Monday, 31 July 2017


Bishops House, St Magnus Church and  The Earls Palace.  Kirkwell

There are quite a few islands forming the Orkney Islands and  the major centres of Stromness and Kirkwall are on the largest, Mainland Island. The Orkney islands are much flatter and generally more arable than Shetland. Without so much of dramatic coastal cliff line typical of Shetland, it has a softer  more rounded landscape.

In Stromness we hired a car for 2 days to visit the famous archaeological sites on Mainland Island. our first stop was Kirkwell half an hour to the east.

Kirkwall is the major city with a long history. It has an impressive church built by Vikings from the prevalent red sandstone, St Magnus dating from the 11th Century. Across the road is the Bishops house from the same period, now a ruin. The Earls Palace 1601, overlooks the Bishops house and has a very chequered history. Built by Black Paddy, the nefarious villain subsequently beheaded for treason in Edinburg. Several castles in both Shetland and Orkney owe their existence to Patrick, Earl of Orkney, also know as Black Paddy. For all his alleged wickedness he had a good eye for architecture and his legacy is some lovely ruins, considered one of the finest Renaissance buildings in Scotland.  We dined and said farewell to Joachim and Cecilia as here our paths diverged. They to the East coast of Scotland and we to the West Coast.

Maeshowe. No photos allowed inside but check the Wikipedia link

Our first stop next morning was to Maeshowe in the heart of Neolithic Orkney and only a short drive from Stromness. We got very lucky as they had a cancellation and we were able to book a viewing for the Thomb for that afternoon. Bookings are essential as the next available time otherwise, would have been 3 days hence.
Ness of Brodgar Archaeological dig.

We visited the Ness of Brodgar nearby where archaeologist are continuing the excavation of arguably the most important archaeological discovery in the UK in recent years. Geophysical Surveys only revealed the possibility in 2002. Used for 1000 years from 3500 to 2500BC it shows evidence of a large complex of  high-status stone buildings. Far from everyday structures these excavations are revealing buildings impressive for their structure and the quality of construction. Set on an isthmus between two lakes and surrounded by many significant sites, including Stones of Stenness, Henges and stone circles, this may have been a ceremonial focal point for communities of Orkney and maybe even beyond.

Neolithic house

Skara Brae, the most complete Neolithic village in north-west Europe, a short drive west from here was our next destination. This site is very similar to Jarlshof on Shetland but much more crowded with tourists and without the wonderful audio tour. Its scale is impressive and several of the wheel houses and the Broch are more imposing and less ruinous. Also buried by sand and rediscovered when a storm stripped the grass from the dunes in 1850. It was explored by antiquarians then but its was consolidated between 1928 and 1930 by the Australian Archaeologist Gordon Childe for presentation to the public.

Skahil House

Skahil House overlooks the site and is also open to the public so we took a look inside before heading back to Maeshowe for our tour. 
Maeshowe is a burial mound, a chambered thomb, and considered the finest neolithic building in north-west Europe. Sometimes called passage graves this tomb sits inside a large circular mound upon a flat disc surrounded by a deep ditch. It was built 5000 years ago and located  to form a significant part of the Neolithic ceremonial landscape. 
Under the mound there is a long stone lined entrance tunnel which opens into a stone lined chamber with 3 smaller side chambers. The quality of the stonemasonry is extraordinary for a time when no metal tools even existed and given that some of the slabs used weigh in excess of 3 tons. The entrance passage is aligned to catch the midwinter sunset and focus its rays on the rear wall for about 3 weeks. This was a significant date in neolithic society, signalling the return of longer days and the commencement of planting for the coming summer.

Broch of Gurness
The  Broch of Gurness on the north coast provided another stopping point and a good example of the Broch architecture remains preserved on the site. There are just so many neolithic sites scattered across Orkeny and Shetland it would take years to see them all. 

Fascinating jumbled waterfront of Stromness
On the second day we took a scenic drive around the eastern end of the island and finished at Barony Mills, a working flour mill with its waterwheel and wooden machinery intact. I was a great stop with the mill running and an instructive guided tour.

found on a house in Stromness
Stromness, the harbour in which we were staying is itself a pretty and interesting town. Much of the original waterfront architecture is intact and in good condition. Set on a pretty harbour overlooking Scapa Flow site of the sinking of Royal Oak, a British battle ship with heavy loss of life in WW11 and the scuttling of the German Fleet following WW1. During WW1  Kitchner, the minister for war  was on a big warship going to Russia when it was sunk off the entrance to Scapa Flow by a German mine. Revenge of Breaker Morant. There are a number of companies doing dive tours of the wrecks.

We caught up with a cruising couple called Jane and Bill McLaren aboard Vagrant. What a great ol' time we had and they just happened to have an OCC Burgee spare which they presented to us so we are now official.

Jumbled waterfront at Stromness

After  several plans to leave were thwarted by inclement weather we finally made passage out of Orkney towards North West Scotland on a pretty decent day, although cold. Tidal factors in the entrance meant we had to time our departure very carefully or potentially find ourselves pushing up to 4 knots of current. We got it right but It turned into a bit of a washing machine with the sea state somewhat crap as a result of the previous few days of strong wind. It was only a 56nm trip though and gradually improved so that by the time we rounded Whiten Head at the entrance to lock Eriboll we were in full sun and with only slight seas. So the next update will be from the sunny west coast of Scotland. Hopefully!