The Orkney Islands are situated 6 miles off the North coast of Scotland and are like nowhere else in Scotland. This is where the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea meet, causing one of the roughest stretches of water in Europe, the Pentland Firth. Staring north from the mainland the Islands dominate the horizon whilst the sky seems to go on forever.
There are about 70 Islands in the group and only 17 of them are inhabited. Orkney’s culture is unique within Scotland. Civilisation has gone back over 5000 years with stone age villages, tombs , and standing stones giving an idea of what life was like. With very little Celtic influence, they still have a very Norse feel left over from the Viking days. Many stories and creatures are unique to Orkney.
Remember you have left Scotland behind! If you don’t someone will remind you soon enough, the Orcadians are rightly proud of their Norse roots and their difference to the rest of Scotland.
There can be few places in the world where history and heritage have such an important role in day to day life. It soon becomes apparent why the Orcadians are so closely tied to these islands, their history is all around them. From the most ancient tombs to the 2nd World War there are visible examples of every period of history, and many of them the finest in the UK. It is no mistake that a large tract of Orkney has been declared a world Heritage site.
Below are a few of the highlights you can expect from a visit.
Skara Brae is an amazing site. Dating back over 5000 years, the excavations show two stone age villages, one built on top of the other. With beds, dressing tables, water flowing under the houses and possibly early writing on some walls it provides you with a basis for how the people then lived. There is a diverse range of artefacts found from pottery and stone tools to jewellery and elaborate stone designs, of which no one knows the true purpose.
The Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brogar are prominent landmarks with Loch Harray on one side, and Loch Stenness on the other. The standing stones provide yet another mystery – why were they built? They date back to the same period as Skara Brae and so give some clues to possible social structures and cultures. They are thought to be places of ceremony but exactly what they were used for is still unknown. Suggestions of sacrifices, worshiping the sun and stars and perhaps a meeting place for the local people have been offered.
In death they were equally prolific with chambered tombs and stalled tombs dating back approximately 5000 years. Maes Howe, close to the standing stones, is a chambered tomb with a difference. During the winter solstice, the winter sun hits off the top of a marker stone and enters the long entrance. The light illuminates the back of the tomb creating a unique atmosphere. Also Viking raiders from thousands of years later have left their mark. With graffiti in Runic writing on the walls it brings two of Orkney’s most influencial cultures together.
Another excellent tomb is Tomb of The eagles where, through excavations, they have started to piece together information concerning their biology, the way they lived and possible rituals performed prior to burial such as excarnation. Excarnation is the practise where the dead are left out in the open so that animals and birds of prey can remove the flesh, leaving only the bones. Whole skeletons are uncommon in the tombs. Instead it is thought that they sorted out the bones into piles, e.g. skulls together. The tombs were used over hundreds of years and so would have formed an important part of the society, with people maintaining them and possibly using bones for other purposes.
In more recent years, approximately 9th – 13th Centuries, Orkney was an Earldom for the Viking Kings of Norway. Being at the heart of trade routes North and West to the Shetland islands, the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland, they were bustling. Many believe that Viking Voyages also left for expeditions to America, predating Columbus’s discovery by several centuries.
The Vikings have left their mark with Norse villages on headlands, St Magnus’s Cathedral and the Bishops & Earls Palaces in Kirkwall. Through having a very strong Norse influence with few, if any, Gaelic connections and only becoming part of Scotland in the 1400’s gives Orkney and the Orcadians a very different feel.
During the Last century the natural harbour area known as the Scapa Flow was used as a Naval Base for the Bristish Navy. During the First World War, it held many navy ships but after a German U-boat managed to navigate into the Scapa Flow, measures were taken to prevent it happening again. Ships were used to block passages between islands and submarine nets were put into place.
In 1918, 74 boats belonging to the German High Seas Fleet were ordered to remain in the Scapa Flow whilst the armistice was in force. The officer in charge, Rear Admiral von Reuter gave the order for the entire fleet to be scuttled on 21st June 1919. Of the 64 ships scuttled, only 8 remain in the Scapa Flow enticing divers out into the cold waters.
During the Second World War, German u-boats once more managed to penetrate the Scapa Flow’s defences. This time they successfully torpedoed the Royal Oak which is now a protected war grave. In 1940 Churchill ordered that the Eastern defences should be tightened. Italian Prisoners of War were used to build concrete causeways linking up the islands. They disputed this work as they said it was against the Geneva Convention. They were persuaded by explaining that it was for the benefit of the people. These barriers are called the Churchill Barriers and now are the base for roads which link up some of the islands.
The Italian Prisoners of War also left another construction, the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. An amazing work of art – something you have to see to believe.
Fine Orcadian produce includes – creamy ice cream, chilli cheeses, peat smoked salmon and other shellfish, Orcadian wines bursting with flavour (blaeberry hirst is excellent. Other flavours include strubarb and gorse) and of course beers. The most infamous being Skullsplitter (8.5%) – you’ve been warned! Others include Dark Island, Red MacGregor, Raven Ale and Dragonhead.
Puffins are undoubtedly one of the main draws. Small diving sea birds with brightly coloured beaks, they appeal to everyone. Only coming to the mainland during the months of June to August for breeding, makes them a rarity to see. With the Islands being predominately Old Red Sandstone, it’s the ideal breeding base where Puffins can exploit empty rabbit warrens for their own nests.
Orkney is also a highly creative place. Small silversmiths make hand made jewellery at reasonable prices. There are paintings, photographs, knitted jumpers, hand made soaps as well as some great books which bring the history of Orkney to life. Try George MacKay Brown “Beside an ocean of time” to give a fantastic overview of the last 2000 years or so through the eyes of a boy, Thorfinn.
What we do on Orkney:
Visit the ancient sites
Check out the Puffins
Eat all the ice cream!
Hi I’m Alvin Tucker. As a born and bred Scott, and a "has been" tourist businessman since my business went bust, I have a lot to offer my readers in life. So please check out my posts...Click to read on