It’s been a hectic couple of weeks involving lots of Scottish travel, but I’ve finally managed to sit still long enough to write the third and final part of my Orkney blog (here’s a reminder of part 2). Writing this blog has stirred wonderful memories, transporting me back to the magical Northern Isles that stole a piece of my heart.
Our third day on Orkney began bright and early. When we’re travelling we always waken at the crack of dawn, champing at the bit to start exploring. The weather hadn’t decided if it was going to make us happy or sad yet, as angry grey clouds battled to overpower hints of blue sky.
Our first destination of the day was Birsay on the north west coast of Mainland. We sniggered like school children as we passed the small settlement of Twatt – we’re mature like that.
For a place with a smattering of houses, Birsay is a historical gem. We parked at Point of Buckquoy, beside a rocky beach with views across to the small, uninhabited island of Brough of Birsay. The island has a Stevenson lighthouse and a ruined Viking settlement on it. It can be accessed via a causeway at low tide. It was high tide during our visit and angry waves were crashing off the shore putting Brough of Birsay.
There’s something really hypnotic about watching waves and marvelling at the immense power of the sea. Mr G, always on the lookout for something to photograph, got up close – too close for my liking. I reminded him that you never hear stories on the news about people being swept out to sea. Nope, things like that just never happen!
It was bitingly cold, so we decided to explore the well-preserved ruins of the 16th century Earl’s Palace nearby. We found shelter behind its solid stone walls. The palace was built by the tyrannical Robert Stewart 1st Earl of Orkney. He was the illegitimate son of James V, and half-brother of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots.
The Wee Dug was overjoyed to find himself with a new ruins to explore and a sniffing frenzy ensued. He loves exploring ruins and doesn’t miss a spot.
The blue sky appeared to be winning its battle against the angry grey clouds. Yippee, even the notorious Orkney wind had disappeared.
The Broch of Gurness
After driving for a while we reached a sign for the Broch of Gurness. I feigned total surprise. “Oh a broch, we should visit? I hear it offers a lovely sea view” I said, hoping it did and trying to sound like us stumbling upon a broch was merely a coincidence. I was right about the view – phew.
The broch forms part of a well-preserved Iron Age settlement, which consisted of up to fourteen houses. It stands by the Eynhallow Sound facing the island of Rousay.
We had the place all to ourselves. I was in my element – history geek, seventh heaven. Even Mr G seemed impressed, not only by the pretty sea view, but by the broch too.
As we were leaving, an inscription on a memorial bench caught my eye. I love words and these words really resonated with me. They completely summed up how I feel about my travels around Scotland, witnessing scenes that will stay with me forever.
I leave few footprints on the sand for stormy seas to wash away. I take with me the breadth of sky and seas of unimaginable blue.
By the time we arrived in the lovely harbour town of Stromness in search of lunch it was a gorgeous day – wind free, sunny and warm. We wandered the cobbled streets, peeping in shop windows and snapping photos.
As we trod the cobbles of the sleepy Sunday morning streets, it was hard to imagine that Stromness was once visited by whaling fleets and ships from the Hudson Bay Company. Orkney boasts its very own Hudson Bay explorer, John Rae who discovered the final section of the Northwest Passage, the Rae Strait.
After a quick lunch, comprising of our favourite combo of soup and sandwiches, we went in search of somewhere to stretch our legs and enjoy the sunshine.
Yesnaby Castle and turquoise sea
As much as I’m always in a state of panic and behave like a total control freak on cliff walks, a cliff walk is what I suggested. I was drawn to Yesnaby as I desperately wanted to photograph Yesnaby Castle, a spectacular 35 meter sea stack.
It was a beautiful walk and much of it could be done at a comfortable distance from the cliff edge. It meant Mr G dodged my usual clifftop nagging and barrage of barbed comments.
When we reached Yesnaby Castle I coaxed myself as close to the cliff edge as I dared. It was a breathtaking sight. A huge sun-kissed stack of sandstone, surrounded by the most perfect swirling, turquoise sea I’ve ever seen. I was completely mesmerised and struggled to tear myself away. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed.
As we traced our way back to the car Mr G looked longingly at the Brough of Bigging, which is a promontory of rock attached to the shore by a narrow isthmus. It was once occupied by a hill fort and is a site of archaeological significance. It wasn’t archaeology Mr G was after though, it was the thrill of the clifftop once more.
The Wee Dug and I found a lovely spot to sit and relax. We watched Mr G hurry off into the distance, until he was no more than a dot on the horizon. We basked in the warm spring sunshine, listening to the seabirds sing and the waves crash – it was utterly blissful.
Skaill Bay and an Orkney Ice Cream hunt
As the boy had earned some off lead time, we decided to take him to the beach at Skaill Bay, where the ancient village of Skara Brae stands. Our mission was twofold – enjoy some fun on the beach and buy some Orkney Ice Cream from the shop at Skara Brae.
The boy wasn’t bothered a jot by the heat and charged about like a mad thing. Eventually, he burned himself out and stopped to cool his feet in the sea.
I was delighted when I found a rock worn away into a perfect triangle by the sea. It reminded me of the heavy stone tools the inhabitants of Skara Brae once used.
Our hopes of eating Orkney Ice Cream were dashed when we discovered the shop freezer at Skara Brae empty – nooooooooooo.
Undeterred, we set off on an Orkney Ice Cream hunt. The good weather had led to a surge in demand, resulting in the emptying of shop freezers across Mainland. After a fruitless 45 minute search we’d only managed to secure a small tub of lemon curd ice cream and a hot tip that Bruces Store in Kirkwall might have a supply.
We headed straight there and found not THE Orkney Ice Cream, but a happy compromise – delicious homemade Malteser ice cream. It was unbelievably good. The boy was hot too, so we let him indulge in some lemon curd ice cream. He lapped it up gratefully.
There was one last walk I wanted to do before our final day of exploring on Orkney drew to a close. I wanted to visit Hoxa Head on South Ronaldsay to see the abandoned WWII buildings that still stand there – eerie lookout towers, nissen huts and silent gun batteries. My Grandad was stationed on Orkney during WWII and I wish I knew more about his time there, but sadly it’s too late to ask.
What I do know, is that he wrote for the army newspaper and loved it. He was a prolific writer, always bashing away on his typewriter. I felt close to him on Orkney and thought of him often. It was hard not to, with so many reminders of the Second World War dotted around the place.
Our walk at Hoxa Head was lovely. It was such a calm and peaceful place, which seemed odd with so many signs of war surrounding us. I could picture the gun batteries with their heavy guns fitted to metal tracks, so they could rotate to aim at moving enemy targets.
Across the water lay the island of Hoy. We could see gun batteries and lookout towers there too. After the shock sinking of the Royal Oak in 1939, Scapa Flow had been armed to the hilt to prevent a similar attack happening again.
That evening, we enjoyed another tasty dinner back at the Murray Arms Hotel. I had haggis fritters to start and couldn’t resist the curry again. Mr G ate from the Mothers Day Menu, which I’m sure he did to draw attention to our 9 year gap. Over dinner we chatted about our Orkney adventures, reflecting on an unforgettable few days.
We reluctantly left Orkney early the next morning, nowhere near ready to come home. Orkney bade us farewell with a spectacular sunrise.
A couple of days later I was interviewed by BBC Radio Orkney about our visit. I was asked what my favourite thing about Orkney was. It was an easy question to answer – it was the seas of unimaginable blue.
Until next time…