Our Northern Scotland trip – Part 2: Orkney

At last it was time to get on the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness on Orkney – I hadn’t been on a ship for 3 years, and I’ve always loved them; heck, I used to worked on one as social hostess once… And what luxury the MS Hamnavoe provided us for the 1 ½ hour journey: shiny chrome, elegant floors, well-equipped bars – my darling Ian and me were stunned, and Ben, Lep and Nessie simply couldn’t believe their eyes!

Then we approached beautiful Stromness; everybody was out on the sun deck to take photos!

We had a stroll through the lovely town, bought a whole bag full of souvenirs, went into one of the cosy pubs for a little libation, and almost regretted not having booked a hotel here in this charming place…

The car hire, though, was in Kirkwall, and the boat onwards to Shetland would also go from there, so we’d booked a room there, at the West End Hotel situated in a very nicely restored 18th century building oozing with style, but also equipped with all the modern amenities and an extremely comfy bed.

Kirkwall itself is a beautiful town with a long Norse history, an impressive cathedral, a medieval Bishop’s Palace, and a slightly sleepy but picturesque high street. The liveliest part of town is, unsurprisingly, the area around the port from where the ships go to Lerwick; the jukebox never stops in the pubs at the seafront!

The next day, we collected our hired car and started exploring the mainland of Orkney – where you literally tread on ancient history wherever you go! We’d already marked all the places we wanted to see on the map we got from NorthLink Ferries for free, and the most important ones are all concentrated on the west side of the island: the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, Maes Howe, Unstan Cairn, the Broch of Gurness, and of course the world famous Skara Brae – I’ll dedicate a special post just to that. Today we’re going to look at all the other Neolithic and Celtic sites – and, of course, the stunningly beautiful natural features of Orkney: green fields, sheep, and deep blue sea in abundance…

The first ancient monument we got to were the Standing Stones of Stenness, a very well preserved stone circle and perhaps the oldest on the British Isles – built about 3,400 BCE! The circle and the hearth in the centre are clearly recognisable, and experts think it was used for ceremonial purposes for many centuries. Even long after that, the circle remained visible and became a tourist attraction for inquisitive and imaginative people like Sir Walter Scott, who speculated about the mysterious ancient rites performed here.

Next on our programme was Maes Howe, the world famous chambered cairn, but thanks to the aftereffects of Coronavirus we weren’t able to see it – until shortly before our trip it was still closed, so we couldn’t book tickets, and by the time we got there they were all sold out for weeks to come. Never mind, we found another burial cairn close by, smaller but just as fascinating (a bit alike to our very own Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey, actually): Unstan Cairn, possibly dating from as early as 3,400 BCE. Similar to Maes Howe, but with a more complex interior with several side compartments – not open to the public, unfortunately, unlike Bryn Celli Ddu, so all I could do was take a flash photo through the lattice.

Next on our list was the Ring of Brodgar; not as old as the Standing Stones of Stennes (built around 2,500 BCE), but much bigger and an almost perfect circle, it was also used for rituals, and people probably came from far away to attend them. Later on, when Norsemen came to Orkney, they in turn used the circle for their own purposes, worshipping their god Odin; some of them even left an ancient sort of graffiti here: runic carvings, one of them including the name Bjorn! The Norsemen must also have noticed how perfectly the monument is aligned to the movements of the sun; experts presume that the famous nearby village of Skara Brae more than 5,000 years ago may have been the home of very sophisticated scientists who studied the movements of the moon here.

After immersing ourselves in the impressions from this magical place for a while, we moved on to a relatively ‘recent’ monument, compared to the Neolithic treasures we’d seen on that day: a Celtic broch from about 500-200 BCE, the Broch of Gurness, one of the best preserved examples of this specifically Scottish type of building. Brochs were a sort of villas of Celtic days, built for the chieftains of a tribe or village, pretty comfortable for their time, with several storeys and bedchambers, a central hearth (or even two, as is the case at Gurness) and a cistern for water supply. They showed the wealth and power of the family, but they were also used as a refuge for the whole village population in case of an enemy attack!

This was the first time I ever saw a broch from inside (the interior of Carloway Broch on Lewis was closed for safety reasons at the time we were visiting 3 years ago) – and it was simply fantastic! Everything’s so well preserved, the staircases in between the two sets of outer walls, the hearths, even the stone cupboards and beds; even with the tiniest bit of imagination, you’ll travel 2,500 years back in time with no effort at all.

And after that, we’d travel even further back in time – at Skara Brae, the unique Neolithic village which is the gem of the Orkney Islands. More about that next time, dear friends!

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