Friday, May 16, 2008

Far from the madding crowd on the Orkneys

This might be a strange time of year to be writing about Britain's northernmost isles, but its never too early to be planning for warmer times. The Orkneys are ideal for those who want some culture and history to enrich a visit, although weather permitting there are some splendid beaches too.

We took the new Pentland Ferries service from Gills Bay, arriving at St.Margaret Hope on South Ronaldsay, an interesting clustered village with a street of solidly attractive stone houses. We had just missed the boys' ploughing contest, an annual event where local youngsters use model ploughs on a beach to show off their skills, but we got chapter verse and pictures from the helpful part time curator of the local folk museum. More well-known curiosities like the Italian Chapel followed later that day as we cycled up towards Kirkwall-the wartime connection is very pervasive, since Scapa Flow was the main base of the British Fleet in both world wars.

Kirkwall's magnificent cathedral is the most important building in Northern Scotland, more interesting inside than out- but of course history goes back a lot further than a few centuries on these fertile islands, which were Norwegian territory even when the cathedral was being built:- there cannot be a finer place to see remains of settlements reaching back to Neolithic times, from splendid standing stones to some of the best preserved tombs you will find in Britain, especially on the island of Rousay. Orkney also some of the best preserved brochs you will find- the remarkable fortified towers unique to this part of the world. The broch of Gurness on the Orkney mainland is the best, closely followed by Midhowe on Rousay.

More recent history is preserved in the Kirbuster folk museum on the mainland, where one of the only remaining open hearth houses is preserved, having been occupied until very recently. It is a museum not to be missed.

We were fortunate to arrive in Stromness, the main port where the Thurso ferry arrives, during the only beer festival in the northern isles, but the town is a delight anyway, stone houses huddled together along a winding, narrow main street made of stone slabs, where motor traffic has to move slowly and defer to pedestrians. From here one can take the daily ferry to Hoy, a contrast with the subdued landscape on the other islands, for here the hills rise to 1500 feet, and apart from the well known sea stack, the old man of Hoy, the cliffs nearby at St John's Head are among the highest in Britian. Hoy is also home to the Scapa Flow visitor centre, housed in the old pump house at the former naval base at Lyness (accessible by ferry from the mainland at Houton). The village is unprepossessing but the centre is excellent and has a fine friendly cafe inside.

The other outlying islands are well served by the Orkney Ferries' services:- we can recommend Westray, with its wonderful sandy beaches, and some important historical ruins. There is also a wonderful cliff walk along the west coast of the island, to the lonely lighthouse at Noup Head. Nearby Papa Westray is popular with visitors who want to get away from it all, and like remote North Ronaldsay, is an important nature site.

Don't expect good weather when you come here. We were blessed with some ten days of consecutive sunshine, and the famous Orkney wind was correspondingly subdued; but even in high summer the weather can be adverse. But there can be few places in Britian where the continuity of settlement, and the evidence of man in the landscape, is traceable over such along time span.

Orkney Ferries:-
Pentland ferries, Gills Bay- St Margarets Hope service
P & O ferries, Scrabster to Stromness

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