It’s hard to find a land with such dense concentration of prehistorical monuments. Imagine an open-air museum where you move from one exhibit to another and doesn’t spend much time to get all of them. This story is just about one of such unique places – the Orkney Islands, a proud and independent land like the entire Scotland.
Geographically, the Orkney Islands are an archipelago in the north of Scotland consisting of 70 islands, of which only 20 are inhabited. The largest island, the Mainland, with the capital Kirkwall is now home to nearly 15 thousand residents. The island is accessible by ferry from various cities in the north-east of Scotland. For example, we got there in the north via Gills Bay which is 10 km away from the town of Thurso. There are also other options, e.g. to sail on a ferry from Aberdeen, however the trip would be much longer. Ferry services are public transport in Scotland with its numerous islands. Travelling by ferry is a very pleasant experience. Ferries have everything to make you feel comfortable on board. During a 45-minute trip, you can enjoy walking on the deck, snack and drink coffee in a local café or even sleep on free seats when there are a few passengers. So, relax and enjoy a very comfortable journey. It is better to buy ferry tickets in advance, however the tickets are also available an hour before departure. Ferries sail 3-4 times a day, so the trip to islands is not an issue. We use Pentlandferries services. More about their service fees (one car + 2 people).
The life on such a remote piece of land might seem very difficult for urban residents. This assumption is not far from the truth. The climate is much more severe on the islands than on the Mainland. Orkneys are known for their strong wind and absence of trees. I don’t know whether these two features are interrelated, but one thing I know for sure: a windproof hat and a hooded jacket is your must-have any time of the year! When you come here for a few days, forget the abundance you’ve seen in stores in large cities throughout Scotland. Large grocery stores are represented by one Tesco in Kirkwall, and the choice is somewhat limited. There are also small groceries throughout the island, but that’s all you find there. Although there are lots of cafes, they all have one strange feature – they open after 4 p.m., except for those in hotels. Having faced such a strange peculiarity, we had to drive around Kirkwall to find at least one point to dine out. This is also true for other stores and shops – the choice of goods and products is very limited. Don’t hope to have good shopping there. However the choice of local goods was wide: from clothes to unique jewellery manufactured by local craftsmen.
So, what are the Orkney Islands, visited every year by thousands of tourists from all over the world, famous for? First, here are the well-preserved monuments of the Neolithic age built some 5000 years ago and protected as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We think that Standing Stones of Stenness are the most impressive. Located in the northeast shore of Loch of Stenness, 12 vertically standing stone slabs were originally arranged in a circle 44 m in diameter. The four stones remained today give an impression of the immensity of the entire complex. The age of these stones is more than 5,000 years. In other words, they are at least 800 years older than the famous cromlech in England – Stonehenge. The highest of the remaining stones is 5 meters high, but the most interesting thing is that the stone goes into the ground by 2 meters. The overall height of the stone is 7 meters. Interestingly, how the ancient people could transport and install those giant rocks without any special machinery available for today’s builders. The purpose of Stones of Stenness remains a mystery. Some researchers believe that this stone circle could be the Temple of Moon, and the dolmen stones of Brodgar lying nearby could be the Temple of Sun. This is a pure assumption. We’d better admire the amazing monuments that have survived to the present days.
The larger, though a less ancient stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar is located near the Stones of Stenness. The stone circle is 104 meters in diameter. There were originally nearly 60 stones; however 27 remained. Notably, one stone was destroyed by lightning and lies on the ground. The Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness are known as so-called the Orkneys Complex. They used to serve one purpose – to observe Sun and Moon. The stones are incredible at any time of the day, but the most impressive scenery is at the sunset.
Another must-see on the Orkney Islands is the unique Neolithic settlement on the seashore – Skara Brae. Its construction dates back to 3100 BC. In other words, it is more than 5,000 years old. The settlement is perfectly preserved because it had been completely buried under a layer of ground for a few thousand years and was discovered accidently – a heavy storm bared a piece of the shore and the settlement in 1850. Moreover, everything remained intact and nothing was destroyed. It’s an incredible experience to dip into the past, go back by 5,000 years ago and look at people’s life far away from the mainland. Although not very large, the settlement gives an idea of skills of the people who had built it. Houses were made of stones due to absence of wood. Cracks between stones were sealed with moss to make a very dense windproof layer. There are beds, a kind of cabinets, boxes, and even a very primitive sewage system in the houses. Inhabitants of this settlement were fishers, raised cattle, made pottery and jewellery. However, what we see today does not disclose the major secret: who were those people, how did they get there and why they left their settlement? They had to go away suddenly: they just left their homes, including dishware. Household items with various symbols keep other mysteries. The symbols were considered runes. The detailed analysis showed that they are Egyptian hieroglyphs. We can only guess how Egyptian hieroglyphs could come there.
If you have time after visiting all these attractions and would like to continue exploring the islands, I would strongly recommend the second round of sights in my must-visit list.
The Tomb of Eagles, known to contain remains of 340 people and at least 14 eagles, is on the south of the Orkney Islands. Eagles gave the name to this site. The tomb is made in the form of a stone pyramid with a very narrow passage. To get inside, you need to lie down on a small skate board and pull yourself into the tomb with a rope. If you are claustrophobic, don’t go inside. There are large chambers and niches inside the tomb. They are not lightened but flashlights are available. The tomb was built about 3,000 years ago and was used to make sacrifices to Goddess of Death.
Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands, has many tourist attractions too. St. Magnus Cathedral is one of its most beautiful buildings. It is the Britain’s northernmost cathedral erected in honour of the son of the ruler of the Orkneys – Magnus, who was numbered with the saints after his death. Started in 1137, the construction was completed three centuries later. Entrance to the Cathedral is free. You can learn the historical facts about St Magnus’ life. The Cathedral has a very rare artefact for the United Kingdom – a unique underground which served as a prison. An ancient cemetery is nearby.
The Bishop’s Palace is just across the Cathedral. You have to buy entrance tickets to see the ruins dating back to the 12th century showing bishops’ life on the Orkney Islands.
The entrance ticket allows you to visit other ruins – Earl’s Palace also known as Residence of Earls of Orkney. This large building with many rooms was destroyed in 1705.
Whisky lovers should definitely visit two distilleries on the islands. We visited both, but took a guided tour at Scapa Distillery producing a single malt whiskey with a very mild flavour. Another feature of this distillery is that no automation is used in the production process. Now, as back in 1885, all the stages of the production process are completely manual. The distillery overlooks the bay with the same name Scapa. The German fleet was scuttled here during the First World War.
Wildlife lovers will amaze the beauty of the Orkney Islands and enjoy a walk along the ocean coast Yesnaby Coastal Walk. Mind strong winds and splashing waves and dress well. While walking, you will see unusual rock formations and cliffs, but the most important attraction of this trail is a rock called Yesnaby Castle. The two-legged sea stack strikes by its massiveness and fragility. In the spring you have good chances to see colonies of puffins on the rocks. A beautiful flower Scottish Primrose grows on the coastal promontories and is known as a symbol of youth and fun.
Orphir, a settlement near the capital, with the Orphir Round Kirk is nearby. Round churches are rare for Britain’s land. Historians believe that such architecture could be seen by crusaders on the Holy Land. You can also see a renovated ship used by Vikings to travel and conquer new lands.
Having visited the Orkney Islands once, you will never forget this land. The islands will stick to your memory as a fascinating experience of exploring a unique land on our planet and its history of many thousand years described in Old Icelandic books Orkneyinga Saga.