If you also read our Facebook postings you’ll maybe be asking “Why is the September Blog about Orkney, they went there in August… and why is the September Blog being posted in October?”.
Well there is a good reason for both of these lapses in punctuality. First of all, we found so much to do in Orkney that it has taken me 6 weeks to get it all written up. Secondly, our newest employee (Logan, who is 6 ½ months old) is becoming a bit of a handful and we’re just getting used to working around his routines.
On the subject of babies, is it just me or do they have the ability to distort time? They’re like Dr Who’s Tardis; both are able to make time disappear and they must be larger on the inside than the out judging by the way they can fill a nappy (that’s a diaper for those of you in North America).
I think it would be fair to say that the large majority of Scots have never been to Orkney and will probably never go. When I told my friends where I was headed the main reaction was “Why? It’s flat with no trees and there’s only old stones to look at!”. There is some truth in that harsh summary, but the Islands do have rather more to offer so here’s a quick guide to our choice of the best things to do in Orkney:
Skara Brae – This is maybe an obvious choice, but we start with it because there really isn’t anything on the Scottish mainland that is quite the same. The thing that hits you most about the Neolithic dwellings is just how “homely” they managed to make them feel. When you try to picture life around 3000 BC, you don’t really envisage that people would have been building “display cabinets” in their stone-age homes or making ornaments to place in them.
A reconstruction of one of the Skara Brae houses has been made so you can experience the relative comfort of this Neolithic housing estate. It is actually very cosy and we wouldn’t have minded renting it out as our holiday cottage. It all feels surprisingly modern in the detail and strangely reminiscent of the “Flintstones”. No dinosaur powered cars have yet been unearthed though.
Maeshowe – Once again, you can’t help but be impressed by the craftsmanship in the construction of this Neolithic burial chamber. It really does make you wonder how sophisticated this ancient civilization must have been to have been able to co-ordinate the building of such a geometrically neat structure. However, the appeal of Maeshowe isn’t just the skill of the Neolithic stonemasons. Normally, you’d be disgusted to hear about a historic monument being vandalised with graffiti, but a visit to Maeshowe is actually enhanced by the humorous scribblings of the Norsemen that visited here in the 12th Century.
As you stand in the dimly lit chamber, you can picture the Norsemen balancing on each others shoulders in order to get a good place to leave their mark. The passing of time has made it seem more elegant, but a lot of it is along the lines of “Bjorn was here!”. It just goes to show you that times may change, but people don’t.
Ring of Brodgar / Stenness Standing Stones – We lump these two sites together because they are within ~1/2 a mile of each other and they, along with Maeshowe and several lesser known sites, are all within the UNESCO designated “World Heritage Area”. A designation that is shared with places such as the Pyramids in Egypt.
We include these as must sees on Orkney, but we would have to say that there are other standing stone sites in Scotland that we like more. For the sheer size of the circle, few places anywhere in Scotland or Europe can beat the Ring of Brodgar, and the Stenness Standing Stones are very tall and elegant. However, there are other places in Scotland where you get more of an “atmosphere”. This is maybe because these standing stones are so popular that you seldom get them all to yourself, and the sense of history is a bit diminished by the fact that a road and farmhouses are so nearby. The lonely standing stones on Machrie Moor (Arran) feel far more timeless thanks to their isolation from signs of modern man.
Midhowe Cairn – Lesser known than any of the ones listed above, but only because it is not on the Orkney Mainland and is thus a bit harder to get to. The Midhowe Cairn on Rousay gets a mention in our Orkney list of places to see because it is on a different scale to all the other burial chambers that you can visit here. The cairn is protected under a barn like structure which gives you some idea of the scale of things to come, but it isn’t until you open the door into the “barn” that you get the real “Wow” effect.
The best way to convey the proportions of this burial chamber is to ask you to picture the upturned hull of a Viking long boat. There’s a good reason why this cairn is also known as the “Ship of the Dead”. Some people may feel that the protective building around the burial cairn is a distraction, but it does allow you to view into the cairn from a suspended walkway and it is better to have it preserved this way than to block it off to visitors.
Another good reason to visit the Midhowe Cairn is the fact that, during the same visit, you can also bag the relatively well preserved Midhowe Broch and the lonely ruins of St Mary’s Church. You’ll appreciate getting “3 for 1” when you see the steep hill that you have to climb to get back to the car park.
Taversoe Tuick – Staying on Rousay, this is another burial cairn, but on a very different scale. We include this in our top list of Orkney things to do because it is the place that we found to be the spookiest! Why? Well it consists of an upper and lower burial chamber and to get to the lower chamber you have to descend a ladder into a cramped and dimly lit space. Down in the darkness there are lots of hidden corners and you sense something waiting down there. Take a torch!
Old Man of Hoy – By the standards of the Orkney Islands, Hoy is a hilly island. It also has some of the most impressive coastal cliffs to be found anywhere in Scotland or the British Isles. Indeed, the cliffs at St John’s Head on Hoy are the highest vertical cliffs in Britain. If you have enough time, it is worth taking a day trip to Hoy to do the ~3 hour walk to the Old Man. There is a well made path all the way to the cliffs beside this distinctive sea stack. It isn’t too demanding a walk for the moderately fit, but you might disagree with this on the first section which climbs quite steadily from shore level at Rackwick Bay.
The Reel – Just to show that Orkney isn’t just about old stones, we have to mention this great little pub / restaurant / music venue in the centre of Kirkwall. The Reel is run by the Wrigley sisters who are well known local musicians. Live music is what the Reel is primarily about and it is a place that you ought to check out for some evening entertainment. It’s easy to find as it is just a short distance from the entrance to St Magnus’s Cathedral.
Jolly’s Fishmonger – For a taste of some of the best of the Orkney’s fresh food, you really ought to head to this well stocked shop. Not the easiest place to find as it is on an industrial estate just outside Kirkwall. If you can find the offices for "The Orcadian" newspaper (on the A965 just north of Kirkwall) then you’ll be able to get simple directions from them. The fresh fish counter has lots of varieties that seldom make it to the shelves of supermarkets and you’ll hear some good Orkney banter as the shop is a popular place for the local workers to get their filled rolls at lunchtime.
This is not an exhaustive list of the best things to do in Orkney, but we think these are eight of the most rewarding places to visit on the islands. Of course, there’s a whole lot more and we cover them in far greater detail in our itineraries that visit the Orkney Islands.