Orkney Islands
The ferry ride to Burwick was astonishing!  I’ve been on some rough rides across the Cook Strait, between the North and South Islands of NZ, but this was something else.  The ferry was to take us across the Pentland Firth, which links the Atlantic Ocean with the North Sea, to Burwick on the southernmost island of South Ronaldsay.   The vessel had about 90 passengers and was one wide cabin with fixed seats, there was also a small area in the stern with outdoor seating.  There was no up and down pitching, rather because the swell was travelling from east to wes, the ship dipped so far down on the right side that you couldn’t see the sky out that window then quickly rolled back and down to the left side, once again obscuring the grey skies.  It was a full sailing with many tourists out for the day.  Once off the boat we were to board a couple of coaches and enjoy a guided tour around five islands out of the 70 in the archipelago.  It wasn’t that long before I perceived what some people were saying and feeling, even though I could not understand their language!  The 40 minute trip turned into one hour of quite frightening sailing and having Dennis sitting next to me with a smile from ear to ear, as well as giving me a running commentary of how high the oncoming swell might be, didn’t really help matters!  “Oh, look that must one must be at least four metres tall!  Excellent!”  Eventually he went outside and eventually we arrived in the sheltered harbour.

Our ferry to and from Orkney Islands

Our bus driver was a real character, an excellent guide who talked all day telling us little tidbits, important stories and lots of interesting information and he had a good sense of humour.   Unfortunately, the weather was such a disappointment.  Our driver would say, “I would normally say look out on the left side and you will see such and such but as you can’t see more than a few metres because of the low cloud and the pouring rain, I shall describe it to you!”  The rain continued to fall for the morning and then thankfully the cloud lifted, though the wind was very strong.  We proceeded around the perimeter of this small island and came to the first of many causeways linking five islands together.   The story of the causeways was interesting and quite remarkable.

The sea within these five islands is called Scapa Flow.  Orkney was the site of a Royal Navy base in Scapa Flow during both WW1 and 2, being so far north and hidden from view of the Germans.  As part of the Armistice in 1918, the German High Seas Fleet was transferred in its entirety to Scapa Flow to await a decision on its future.  While waiting, the German Admiral was so disgusted at how they were treated by the Allies as prisoners of war (e.g. they had to feed themselves) he ordered the sailors to open the sea-cocks and scuttled all 70 ships!  Most ships were salvaged in the 1920’s, but the remaining wrecks are now used by recreational divers.   Another interesting point about the remaining ships lying on the seabed, is that because they were under many metres of sea water at the time when nuclear bombs went off in Japan and the various nuclear tests around the world were conducted, the steel from these ships have the unique distinction of being entirely radiation free.  So this particular steel is much sort after!  It has been used in experiments in space and also in medical procedures.  Even the Russians, back in their day, were using it in their Space Program.   Just before WW2 the British towed up old ships and sunk them in the entrances to Scapa Flow, between the islands that bordered onto the North Sea, with the intention of blocking the way in.   But just one month into WW2, a German U-boat managed to navigate its way past a couple of these wrecks and at midnight sank the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow, killing 833, then quickly escaped.   As a result, Churchill decided that permanent barriers were to be built to close most of the access channels.  The barriers were constructed by Italian prisoners of war, who made huge blocks of concrete by hand and dropped these in place one by one to eventually create an amazing set of causeways that linked five of the islands.  These had the additional advantage of enabling travellers to go from island to island by road instead of being obliged to rely on ferries.   The downside after the war was that the fishermen who lived on these five islands now had no safe way to get to the North Sea, their traditional fishery!   The 550 Italians, being Catholic, asked if they might be able to build a church near to where they were stationed and they were given permission by their jailers to do so in their spare time.  Two Nissen huts were joined end-to-end, they lined the inside and painted all the surfaces very ornately, it’s now called the Italian Chapel, and it’s beautiful.

You can still see the sunken ships that were placed in the channels to stop German vessels

One of Churchill’s Barriers as they are known, built by prisoners-of-war

Every surface was painted so cleverly

Amazing how they made a flat surface look like it’s 3D

A photo of a photo, there were so many people in front of me I couldn’t get a clear view

The Italian Chapel

The former fishermen banded together and set up a huge free range chicken farm for egg production on South Ronaldsay.  They did really well for seven years until they experienced a hurricane and it blew all the chickens out to the North Sea!  Now they are farming beef and dairy cattle and sheep, which all looked so fat and healthy.

The name “Orkney” dates back to the 1st century BC or earlier, and the islands have been inhabited for at least 8,500 years.   Orkney was invaded by Norway in 875 and settled by the Norse.  It was subsequently given to the Scottish Crown in 1472, following the failed payment of a dowry for James III’s bride, Margaret of Denmark.  I’m not clear on the history between Margaret of Denmark to Norway, but there you go.   The  Orkney flag is similar in design to Norway’s,  just the outline of the cross is yellow instead of white, and was flying roudly on many flagpoles around the islands.   Today Orcadians are still very proud of their Norse history and still have a close relationship with Norway, celebrating some of the Norway’s  public holidays, e.g. Norway’s Independence Day.

Kirkwall with a population of 7,500 is very well equipped with a brand new Library, cute wee shops and ancient buildings.  Unlike other towns in Scotland this was very clean and tidy.  They have a magnificent Cathedral, which is interdenominational, quite unlike any other church we’re been in.   Built 900 years ago of red and yellow sandstone it makes a grand impression.  The day we were there Dennis was wandering around interested in the architecture but I was far more keen to watch the ladies from the local Floral Society organise themselves for the Flower Show to be held on the following day.

The red stone on Kirkwall Cathedral is typical on Orkney

So interesting to watch the women from the Floral Society

We were so impressed with how productive the land was up here.   Beef, diary and sheep farms looked so lush.   The key to this is extremely fertile soil and the climate.  Even though the islands are so far North (almost 60 degrees) they get a great boost from the Gulf Stream flowing around them which gives them quite a temperate climate of 12 degrees C in summer and 4 degrees C in winter.  Also the boost of long summer days helps them grow great grass.  In the height of summer sunrise is around 3.ooa.m. and sunset is at 9.30p.m and it doesn’t really get dark at all, the locals call this long twilight “simmer dim”.   But they suffer through the winters as sunrise is at 9.00a.m. and sets at 3.15p.m!   They do have the bonus of the Northern Lights which can be spectacular according to our bus driver.  With the days so long in summer the farmers regularly harvest three crops of hay, silage, barley, etc and in a really good year four!  They do need huge indoor facilities for the cows to provide them not only shelter but light as well during the long winter months.  It’s not common for them to have snow settling on the ground which is quite remarkable to think that other places at this latitude include  St. Petersburg in Russia, Olso in Norway and Juneau in Alaska.   Having rain on around 240 days per year helps to keep the grass growing as well.

Wind is another feature of the Orkneys.  It’s basically windy all day everyday, year round and this has spawned a huge industry in renewable energy.  They are now at the stage of being able to export energy back to the Scottish mainland from time to time but their aim is to do this full time.  The University here is a centre for Renewable Energy Technology and they have many marine and wind testing facilities around these islands.  We went into a small Information Centre explaining about all the fascinating wave generators but we ran out of time to read all the blurb but weren’t too worried as we knew we had another stop off in Kirkwall later in the afternoon.  Because of the wind, these islands have very few trees.  When we drove past a group of about seven trees the driver introduced us to the Orkney forest!

 Back in 1850 Orkney suffered a huge storm that killed 200 people.  It also stripped the beaches of all the sand and uncovered a buried village of 10 stone houses.  It’s thought this settlement was built about 3100 BC with occupation continuing for about six hundred years.  That makes it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.  The name of this village is Skara Brae and it’s now a World Heritage Site.  The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes.  A low doorway in each house had a stone slab door that could be locked by a bar that slid in holes cut in the stone door jambs.   A sophisticated drainage system was even incorporated into the village’s design, one that included a primitive form of toilet in each house.  It was so interesting to walk around and consider the harsh lifestyle these people must have had, way up here.  Once again they have an excellent Visitor Centre so you can be informed of the story about the village and how they found it, etc before you walk amongst the historic sites.

A reconstructed stone house complete with thatched roof. We were allowed to walk through the various rooms in this one, whereas at the real village it was eyes only.

When originally built all the houses were buried in a metre of soil to give them insulation and protection from the continual winds

All the guides are so knowledgeable and very happy to answer all of Dennis’ questions

All the furniture is made of stone as well

Short doorways mean the wind doesn’t blow straight in, I guess

Daisies will grow in the most inhospitable places, this one is at Skara Brae

Right next door to this Neolithic site is a grand mansion.  Skaill House was built in 1620 and in its 400 year history all 12 of its Lairds have been related.   The 7th Laird here was William Graham Watt who discovered Skara Brae in 1850.  We toured through this large house which had displays in each room of the Watt families possessions.   Dennis was delighted to find they had several items belonging to Capt. James Cook!

Dennis standing in front of a display of the dinner service from Captain James Cook’s ship

Skaill House had a sunken garden, using the main house as shelter from the wind

While we were walking from the Visitors’ Centre to the actual village site we came across a man in his thirties, scantily dressed on this cool, windy day, holding a divining rod in his hands, pointing it this way and that until finally settling on a clump of pampas grass on the edge of a wide beach.   He stepped up and carefully placed the divining rod on the sand and lifted both arms up in the air as if in a trance.  We thought it quite odd and moved on.  We had been looking at the various dwellings in Skara Brae for quite a while when I noticed that there was someone in the water,  100 metres down the beach from us!   As we got closer we realised it was the same guy, but now he was naked and just coming out from the waves looking as if he was praying to someone in heaven.  The sea was probably about 10 degrees C and he had been walking up and down through the waves for at least half an hour, I reckon!

You’ll need to enlarge this photo by clicking on it, to see the brave man in the sea at Skara Brae

The Standing Stones of Stenness was another photo stop along our route.  It lies on a narrow tongue of land between the freshwater Loch Harray on one side and the seawater Loch Stenness on the other.  It is always extraordinary when you stand by these great slabs of stone, some up to five metres tall and consider how these people managed to fetch them from far away, then insert them into the ground (they must be metres deep in the soil)  without our modern technology and machines!  They also had burial mounds near this area, similar to what we have seen in Ireland, etc.

Five metre high stones at Stenness

Unfortunately, the bus driver received a call from the Ferry people telling him that the weather forecast had been updated and they were predicting worsening weather and sea conditions!  As a result they wanted to sail two hours earlier than planned, so even though the weather seemed to have improved for us on the island during the afternoon it meant our tour was to be cut short.   We were sorry that we never did get back to read all that interesting stuff about the latest marine energy machines.  Our ferry ride back was surprising smooth!  We had the wind behind us this time and it wasn’t nearly as bad as earlier in the morning.  It was thick fog all the way but not having to go through that pitching roll was a welcome bonus.

Various sites between the islands they were testing these fancy machines. Way to go!

So pleased to be back on “dry” land! Other travellers we amazed to see that we actually came from various places in NZ.

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