A Modern Orkney Saga
This travelogue resulted from my involvement with the historical fiction author Dorothy Dunnett - for whom I run a number of pages on the James Thin website, and my subsequent involvement in the many on-line discussion groups on Dorothy's books. Through these channels I have made many on-line friends and been fortunate to meet a good many of them in the flesh.
Four Americans: two Nancys, Jan and Marthe, had for the last year been planning a pilgrimage to the Orkney Isles; home of Thorfinn the Mighty, countless archaeological sites of stunning quality and some of the finest seascapes anywhere in the world. (Oh, and Highland Park malt whisky as well!) To this party were added Simon from deepest Gloucester and Cindy Byrne from Dublin. I had silently nursed an idea of joining them since the winter, having longed to return to Orkney since my only previous visit in 1984, but had not thought it really possible until two weeks into May when suddenly everything fell into place. Having made the arrangement to get the time off and hurriedly arranged travel details, I thought it would be a nice surprise to appear at their Kirkwall meeting unannounced, so I checked with Simon about timings and plans and swore him to secrecy about my visit, Cindy being the only exception.
The Journey North
The trip for me started early on Saturday 2nd June with a 6.40am departure from Edinburgh in crisp sunlight which reflected enticingly from the Forth as we crossed the famous old rail bridge and the Fife beaches as we ran along the coast to Kirkcaldy. The fields were full of lambs, no longer in their first flush of youth but still prone to scampering around. It was so quiet changing trains at the rambling old-fashioned station at Perth that I already felt far removed from the city bustle. Crossing the Highland Line and past Dunkeld into the beginnings of the real mountains the good weather continued in spite of a stormy forecast but there was a magnificent rainbow arching over the glen as the train approached Pitlochry.
Half an hour on and we had penetrated the narrow Pass of Killikrankie and passed the gentle trees and lawns of Blair Atholl with its old restored water-driven flour mill, and were heading into the wilder heather-clad high moors towards Dalwhinnie. A bare, cold and forbidding place even in sunshine, though there were only the final patches of snow in a few corries. If you see it in the winter with a howling gale and water dripping from everywhere you gain a deep respect for those who travelled by horse or foot in earlier times. As it often seems to, the weather closed in as we passed the summit of the pass, but at least the mountain forecast I'd listened to the previous night - freezing level of 2000 feet and rain falling as snow over 1500 feet - was proving completely inaccurate!
It had been raining and there were dark clouds on the hills to the east as we pulled into Kingussie, but we were in bright sunshine. This is shinty country, and the rivalry between Kingussie and Newtonmore a few miles away is legendary. Shinty is a ball game which predates Christianity and is similar in some ways to hockey or the Irish Hurly, but unlike hockey the ball is allowed to travel in the air and the curve-ended stick used, called a Caman, is slightly lofted to facilitate this, so the shots and passes bear some relation to a golf shot. A tremendously fast and skilful game played on a pitch somewhat larger than a soccer pitch it is a superb spectacle if you ever get a chance to see it. It's also the closest that highlanders get to open warfare these days, and their ability to survive without complaint some of the blows that land on flesh and bone rather than ball is a testament to the spirit of these traditionally hardy people. Some of the more pampered and highly-paid sports stars might benefit from trying it! In fact Kingussie must have been nearly empty that day as their team were in Glasgow playing the final of the Camanachd Cup against Oban. The prestigious final moves around the country and is usually north of the Highland line but with many of highland descent living in Glasgow and a team based there it occasionally plays host.
Past Culloden and on to Inverness and another change of train, where a heavy rain shower dissuaded me from calling in to our shop in Union St during the hour's gap before the connection northwards, a hot mug of tea and a bacon roll proving far too much of a temptation despite the sandwiches in my bag!
From Inverness the route takes us along the Beauly Firth and around the Black Isle. A curious misnomer since it is neither an island nor is it noticeably dark in colour. In fact it is a rich fertile area, vibrant with the seasonal colours of crops, and today it was looking lush under the cleared skies with calves and foals in the fields alongside the ubiquitous lambs, who were getting younger as we progressed north.
After Dingwall we skirt the coast of the Cromarty Firth where the now fickle weather brought low rainclouds on a westerly breeze, and it was through a curious misty view that the giant North Sea Oil platforms reared from their anchorage in the fabrication yards at
The line, denied a short cut over the recent Dornoch Bridge by pro-road/anti-rail planners, now heads inland on a long loop through Lairg, a small but strategically placed village which at certain times of the year has one of the largest livestock markets in the country. The land once again changes character as the bright yellow flowers of Broom and Whin bushes dapple the hillsides. Visitors with golfing spouses should take the turnoff to Dornoch, an ancient town with a fine cathedral and the home of the Royal Dornoch golf course, a favourite of Tom Watson's amongst other famous players.
After Lairg the line heads over to the fertile little strath of Rogart before meeting the coast again and passing below the hated statue commemorating the Duke of Sutherland sitting high above the attractive little town of Golspie. The reason for the hatred is that we are now in the area of one of the worst examples of the Highland Clearances, perpetrated by the factor on the Duke's behalf. It is a sobering trip to drive up the now deserted glens and realise that they were once filled with people who were forced out and their homes burned. In contrast the fairytale castle of Dunrobin sits on the coast in its splendid gardens declaring the Lord's wealth to all.
The temperature had fallen noticeably as we sped north and the air had that characteristic freshness that I had almost forgotten from my last visit to these parts in 1991. Another shower had washed the scene clean and left the colours sharply incised along the coast - the yellows and greens of the hills running down to the pale blues and greens of the sea where it washed against dark rocks and bright clean sand on which could now be seen shags and cormorants.
At Helmsdale we turn inland up the strath of the same name for the last leg of the mainland journey, much quicker this time than the elderly locomotive that was still in use for my trip of 1984. Above Kildonan we begin to see fences made of stone flags, Orkney-style, and geese grazing amongst the sheep, probably taking a rest on their way from Islay to Greenland and Iceland. The high moorland is bleak and lacking in shelter and the mountains to the north-west hold the gaze.
We swing past a loch with a perfect peaked hill overlooking it in stark isolation and race down to the coast, arriving to the sight of white waves against the coast and squally winds. The boat is late due to Force 7 storms in the morning and the view out to sea with binoculars promises a rough crossing. I take an hour out in the local pub to rest after the journey and then go down to the terminal to find masses of children - Stromness Youth Club have been on an outing and are laden with toys and presents - but apart from the usual noisy chatter they are very well behaved.
Standing at the rail just before departure I ask a couple of crewman about the sea conditions and one of them suggests that we'll probably take the longer easterly route via Scapa Flow as the rough seas would make the normal western route too difficult. A seal pops its head out of the water and looks at us as if to say that it's safer in port! The boat finally sails about an hour late and the captain announces that we will indeed take the eastern route "but the first part of the journey may be a little uncomfortable". The sight of a trawler plunging into the spray and almost disappearing confirms the wisdom of the decision.
I wasn't sure which sailing the US contingent were taking but I spot a group of four women in the section just forward of my table and think I may recognise one of them. A brief mutual trip on deck in the wind and spray confirms that they are American, and I engage them in a short conversation (they hadn't realised about the change of route and therefore had mistaken Dunnet Head for Hoy) but I'm still not certain and hold my surprise for later. After a nap to ward off the effects of the rough seas I have a meal and then head back to my table where the group has now moved in next to where my luggage is sitting. I stand looking out of the window while they pour over maps and I hear the name Nancy mentioned, further confirming the identification. Abandoning thoughts of leaving the surprise till Kirkwall, it is now only a matter of choosing the right moment. Shortly after, mention is made of Dunnottar Castle and one of them says that a character in the books was at Dunnottar when the (historical) Richard Chancellor shipwreck was "around here" - pointing to a place a good twenty miles away from the true spot. An irresistible opening!! I lean over as casually as possible, point to the correct place, and say "Actually I think you'll find it was about there" Four jaws drop in unison and everyone looks at me in astonishment. Trying desperately to keep a straight face I allow a pause *just* long enough to heighten the drama, give a nod of the head, and announce "Bill Marshall at your service", and am rewarded with four expressions that I'll treasure to my dying day!
We only have around 15 minutes to chat - "which is your favourite series?" - "Lymond", "which is your favourite part of Scotland?" - "probably Mull", "what are you doing here?" - "coming to meet you of course!" - before we dock in Stromness and the girls head off to their base near Orphir. I'm staying in Stromness for the night and check in to my hotel just across from the ferry to find that this is just the second night that new owners are running the place and that they are having a party and a band to celebrate and the place is packed with locals. Luckily my room is at the top floor and insulated from the noise. Unwilling to waste a second of the trip I take a walk through the narrow stone street of the town, enjoying the peace and quiet and the fresh northern air. The light too is welcome - even by 11pm it is still far from dark.
The next morning brings a problem - how to get to Kirkwall, for the bus timetable makes no mention of Sunday. While paying the bill I enquire about alternatives and the owner's wife tells me she's going there in 15 minutes and would be happy to give me a lift! This sort of immediate kindness to strangers is typical of the islanders and it was gratifying to find it hadn't changed since my last visit. Which was how I unexpectedly found myself in Kirkwall by 10am. I approached the The St Ola Hotel expecting to at best dump my cases but was pleased to find that they my room was ready - they told me that they don't let the rooms on Saturday night because of the noise from the public bar which they run next door. Imagine a mainland hotel doing that!
After settling in I wandered round Kirkwall and tried to match the scene with my 17 year-old memories. Mostly it hasn't changed much but the whisky shop had gone, probably due to the distillery being more open, and the old bookshop with the very esoteric stock and extremely uncommercial reordering policy has either gone or been modernised beyond recognition. However the town isn't short of bookshops, and there is a literary festival coming up later in the month. After a pleasant stroll and a snack in lieu of lunch (breakfast had been excellent) I suddenly found the travelling catching up on me and a short nap back in the room turned into a two and half hour sleep! I was soon to realise that it really doesn't matter when you sleep as it never gets dark and you quickly lose all track of time.
Soon it was time to meet the others and have a meal. As I was by this time rather hungry and wasn't sure if they were eating first or not I went ahead with mine. Simon and Cindy were first to appear - their ferry crossing had been much easier but Cindy was suffering from a nasty toothache. The girls arrived later and we all went through to the restaurant where their was more room, there to get better acquainted, make plans, and harass the young and charming but rather inexperienced waitresses with myriad requests in diverse accents.
Sadly the weather was not being kind to us, with low cloud and mist driven by a stiff breeze, and we decided to start with the Kirkwall attractions. St Magnus Cathedral has been restored since my 1984 visit and looked superb, We wandered around reading ancient burial slabs and spotting stained glass windows bearing the names of our familiar King Hereafter characters, while being treated to snatches of dramatic music on the organ, which was being serviced. Next was the ruined Earl's Palace and Bishop's Palace where we were afforded excellent views back to the cathedral from the top towers.
Our little band poured into our two cars and we headed out to the Brough of Birsay and Earl's Palace at the north-west corner of the Mainland. You get to the Brough by a causeway which can only be used at low tide. We walked out on this and explored the ruins of the settlement and chapel, then, braving the driving wind and rain, some of us climbed the slope to the lighthouse, which was being reconditioned and where a hardy workman was standing at the face of the light sealing the window-glass. The views over the cliffs, at the base of which the sea was churning white, were spectacular, and we saw plenty of birdlife though sadly none of the puffins which are reported to nest here.
A trip to the tiny local tearoom to warm up (another bacon roll!) was followed by a wander round the remains of the Earl's Palace built by Patrick Stewart - an illegitimate son of James V.
On the way back we stopped at the Ring of Brodgar, one of the best henge monuments in existence and sited spectacularly on a narrow strip of land between the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness. Even in the grey wet conditions it was an inspiring and evocative sight and the plaintive cries of the many curlew which flew around us made it even more so. All were struck by its atmosphere and were drawn to touch the ancient stones with their hands. Even though I'd been lucky enough to be there before in better conditions I could feel a tingle running up my spine at standing there again. Somehow ancient history seems so much more immediate on Orkney.
The few remaining foot-and-mouth restrictions meant we couldn't enter the field containing the Stones of Stenness but could only watch from the roadside while the sheep sheltered behind their massive forms. On the way back to Kirkwall for dinner we dropped into the girls B&B - the superbly converted Mill of Eyreland, which contains many original features such as grain hoppers and drive wheels. They had a self-contained suite on the top floor and were very comfortable indeed. The one thing to watch out for if you ever stay there is to take plenty of cash as the owner distrusts credit cards. Actor Robert Carlyle had been staying there recently and despite his fame she'd sent him into Kirkwall to get money!!
Incidentally, when you're in Orkney make sure to have plenty of their excellent sea-food - the herring in a four piece seafood starter I had that night was easily the best I've tasted, and while Nancy W reckoned she marginally preferred the crab back home it was still better than most I'd had. Remind me to come and taste crab in your neck of the woods sometime Nancy! However if you value your waistline, do not, ever, under any circumstances, even remotely consider trying the Orkney Fudge Cheesecake. It is heavenly, must be a thousand calories a spoonful at least, and is totally addictive!!
Cindy had been bravely battling toothache in her wisdom teeth but decided to rest and visit the local dentist service, so we set off one short. It was a great pity because first on the itinerary was the amazing 5000 year-old stone village of Skara Brae. It is under the care of Historic Scotland and there is an entry charge at the interpretive centre. However unlike some visitor centres this one is an informative and sensitive introduction with many aspects directed at interesting children. The money is also put to good use protecting the site from the sea - a constant problem for much of the archaeology in these islands. Once through the explanatory exhibition you first listen to a guide in a reconstructed example of a roofed house and then walk some distance to the site itself, set in a pretty horseshoe bay into which the seas still pounded. Another guide, well wrapped against the wind, is happy to answer any questions you may have. The village was discovered in 1850 when a storm stripped the sand and turf from a series of dunes and revealed the neat stone dressers and boxes set in their underground rooms. Mostly you look down on the rooms from above but in a few places you can walk down into them. Words are quite insufficient to express the wonder of standing in such a place. I urge anyone with any interest in archaeology or pre-history to beg borrow or steal the fare to visit this wonderful island. Even if you only see Brodgar and Skara Brae you'll consider it worthwhile.
Part of the same site is the walk back to visit Skaill House This might have been thought an anti-climax after Skara Brae but in fact it was an interesting display and even threw up some familiar place-names amongst the past owners' military adventures.
Still elated from what we'd seen we moved on to the nearby Yesnaby Cliffs. The car park is at an old WW2 gun emplacement but walk a few yards and you come to a spectacular series of cliffs and inlets which to the south give a fine view over to the even higher cliffs of Hoy with the Old Man outlined at their edge. A walk of only about half a mile in this direction is rewarding for the changing views as the waves roar and spill over the rocks while seabirds swoop overhead. It is a favourite spot for photographers and painters and you'll see lots of images in the
giftshops. As always when standing by the coast, the sea draws the gaze ever back to its rolling churning waves, never the same colour twice
Still not sated we headed inland to Maes Howe - the chambered tomb which the Vikings broke into and which was probably the model for the scene in
KH. A delightful lady guide led us down the low passageway (my head hitting the roof a couple of times) and showed us the runic writings in the centre chamber and described the winter solstice sun shining down the passage to strike the wall at the back. Some of the stones which make up the superbly constructed and fitted structure weigh around thirty tons and the massive entrance stone is set in such a way that it can be rocked into place to block the doorway.
Returning to Kirkwall we found Cindy a little better having received antibiotics, and had a hearty meal. Anywhere else this would have been the end of the day, but here in the north the sky was still light as the cloud finally started to lift and break. We went off again heading for Orphir but the sight of an impending sunset (this after 10pm) as we neared Brodgar forced a change of mind and I was soon to be seen sprinting up to the Ring as the sun sank towards the distant horizon, determined to be in position for photographs. If we were all effected by our earlier visit then it was nothing compared to this one. Standing amongst these ancient stones at sunset is an experience that is never forgotten, and I consider myself incredibly privileged to have done it twice. Even long after the sun had gone the afterglow in the clouds threw pink and pewter reflections onto clouds and loch as we watched the swans, eider-ducks and myriad other birds on the water. Scanning with my binoculars I was fortunate to spot an owl quartering the fields in the twilight, a silent ghostly presence.
Happy but a little chilled we stopped in at the Mill for tea before Simon, Cindy and I headed back. It was after midnight but still not fully dark, (I can't remember seeing stars the whole trip) and an insomniac Cindy reported the next day that the sun had risen at 2.00am
The promise of the previous night was fulfilled as we awoke to a superb sunny day, clear and razor sharp.
After meeting at Kirkwall as usual we all went down to Orphir to see the 15 minute film about the Orneyinga Saga in the fine little unmanned visitor centre and then to wander amongst the gravestones beside the remains of the round church of St. Nicholas. In the bright conditions the views over Scapa Flow to Hoy, with the sun reflected on the water, were simply
marvellous. After posing for group photos in the model Viking longboat out front we set off on the journey east and south across the Churchill barriers to see the Italian Chapel. This is a chapel built by Italian prisoners of war during WW2, made from an old Nissen hut and using the most basic of materials - lanterns from bully beef tins being one of the transformations. Excellent paintings and tromp l'oeil effects make it a miracle of artistry over circumstance.
Continuing through South Ronaldsay brought us to St Margaret's Hope, a pretty and unspoiled village with a quiet atmosphere that Cindy in particular fell in love with immediately. After lunch we split up for an hour to explore, raid craft shops or take photographs, then it was a quick dash to the southern-most tip of the island to view the Scottish Mainland across the Pentland Firth from a good vantage point before splitting up, with the girls and myself heading back north to Deerness where Nancy Tague wanted to see where Thorfinn and Thorkel had rowed the two miles over to Copinsay to catch birds. We walked along the coast at Newark Bay towards the Point of Ayre , enjoying the superb view to the island and marvelled at the many gulls, terns and other seabirds, and the ducks with downy ball-of-fluff young, feeding along the shore. A lone seal watched us from the water. Nancy was captivated, and wasn't the only one.
Enough for one day? Not for this intrepid band. Driving further up the coast we visited The Gloop - a sea cave whose roof had fallen in leaving a deep hole leading to a tunnel to the sea. Apparently boats can be hired to enter it from there. The name is of Norse origin but it does also make definite
"gloop" noises as the waves come in. The path (which is called Clu
Ber, and adjoins the headlands of Marka Ber and Baki Ber!) then continues to the Brough of
Deerness, which is a cliff-girt promontory which has become split from the mainland by a narrow cleft, with deep bays on either side. It can be reached by steps leading down to the left-hand bay and then rock-cut steps leading back up. Sadly Nancy Tague was suffering from a flare up of arthritis in her knee and couldn't manage the steps so Nancy Wyman kept her company while the rest of us made the climb. There are the remains of a chapel and the deep springy turf and grass hide the outlines of a settlement which surrounded it. The views from the end, along to cliffs and bays, of the seabirds on the nature reserve, and over to the island of Stronsay are breathtaking, and the thought of anyone actually living up there is quite staggering. Jan and Marthe almost had to drag me away.
Dinner was an emotional one as the girls were leaving in the morning and we were all fond of each other by now.
Simon and Cindy were leaving on the afternoon ferry so we arranged to meet at lunchtime. I wandered around Kirkwalll taking yet more pictures in the sunlight and then going round the excellent museum. There are a great many fascinating exhibits including pieces of Pictish and Celtic carved stones, the whale-bone plaque from the Scar boat burial and a reproduction of the Carta Marina map of 1539 by Olaus Magnus. the last unscientific map of Scandinavia. I wonder if Chancellor had a copy?
Having said our goodbyes over lunch and promised to meet in Dublin in November, I found myself alone for the first time since the train journey, and took a walk along the north-east shore of Kirkwall Bay, watching the Shapinsay ferry heading out into a looming storm before being beaten back as the wind and squalls returned with a vengeance. Compared to the rest of the sights this was relatively ordinary but it was fascinating to watch the ever changing light as the weather drove across the bay. I was told that even for Orkney this was cold for June, although I noticed the forecast for Edinburgh wasn't actually much warmer.
Friday saw me heading back to Stromness by bus so that I could catch the early ferry the next morning. A glorious day, if still with a cold wind, I first wandered around the close packed stone houses around the main street, trying to capture its essence on film, saw the house where the Hudson Bay company used to operate from and the well where their ships and others such as Cook's Discovery used to take on water. After lunch and a nap I walked out to the north shore through fields packed with curlews, oystercatchers, lapwings and rabbits to admire the view over to the cliffs and hills of Hoy. On the way I encountered a mother leading a child on a gorgeous little gold and white Shetland pony and later saw a St Bernard dog which was hardly any smaller. On the shore there were more ducks with their young and superb side-lit views across the rocks. Once again it was hard to leave and only hunger forced the decision. Dinner in the Stromness Hotel, with a window seat overlooking the
harbour, was a delicious crab, mushroom and oyster bake followed by the lightest most delicate piece of haddock I've ever tasted. The only thing missing was the talk of my departed companions.
To all of them I extend my thanks for a wonderful week full of fascinating conversation and hope that this tale reminds them of some of our experiences.
The crossing the next morning was almost mill-pond calm and the train south uneventful. I read Checkmate part of the way but my thoughts were back in Orkney - the ancient monuments, the sea cliffs and their birds, the endless panoramic skies and the clear light. It had been even better than I'd remembered and I was already thinking of when I could return. I know that at least one of my companions will want to go too, so perhaps this won't be the only Orkney meeting that takes place. Perhaps next time we'll visit the other islands -
Westray, Eday, certainly Rousay, and of course Hoy. The next one can't come soon enough!
Best wishes to you all.
our page on Orkney here!