have both answered and asked a lot of questions about how people from that era lived. Both the Bronze Age site and the Stone Age (neolithic) site can be visited by taking a walk from the visitor’s centre. The tomb is a 1 mile (1.5km) walk, passing the Bronze Age building on the way. The return can either be made via the same route, or by taking a coastal clifftop walk back. As I was leaving the visitor centre, other tourists were starting to arrive, so I was keen to get to the sites to have the place to myself before a lot of other people showed up. It was a hazy day but blowy and I reached the Bronze Age site in no time at all. I was a little underwhelmed by it, despite appreciating the significance of the place, but I duly studied it from every possible angle, trying to picture people living in the tiny space, before continuing on the track to the cliff top.
The coastline was dramatic with angular flagstone slabs compressed together as they disappeared into the sea, and just a little along the clifftop was the entrance to the tomb. A volunteer sitting there took some photos of me at the entrance, before leaving me to it, taking herself off to watch the bird life. It’s a unique way in: a low tunnel that would require crawling on hands and knees if it wasn’t for the trolley and rope system that has been set up. Once inside, torches been have provided to look into the side chambers, although the main chamber has been artificially lit up and sports a modern roof to protect it from the elements. After a nosey around inside, I exited in time to see the other tourists arriving. I followed the coastal path back to the visitor’s centre, watching the sea birds fight the wind as they flew from the cliffs out to sea and back.
Leaving the visitor’s centre behind, I headed back through the farming land to return to the main road to head north up through South Ronaldsay. I stopped at St Margaret’s Hope where the ferry arrives from the Scottish mainland, and had a wander round the old narrow streets down to the harbour and up through the park at the back of town. It was a sleepy little place and there was little activity to see so I pressed on north.
Linking South Ronaldsay through Burray, Glims Holm, Lambs Holm and Mainland are a series of 4 causeways known as the Churchill barriers. Built in the 1940s as a means of defending Scapa Flow in the second world war, they came about in response to the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak by a German U-boat that had sneaked through the passage between Lambs Holm and Mainland. Winston Churchill was the man who commissioned them, and thus they bare his name. Driving across the barriers today, the remains of sunken vessels, deliberately scuppered to prevent German ships passing through, are still visible jutting above the sea, playing out the slow crumble of time. Also evident along the coast of these islands are other remnants of the wars: abandoned military outposts that stand somberly to attention. Contrasting this is the beauty of the little beaches that exist because of the causeways.
The barriers were built by prisoners of war, and a notable camp of these were the Italian POWs who were housed on Lambs Holm, an otherwise uninhabited island. 550 detainees, captured abroad, were brought to Orkney, 200 of which were housed at Camp 60. Among the men of this camp, it was decided that a chapel should be constructed, and using the materials on hand, the now-famous Italian Chapel of Lambs Holm was created. The frontage is a beautiful white facade in the style of Italian churches in rural villages, but it is attached to a corrugated iron arc resembling a large shed. Step to the side or the back and it looks indistinct and cold, but from the front and the inside, it looks and feels so very different. When I came here with my family as a child, it was free to enter, but now there is a fee to go inside. The detail that has been put into the decoration inside is just beautiful, and a real testament to the men who created it.
Returning to Kirkwall, there was a wedding taking place in St Magnus Cathedral so I ate lunch in an outdoor seating area nearby and watched both the wedding party pass by, but also a bride-to-be and her hens out on a blackening. Orcadians still follow the traditional blackening process where the groom (but these days often the bride too) are stripped down, chained to a post outside the Cathedral and doused in treacle, flour and feathers, as well as paraded noisily around on the back of a truck. Versions of this process occur elsewhere in Scotland, but here it is very much an understanding that this will happen to you before you wed. It made for a noisy lunch stop.
Once the wedding was over, the cathedral was reopened to the public and I took a wander around inside. It is a striking cathedral inside and out, made of distinctive red sandstone intermixed with yellow sandstone, and dating back to the 12th century. Nearby is the Bishop’s Palace which was built around the same time, and next to this is the Earl’s Palace, both of which are open to the public for a fee. Being a Saturday, there were plenty of people milling around, and I wandered around the main street of Kirkwall, having a nosey around the tourist shops before heading onwards.
With it being June, the month with the longest days of the year, there was still many hours of daylight ahead even although it was already mid-afternoon by this stage. I drove south then east past Burwick to an RSPB reserve where a cliff-top walk provided more dramatic coastal scenery, again with the flagstone slabs packed together and a myriad of birds nesting on the cliffs. Following the trail north for a while, some steps were cut down the side of the cliff and back up the other side, eventually leading to the remains of a small church. It is possible to hike further round the cliff, but it would need several hours to make the circular trip, something which I wasn’t willing to do that day. I took the scenic drive back to Kirkwall via Tankerness, driving rural single track roads through farmland until I reached the airport outside of Kirkwall. Then it was just a short drive back to town to dump my car before heading out for the evening’s entertainment.
On a few occasions throughout the tourist season, the local pipe band perform live in the main street of Kirkwall, marching outside St Magnus Cathedral. Locals and tourists alike lined the roadside to listen to them and support them. As Orkney’s history lies more in Norse settlement than under Scottish charge, the tradition of bagpipes and tartans isn’t really part of Orkney’s heritage.
Nonetheless, they were still more than happy to entertain the tourists, and I as ever listened with a swollen heart, always transfixed and emotional when the sound of bagpipes reaches my ears. This was my last night in Kirkwall, and a fitting end to my stay in the east. Ahead, lay the western Mainland, and an exploration of the Neolithic Stone Age.