Orkney: musings on an Island called Mainland

1 September 1999

In the morning we walked the beach in Thurso only a few kilometers from the Queen Mother's castle at Mey. It was very pretty -- Thurso is trying to make itself into a surfing mecca, it certainly has the waves, coming off of Pentland Firth (Which supposedly has SIX currents crossing it!). We crossed that Firth on the ferry to Stromness that afternoon. It was a very rough crossing and we sat on deck slightly green hoping the rain didn't get any harder -- however I did see a dolphin breach in the far distance. It was a gorgeous ferry ride from the northernmost point on the Island of Britain past the rugged cliffs and sea stacks on the Isle of Hoy into Scapa Flow in the center of Orkney.

Stromness  image (c) Richard Welsby Stromness is one of the most beautiful villages I have ever seen. We were enthralled when the ferry turned the corner and it came into view, a few stone buildings and streets all tightly nestled on a hillside along a small bay. Maybe it was just that the crossing was difficult, and land looked so good, but it WAS a wonderful town. Stromness is all stone houses and tiny tight stone streets and alleys and stairways! Very comfortable. We spent a day wandering the very narrow alleyways that make up most of the streets -- in some places there are corners cut off the houses so one can pass in the alleys!

Orkney is a gorgeous chain of islands just off the northern tip of Britain. Rolling hills, lakes and ocean beaches. And most days there was a terrific wind! Only one island has any mountains, but there are huge cliffs into the sea! People telecommute to London. People come and don't leave, but they say to be a native you have to have at least 6 generations on the islands!

We were corrected: you do NOT call it The Orkney Islands, or The Orkneys. It is Orkney.

There was a time in the 10th century, when the Earldom of Orkney, with only marginal allegiance to the Norwegian crown, consisted of all of Orkney, Shetland, much of the Outer Hebrides, even large parts of Ireland and Scotland. The largest island in Orkney is called: Mainland. That tells you how they view the world. I asked what people thought about the new Parliament in Edinburgh and they said: 'Edinburgh, London, what difference does it make? One is 8 hours away, the other 12. Bergen [Norway] is closer. Parliament at Kirkwell [on Mainland Orkney], now THAT would be interesting!'

Orkney's history goes back much farther than 1000 years. They have uncovered villages and tombs from 5000 years ago and more!! Since there are almost no trees, and the only building material is stone -- things last a LONG time! We only covered the western half of the one island (Mainland) and we saw so much archeology! (People move there to study archeology!) Skara Brae  image (c) Simon Harbord We rented bicycles one day and rode all day. We saw huge astronomical stone circles older than Stonehenge, an almost intact village (Scara Brae) that is over 5000 years old, and a 4000 year old tomb/temple with 1000 year old Viking graffiti! (Sven is the best Rune writer in the world. Ingrid is the most beautiful woman. Ranald was here.) We biked to cliffs at Yasnaby where the Atlantic was pounding on the rocks. We spent several hours just watching it eating Orkney cheese!!

We hitchhiked to the Brough of Birsay a small tidal island which has a 4000 year old village, a 2000 year old village next to that, a 1200 year old village and a 900 year old church. We ran back to the mainland right as the tide covered the walkway, then we hitchhiked to Kirkwall to see the medieval cathedral (everyone was SCANDALIZED that we had not seen it, so we peeked in for 10 seconds... it was pretty, for a church). Everyone who picked us up was extremely nice (One offered to drive us to our next destination, about 8 hours, but we were going on the wrong day!) but we often had great difficulty understanding them.... sometimes we could not understand them at all!

While we were in Orkney I bought a historical novel written by one of Stromness' two most famous residents, George Mackay Brown. (The other is John Gow, the pirate upon whom all of our stereotypical images of pirates are based!) It is all about Orkney. It was a very pleasant book and quite fun to read while I was there.

Everyone asked if we were in Orkney looking for our family trees. They all thought we were Canadian (we were flattered!). It seems that the Hudson's Bay Company used Stromness as it's last port before Canada and at one point 80% of the employees of the Company were Orkadians -- most stayed in Canada so there are strong connections.

Oh yeah, the first thing that happened when we got to the hostel in Orkney was that a guy in the next room was arrested! 75% of the police force (3 officers) came to pick up this guy who had been travelling on stolen credit card numbers for some time. The guy was so dumb that he booked the ferry trip and the hostel with the stolen cards. They knew exactly where to find him!

I really liked Orkney. It is absolutely a place to return to -- we didn't even make it off of the one island. There is an island called Papay that sounded wonderful with a thatched roof croft hostel and the oldest standing houses in Europe (5700 years old!!!!) on it. This would be a great place to bring the bicycle! We couldn't see it all, so we didn't try. But it was nice to stay in one place for 5 days and really see a place.

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 1999



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