Following in the vain of the unusual and off the beaten path travels, I would like to introduce you to the Orkney Islands and in particular Kirkwall. With a scattered population of just over 9000, it is easy to fall in love with both the town and the history. With two main avenues to reach Kirkwall, either by ferry from the mainland or on a cruise ship, you can decide the length of your stay and just how much you wish to experience the life of the Orkney people. At times it feels like you have stepped right onto a movie set at the BBC –‘The Orkney Vet’. The feeling is similar to that of travelling to the set of Doc Martin in Port Isaac Cornwall- with the steep hills instead replaced with acres and acres of rolling green pasture dotted with think fleeced sheep casually grazing in the wind swept fields.
At the centre of town is the red earth coloured St Magnus- Britain’s most northerly Cathedral. Construction began in 1137 and was commissioned by the Norse Earl Rognvald. Kirkwall began its history with strong links to Scandinavia and with the original name ‘Kirkjuvagr’. A fishing and market town in the 9th century it became the centre of trade and linked Iceland Shetland and Argy to Scandinavia. As you walk through the cemetery reading ancient headstones, it doesn’t take long to realise that you are in some way becoming part of history. And so life went on until 1468 when James III ‘acquired’ Orkney for Scotland. The ruins of the Bishops and Earls Palaces crouch silently beneath a large canopy of trees throwing shadows on the courtyard and possibly whispering stories of a colourful and ornate past.
A little further around the Bay at Stromness a majestic stone homestead is surrounded by the remains of nine Neolithic houses overlooking the Bay of Skaill. The Neolithic ground was occupied from around 3180 to 2500 BC. Known collectively as Skara Brae, the UNESCO site is older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt with records dating back to around 5000 years ago. Skaill House was built as a manor house in 1620 by Bishop George Graham. It was the 7th Laird William Watt who discovered the prehistoric site in 1850. Amongst the many paintings and memorabilia in the home is one of Captain Cook’s dinner services. There is a falconry not far from the homestead and some of the healthiest cattle I have ever seen. *Note that during the months of October to April the site is closed due to the high winds and sub-zero temperatures. We visited in June which was still a little on the chilly side.
Skara Brae is not overshadowed but complemented by the likes of Maeshowe – a Neolithic cairn (burial site) dating back to around 2800 BC. The entry aligns with the setting of the mid-winter sun which directly shines into the main chamber illuminating the altar. The landscape is dotted with similar ‘green mounds’ and it is estimated that there are hundreds that as yet have not been found. Unstan Cairn- named for the region- is small but concealed a unique style of pottery that was well preserved by the earth that had grown over the main entrance.
The Ring of Brodgar creates a sense of wonder as the upright stones built in a true circle between 2500 and 2000 BC depicts an ancient ceremonial ground. The uprights are smaller than the megaliths of the Stones of Stenness. The Brodgar Circle is the third largest in the British Isles was part of an enormous prehistoric ritual complex that incorporated the Stones o' Stenness, approximately one mile to the south-east and probably the Ring of Bookan to the north-west. A short distance to the east of the Brodgar ring is the solitary standing stone now known as the Comet Stone.
Making our way back to Kirkwall there is plenty of time for a stop at the Highland Park Distillery. In 1798 Magnus Eunson conducted an illegal distillery ad practised smuggling until he finally saw the light – or so the story goes- and the establishment was legalised in 1825.It is now accompanied by Scapa Distillery overlooking the bay.
Facts: How to get there – Cruise Ship or local ferry. Tickets for the Neolithic sites and Skara Brae can be purchased before you go. Best time to go: May to September Local Lodgings: The West End Hotel - Ayre Hotel & Apartments -St Ola - The Shore Hotel - Prices start from $92 per room per night Great place to eat: The Storehouse Restaurant
Happy Travelling Deanne Scanlan Travel www.deannescanlandestinationdesigner.com 0411682577