Last weekend we spent 3 fantastic days zipping around Orkney taking in the sights. We managed to see and do so much, yet we barely scratched the surface. I want to share some of the wonders of Orkney with you, but one blog won’t do it justice, so I’ve decided to dedicate three blogs to the fascinating northern archipelago.
Travelling to Orkney on a tiny propeller plane, with the wee dug stored in the cargo hold like luggage was not something I was willing to entertain, so we went the long way via road and ferry.
We sailed with Pentland Ferries, crossing from Gills Bay to the pretty village of St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay. The Crossing has a reputation for being choppy. The Pentland Firth is where the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet, crashing into each other head on. Despite a cold, grey start to the day our sailing was fairly calm – phew!
We arrived on Orkney with our breakfast intact and it was looking like a fairly nice day – it was time to explore.
We headed north crossing Churchill Barrier Four which connects the islands of South Ronaldsay and Burray. Winston Churchill ordered the building of the 4 causeways during WWII after a German U-boat breached the existing defences in the early hours of 14th October 1939, sinking HMS Royal Oak which was anchored in Scapa Flow. 833 lives were lost in the attack.
Churchill Barrier Three connects the islands of Burray and Glims Holm. Crossing it is a Scottish travel moment I will never forget. My eyes struggled to take in what I was seeing – it was incredible. Sunken ships loomed out of the water like iron giants, these were the blockships of WWI and WWII. The water was so turquoise it looked Caribbean and along the shore of Glims Holm was an incredible stretch of golden sand. We passed this spot many times during our trip and never saw the colours look quite so vivid again.
We were out of the car and on the beach in a flash. The wee dug was delighted to feel sand between his toes. It was a surreal and strangely beautiful sight – standing on a stunning, remote Scottish beach with a stark reminder of two brutal and bloody wars lying still in the water before us.
After some fun on the beach we crossed Churchill Barrier Two onto the island of Lamb Holm, home to Orkney’s famous Italian Chapel and the site of WWII POW camp ‘Camp 60’. Between January 1942 and the spring of 1945 the camp housed hundreds of Italian prisoners, captured in North Africa and brought to Orkney to build the Churchill Barriers.
It was the wish to show to oneself first, and to the World then, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed wire camp, down in spirit, physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free…
In 1943 padre Gioachino Giacobazzi arrived in Camp 60 and with the help of camp Commandant, Major Buckland he managed to secure materials to build a place of worship for the prisoners. The chapel was constructed by joining two nissen huts, and decorated using concrete and salvaged scraps.
For POW and artist Domenico Chiocchetti the chapel was a labour of love. He worked tirelessly on it, painting the beautiful frescos inside. He remained on Orkney after the war ended to finish his work. He returned in 1960 to carry out some restoration work, before dedicating the chapel to the Orcandian people.
The chapel is yours – for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality.
I shall remember you always, and my children shall learn from me to love you.
I thank (you)…. for having given me the joy of seeing again the little chapel of Lamb Holm where I, in leaving, leave a part of my heart.
Having the wee dug in tow, we took it in turns to enter the chapel. I found it an incredibly moving place. To think that something so beautiful could spring from something as hellish as war.
The fresh sea air had made us hungry, so we headed to Orkney’s largest town Kirkwall in search of food. We struck gold with the St Magnus Cafe located in the Town Hall. We grabbed a take-away lunch of vegetable soup, cheese toasties and coffee – the service was outstanding and the food delicious. We ate lunch in the car admiring the imposing St Magnus Cathedral opposite.
I prefer remote places to towns but I instantly warmed to Kirkwall.
Back on the road after lunch we spotted a sign for Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn and stopped to take a look. A short, sharp climb later we arrived at the 4,500-year-old hilltop tomb.
Historic Scotland had helpfully left a torch in a box so I grabbed it and switched it on. It emitted about as much light as a dead firefly! The low, narrow corridor into the tomb was pitch black. Mr G confirmed that under no circumstance would he be crawling inside. The cowardly wee dug, who would normally follow his Mum off a cliff feigned interest in a fascinating patch of grass. It seemed I would be the only one playing Indiana Jones that afternoon.
I hunkered down and crawled into the black abyss like a commando, desperately hoping the dead firefly torch would suddenly spring to life. I felt suffocated, and I could hear my heartbeat thundering in my ears. Inside was as black as the grave, except for a tiny orange dot cast by the torch. I took out my phone and snapped a couple of shots, the flash temporarily lit the cairn to reveal burial chambers in the walls. Creepy, claustrophobic and exhilarating is how I’d describe it – I crawled back out towards daylight as fast as I could.
Outside and no longer able to hear my heart thundering in my ear I read the information board next to the tomb. When it was discovered there were 8 sets of human remains inside, together with the skulls of 24 wee dugs! Yikes – no wonder this was one adventure too many for the four-legged explorer.
A short distance from the tomb were modern sculptures, made from piles of rock. We snapped some photos, then stood admiring the view of Orkney stretching out below us.
Our next stop was the Ness of Brodgar to see the impressive standing stones there. The first ones we came to were the gigantic 5,000-year-old Stones of Stenness, some of which tower up to 6 meters in height. Once part of a circle of 12 stones, only 4 remain upright today. I found them quite foreboding due to their overwhelming height.
Close to the Stones of Stenness stands the huge Ring of Brodgar Stone Circle and Henge which dates to the 3rd millennium B.C. The site contains prehistoric burial mounds and a circle of 34 stones. It’s thought 60 stones once stood in the circle. Their true purpose is lost in time, but it’s reasonable to believe this was once a significant ceremonial site.
The wee dug happily sniffed around, resisting the temptation to cock his leg on any of the ancient monoliths (he always treats his heritage with the utmost respect). He even posed happily for a photo without any pleading or bribery.
The final stop on our history packed first day on Orkney was Skara Brae, a fantastically well preserved prehistoric village by the sea. At 5,000-years-old it pre-dates the Egyptian Pyramids and Stone Henge.
In 1850 a severe storm blew away grass from a large dune known to locals as Skerrabra. Buried inside were the remains of the best preserved Neolithic village in Western Europe. Stone houses with built in furniture were discovered, together with numerous artefacts giving a fascinating insight into the lives of the farming and fishing community who once lived there.
Due to thousands of years worth of coastal erosion the village now lies on the fringes of Skaill Bay, where even on a nice day the waves crash against the shore. It’s vulnerable to the elements and steps have been taken to build sea defences to ensure that this historic treasure survives for many generations to come.
Before we left we checked out a replica house on-site. The wee dug had a potter around but was scunnered to discover that the meat and fish laid out inside were for display purpose only.
Taking his hint that it was time to eat we headed back to Kirkwall to stock up on goodies, before checking into our home for the next 3 nights.
Twilight was falling as we drove towards our Orkney home – a cute, bijou cottage with shabby chic charm. It took an age to find, but with directions from some helpful locals we located it.
As we pulled into a scruffy driveway my heart sank. It looked run down and unkempt. Inside was no better, it wasn’t cute or shabby chic, it was old and dusty with torn paper light shades and lumpy old chairs. Within minutes we’d met two large spiders.
The kitchen cupboard contained a half-empty tin of custard and various other foodstuff. The bathroom had some dregs of Radox left in a bottle, a damp jar of bath salts and an open bottle of mouthwash – yuck.
That evening we ate penne picante, balancing the plates precariously on our knees. We tried to remain upbeat as we drank champagne from chipped crystal glasses.
Later, we slept in our outdoor clothes, figuring they’d offer a better protective barrier to ward off spiders than our PJs.
To be continued……….
P.S. This story has a happy ending!