Monday 27th February 2006
I left the hotel at 7:30 am for the Scrabster terminal in driving rain which didn’t let up until we boarded at about 8:20 am.
The “MV Hamnavoe” is a good sized ship with two decks of lounge type passenger accommodation above the cavernous vehicle deck. I must admit to being more than a little grateful about the ship’s size when the captain announced that the weather had deteriorated overnight and that although the seas were nothing more than “moderate” we would be taking the longer and presumably more sheltered route via Scapa Flow.
I thought the description of the seas as “moderate” was something of an understatement, particularly when spray from waves breaking over the bow kept drenching the picture windows next to which I was sitting!
For all that, there was far less movement than I had thought there would be – the result I presume of the relatively new (2003) “Hamnavoe” being fitted with all the latest stabilising gizmos!
Safely ashore, I headed across the island to Tankerness, where I had the appointment with Sheila Fleet to keep that Rick had made for me. And, thanks to him, I did get to meet the designer, brains-behind and owner of the business that makes and markets her Orkney inspired jewellery around the world. She gave me a guided tour of the showroom and the immaculately clean, tidy and organised small factory.
The tour followed the path of the whole manufacturing process from the design, handcrafting in silver, gold or platinum, hallmarking, enamelling and polishing through to the finished product. Each stage was explained with such pride by the jeweller, enameller or stone setter. Pride that said as much about Sheila’s management of them as the skills they had demonstrated – something that made it much more rewarding than just a factory tour.
At the end of the tour I did buy a pendant called “Hoxa Reflections” for Carol. It was not the design I had considered at Edinburgh Castle but, to me, better, and precisely what I was looking for. It was a simple vertical oblong piece of silver with seven engraved impressions of Hoxa Head, a landmark on South Ronaldsay one of the Orkney Islands where Sheila had grown up. Each was filled with luminescent pale blue enamel.
I thought it was beautiful and so “Carol”.
And, courtesy Sheila’s Website, here’s the link, so you can see it too:
I then booked into the hotel “The Kirkwall”, which, I understand, like most in Orkney is of the “basic” variety. But in this case there’s more – essential kitchen maintenance will mean that there’ll be no cooked breakfast in the morning – but it’ll be back in business before dinner tomorrow evening. Who needs a cooked breakfast anyway?
There are no internet access facilities either, which will mean that I’ll be off the air until I get back to the mainland, later in the week, weather willing. As severe weather is now forecast for the next couple of days and may confine me to “barracks”, I took the opportunity this afternoon of visiting St Magnus Cathedral while I could.
St Magnus was founded in 1137 by the nephew of the martyred Earl Magnus. It is dedicated to him and contains his remains. Originally within the Norwegian arch-diocese of Trondheim, it was given into the care of the people of Kirkwall by James III when Orkney became part of Scotland. The cathedral itself is a blend of Norman and early gothic styles and is built of local red stone but is unusual in that in some places yellow stone has been used alternately with the red, giving it an almost Victorian look. The also unusual wall arcading in the nave is “adorned” with twenty or so large and remarkably well-preserved tombstones from the 17th century, many of which feature hour-glasses, skulls and bones.
I guess the most surprising thing, however, is that there should be a church of this size in such a relatively remote area.
Tuesday 28th February 2006
It was wild out there this morning, occasional sleet, occasional snow showers and constant very strong winds with a chill factor to match – a combination which initially dissuaded me from venturing out to visit what I’ve come to see. However, on later checking with the receptionist what the outlook was for tomorrow she said that it was forecast to be worse rather than better.
On that basis, if I was to see anything at all, I really had to brave the elements – and if tomorrow is better, there’s still plenty left to see. So, suitably rugged up, I drove over Churchill’s Barriers, the causeways that link five of the islands, to Burwick, some 20 miles south of Kirkwall, and the southernmost settlement of the Island group. The road had been gritted but was very slushy and, in some places, icy and quite slippery. I stopped a couple of times on the way to try and get some snowscapes, which were less successful than I’d hoped. Apart from the difficulty encompassing the scale of what I was seeing, the buffeting wind made even the so-called “no shake” focusing difficult and put paid to my hopes to stitch together a panorama.
It was a relief then, on the return leg, to find the “Italian Chapel” open, and to be able to take some photographs in relative warmth and free from that icy buffeting. What an amazing place this small chapel is, and one which, after a feast of cathedrals, was a timely counterpoint! A simple place of worship it may be, but the effort and skill that the Italian POWs put into creating it makes it in its way every bit as important as those lofty cathedrals. I had the place entirely to myself, which made the visit seem a very personal one, and probably contributed to how it moved me.
Another snow shower (?) found me scuttling back to the relative shelter of the hotel, but by the time I’d arrived, the sky had cleared again. So, with that encouragement, I was back on the road again. This route took me back to the West Mainland – Kirkwall being in the East Mainland – where I headed north via Tingwall. My destination: the “Broch of Gurness”.
The site is right on the coast and is very exposed – and by some mishappenstance was directly in the path of that icy blast from the north. However, despite the biting cold and the struggle to maintain balance, the sky was blue and the sun was out, and there was no way I was going to waste that. Enough, you say! What about that Broch? Well I was coming to that, wasn’t I? Like now!
“Gurness” has been dated at about 200 BC and is one of some 500 similar Iron-age settlements in Scotland of which no less than 120 were located in Orkney. The “broch” – a substantial tower – was sometimes a free standing dwelling but more often the residence of the principal family in the village that surrounded it. As such it probably also served as a community centre and a defensive refuge when needed. In the case of Gurness there are the remains of six houses to the east of the Broch itself all of which were contained within the outer defensive ditch. Each house had a large living/sleeping area in which there was at least one hearth, a tank set in the floor, cupboards and sleeping places. Entry from the village to the broch was by means of an impressive entrance, most of which has survived.
The remains of the thick walls of the Broch at Gurness are now only 2 or 3 metres high, but originally could have been anything from 3 to 13 metres. In fact, the “Broch of Mausa” in Shetland still stands to a height of 13 metres. I found the whole just fascinating, and am only regretful that the visitors centre wasn’t open so that I might have had the benefit of a Guide Book to build on the very general information that was on the few Information Panels there were.
It took a while to thaw out, but as it was still dry – rather than fine – I completed a circuit north, part way west along the coast and then south down the centre of “that” Mainland back to Kirkwall. From what I’ve seen of the Orkneys thus far, I can only agree with those who say they’re uniquely beautiful. Whether it’s the absence of trees, the rounded contours of the terrain, the closeness of that wild, wild sea, I have no idea, but whatever it is, the Orkneys appeal to me as much as do the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District or the Highlands, but in their own distinctive way.
Wednesday 1st March 2006
The weather, as forecast, was not designed for touring and, as I discovered later, there had been advice to the effect that only essential travel should be undertaken. I’m not sure that that would have deterred me however as I only have today to get to see what is considered the jewel of the Orkneys – the Neolithic site: “Skara Brae”.
In another of my navigational bloomers, I found myself in the narrow – and I mean really narrow – snow-laden streets of Stromness. Inching my way through, I was delighted to see what I thought was an escape route to the wider world. It probably was, but being named “Hellihole Road” – truly – I should have known better. It was cobbled icy and steep and, with the best will in the world, there was no way that the little Corsa would go anyway but down. So unable to turn, I reversed my way down the hundred yards or so to the intersection at which I should have turned left and not right!
I did finally – and gingerly- make my escape from what at other times of the year is probably a most attractive village to resume my trip to “Skara Brae”. The road to the turnoff to the site had been partly ploughed, but the road to it had not. After a quarter of a mile or so, I finally saw the light and decided that I should try again later when the driving conditions had improved. What should have been a three-point turn with ease became a ten-point turn without, but I finally made it only to have to move to the side of the road again to let the snow-plough pass.
Great, I thought, if I go for a drive on less challenging roads for an hour or so, then surely the access road will by then be driveable. Although it may have been if I’d followed the snow-plough, it certainly wasn’t on my return; and if anything had been made less so after another heavy snow shower. Admitting defeat, I headed back for the relative safety of the hotel stopping only to sneak a couple of snowscape shots in a sunny break.
A footnote to Skara Brae. To find out a little more about the Broch I visited yesterday, I called in to the local Tourist Office and was able to pick up Historic Scotland’s Guide Book, from which I gleaned some stuff to relate to an unsuspecting audience. But there’s more. On a blackboard at the door “Skara Brae – Closed today, 1 March”. How mad would I have been if I’d finally made it there?
Tomorrow, I return to Forss – that is if the roads are passable and the ferry is running – to “hole up” until it’s safe to drive back to Inverness, not now anticipated before Saturday. If not I’ll have to “hole up” here – but there’s no doubting what my preference is.
I had a message from the body shop yesterday to tell me that my LRC would be ready today, but knowing what the weather and driving conditions are like – and I daresay my lack of experience in handling them – said when I rang them this morning, that they’ll expect me when they see me. Mackays of Dingwall get at least two rosettes for customer service. It has been outstanding.
Thursday 2nd March 2006
Although it had snowed overnight it hadn’t been too heavy, but at breakfast it started again and I was advised that if I wanted to get across to Stromness before the road was closed I should leave sooner rather than later. Continuing to get my priorities right, however, I did pause for long enough to finish the rather nice slice of black pudding I still had on my breakfast plate.
Driving in snow is a new experience for me and I’m not sure I’d want to do it for a living, but following the advice that I’d been given that slow and steady works best, I arrived at Stromness Pier long before anyone else and 2 hours before boarding time. The ferry trip back was relatively smooth and, as the sun had come out, I braved the chill of the “sun” deck to get some photos – a couple of which might just meet the editor’s deadline!
I arrived back at Forss just as the snow started again, so was grateful to get indoors and enjoy an encore to the cup of coffee I’d had on board. Needless to say I received another warm welcome from Anne and am looking forward to another scrumptious dinner, a description of which I’ll save until the next edition.
Based on the AA road conditions report in the morning, I’ll decide whether or not to drive back to Inverness tomorrow. The forecast for the weekend is not too promising, so whether I do move on to Inverness or stay here, I may just sit tight for a couple of days to catch my breath after my Orkneys Odyssey!