It’s the renewable capital of Scotland where wind turbines produce more electricity than the island requires; the land of single track roads and passing places where traffic is so minimal that traffic lights are not a concept; one of few locations in the UK where it remains light enough in the summer for midnight golf tournaments to be a tradition. It’s the island where you can travel back 5000 years in time and see the original stone furniture used by your ancestors; the climate that is so unpredictable but so invariably windy that there is no point in trying to look cool; the landscape of contrasts from vast stretches of tree-bare fields to terrifying cliff edges where the waves crash loud and high, in a way that you only imagine happened in Bible times.
This is Orkney.
Orkney marked the beginning of my real ‘island’ adventures and for the first time in my life, I ventured beyond the north of mainland Scotland. Orkney and not-so-neighbouring Shetland make up the Northern Isles, a constituency of the UK which has its own MP in Parliament and in many ways, is very distinct from its mainland counterparts. The Northern Isles only became part of Scotland in 1468. Prior to this, they were part of Norway #fact
Orkney has a population of 20,000 people, though I’m not sure where these people are hanging out on a daily basis, based on my brief few days in Orkney – potentially still hibernating. I jest, but that is the beauty of Orkney in February – you often feel like you have the entire island to yourself. Sara and I both received a lot of confused looks when we told our friends and colleagues that we were visiting Orkney in February. I mean, sure, it was cold, and yeah, I couldn’t feel my hands for the majority of the trip, but I think our photos will illustrate the beauty that can be experienced in Scotland, even in the winter.
We were fortunate to have a connection to Orkney through my friend Chris who offered us the possibility to stay in her family cottage, the Ayre, located in Rendall, north of Kirkwall. The cottage is available to rent during peak season, though it’s booked up almost a year in advance so better start planning for 2017! This cottage was the perfect base for our trip, with warmth and comfort in abundance, not to mention a stunning location beside the water.
So what is there to do in Orkney? Where to start. We didn’t do everything, partly through lack of time, but also due to not everything being open in the winter. However, the most famous sights are open throughout the year. Let’s go in chronological order.
Ok, so I just explained the Norwegian link, but why am I chatting about Italy? In 1942, during World War II, 550 Italian prisoners of war were captured in North Africa and brought to Orkney. During their time on the island, the prisoners built a causeway to block entry to the Scapa Flow, a body of water which acted as the main British naval base in WWII due to its proximity to Germany. Whilst based on the island, the prisoners gained permission to build their very own Catholic chapel, and so the Italian Chapel was born. It’s as random as it sounds, and literally appears out of nowhere as you drive around the island.
Don’t be alarmed if you’re driving to this chapel and you see what appear to be a number of shipwrecks hanging out precariously in the sea. There’s a long and dramatic history of battles, invasions and bombings in this bay and the wrecks are a resulting memory of this. Collectively, they are known as the Scapa Flow: Historic Wreck Site, now one of the world’s top diving destinations. Who knew?
Highland Park Distillery
One of Orkney’s most famous exports is whisky, and two distilleries exist on the island: Scapa and Highland Park. We visited the Highland Park distillery, just outside of Kirkwall, and undertook a one-hour tour of the premises, learning about each stage of the whisky production process as we walked around. There are a number of reasons why Highland Park whisky is unique from its competitors, both in Scotland and overseas. Firstly, the distillery undertakes its own malting process on site which involves an old-school method of turning the barley by hand. They also ferment the whisky in wooden barrels instead of steel containers, before going on to store the whisky in sherry-fused casks.
However, not being a huge whisky fan, my big question of the day was this: Why is Highland Park called Highland Park when Orkney is not in the Highlands? #confused Our retired banker and very knowledgeable tour guide James explained to us that the land on which the Highland Park distillery is located used to be known as High Park. Somewhere along the way this title got ambushed and the name became Highland Park. Hmm, this revelation was definitely more interesting when I heard it for the first time.
Old Man of Hoy
Hoy is one of the larger islands that make up Orkney, and is located south-west of Kirkwall. We booked a ferry from Houton to Lyness (it’s advised to do this in advance as the ferries can only hold around 10 vehicles) and the quick 35-minute crossing meant we were on the island, cruising around in our wee Ford Ka, by 10.30am. This was the day we felt most like it was just us and Orkney. Cue a lot of road stops for random photos of stunning scenery.
We had travelled to Hoy specifically to see the Old Man of Hoy, a 450-foot sea stack. For both of us, this day of adventure was the highlight of our time in Orkney. The photos taken below show the sunny periods of our walk. However, for every 10 minutes of sunshine that we had, we had to battle through lengthy periods of hail and wind where our faces were pelted so hard that we couldn’t actually walk forward. Needless to say, we saw no other sign of life on our 2-hour journey to the old man and back. However, we perservered, battling the elements, and we were rewarded both in views and satisfaction. I mean, why come to Hoy if you’re not going to see the Old Man?
Before we had even begun researching what to do in Orkney, Sara and I agreed that we would hunt down some traditional Scottish music on our travels. Chris had recommended The Reel and we didn’t have to look far to find it. Located beside the historic St. Magnus Cathedral, one of Kirkwall’s most famous sights that dates back to 1137, The Reel is now a hub for traditional and folk music. It was set up by the Wrigley sisters, an acclaimed fiddle and guitar duo, who, having toured the world, decided to take a break, return to Orkney and give something back to the community. It’s a café by day, a pub by night, and hosts a wide variety of folk and traditional music activities throughout the week. We went there on the Saturday night (arriving ten minutes before the building actually opened – they still let us in though, thanks Orkney) and enjoyed an array of local, talented musicians come together and jam it out.
Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar is one of four sights on Orkney that make up the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney“, along with Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Stones of Stenness. These four sights were collectively awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1999. The Ring of Brodgar (in some records written as Brogar) is believed to have been built as a ceremonial setting, dating from between 2500 and 2000 BC. Some stones stand straight and proud, whilst others have been knocked to the ground by weather forces. However, the ring is still a complete circle of stones which is incredible to see, though it’s difficult to comprehend how something so old still exists.
If the Ring of Brodgar was mind-boggling, Skara Brae was another matter. In 1850, there was a violent storm in Orkney, so strong that the grass was ripped back, revealing what appeared to be an abandoned settlement. This was the discovery of Skara Brae. A collection of stone constructions, family homes perhaps, where evidence of human life remained. The site was only properly excavated in 1920, under the leadership of a professor from the University of Edinburgh. Research over the last century has concluded that the site is over 5000 years old, was inhabited for over 600 years and for some unknown reason, was abandoned by its inhabitants. The photos look lovely and calm – the reality was quite the opposite. If the wind back then was anything like the day we visited, it does not surprise me that they made a run for it!
In addition to the main sights described above, we did a lot of driving around the island – simply because we could. We were nearly blown away at the cliffs of Yesnaby, we stumbled across sites, like the Earl’s Palace in Birsay and enjoyed a scenic cuppa at the Birsay Bay Tearoom, and we may or may not have entered another sight without paying. What? There was nobody there!
Everywhere we went, we were very, very alone.
But to be honest, aside from a few cafés not being open on the island to satisfy our hipster café needs, the peacefulness of being the lone tourists was liberating. Not only did we have the island to ourselves, but we could do what we wanted, for however long we wanted, because we felt no pressure from anyone else to do otherwise. It was the perfect break.
Having said that though, I wouldn’t say no to returning to Orkney in a sliiiightly warmer climate!
Photo credit to Sara Yoshino – a stunning collection of photos