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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.

Orkney Islands – Westray

Sitting just 10 miles (16km) to the north of the Caithness coast, the Orkney Islands are visible from the Scottish mainland (on a clear day), and boast an incredible 8500 years of known habitation. The history of this archipelago is incredible, varied and fascinating: spanning neolithic tribes, Picts, and Norse Vikings before eventually coming under the rule of the Scottish crown in the 15th century. When I was a young girl, my family visited these islands for a 2 week holiday, but my memories are patchy and vague. Despite living in Aberdeen for nearly 6 years after university, where one of the Orkney-bound ferries leaves the Scottish mainland, I never got round to heading back as an adult. It took a move to the other side of the world to heighten my desire to get back there, and I knew that a trip back to Scotland would not be complete without making some time to do so.

At the start of June, the evening sailing of Pentland Ferries’ Pentalina set off from Gill’s Bay to the west of John O’Groats, the sun still high overhead. The sea was calm as we passed the Scottish islands of Stroma and Swona, and as we neared the southern coast of Hoy, the mixing currents of the seas as we rounded the various island promontories resulted in some interesting swells. Like Caithness, the Orkney Islands appear barren. There are few trees out here where the weather extremes batter the islands, keeping the shrubbery low. In the distance, an oil rig was visible across Scapa Flow, and we turned into the sheltered harbour created by South Ronaldsay and Burray islands, and berthed at St Margaret’s Hope an hour and a half after leaving Gill’s Bay behind.

 

I headed off, like most of the ferry traffic, north to Kirkwall. Island hopping via man-made causeways, it was just a half hour drive to reach the islands’ largest settlement and capital. I was staying the night at what turned out to be an awesome hostel near the sports centre, and from here I headed down to the harbour front to wander around the boats and through the back streets to St Magnus Cathedral, one of the town’s iconic buildings. At the time, there was a display of poppies spilling out of a front window, similar to that done in London, as part of the WW1 centenary events. There was a constant audio of young Orcadians driving their cars round and round the streets, as they showed off to their mates. Spilling out of most of the bars in town were groups of young men and it felt like every late teen/early twenty-something was either driving round the streets or standing in a pub doorstep. It was a little off-putting, and despite my hostel seeming quiet, the restaurants and pubs in town were all busy and I couldn’t find anywhere to eat. In the end, I had to suffice with a trip to the supermarket before preparing myself for the next day.

 

Leaving my car at the harbour car park the next morning, I experienced my first day of poor weather since arriving in Scotland. The cloud was grey and thick, and the wind was cold, so on boarding the ferry I headed straight inside where I spent most of the trip. Normally I love standing on deck watching the world go by, but every time I gave it a go, even all wrapped up in layers, the cold was biting and I quickly gave up. Heading north for nearly 1.5hrs, the ferry passed by the islands of Shapinsay, Rousay, and Eday before arriving at the island of Westray. With rain visible on the horizon, I was met on the pier by my guide, and we set off to explore.

 

I had vague recollections of Rousay from my childhood, but I hadn’t visited Westray before, and I chose it for various reasons as one of the islands I had to visit on this trip. At 47 square kilometres, it is only the sixth largest of the island chain, but it was just too big to explore on my own two feet, so I hadn’t hung around with booking a tour in the planning stages of my trip. I’m a terrible introvert at times despite all my foreign travels. Happy in my own company, I’m not the best at conversing with strangers, so when it transpired that I was the only person booked on the tour that day, I was a little apprehensive as to how it would be with just me and the guide. Normally as one of a group, I’d never experienced a one to one tour before. I needn’t have worried. Apart from the fact that I’d told myself in advance that I would need to actually make an effort with social skills, my guide Graham and his wife Kathy who run Westraak tours, were both lovely and great company. Whilst Kathy provided a delicious morning tea and lunch, it was Graham who drove me round the island and told me the tales of its history.

Despite the weather not being in my favour, we still managed to cover a lot of the island’s best sites. The main settlement of Pierowall has a small heritage centre which was a handy place to keep dry when the inevitable rain showers hit. Although small, it has some interesting artifacts from local archaeological digs, and I was astonished to see a dice carved from bone that was dated to the time of the Vikings. There are active dig sites on Westray where both bronze age and neolithic buildings and artifacts have been uncovered. When the rain allowed, Graham took me to a couple of these, where shifting dunes had started the process of uncovering these ancient sites.

 

One of the most famous pieces to be uncovered there has been nicknamed the Westray Wife. A small figurine, also on display at the heritage centre, it was the first Neolithic carving of a human figure to be found in Scotland, and it is the earliest known depiction of a human face found in the United Kingdom. There is quite some debate as to whether it is a male form or a female form (I personally think it is a male), but I was mostly amused by how much emphasis was placed on this figurine by the locals, especially when it was so small in real life. The amusement was as much because the souvenir fridge magnets made to replicate it were bigger than the figurine itself (it amused me so much that I bought one). But it did make me wonder about the pain-staking work that must go into an archaeological dig when such small pieces are found without being overlooked.

 

Not far from the Neolithic dig is Quoygrew, a Viking settlement from the 10th century that was exposed as the coastline shifted over time. The weather was wild when we went there, and we sat in Graham’s van whilst he told me all about it whilst the rain lashed down around us. Thankfully, the bad weather eased as the day wore on. Whilst remaining cloudy, there were enough breaks in the rain to see the rest of the places on the itinerary without getting too wet, although by this point I was kitted out head to foot in waterproofs. Out the back of Pierowall is the remains of Noltland Castle, built in the 16th century by the lover of Mary Queen of Scots, a man so paranoid about being murdered that he fitted the castle with an incredible number of weaponry holes. Ironically the man, Gilbert Balfour was indeed murdered, but not at his castle which was never finished, nor seen by Mary Queen of Scots despite being intended for her. This is the sort of scandalous history I love about the royals and gentry of the past.

 

Before arriving, I had made a request to Graham that he find me some puffins whilst I was there. There are two spots on Westray to try and spot these colourful little seabirds, and he took me to Noup Head on the west coast. The road there was unsealed and steep and even in his van it needed to be taken carefully. We passed some tourists who changed their mind about following the route in their small car early on, and reached the lighthouse on the Head with not another soul to be seen. It wasn’t overly surprising given the biting wind and grey skies that surrounded us, but from the lighthouse, it wasn’t far to walk to witness the towering sea cliffs that give home to thousands of breeding sea birds.

 

This was the perfect time of year to go bird watching as the breeding season was well under way. On the cliffs below us and flying around us were gannets, guillemots, razorbills and fulmars. The noise was incredible, and the movement from sea to cliff and back again was constant. With the aid of binoculars, Graham found me a lone puffin quite early on, and after spotting another couple, I was satisfied. I vaguely remember seeing these birds in the Shetland Islands further north when I was a little girl but I hadn’t seen them since. Known as the clowns of the sky because of their white faces, black eyeliner and colourful beak, they are small comical-looking birds with orange feet, and they are one of the smallest sea birds in Scotland. Astonishingly though given their small size, they only come to shore to breed, spending the rest of their lives at sea. Their numbers in Scotland have been in decline for some time as they specialise in feeding on sand eels. With these small fish in decline due to fishing and changes to sea temperature, it is only inevitable that the puffins are also struggling, so any sighting felt even more special.

 

Back in Pierowall village lies the ruins of Lady Kirk, a church built in the 17th century. Right on the waterfront it, like the village itself, is immensely peaceful although the graveyard hid some sad tales of infant and juvenile mortality. This was the last stop on our trip before I was dropped off at my hostel at the far end of the bay. Again I had the room to myself, and being only early evening, I headed upstairs to the lovely attic living room where I promptly and unintentionally fell asleep on the couch. It seemed that all the fresh air, and probably a little bit of jet lag having crossed the world just 4 days prior, had caught up with me. When I eventually woke up, I simply headed to my bed and slept like a baby.

 

I was disappointed to wake up to more rain. I had some time to kill and had hoped for a wander around the bay, so bracing myself for a day of getting soaked, I donned my waterproofs again and headed out anyway. Thankfully, the rain eased quite quickly as I wandered along the shoreline into the village which was still and quiet, then out the back road to Noltland Castle again. I had hoped for better weather than the day before to take better pictures, but although it was now dry, it was far from fine. After a brief wander around the perimeter watching nearby birds feeding their young, I retraced my steps back to Lady Kirk again and then past the heritage centre where the skeleton of a beached whale is laid out on the grounds. Returning to the hostel, I awaited my pre-arranged lift to the airfield which never arrived. It wasn’t far to drive there, but it was an hour long walk, and I started to panic that I was going to miss my flight. Thankfully, the owner of the hostel saved the day and drove me there, getting me there with a few minutes to spare.

 

The flight was one of the main reasons I was there, so missing it would have been rather upsetting. Aside from the main airport in Kirkwall, the outer islands have airfields: small huts with a wind sock, and either a grass or tarmac runway. Every incoming and outgoing flight requires the local farmers or volunteers to man the radio and staff the fire truck. The day before, Graham had taken me to watch the plane from Kirkwall arrive at the Westray airfield, and it was interesting to see the place come alive 10 minutes before it arrived, and then desert again less than 10 minutes after it took off. Operated by Loganair who serves the Orkney inter-island flights, these flights carry school children, teachers, doctors and goods between the outlying islands and Orkney’s mainland and are a vital and seemingly well-used part of the community. What also drives the popularity of the flight I was there to take, is that the flight from Westray to the next-door island of Papa Westray (or Papay as it is known locally), is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the World’s shortest commercial flight. The record is 53 seconds, although it averages a minute and a half. If the wind is blowing in a bad direction, it may even take nearer 2 minutes.

It was a very brief wait from my arrival at the airfield to the plane’s arrival from Kirkwall. It was a quick and efficient boarding before the plane was back on the runway, and without pause we lifted off the tarmac and headed east. No sooner had we climbed than the pilot was revving back the engine and turning us into approach, and we touched down on Papay 1 minute 27 seconds after leaving Westray behind.

 

It was another efficient unloading and loading before the plane was back on the runway once more to head back to Kirkwall. I waited by the gate of Papay airfield watching it leave and shortly after, the locals who had staffed the airfield for those brief but important moments, got back in their cars and drove off, leaving me to explore this new island. Still kitted in my waterproofs with just my hiking boots and day pack for company, I set off to follow the unofficial Papa Westray Trail.

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