Thursday-Sunday, 12-15 October 2006
Thursday We breakfast this morning with Andy, a retired gentleman from Northern Ireland, who does a bit of B&B
in his cottage just outside Stromness. He does not advertise, but gets all the bookings he can handle from Doris at the
Orca Hotel, when she is booked up. Indeed, she sent us here when we rang the bell at 9:00 last night. After checking
in with him, we returned to town for refreshment at the Stromness Hotel. We were disappointed, again, to find that the
Stillroom, the little whisky bar off the main lounge, is closed for the season. We consoled ourselves with the stock in the
main bar, and pints of Red MacGregor from the Orkney Brewery.
Andy is an affable chap who tells us that his retirement is not so quiet. During the Folk Festival, he says, he had people sleeping on his living room floor. He hadn't the heart to turn them away, and the house had become a bit of a festival in itself.
This morning we drive to Houton, intent on either going to Hoy on the little ferry that departs from there, or booking the trip for tomorrow. I have in mind to repeat the walk Win and I took in 2002, to view the Old Man of Hoy (see October In Orkney). Unfortunately, the ferry is heavily booked; we could go over tomorrow, and come back today, if only we could master Einsteinian physics. But we cannot do both in one day. The Old Man of Hoy is the one thing Ron has asked specifically to see in Orkney, so this is probably the sharpest disappointment yet. Ron bears it with his usual good humor.
We juggle the itinerary. Had we landed at St Margarets Hope last night, as originally scheduled, we'd have gone to the Tomb of the Eagles first thing this morning. We'll go back to that plan. But first, we visit the little Orkneyinga Museum and adjacent Round Church at nearby Orphir.
The Round Church was built in the late 11th or early 12th century, at the height of the Norse regime in Orkney. It is almost heartbreaking to learn that it stood nearly complete until the mid-18th century, when much of the stone was pilfered to build a new parish church. Ironically, no trace of the later church survives. You can read more about the church at the splendid Orkneyjar website.
Adjacent to the church lie the foundational remains of the Earl's Bu, or drinking hall. It was uncovered in the mid-19th century, thanks to clues gleaned from the Orkneyinga Saga. The little museum adjacent contains signboards and a short video explaining the Orkneyinga Saga and the reign of the Vikings in Orkney.
From Orphir, we skirt the southern edge of Mainland, the main island of Orkney. Not far from Kirkwall, we have a look at the Scapa distillery, which lay disused and in sad shape the last time I passed by here. It's running again, fixed up and slathered with whitewash, but is not as yet taking visitors. From the beach below, the warehouses seem to glow in the southern sun.
We drive down across the Churchill Barriers to South Ronaldsay, stopping briefly in St Margarets Hope to get a look at the village where we were supposed to spend last night. When we arrive at Liddel Farm, near to Orkney's southernmost point, I note that there have been improvements since I last visited the Tomb of the Eagles in 1998. There is a new building housing the museum; it used to be in the Simisons' front porch. The displays are much more professional, showing the various artefacts found in the archeological digs on the property. The website is another nod to the 21st century. The tomb was discovered in 1958 by Ronnie Simison, and his daughter explains to us the peculiar legal loopholes that allowed him to excavate and develop the site privately. The Simison family have done a splendid job.
We walk out along the cliffs toward the tomb. It's a warm and sunny day, if a bit hazy. We've been told to watch out for a newborn seal on the beach at one of the geos (inlets). We spot it, and watch as it clumsily flops over the shingle and enters the water, bobbing in the surf as it moves offshore.
The tomb sits above the cliffs, a great view for the dead. Archeologists have determined that bodies were left out in the elements to be excarnated by sea eagles, after which the bones were interred. This is apparently very similar to the customs of the aboriginal peoples of the American Northwest. The passage is low and narrow, and access is eased by the use of a dolly. We take turns lying on our backs and pulling ourselves along the rope. As is the case with most such tombs, the top has long ago collapsed, and been replaced with a concrete cap. This is a stalled tomb--the main chamber is divided by upright slabs forming doorways of a sort. There are side chambers where the bones were placed. One of these has a plastic window covering it, behind from which several skulls grin out at us. These dudes, like the fellow shown to us in the museum, are about 5,000 years old (except that Bachelor Number Two is a ringer, a modern skull placed for comparison).
We return along the inland path, and I am pleased to see Ronnie Simison still explaining the Bronze Age house to tourists, his border collie still patrolling the perimeter. Mr Simison is soft-spoken with a strong Orcadian accent, so I don't catch everything he says, but I don't really care. I'm just glad he's still there. He is interested in our account of the baby seal; it may be that we have seen its first swim.
Driving back north, we stop on the tiny island of Lamb Holm to visit the Italian Chapel. I described it thus in October In Orkney: "It’s a touching place, a house of worship built from a Nissen hut (that’s a Quonset hut to us Yanks) by Italian prisoners of war, whose labor was being used to build the Churchill Barriers during World War II. It’s a thing of beauty made from virtually nothing, with a false façade and a trompe-l’oeil interior." I'm feeling a bit groggy, and I've been here before, so I leave Ron to check it out while I take a quick nap in the car.
When he returns, we drive across the causeway to Mainland and head to the easternmost peninsula, Deerness. At the end of the road, there is a car park, and from there it is a short walk to the Gloup. This is a long, narrow sea cave whose roof collapsed long ago. Waves rush in along the length of it and thunder in the hole at the end.
A scenic walk along the cliffs brings us to the Brough of Deerness. There are remnants of a chapel and settlement on the brough, although not a lot, really. It's believed to have been a pre-Norse ecclesiastical site. Whatever...it's the setting that is spectacular.
We leave Deerness and head into Kirkwall, Orkney's largest town, where we find our room at Eastbank House. I've not stayed here before, but chose it because our host is the ebullient Malcolm, Doris' former boyfriend. They have split up, but are still business partners. We learn from Malcolm that we were fortunate to have seen Doris last night, because she and her new boyfriend and Malcolm and his wife are all flying out in the morning for a holiday together in some sunny part of Europe. Actually, I doubt any part of Europe was sunnier today than Orkney.
Still more disappointment this evening! I knew that there had been a fire at the Bothy Bar in the Albert Hotel, but it was over a year ago, and I'd assumed that they'd be reopened long since. It's not the case. The Bothy was the only really good pub in Kirkwall, and the one place that would be serving cask ale. Malcolm says that he and other regulars wandered the streets like zombies after the fire, unsure where to go. We try the West End Hotel, which has a hand pump, but it is out of service. Dinner is fine, and we try a couple other hotel bars before retiring for the night. For all the juggling of plans, we got a lot in today.
Friday Breakfast with Malcolm is always an eye-opener; he is so energetic and cheerful that it's impossible
to head out into the day without a smile. We visit the Orkney Ferries office down on the pier first thing, and book return
passage to Rousay. We have some time to kill before the ferry departs, so I visit the internet cafe while Ron checks out St
Rousay is a good-sized island and is just a short ferry hop from Mainland, but its population is very small, and it gives the impression of being very remote. We park the car at Westness Farm and follow a trail leading straight across the fields to a large, hangar-like building. This houses the remnants of the Mid Howe Cairn, a hundred-foot long stalled cairn, the largest in Orkney.
A little further on is the Mid Howe Broch, overlooking the rushing waters of Eynhallow Sound. The broch is about 2,000 years old. Interestingly, the cairn is about 1,500 years older than that; to the broch builders, it would have been nearly as ancient as the broch is to us.
We return to Westness Farm on a path running along the shore. This is a walk through time, with the ruins of Viking and medieval farmsteads on the way, and the shell of the 12th-century St Mary's Church. There are interpretive signs at each site, but it seems to me the potential of this trail has been untapped. The ruins could do with some restoration work and general cleanup. As it is, this is an evocative stroll along the foreshore of Rousay.
We arrive back at the car, and have some time before we have to meet the ferry, so we visit Rousay's other well-known chambered tombs--Blackhammar, the Knowe of Yarso, and Taversoe Tuick. These were described in October In Orkney.
Back on Mainland, the Broch of Gurness mirrors the Mid Howe Broch across Eynhallow Sound. This site is very well maintained and interpreted, and this is a good place to learn about brochs. Unfortunately, the little museum on the site is closed when we arrive. We might be happy that we will thus not be charged the usual entry fee, but we are both members of Historic Scotland, anyway.
Dinner this evening is in the Ayre Hotel. We try a couple of hotel bars before settling in to the Albert. It's all right.
Saturday Another fine day weatherwise, Although it's very hazy. Hard to complain when it's sunny and warm
in October. We start the day with a look at Kirkwall's main attractions.
The Earl's Palace, close by St Magnus Cathedral, was built by the evil Earl Patrick Stewart in the early years of the 17th century. He was heavily in debt by the time of its completion in 1607, and eventually he was executed for treason.
The Bishop's Palace dates from the 12th century, and was in a ruinous state when Stewart was building the Earl's Palace. He intended to incorporate it into his complex. From the interior, the steeple of the cathedral is visible.
We leave Kirkwall and drive toward the western part of Mainland; we will sleep in Stromness the next two nights. On the way, we visit the heart of neolithic Orkney--the great chambered tomb of Maes Howe, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and the Ring of Brodgar. These are all described in October In Orkney, and as with all of Orkney's archeological sites, more information can be found at Orkneyjar.
After spending some considerable time at Brodgar, we look for a site I've seen on the map, but never visited. The Ring of Bookan looks as though it might once have been similar to Brodgar, but some archeologists speculate that a Maes Howe-like cairn once stood here. In any case, all that shows now is the circular ditch and a few fallen stones.
Skara Brae is the archeological jewel of Orkney, a 5,000-year-old village that was preserved beneath the dunes above the Bay of Skaill until a storm in 1850. Further excavations in the 1920's revealed the complex we see today.
From Skara Brae we drive to Yesnaby. I hiked south from the car park last time I was here, and we'll do that again before we leave Orkney, but today we are hiking north to see what is a new site for me, the Broch of Borwick. The orange stone of the broch and the cliff upon which it perches glow in the afternoon sun. It's a stunning setting, and a place I will be sure to visit again on a sunny afternoon, reminiscent of Culswick in Shetland.
We find our room at the Orca Hotel and have a pint at the Stromness Hotel, but have to vacate the lounge for a pre-booked event. We spend the rest of the evening in the Ferry Inn, which is more publike than the lounge at the Stromness Hotel, and has real ale available; but for some reason I've never really warmed up to the place. It serves the purpose, though. I know it is very popular with the divers who flock to Orkney to investigate the many wrecks in Scapa Flow.
Sunday We're off to Birsay this morning. Low tide is at 10:00, and there is a window of a couple of hours
either side during which one may walk out the causeway to the brough.
Most of the remains on the Brough of Birsay are from the Norse period, from the 9th to 12th centuries, although it was inhabited for centuries prior by Picts. During the Norse regime, this was a center of political and religious power. For a brief period there was a Benedictine or Augustine monastery adjacent to the kirk.
Back across Brough Sound, we walk along the shore to an old noust, or fishing boat outhaul, and attendant shack. A bit farther along, a whalebone, reminiscent of a seabird, was taken from a beached whale and mounted on a post in the 1870's.
Near Birsay, another Earl's Palace, earlier than the one in Kirkwall, was built by the evil Earl Patrick Stewart's father, the not-quite-so-evil Earl Robert Stewart. Earl Robert was the bastard son of King James V of Scotland, and spent his life trying to make rather more of his royal lineage than anyone would have liked.
We head back toward the vicinity of Kirkwall, cutting across the heart of western Mainland. We stop to examine the Dounby Click Mill on the way. This is an old style of mill with a horizontal waterwheel that apparently made a distinctive clicking sound. I've seen a number of similar mills in Shetland.
We drive up to a carpark on the side of Wideford Hill. The weather has been fantastic while we have been in Orkney, and I have actually managed to get a bit of a sunburn in October. But I'd gladly have traded some of the warmth for some clarity in the air. Normally, it's possible to see pretty much all of Orkney from up here, but today most of it is lost in the haze. Around to the western side of the hill lies the Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn, a fairly typical tomb. It has a very low and narrow entrance passage; a hatch in the top, where the capstone once was, eases entry for us modern folk.
At Yesnaby, the afternoon sun once again lights up the west-facing cliffs, and we walk south this time to view the peculiar sea stacks. The sea is much calmer than it was yesterday.
Back in Stromness, we finally get a nice quiet evening in the Stromness Hotel. After dinner, we chat with Erland, the bartender, and lament that the Stillroom is closed. He offers to take us in there to pick out a couple bottles to bring back to the main bar, and we eagerly accept. We choose two bottles from Gordon & MacPhail's Cask label, a Glenlivet and a Bladnoch. The first we have chosen because Ron has a bottle of Glenlivet from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society that he says is excellent, and we are curious about this malt, widely available in its standard bottlings, but often overlooked by aficionados. The second is chosen as part of our ongoing Bladnoch survey, which started with my visit there at the start of this trip. Both drams are absolutely wonderful. We also try a Highland Park 30, which we are sure has been mispriced, and a Highland Park 25. Both are marvelous, although I definitely prefer the 25.
It's a fitting cap to our sojourn in Orkney, a sublime interlude during which all the little disappointments are forgotten. A good dram will do that. Tomorrow we must be up before dawn to catch the ferry away.