A Trip to the Orkneys

December 12, 2018
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ON my father’s side, my family comes from Dundee, and from a port district of Edinburgh called Leith.

And so, after visiting my Scottish relatives once more, in 2018, I decided to do a tour of some of the more Norse parts of Scotland: starting, of course, with the Orkneys.

On the way to Stromness, going past the Old Man of Hoy

Wearing a tartan skirt, I took the ferry from Scrabster, in the far north of the Scottish mainland, to Stromness. Scrabster is a small ferry port, with services to Stromness in the Orkneys. Ferry services also run between the Orkneys and the Shetlands, and between the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and Aberdeen, in addition to local ferries between the various islands of the Orkneys and the Shetlands. I was surprised that so many people catch ferries in these parts, and that the ferries go everywhere; you’d think most people would fly these days.

It’s probably the tourist trade that keeps the ferries going. For the trip was scenic. The ferry sailed slowly past amazing crimson cliffs of a mineral called Old Red Sandstone (ORS), which dates back to the age of fishes and amphibians, well before the dinosaur age. The Orkneys are made up almost entirely of the ORS; which means that they are as ancient as Australia and look pretty much the same wherever the rock is exposed.

The ORS is, unfortunately, washing into the North Sea rather rapidly. For most of its history, I guess, the ORS was well above or below ground, but now the waves are taking it. The ferry sailed past the islands of Hoy and Graemsay and in addition to the cliffs we saw an amazing rock pillar called the Old Man of Hoy, 137 metres high. If you change that into the old units and say that it is 449 feet high, that sounds even more impressive. The 1654 map makes no reference to the Old Man of Hoy; it seems that it was created by collapsing cliffs after that date. In a similar geological eyeblink, no doubt, it will topple over and be gone.

I arrived at Stromness, on the island called the Mainland, the biggest island in the Orkney group. I caught a taxi (over thirty kms!) to the Anchorage Hotel in St Margaret’s Hope on the island of South Ronaldsay, accessible by road from the other end of the Mainland. The road to South Ronaldsay passes over a couple of little islands called Lamb Holm and Glims Holm, names that sound like something out of The Lord of the Rings. For, as we’ve seen, Tolkien borrowed a lot of his ideas from tales told by the Icelanders and the inhabitants of these more remote parts of Britain.

The Anchorage is in this amazing old stone building with zig-zagging crow-stepped gables, which seems to be hundreds of years old. A lovely woman from the hotel named Shona rang me several times to make sure I wasn’t getting lost, as it was a bit of an epic journey.

From St Margaret’s Hope, the next day, I caught a bus to Kirkwall: the capital of the Orkneys and the only town with a five-figure population. I based myself at the Orcades Hostel (Orcades is another name for the Orkneys).

In Kirkwall I found out that bus services go all over the Mainland and South Ronaldsay, and you can get a bus pass to see everything you need to see on those islands for only 20 pounds a week.

At St Margaret's Hope, and a pipe band outside the St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

St Magnus Cathedral

The skyline of Kirkwall is dominated by the St Magnus Cathedral, built when the Orkneys were still a part of Norway. I forgot to mention that quite a few islands off the British coast, right down to the Isle of Man, were actually under the Norwegian crown until the late 1400s. This helps to explain the strength of their Scandinavian ties a bit further.

The cathedral is named after Saint Magnus Erlendsson, the Earl of Orkney, a somewhat pacifist Viking who was often mocked for it. Saint Magnus preferred to spend raids praying rather than slaughtering people.

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, which concerns the Orkneys and Shetlands, Magnus was eventually done in by a cook named Lifolf, directed by Magnus’s cousin Haakon to kill Magnus with an axe (a meat-axe I presume) for being such a wuss. Rather conveniently, the Earldom of the Orkneys then passed to Haakon. Magnus prayed for the souls of Haakon and Lifolf before expiring, so it is said, and was quite soon declared a saint while Haakon got the earldom, the winner for the time being albeit possibly at the cost of finding the Pearly Gates padlocked a bit later on.

Ruined Palaces, Kirkwall

From Kirkwall, I set out to explore the principal sights of the Mainland, which I have mapped in a suitably Lord of the Rings style.

The first place I set out for was the furthest away, the Neolithic (late stone age) village of Skara Brae and the aristocratic mansion of Skaill House.

Skara Brae

Part of Skara Brae with Skaill House in the background

Late-stone-age or Neolithic cultures were not so different from modern people in many ways. Depending on the conditions in which they lived, inhabitants of the Neolithic or late stone age often had houses and farms and livestock and woven cloth just like people today, and all sorts of clever tools. Quite often, Neolithic people also knew of the existence and usefulness of metals as a result of encountering native metal deposits.

But they just couldn’t yet make metals from ore, which can often be done by combining good-quality ore with charcoal in a hot fire. Many ores consist of chemically unstable metal oxides. The charcoal steals the oxygen from the oxide, leaving the metal behind — simple as that. Other ores consisted of metal sulfides; these could be ‘roasted’ in a fire to turn them into oxides, after which the charcoal would reduce them as well. Given the general ingeniousness of Neolithic society, and the actual simplicity of reducing oxide-type ores to a metallic form, it was only a matter of time before somebody with access to an abundance of charcoal did figure out how to make metals, as opposed to just finding them; at which point the modern world arrived, in embryo form at least.

(One of the easiest metals to reduce was copper. A mixture of charcoal and copper-bearing rocks can hardly fail to yield a stream of molten copper if it is made hot enough. Copper is the main ingredient of bronze, a hardened and strengthened alloy that gave its name to the Bronze Age. Iron and its most industrially useful form, steel, were harder to make. As such, we went from the Neolithic age to the Copper and Bronze Ages, and then, after another thousand years or so, to the Iron Age, which we basically still inhabit.)

Cultures like the Inuit and the New Zealand Māori were Neolithic at the time of the first European contact. So too were the Australian Aborigines, who built farms, houses and even roads in the more fertile parts of Australia, though this has often been forgotten.

The village at Skara Brae is the most complete Neolithic village in Europe, inhabited roughly between 3200 and 2500 BCE: that is to say at the very dawn of the age in which we learned how make metals out of ore. It was buried by sand in a more-or-less intact condition, like Pompeii, and forgotten about for millennia until the erosive forces that are gradually whittling away the Orkneys once more revealed it in modern historic times.

Scientists still debate whether the Skara Brae village was buried in one hit, by some sort of landslide, or merely abandoned to slow encroachment of the dunes. Whatever happened, it is a time capsule of great significance, a window on an era when Europeans lived in a similar fashion to the Māori in the days of Cook.

Next to Skara Brae is Skaill House, a mansion dating back to the 1600s with a secret compartment behind the bookshelves — no, seriously! — and an amazing collection of historic souvenirs, including a Bolshevik battle flag captured by an intrepid ancestor when he was helping out the last supporters of the British Royal Family’s cousin Nicky, the Tsar. They’ve also got Captain Cook’s dinner service, on which he quite possibly noshed in New Zealand, at Skaill House. Imagine that! Honestly, as we say, you wouldn’t read about it (other than here).

Skaill House

Coming back to Kirkwall, I stopped by the Ring of Brodgar (Tolkein must surely have heard of this!), a ring of standing stones which is the third largest in the British Isles after Avebury and Stonehenge. The Ring of Brodgar is the furthest north and is located on a narrow neck of land between the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness, a brackish estuary.

At the Ring of Brodgar

Archaeology at Brodgar

A little further east are the Standing Stones of Stenness, a less complete but no less impressive group of megaliths that point up to the sky like knives. The neck of land on which these monuments sit is called the Ness of Brodgar and is a wider archaeological site. Some way south of the Brodgar is Maeshowe, or Maes Howe, a chambered burial-tomb underneath an artificial hill, similar to the earliest of the Egyptian pyramids but hundreds of years older.


There is something deeply freaky about the Orkneys. Clearly, a form of civilisation had striven to arise at the very end of the stone age in these islands — in other words, at the beginning of the age of metals, and of civilisation too — only to be frustrated by the small size of the islands and their lack of resources.

The four sites of the Ring of Brodgar, Standing Stones of Stenness, Skara Brae and Maeshowe now form a UNESCO World Heritage site called ‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’

South of Kirkwall lies Scapa, which gives its name to Scapa Flow, a great natural anchorage for the Royal Navy. It was here that much of the fleet of the Imperial German Navy was interned and scuttled at the end of World War One, and where the eighth HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed by the German Navy in 1939, with the loss of 833 lives.

From Kirkwall, I caught a ferry north to the island of Shapinsay (Siapins Øy, in the 1654 map), to see puffins, but there none there at the time. They had left early because it was an unusually warm summer. I visited a castle at Balfour, and the heritage centre. David Balfour, the owner of the island, reorganised its agriculture in the 1840s, dividing the island into a grid of ten-acre fields and trebling the amount under cultivation. Balfour Castle was improved into its modern form at the same time. The island’s population reached its peak in the 1880s with nearly a thousand inhabitants, and then dwindled to just a few hundred today.

I also met a woman named Ellah, and together we went to the Island of Hoy to see the endangered three-metre-wingspan sea eagles. We went to the Rackwick Beach and explored the Dwarfie Stane, a Neolithic rock-cut tomb hewn out of a huge boulder of ORS. According to an inaccurate local legend the dwarfie stane was created by a supernatural dwarf named Trollid (other versions of the legend make it a giant). Unfortunately, bad weather cut short our planned walk from Rackwick to the Old Man of Hoy.

Hoy, with Ellah and Eagles

The Dwarfie Stane on Hoy

We also explored a bothy, a little shelter similar to a New Zealand Department of Conservation hut.

Hoy, with Bothy

There were a lot of other places I wanted to visit in the Orkneys but didn’t have time to get to. These include:

· Viking sites on the island of Westray

· The Earl’s Palace, in Kirkwall

· The Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister, at the far southern end of South Ronaldsay

· Midhowe Cairn, on Rousay

There are many inhabited islands in the Orkneys, and you could easily spend a month there.

This post is from a chapter in my new book A Maverick Inuit Way and the Vikings, published in November 2018. Here's my brand-new 3D cover image, which you can click on to be taken to an Amazon sales page (or click on the title link in the previous line).

3D image of A Maverick Inuit Way and the Vikings


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