Our second day on Orkney began bright and early. A hint of blue sky through a dusty skylight and we jumped out of bed with gazelle like agility. Despite our depressing surroundings I felt happy at the prospect of spending a day outdoors, exploring under blue skies.
I showered, managing to precariously balance the shower-head on a broken wall fixing. I was grateful to have avoided lying in the bath next to the half-empty jar of damp baths salts and the dregs of someone else’s bottle of Radox.
I made breakfast as Mr G got ready. No sooner had he hit the shower than a string of expletives emanated from the bathroom. Had I forgotten to mention that the shower-head wasn’t fixed to the wall? He emerged minutes later clutching his beloved (and dripping wet) Harris Tweed wash-bag and his equally wet outfit for the day. Apparently the shower-head wasn’t fixed to the wall and had come loose, thrashing about like an unattended fire hose, soaking everything within a 4 foot radius – who knew!
Escaping the spiders
Our first destination of the day was Deerness. It was a lovely morning so we stopped at Newark Beach to give the boy some off-lead fast running time.
We got the beach all to ourselves, it was wonderful. Then a feeling of dread hit me as my mind wandered back to our accommodation. “I need a 3G signal, and I need one now” I announced. I found one and booked us into a small hotel in St Margaret’s Hope.
We packed and checked out of the Tomb of the Spiders in record time – I felt euphoric.
Now happy as Larry we decided to visit the Tomb of the Eagles and explore Deerness properly after lunch. Of all the sites I wanted to see on Orkney this 5,000-year-old Neolithic tomb was top of my list.
In 1958 farmer Ronnie Simison made a remarkable discovery after spotting flagstones protruding from a grassy mound. He took a closer look and unearthed a mace head, three stone axe heads, a black ‘button’ and a small knife. He dug further and found a chamber. It was pitch dark inside so he lit his cigarette lighter and peered into the gloom. There staring back at him were the skulls of Neolithic Orcadians.
It was twenty years before the tomb was fully excavated and it was discovered that the human remains had been interred with the talons of sea eagles. A clan talisman or totem? Who knows.
Today the visitor centre is run by Ronnie Simison’s daughters. It’s a fascinating, interactive experience which brings the story of ‘The Ancestors’ to life. The staff are passionate about sharing the site’s history.
We learned all about the Tomb of the Eagles and a Bronze Age building which was discovered nearby. The lady who presented in the Bronze Room was brilliant, not only did she bring the Bronze Age dwelling to life, she also offered up a fascinating history of her own. This was a lady with a lovely, lilting Orcadian accent I could have listened to all day. She shared a fascinating insight into her childhood on Orkney before cars, electricity, running water and modern farm machinery. It was such a privilege to listen to her wonderful oral history.
In the Neolithic room we met ‘The Ancestors’ – Jock Tamson, Granny and Charlie Girl. I was in history geek heaven – the artefacts were real AND we got to handle them. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person from their bones. Poor Granny (who was only around 36-years-old) had been suffering from a painful dental abscess. The large hole in her jaw bone made me wince, instinctively clutching my own mouth.
Throughout our visit the Wee Dug had made his presence known by barking randomly. I was black affronted by his naughtiness but soon discovered the reason. Just when we thought our visit couldn’t get any better they pulled a rabbit out of the hat – Tour Dog Tate. Tate was a gorgeous Spaniel and our self-appointed tour guide. Apparently, he guided visitors to the tomb and Bronze Age dwelling. Even as he was donning his Tour Dog Tate bib I though I was having my leg pulled.
We left to walk the mile or so to the tomb with Tate confidently leading the way. The Wee Dug was in his element, having gained a new pal.
When it looked like we were going to bypass the Bronze Age site Tate made sure we didn’t stray off course, herding us in to view the ruins and watching proudly as if to say “pretty cool huh?”
The walk to the tomb was stunning. Nothing makes me happier than exploring a remote corner of Scotland under a clear blue sky.
Unlike our visit to Cuween Hill Cairn the day before, the Tomb of the Eagles didn’t give me a sense of foreboding or claustrophobia. I couldn’t wait to get inside. Even the Wee Dug was happy to enter. Probably because this tomb hadn’t been discovered full of wee dug skulls.
Inside it struck me, that here we were standing in a 5,000-year-old tomb with two dogs, one of which was our tour guide – ah, the joys of travelling in Scotland.
We snapped photos at our leisure and I found myself drawn to a dark chamber with bars at the entrance. I fired off a shot on my camera to see what was inside and almost jumped out of my skin when it was momentarily lit to reveal skulls.
Later, back at the visitor centre we tipped Tate with beefy treats and had a browse in the shop. There were lots of lovely items for sale which had been hand-crafted on Orkney. The lure of a pink beanie, knitted with Fair Isle wool was too strong for me to resist.
We decided to grab a take-away lunch from the wonderful St Magnus Cafe in Kirkwall again.
We arrived in the town and thought we’d just missed a mass bird slaughter. There were feathers everywhere! It turns out it was a ‘Blackening’ – a pre-wedding tradition common in the Scottish Highlands and Northern Isles. The groom is covered in sticky gunk and paraded around town in the back of a lorry, while pots and pans are banged loudly to make sure no one misses his humiliation. I remembered my own Highland wedding when Mr G spent the day reeking of sour milk after Nairn’s version of a blackening.
Five minutes later I felt like drowning him in sour milk, when he announced that he’d left his wallet at the Tomb of the Spiders. He turned the car upside down, rummaging through the contents of his rucksack – nada! With a sense of dread I found myself heading back to the place I hoped I’d never see again. He peered inside the window, no sign of the wallet. More desperate rummaging in his rucksack later and he found it! I clenched my jaw and counted slowly and silently to ten.
En-route to Deerness we stopped to see ‘The Viking’ at the beach near Burray Village. We found him leaning at a jaunty angle, giving him a menacing, war like quality.
Not long into our walk at Deerness we reach The Gloup, an alarming, gaping hole in the ground. Peering inside the collapsed sea cave made my head spin. Mr G loved it.
Although Mr G had chosen the walk I’d been enticed there by the Brough of Deerness where the ruins of a Viking settlement stand. It was a gorgeous walk – there wasn’t another soul around, the sky was blue and it was unseasonably warm for March. I was also getting another history fix, what could be better?
When we arrived my face fell. The ruins sat on top of a sea stack, accessed by the most terrifying and treacherous looking path I’ve ever seen. Steep, narrow and with sheer drops it was the stuff of nightmares – Deerness was a brough too far for me.
“No way”, I exclaimed and turned to trace our route back to the car. When I looked, Mr G was displaying a prize-winning sad face. “Ok” I relented “you go and I’ll wait here with the boy”. He was off like a shot. “Be careful, stay away from the edge and don’t run” I shouted after him, sounding more like his mother than his wife.
The intrepid explorer returned 15 minutes or so later. He was euphoric and announced that cliffs were his thing and made him feel alive. Ironic considering you’re only ever a tiny bit of coastal erosion away from death at any given time standing on a cliff. “What about the ruins?” I asked. “The what?” He replied and for the second time that day I found myself counting slowly to ten. “The ruins, what were the ruins like?”, “Oh, it was just some old stones” – I’d clearly married a philestine.
Murray Arms Hotel
It’d been a long, busy day and we’d built up an appetite and a beer and wine drooth so we checked into our accommodation. The Murray Arms Hotel in the village of St Margaret’s Hope is a small family run hotel with a bar and restaurant.
The warm Orcadian welcome that greeted us the second we set foot in the door told us we’d struck gold. Our room was lovely – modern, well equipped, spotlessly clean, and best of all comfortable – we were delighted.
The boy explored every corner before claiming the inside of the wardrobe as his cubby hole/man cave. All he ever asks of our trips is a good cubby hole to hang out in.
I had chicken curry and Mr G chose fish and chips. I’m a spice fiend and love curry. This was the best curry I’ve ever eaten in a non-Indian restaurant. Mr G said his fish and chips were the best he’d ever had. Two weeks later he’s still raving about them.
Before bed we took the boy for his last walk of the day. The village was quiet and still. We stood gazing up at the clear starry sky, enjoying the soothing sound of the sea – simple pleasures.
Stay tuned for my third and final Orkney blog, coming soon ……..