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Excursion to the Orkney Islands
Chapter XVI. Kirkwall


The hotel at Kirkwall, when it first came into view, presented a very unpromising appearance. It was built upon a little paved court, the front, containing the entrance being at the back side of the court, and two wings one on each side extending forward to the street. A low wall, with two gateways through it, extended along the line of the street from one of these wings to the other.

The building itself, like all the buildings in the town, was formed of very thick and massive walls of stone, with windows set in so far back in the wall, that the sashes scarcely appeared in view. Indeed in looking along the street the windows of the houses appeared only as openings in the wall, as if the buildings were so many stoney barns.

On entering the hotel, however, the scene was entirely changed. The waiter conducted the party up to the second story, and ushered them at once into a large and handsomely furnished room. There was a bright fire blazing in the grate, and a polished mahogany dining-table in the middle of the floor, and arm-chairs, and sofas, and carpets, and curtains to the windows, and tables in the comers covered with books, and stands of flower-pots with flowers in full bloom, and many other nameless conveniences and elegancies which are comprised in the idea of a comfortable parlor in an English inn.

“Ah, Florence!” exclaimed Mrs. Morelle. "This is just the place for us. How glad I am to see the fire. I did not know I was so cold.”

The chambermaid came soon to show the Ladies their chamber, and Mrs. Morelle when she went into hers, asked Grimkie to order the best breakfast that he could get for them. In half an hour the breakfast was ready, and very soon after breakfast the whole party set out to take a walk and see the town.

They found that the town consisted chiefly of a very long and narrow street, which followed the curvature of the shore. It was very narrow, and seemed intended almost exclusively for foot-passengers. There was only a narrow track in the center of it, about two feet wide, that is, just wide enough for one horse—that was paved like a street. The rest of the space on each side was covered with flag stones for foot-passengers. Thus the street was almost all sidewalk.

“We may know by the narrowness of the streets and by the looks of the houses that they have dreadful gales of wind and storms here in the winter,” said Grimkie. “See what thick walls, and what little windows and how few! See how deep the windows are set in the walls, so that the gales may not get at them to burst them in”

The party walked on for some time, following the windings of the street, and looking in at the shop windows to see what sort of things there were to sell. At one place they saw some views in the Orkneys, hanging at the window of a print shop. There was a view of some of the coast scenery, with lofty mountains rising abruptly out of the sea, and tremendous precipices. There was a view also of the town of Kirkwall, and one of Stromness, a place upon the opposite side of the island. But the picture which most attracted the attention of Mrs. Morelle and Florence, was one of the Stones of Stennis. It was a view of an open plain in a wild and desolate country, with a range of gigantic stones, like immense tombstones, set up in the ground.

“What is this?” asked Mrs. Morelle; “what are the stones of Stennis?”

“Ah, that is something very curious,” replied Grimkie. “I read an account of them. They are on the road to Stromness. We must go to see them.”

“They look like the pictures I have seen of Stonehenge,” said Florence.

“They are like Stonehenge,” said Grimkie.

After going along a little farther, the party came to a sort of open space in which there was an immense cathedral, old and ruinous, though it bore marks of having been recently repaired. Mrs. Morelle was much surprised to see this edifice. She wondered how there could ever have been any occasion for a structure of such magnitude in so remote a region, and still more how it could ever have been built. But the truth is that the earls of Orkney, who formerly ruled over the islands like sovereign princes, were at one time very wealthy and powerful, and there was a time moreover, during the period in which the Catholic religion was in the ascendency in these countries, when the cathedrals and abbeys, and monasteries which were built in the north of Scotland, and in the islands adjacent, were of the grandest and most gorgeous description.

“Would you like to go in and see the cathedral, Auntie?” asked Grimkie.

“Do they have service in it on Sunday?” rejoined Mrs. Morelle.

“In one end of it,” said Grimkie. "One end is finished off for a church. The rest of it is empty.”

“Then we shall see it to-morrow when we go to church,” replied Mrs. Morelle, “and that will be better. I like to see such places better when the people are in them.”

The stones with which the cathedral had been repaired were of a red color, which gave them the appearance of monstrous bricks. They were really of sandstone, though of a bright color. John said that he read in a guide book that they were obtained from a quarry in a cliff which was named Red Head.

Near the cathedral were the ruins of two ancient palaces, the bishop’s and the earl's. These ruins were very ancient and venerable, and Mrs. Morelle and Florence were greatly interested in walking about them, and looking up to the ivy covered battlements and towers. It was melancholy to look upon these utterly abandoned ruins. The air of desolation and solitude which reigned around them was greater than Mrs. Morelle had ever observed in any ruins before. In England there are many remains of ancient edifices, but they are all objects of great interest to tourists, and are visited by great numbers of people, for whose benefit the grounds are kept in order, and a certain degree of life is imparted to the scene. But these old palaces seemed not only to have outlived their possessors and occupants, but to have been utterly forsaken and forgotten by all the world, and an air of solitude and desolation reigned around them that it would be impossible to describe.

After passing by the ruins of the palaces, Mrs. Morelle and the children found themselves coming out into the country at a place where the road ascended a hill. They concluded to continue their walk until they reached the summit, in order to take a survey of the situation of Kirkwall, and of the surrounding country. So they walked slowly on, stopping occasionally to look at objects of interest, or to talk with the.peasant women whom they met in the road, or found standing at their cottage doors.

They asked one of these women about their mode of life in the winter. Among other questions they asked her if the days were not very short at that season of the year.

“Yes," said she, “very short. In fact there is not much of any day in the winter, and it is always snowing, or blowing, or raining, or something else, so that there is not much chance to work upon the land. So the men stay in the barns a great deal, and thrash the grain, and do other such things, by the light of lanterns.” “But I should think the ground would be frozen up in the winter" said Grimkie, “and that that would prevent working on the land.”

“No" said the woman. “The ground does not freeze much. We can always work on the land when it is good weather.''

“That's very strange" said Grimkie, “so far north as this.”

“And is not the ground covered with snow?” asked Mrs. Morelle.

“Not much,” said the woman. “It snows very often, but the snow does not lie on the ground much.”

“And don't you travel in sleighs here in the winter then?” asked John.

“Sleighs?” repeated the woman, looking puzzled, “what are they?”

“Sledges perhaps you call them,” suggested Mrs. Morelle.

“No,” replied the woman. “We never use sledges. But they do in some countries I've heard tell,”

After reaching the top of the hill, the party stopped to take a survey of the country around, and a very magnificent spectacle presented itself to view. The land extended in every direction farther than they could see, but it was divided and separated into so many portions by bays, straits, inlets, and channels formed by the sea, that the view exhibited as charming a combination of land and water as could possibly be imagined. The islands which were near were formed of green and fertile slopes of land, of marvelous beauty, with pretty dells and vales opening here and there among them, and hamlets and villages, and farm-houses, and gentlemen’s seats, dotting the country in every direction. Toward the west ranges of lofty mountains were seen. Grimkie took out his map and a little pocket compass which he had, and endeavored to ascertain the names of some of the highest peaks, by the bearings and distances of them. He pointed out in what direction they would go in their ride to Stromness, and where the Stones of Stennis were, though the spot was not actually in view, being concealed by an intervening mountain.

They saw great numbers of cattle and sheep feeding on the hill sides in every direction. Indeed cattle and sheep are the staple productions of the Orkney Islands. The climate is so wet that the grass grows luxuriantly, and notwithstanding the high latitude the air is so tempered by the influence of the surrounding seas that it continues green nearly all the year.

To the west and south, lofty mountains were seen, in the distance. Grimkie and John were greatly taken with the view of these mountains. They concluded that they must lie at the south of Stromness.

"When we go to Stromness we will go up to the top of them, Johnnie,” said Grimkie.

John very readily assented to this proposal, and Florence said that they must take her too.

After remaining upon the top of the hill until they were satisfied with studying the localities which were in sight, and with admiring the different views, they all descended again, and returned to the hotel. Instead, however, of going back through the main street, they took another course which led them along the margin of the water. Here they saw the piers which formed the little port, and the fishing boats lying inside of them, and many other curious things. Among other objects that arrested their attention was a small hut near the shore, the roof of which was made of an old boat turned upside down. The boat was supported by walls of stone which formed the sides of the hut, and there was a door in front to go in by. John was so much pleased with this curious hut that he took paper and a pencil out of his pocket in order to draw it, and he remained behind, to make his sketch, while the rest of the party went on; so that he did not return to the hotel until some time after the others arrived.

He had, however, made a very pretty drawing, so pretty that Florence asked him to copy it in ink in her journal book, which John readily promised to do.


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