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A short way from John O’Groats, Orkney is a unique and fiercely independent archipelago. For an Orcadian, the Mainland means the largest island in Orkney rather than the rest of Scotland, and their history is inextricably linked with Scandinavia. Orkney Mainland has two chief settlements: the old port of Stromness, an attractive old fishing town on the far southwestern shore, and the central capital of Kirkwall.
Mainland is relatively heavily populated and farmed throughout, and is joined by causeways to a string of southern islands, the largest of which is South Ronaldsay. Hoy, the second largest island in the archipelago, south of Mainland, presents a superbly dramatic landscape, with some of the highest sea cliffs in the country. Hoy, however, is atypical: Orkney’s smaller, much quieter northern islands are low-lying, elemental but fertile outcrops of rock and sand, scattered across the ocean.
Orkney boasts a well-preserved treasury of Stone Age settlements, such as Skara Brae, standing stones and chambered cairns. The Norse heritage is equally apparent in Shetland, where there are many well-preserved prehistoric sites, such as Mousa Broch and Jarlshof. It’s impossible to underestimate the influence of the weather up here. More often than not, it will be windy and rainy, though you can have all four seasons in one day. The wind-chill factor is not to be taken lightly, and there’s frequently a dampness or drizzle in the air, even when it’s not raining.
Hoy, Orkney’s second-largest island, rises sharply out of the sea to the southwest of the Mainland. Its dramatic landscape is made up of great glacial valleys and mountainous moorland rising to more than 1500ft, dropping into the sea off the red sandstone cliffs of St John’s Head. The passenger ferry from Stromness arrives at Moaness Pier, near the tiny village of Hoy.
RACKWICK, four miles west of Hoy village, is an old crofting and fishing settlement squeezed between towering sandstone cliffs on the west coast. A small farm building beside the hostel serves as a tiny museum, with a few old photos and a brief rundown of Rackwick’s rough history. Despite its isolation, Rackwick has a steady stream of walkers and climbers passing through en route to the Old Man of Hoy, a great sandstone column some 450ft high, perched on an old lava flow which protects it from the erosive power of the sea. The well-trodden footpath from Rackwick is an easy three-mile walk (3hr return). Halfway along the road between Hoy village and Rackwick, duckboards head across the heather to the Dwarfie Stane, Orkney’s most unusual chambered tomb, cut from a solid block of sandstone and dating back to 3000 BC.
Hoy played a major role for the Royal Navy during both world wars and the harbour and hills around Lyness are still scarred with the scattered remains of concrete structures that once served as hangars and storehouses during World War II. The old oil pump house has been turned into the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum, a fascinating insight into wartime Orkney. The pump house itself retains much of its old equipment – you can ask for a working demo of one of the oil-fired boilers – used to pump oil off tankers moored at Lyness into sixteen tanks, and from there into underground reservoirs cut into the neighbouring hillside. Even the café has an old NAAFI feel about it.
The great bulk of the West Mainland is fertile, productive farmland, fenced off into a patchwork of fields. It’s fringed by some spectacular coastline, particularly in the west, and littered with some of the island’s most impressive prehistoric sites, such as the village of Skara Brae, the Stones of Stenness and the chambered tomb of Maes Howe.
Less than a mile northeast of the Stones of Stenness is Maes Howe, the most impressive Neolithic burial chamber complex in Europe. Dating from around 3000 BC, its excellent state of preservation is partly due to the massive slabs of sandstone it was constructed from, the largest of which weighs more than thirty tons. Perhaps its most extraordinary aspect is that the tomb is aligned so that the rays of the winter solstice sun reach right down the passage to the ledge of one of the three cells built into the walls of the tomb. The Vikings entered in the twelfth century, leaving large amounts of runic graffiti, cut into the walls of the main chamber and still clearly visible today.
North of Stromness is the best known of Orkney’s prehistoric monuments, Skara Brae, beautifully situated beside the white curve of the Bay of Skaill. Here, the extensive remains of a small Neolithic fishing and farming village, dating back to 3000 BC, were discovered in 1850 after a fierce storm. The village is amazingly well preserved, its houses huddled together and connected by narrow passages which would originally have been covered over with turf. The houses themselves consist of a single, spacious living room, filled with domestic detail, including fireplaces, cupboards, beds and boxes, all ingeniously constructed from slabs of stone. Unfortunately, visitor numbers mean that you can only look down from the outer walls. However, before you reach the site you can view a full-scale replica of the best-preserved house; it’s all a tad neat and tidy, but it’ll give you the general idea.
Although exposed to the full force of the Atlantic weather in the far northwest of Orkney, Westray shelters one of the most tightly knit and prosperous island communities. The main village and harbour is PIEROWALL set around a wide bay in the north. The village’s Westray Heritage Centre is a great place to gen up on (and with any luck catch a glimpse of) the Westray Wife or Orkney Venus, a remarkable, miniature Neolithic female figurine found in 2009 in the nearby dunes. Above the village to the west is the sandstone hulk of Noltland Castle, begun around 1560 by Gilbert Balfour, Master of the Household to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was implicated in the murder of her husband Lord Darnley. To explore, pick up the key at the nearby farm.
The northwestern tip of Westray rises up sharply, culminating in the dramatic sea cliffs of Noup Head. In early summer, the guano-covered rock ledges are packed with more than 100,000 nesting seabirds, primarily guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, with puffins
as well – an awesome sight, sound and smell. For a closer view of puffins, head for Castle o’ Burrian, a sea stack in the southeast of the island.
KIRKWALL, Orkney’s capital, has one great redeeming feature – its sandstone cathedral, without doubt the finest medieval building in the north of Scotland. Nowadays, the town is divided into two main focal points: the old harbour, at the north end of the town, where inter-island ferries come and go all year round, and the flagstoned main street, which changes its name four times as it twists its way south from the harbour past the cathedral. Kirkwall’s chief cultural bash is the week-long St Magnus Festival, a superb arts festival held in the middle of June.
Standing at the very heart of Kirkwall, St Magnus Cathedral is the town’s most compelling sight. This beautiful red sandstone building was begun in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald, who built the cathedral in honour of his uncle Magnus, killed on the orders of his cousin Håkon in 1117. Today much of the detail in the soft sandstone has worn away – the capitals around the main doors are reduced to gnarled stumps – but it’s still immensely impressive, its shape and style echoing the great cathedrals of Europe. Inside, the atmosphere is surprisingly intimate, the bulky sandstone columns drawing your eye up to the exposed brickwork arches, while around the walls is a series of mostly seventeenth-century tombstones, many carved with a skull and crossbones and other emblems of mortality.
The presence of a huge naval base in Scapa Flow during both world wars presented an irresistible target to the Germans, and protecting the fleet was always a nagging problem for the Allies. During World War I, blockships were sunk to guard the eastern approaches, but just weeks after the outbreak of World War II, a German U-boat managed to manoeuvre past the blockships and torpedo the battleship HMS Royal Oak, which sank with the loss of 833 lives.
The sinking of the Royal Oak convinced the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, that Scapa Flow needed better protection, and in 1940 work began on a series of barriers – known as the Churchill Barriers – to seal the waters between the Mainland and the string of islands to the south. Special camps were built to accommodate the 1700 men involved in the project; their numbers were boosted by the surrender of Italy in 1942, when Italian POWs were sent to work here.
Besides the barriers, the Italians also left behind the beautiful Italian Chapel on the first of the islands, Lamb Holm. This, the so-called “miracle of Camp 60”, must be one of the greatest adaptations ever, made from two Nissen huts, concrete, barbed wire and parts of a rusting blockship. It has a great false facade, and colourful trompe l’oeil decor, lovingly restored by the chapel’s principal architect, Domenico Chiocchetti.