first-time visitor to Orkney experiences a kind of culture shock. The term is not entirely
appropriate; shock implies a jarring sensation, quite different from the pleasing
succession of impressions you begin to gather coming off the ferry or plane.
These are of a world with subtly different values from the
one you may have left. In Orkney’s 70 islands, starting six miles north of the
Scottish mainland, are villages, burial chambers and standing stones built before the
Great Pyramids of Egypt. Vast colonies of unusual birds mingle over extraordinary
landscapes: sea-pounded cliffs, rich green pasturelands and vivid carpets of flowers. Life
takes on a different perspective when you are surrounded by such treasures.
Fast food chains are notable for their absence. The local
produce has a freshness of flavour that may make you realise what your palate has been
missing. The nearest motorway is more than 200 miles distant; road rage is unknown, unless
you count the tantrums of a tern whose nest has been disturbed. The night sky is virtually
as it was thousands of years ago, untinged by city lighting; there are starscapes unseen
in most of mainland Britain.
To help you adjust to this way of life, you may wish to bring
a few things: camera, binoculars, bicycle, surf board, fishing rod, golf clubs or anything
else you need for your favourite sport. Change of clothing – even if the weather
takes a turn for the wetter, the attractions will bring you out and about. Good walking
shoes or boots. Oh, and time. As much as you can spare. Because although you’ll
become quickly acclimatised to the Orkney culture, you will want to extend the experience.
Orkney has been home to
farmers and fishermen for the past five and a half thousand years. What makes Orkney
unique is the concentration of accessible archaeological remains in such a small area.
The past is, quite
literally, all around you. Of course there are the well known sites such as Skara Brae,
Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar and
the great sandstone bulk of St Magnus Cathedral. But there is a host of smaller treasures too.
Landscapes rich in heritage, inhabited by people who today want to preserve the treasures
of past millennia for the benefit of the children of the next.
Man’s activities in
Orkney can be seen throughout the landscape, not just at the scheduled archaeological
sites. From the Treb dykes of the North Isles - great linear earthworks 3000 years older
than Offa’s Dyke – to the farm mounds of Sanday and elsewhere
which represent generations of occupation.
Sometimes it is the tide or storms
which reveal a little more of our past. Orkney suffers some of the worst coastal erosion
in Scotland and while it is exciting to find new treasures it is heartbreaking to watch
them being eroded and lost forever. It takes skill and luck to find these sites, and time
and money to save them.
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