Return to Orkney
In the 16 months since my previous joyous visit to these haunting isles a great deal had happened in my life - much of it things that I would dearly wish undone. So it was with some hope of drawing a curtain on that unfortunate period that I ventured back to the north for another visit - to seek rest, renewal and refreshment. This time I was going for myself and for the wonders of Orkney rather than for the connections with the world of the writer in whose influence I'd spent so long basking, yet it is impossible to visit such a magical place where the landscape cries out to be described in those rich and evocative phrases, without thinking of the incomparable lady who we'd lost so suddenly.
Compared to the train trip which I'd enjoyed the previous year the drive north was comparatively uneventful - a number of heavy squalls breaking the journey and clearing the August air. The only stop was in the pretty little village of Alness. A recent winner of the Britain in Bloom award, it was bedecked with hanging baskets cascading with colour and its pavements sprouted trays and tubs which would have been at home in the Alpine regions I usually favour at this time of year. Once again the noticeable change in the light as we gained the north-eastern coast but this time the route was to Wick rather than Thurso, and the land north of Helmsdale, where the railway line leaves the road and turns inland, was unfamiliar to me. The place-names of course were now reflecting the Norse influence and the road wound along the clifftops giving excellent views with occasional plunges into river cut ravines concealing villages nestling in their sheltering folds.
A stop at John O' Groats gave a fine sunset though the wind was keen and fresh. The area is named after Jan de Groot, a Dane who was asked by James IV to set up a ferry service to Orkney to cement the island's ties with Scotland and whose family continued to run the service for the next 200 years. A new ferry runs between Gills Bay a few miles along the coast and the village of St Margaret's Hope in South Ronaldsay, providing a shorter and cheaper crossing than the more familiar one between Thurso and Stromness. Disappointingly the day dawned grey and cold but the trip was enlivened by the brief spotting of a porpoise heading in the opposite direction. A reminder that we don't have the seas to ourselves and that the northern islands are far closer to nature than the cities of the south.
Taking the boat early in the morning gave plenty of time to drive up from these southernmost parts of the Orkneys, across the Churchill barriers and over the length of the Mainland (as the largest part of Orkney is known) to our accommodation in a converted barn near the village of Evie in the north-west section of the island. Having settled in we went for a drive along the coast to the Brough of Birsay, and were delighted to find the overcast conditions breaking to give a much more appealing light than had been the case on that windy wet visit of the previous year. Our timing was perfect - the tide was just going out and the walk across the causeway perfectly dry. No sheltering in the lee of the old settlement walls needed this time; instead the views along the dramatic coastline stood out clearly as the sun broke through to pick out the colours of the fields and rocks and reflect off the white froth of the waves churning against the cliffs. Still no Puffins though - too late in the season for them - but plenty of seals and the usual profusion of gulls and terns. The improvements to the lighthouse on the north of the island are now finished and it sports a large bank of solar panels, though the renovation work claimed the life of a helicopter pilot whose machine crashed in high winds while delivering supplies during last winter. Today the scene was peaceful, if such a description is ever apt in a place with views down the cliff edge to the blue and white foaming water which batters the rocks even on a calm day. But after the stressed and bustling conditions of festival Edinburgh this is indeed a haven of peace and after such a wet year it was a treat to be able to lie on the dry grass and listen to the distant cries of gulls and oystercatchers.
Monday - no showers today!
Monday morning brought a nasty shock as we discovered the shower didn't work. Our barn is high on the hillside and the water has to be pumped up from the village below and is thus on the threshold of sufficient pressure for the system to operate. Fortunately this was the only morning when this applied but it was a gentle reminder of the differences of remote living compared to the taken-for-granted luxuries of the city.
A trip to Kirkwall to sort out the second week's accommodation gave us time to take a stroll round St Magnus Cathedral and marvel anew at the astonishing stonemasonry that could be achieved at a time when the rest of the country was living under thatched roofs and earth floors. Returning to the warmth of bright sunlight prompted the thought of Orkney ice cream - there is none better and it was eagerly dispatched!
Our barn is only a short drive from the Broch of Gurness - one of the places that we hadn't had time to visit the previous year - so the late afternoon sun made this an essential stop. It lies on a small promontory beyond a picturesque little beach and has a wonderful outlook across the bay to Eynhallow. Even having seen pictures of it beforehand one is still astonished by the size of the construction and the amount of effort that must have gone into assembling the thousands of stones - not just for the tower itself but also for the adjacent houses and everything contained within them. The old entrance point is a mass of upright stones and my photographers eyes struggled to cope with the myriad possibilities of angle and juxtaposition that present themselves. I longed to be able to spend time exploring the changing light over an entire season.
Brodgar, Stenness and Maes Howe
A cooler and cloudier day presented itself on the Tuesday but clear enough for us to persist with our intention of visiting the three ancient sites in the centre of the western arm of the island. The Ring of Brodgar comes first - visible from afar and drawing the eye like a magnet. Devoid of the masses of curlews whose plaintive cries had filled the air in the springtime, it seemed a different atmosphere this time but still a wondrous sight and a rare pleasure to feel again the warmth of the stones under my hand and gaze around the incomparable setting. It is a place that is hard to tear oneself away from, always one last look back, one more comparison of the angles and alignments, trying to commit the shapes and feelings to memory so that they can be recalled on a cold grey city afternoon when the heart longs for the peace and tranquility, the vast open skies and pearlescent light.
Just down the road, past the various outrider stones and across the narrow causeway that splits the two lochs, lie the even older Stones of Stenness. Far fewer in number but impressively taller, they had been off limits due to foot and mouth disease restrictions the previous year, so this was my first opportunity to get close to them. Their height makes it even more of a surprise just how thin the slabs of rock actually are - you wonder how on earth they stand up to the mighty blasts of Orkney's winter winds. Visible over the fields is the third of the neolithic set - Maes Howe. Once again the low stooping walk to the interior chamber, past the massive door stone which can be rocked into position far easier than its bulk suggests possible, past the thirty ton single slab of rock that makes up the left hand face. Once again to gaze on the distinctive Viking runes and then to marvel at the thought that they are but modern graffiti on an incomparably older structure whose purpose we can only guess at but whose winter solstice alignment can still infuse us with awe. Lucky indeed are those that have been inside this chamber when the winter sun shines directly up the passageway and fills the space with light. A webcam now records the event for the world, but to be there, oh to be there....
Our cultural appetites having been filled for the day, those of a more mundane type came back to the fore, and finding to our surprise that the fish and chip shop in Stromness didn't open until 8pm we drove over to Kirkwall again for sustenance. Simple fare but fresh and hugely satisfying. The return trip once again brought us to the two lochs and we strolled the shores, squinting against the light on the water before returning to the Ring for the promise of a sunset. Though not the dramatic orange and red of the previous June it is still the time when the Brodgar stones seem at their most alive and magical, sounds carrying vast distances across the water on either side and leaving a deep serenity that is hard to imagine anywhere else.
Scara Brae and Yesnaby
High winds greeted us in the morning as we set off for Scara Brae. But at least they kept the clouds busy and allowed us clearer light. Finding the stone village busy with a bus party we took time to walk along the beach, seeing the first examples of the local children's miniature reconstructions of the stone circles and brochs that surround their landscape. Well-built with a good eye for detail they seemed surprisingly durable and dotted the sands in echo of the ancient dwellings just behind the dunes. The village itself had lost none of its ability to captivate, and the better light allowed my photographs a better chance of recording the fascinating details of the sunken rooms. The snell wind still drove white waves against the beach and we were glad to retreat to the warmth of the old house.
Conditions brightened again by the time we moved down the coast to Yesnaby but a sudden soaking squall drove us back into the car for half an hour before we dared venture down the path to one of the most dramatic cliff scenes in the island. At times the wind threatened to reduce us to a crawl, while we were intrigued to see flecks of foam filling the air hundreds of yards from the rocky bay where it was being plucked from a seething mass. On my previous visit the rain had curtailed our walk and we hadn't got as far as the much photographed stack, and I had begun to wonder if it had fallen, but this time the weather relented long enough for us to make the trip and we watched in awe as the waves battered and churned round the narrow slotted column of rock which holds the stack aloft. Photography was attempted but the camera vibrated uncontrollably in my hand even when lying as close to the ground as possible to escape the worst of the storm. On the return walk to the car we were caught not 200 yards from our goal by another squall which quickly demonstrated that even the best of modern waterproof technology is worthless against the Atlantic elements. The car steamed for the rest of the trip back to the barn.
A day that started with rain and midges became torrential rain and seals. We were booked on the ferry across to Rousay with the plan being to walk along the stretch of coastline that contains a remarkable number of archaeological sites including Midhowe Cairn and Broch. However by the time we had landed the rain had become sufficiently heavy to delay that plan so we decided to drive round the island in the hope that it might have abated a little by the time we'd finished. Although the crossing had been flat calm in the water around Wyre, the conditions were rather different around the point where the tidal race runs between Rousay and Eynhallow, and although much reduced from the previous day there was still a fair amount of white water on the Atlantic-facing side where there are some attractive cliffs. Continuing round to the north side we came across a small bay where a speckled object out in the water that at first seemed to be a conical buoy, was soon revealed be a resting seal with its head flung back, accompanied by about a dozen others who appeared out of the surf. It wasn't clear whether we were watching them or they were watching us but we all seemed to be intrigued. As I strolled along the edge of the beach path to see if there were any others up on the sand further along, the seals swam along to see where I was going!
With the rain getting steadily heavier and water streaming across the road in a number of places we considered getting a much earlier ferry back but fortunately after a warming bowl of soup in the hotel bar we decided to take a quick trip back to Midhowe and see if we could take it in without getting too wet. Both the Chambered Cairn and the Broch are exceptional sites - the cairn is covered by a large protective building with an overhead walkway from which you can look down into the long narrow passageway that runs the length of the structure, while the broch stands on a number of slabs of rock that jut out into the sound. It's impossible not to imagine longboats or coracles milling about in the water waiting to land. Perhaps the most amazing consideration is that despite the age of the broch the cairn predates it by around 3500 years.
Moving down to Deerness
Thursday's high winds returned with a vengeance as we prepared to move out of the barn and down to our new base in Deerness. Eynhallow Sound again speckled with white horses glinting in the sharp northern light as we headed down the road. Since entry to the cottage was from 4pm onwards we had time to spare so on reaching the Stromness to Kirkwall road we diverted down to the south towards Orphir on a little used back road which we had to ourselves. The village of Orphir is a mile or so from the church and a trip up the back road above it provided a fantastic view over to Stromness and Hoy with the lighthouse standing out clean and white in the clear sunlight and the ships battling in and out of the Sound. Down to the Orkneyinga Saga visitor centre and enjoy again the local children's choice of film and TV stars to represent the Norse heroes in the Genealogy table. There is an excellent unmanned film show in a mini-cinema there which gives an overview of the Sagas in relation to Orkney and Iceland and a storyteller narrates some well chosen examples. I've sat embarrassed through some dire examples of the genre but this one captures the Viking spirit perfectly and the photography of the two island groups, particularly the winter shots, is superb. By the time we'd watched the film the weather had changed again and our trip out to the remains of the round church and cemetery was soon cut short by the biting wind and squally showers. Our new accomodation, another converted farm building, proved to be extremely comfortable with lovely views over Deerness Sound and even had underfloor heating!
Amongst the sites I hadn't been able to get to on the previous visit was the remarkable Mine Howe, which descends steeply into the ground as a rock-built series of chambers. As it was only a few miles from the cottage it was high on our list so down we drove to discover an archaeological team excavating trenches around the area and an explanatory tour round the dig about to start. We were treated to an excellent talk by Nick Cant, the first archaeologist to descend into Mine Howe when it was rediscovered in 1999, and an interesting display of bones and artifacts described by other senior members of the island's overworked but happy archaeological team. Nick, who some of you may have seen on the Time Team program which visited the site, is an assured speaker and gave us as detailed an understanding of the site as was possible in the available time. He certainly passes on his enthusiasm for the work and if it hadn't been for the chilling wind I might have been reconsidering my career options! The decent into the "mine" itself was an eerie experience - I had a curious desire to somehow stand back and view it in perspective. The effort and workmanship involved in its creation must have been immense, and it appears that there is a large ditch - possibly a henge - surrounding the entire site and making it all the more impressive.
Gloop and Brough of Deerness
Just a few minutes down the road from our cottage was the path to the Brough of Deerness. Having been so captivated by it the previous year another visit was a must. Putting on our walking boots we were befriended by a local cat who was determined to inspect every inch of the car. Leaving it to its hunting we walked down to the Gloop and marveled again at its depth and distance from the sea. It must have been an impressive cave before the roof fell in many centuries ago. The walk to the Brough was much calmer than the storms of a few days earlier, and we were able to admire the coastline in peace, dropping down to the flat rocks by the coast to see the variety of birdlife. The view out to the northern isles was clearer today and we could pick out the different islands much more easily. Down to the little boulder-strewn cove and up the rock-cut steps to the flat top of the Brough itself. It's a timeless place and as inspiring in its solitude as before. The view along the cliffs from the end beyond the little ruined chapel pulls you forward to watch the seals and birds far below, but you must be careful not to be drawn too far for the thick deep grass hides some precarious overhangs.
Superb sunny weather took us round to Tankerness and Renwick Head. Despite being strewn with old wartime lookout posts it's a peaceful spot. We pottered amongst the rocky nooks and crannies observing the birds on the skerries a little way offshore. Later back at the cottage I walked down to the point and along the beach from where I could just make out the sandbanks with basking seals. On the way back I diverted down an overgrown lane to arrive at another beach from where I could access an intriguing broch mound nestling between the sea-loch and a small fresh-water pond busy with ducks and waterfowl, which we could see from the cottage. Anywhere else this mound would have been an important and much-investigated object - on Orkney it's just part of the landscape and in a very long queue for the attentions of the archaeologists.
The Tomb of the Eagles
South to the furthest tip of South Ronaldsay - to St Margaret's Hope and the Tomb of the Eagles. Some time ago, after trying for 20 years to interest the island's over-stretched archaeologists in the tomb, the farmer was told that it wasn't of sufficient interest to them and he was given permission to excavate it himself. The results were extraordinary and he and his family have made a popular attraction around describing it. The tomb yielded remains of around three-hundred and forty people, a number of animals, and at least ten white-tailed sea eagles.
In the purpose-built centre near their farmhouse, we listened to an excellent talk by one of his pretty grand-daughters, then out to another site on his land, a Bronze-Age house where the man himself gave us a short talk on it - breaking off in the middle to point out the owl that was hunting in the field behind us. Having heard his description of the water and heating systems which our ingenious ancestors had built into the house, we chatted to this wonderful old character before watching him climb on his motorcycle to head back to the farm for his lunch! Then out along the cliff path to the Tomb itself perched on the edge. You have to enter the Tomb, which has been roofed over with concrete to protect it, by lying on a wheeled bogey and pulling yourself through on a rope. While the interior is naturally no longer as interesting as it must have been when full of bones it retains an eerie atmosphere and the outlook from the front “door” over the weirdly layered rock of the cliff echoes that.
Orkney was hosting its Science Festival during our visit and that evening there was an event which connected to one of my other favourite places. A visiting scientist from Slovenia was giving a talk and wine tasting at the Kirkwall Hotel. As many of you will know I have visited the tiny alpine country on many occasions and am a great fan of its excellent wines, so this was too good to miss. Though his command of English was not as good as many of his compatriots he nevertheless gave an interesting account of the history of viticulture in the area and his selection of wines was a treat.
The morning was spent shopping in Kirkwall and attending another festival event while the rain fell heavily, but later we had one of those sudden changes that are normal on Orkney and the late afternoon saw us down on the beach near the cottage again. After a splendid sunset we tarried in the evening twilight enjoying the profound silence and deepening blues of sea and sky and were rewarded with a seal popping up inquisitively in the water just a few yards from us. A magical moment to round off a memorable stay.
Dunnet Head and the return home
An early start saw us on the boat back to Scotland - Orkney has such a unique character that I can no longer consider it as anything other than a separate place - and a sunny but breezy voyage. Alas no porpoises this time. On landing we decided to drive along the coast towards Dunnet Head and down the narrow lanes out to the lighthouse perched on the high cliffs, where we gazed over to Hoy and watched ships ploughing through the Pentland Firth. Reluctantly we turned South. Normally the trip through such scenery would be memorable on such a fine day but the sights and atmosphere of Orkney linger long in the mind's eye and I find that I have little recollection of it. Only the timeless stones, the restless sea, and the vast endless skies.