Friday 9th June 2006
Unable to get accommodation near Scrabster for our ferry trip to Orkney, we (one more reluctantly than the other) skipped breakfast for a 6:00 am departure so that we could catch the 1:30 pm ferry. Having travelled this way more than once before, Norm had assured Carol that the drive up the north eastern coast was very scenic. Alas, all that Carol saw was fog, fog and more fog – all the way to the ferry. The ferry trip was a smooth one and we arrived at the Kirkwall Hotel in mid afternoon.
Making good use of the extra time, we paid a visit to Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral. St Magnus was founded in 1137 by the nephew of the martyred Earl Magnus, is dedicated to him and contains his remains.
Saturday 10th June 2006
Despite the unsympathetic weather – very cold and very windy – today was another busy touring day. First to Skara Brae. The village of Skara Brae was inhabited before the Egyptian pyramids were built and flourished many centuries before construction began at Stonehenge. It is some 5000 years old. The structures of this semi-subterranean village survive in impressive condition, as so amazingly, does the furniture in the village house (all made from stone).
Whether or not it was a result of “that” weather is difficult to say, but Skara Brae did not “grab” us to the extent that Ireland’s “Newgrange” had. Having said that, it is an important element in the history of the Orkney Islands and, as such, is worthy of its inclusion as a World Heritage site.
The visit to Skara Brae also included entry to the adjoining “Skaill House”. This is the finest 17th-century house in Orkney and overlooks the spectacular sandy bay of Skaill. It was the home of William Graham Watt, the seventh laird of Breckness, and it was he who discovered Skara Brae in 1850. The house was originally built for Bishop George Graham in 1620 and has been added to by successive lairds over the centuries. It was here that we discovered the “Orkney Cog”, of which more later.
Then on to Earl’s Palace at Birsay, for the briefest of stops for it was – as the photo clearly shows – just another ruin!!
Our last tourist stop for the day – not least because it hadn’t got any warmer or less windy – was at the Broch of Gurness. This is one of Orkney’s best-preserved brochs, from about the 1st century BC and occupied by both Picts and Vikings. It provided an interesting contrast with the much earlier Skara Brae.
Sunday 11th June 2006
Not being totally “archaeologied out” we booked our viewing of “Maes Howe”. With the “Standing Stones” at Brogar and Stenness, Maes Howe is one of three great monuments at the heart of Orkney. Built about 5000 years ago, it is a large mound containing an entrance passage and burial chambers and is a remarkable mixture of simplicity and sophistication.
One of the most fascinating aspects of our visit inside the mound was being able to see the Viking runes which, when translated, were as good as being graffiti. For example, at one of the highest points on the chamber’s ceiling the runes carved there, when translated, read “Tholfr Kolbeinn’s son carved these runes high up”.
Moving to relatively more modern times, we next visited the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces close to St Magnus Cathedral, and with which they have a close connection. The earliest visible parts of the Bishop’s Palace date to the 12th century. The imposing round tower was added about 1500 by Bishop Reid, and further modifications were made about 1600 by Earl Patrick Stewart. The residence he built for himself, known today as the Earl’s Palace, has been hailed as possibly the most accomplished piece of Renaissance architecture left in Scotland.
If you are ever in Orkney, you must try the Orkney Ice Cream, which we did on our way to the Kirkwall Museum. Yum! The Museum is housed in what was originally the manse for the Cathedral clergy. It presents the history of the Orkneys, from the Stone Age, through the Picts and Vikings, to the present day. In an eclectic mix of exhibits, there is a large collection of photographs. The total collection is said to be of international importance and, for us anyway, displayed in such a way as to make the history live.
After another “hard day at the office”, we sought and found our sort of refreshment – no, not that alcoholic stuff – “caramel cappuccinos” which we took back to the hotel to savour in comfort.
There was a brilliant sunset this evening and below are photos taken around 10:30 pm – at great risk to Norm’s life and limb – from our 3rd-floor bedroom window:
Monday 12th June 2006
This morning we went to Sheila Fleet’s workshop intending to purchase a ring to match the pendant that Norm had earlier bought for Carol. Norm also wanted Carol to meet Sheila and visit her workshop. As it turned out, Sheila was unable to provide a ring of the correct size and, at her suggestion, we were able to watch Carol’s ring being made from start to finish.
A big thank you is due to Helga and Leila for allowing us to watch them demonstrate their expertise. Many thanks to Sheila, too, for allowing us to do this as it has made the ring very personal to both of us.
Norm had visited the Italian Chapel previously and thought that Carol would appreciate doing so too. As many of you will know, the chapel was built by Italian prisoners of war whilst they were being held on Orkney Island to help build “Churchill’s Barriers”. Carol was moved by the artistry and spiritual meaning it had to those men so far from their home and families.
We also revisited the Gift Shop at Skaill Hall because it was the only place that we’d been able to obtain a miniature “Bride’s Cog” – something that had appealed to us both. We liked it because of its uniqueness to Orkney and because a reading of the recipe for the punch proved how hardy these Orcadians are. The little lady who served us told us that she had one made up for her daughter’s wedding.
The “Bride’s Cog” is the only remnant of the traditional Orkney weddings of previous centuries. The cog is a wooden vessel and is likely to have originated in Norway. The Bride’s Cog referred to the drink inside the cog, which was a mixture of hot ale, gin, brandy or whisky, spiced and thickened with eggs. This drink was passed around and designed to finish off any members of a wedding party who were still sober!
This evening we shared a most enjoyable dinner with Rick and Sheila – who we now consider “old friends”. We left Kirkwall at 8:30 pm for Stromness and the ferry, on which we were able to take advantage of the facility to use it as a B&B prior to our departure at 6:30 am on the following morning.
Tuesday 13th June 2006
We awoke after a most comfortable night’s rest in our tiny cabin. The ferry’s departure woke us at 6:30, so we decided to have a shower before going down for breakfast. Carol was fairly lucky. She had the calm waters as we left the harbour. Alas, when it was Norm’s turn, the ferry was well into a “shake, rattle and roll” routine through some very rough seas. Needless to say, the colour of his complexion as he staggered out of the bathroom had nothing to do with the remnants of his shaving cream!
One of us had breakfast, and there’ll be no prizes for guessing whom! Norm’s condition had improved somewhat by the time we landed, and – stiff upper lip in place – it did not inhibit our plans for the day.
These included a deservedly short visit to John O’Groats and then to Duncansby Head, where Rick Fleet had taken Norm on an earlier visit. On that occasion it had been shrouded in fog, but today, however, while the wind was blowing a gale, it was clear enough to get some photos of the Stacks of Duncansby.
On our westerly route to Durness where we are booked for two nights, we visited the Castle and Gardens of Mey – the late Queen Mother’s home in Caithness. Having acquired the most northerly castle on the British mainland, she renovated and restored it and created the beautiful gardens we saw today. For almost half a century she spent many happy summers here and shorter visits at other times of the year. Its appeal for us was its unpretentiousness and the feel that this really was her home – from the little stuffed Loch Ness Monster at the top of the curtains (which she used as a talking point to make visitors feel comfortable) to the displays of family photos, gifts and memorabilia from years past. Perhaps because of this, it was with some sadness that we left to move on.
We arrived at Durness, where we were to stay at “Mackays” – one of those Restaurants with Rooms. We would have no argument with the blurb in the Mackays’ brochure that it was “without doubt the premier place to stay in the most far-flung corner of Scotland – understated quality, style and elegance, fresh Highland food and drink at its best”.
Wednesday 14th June 2006
What a day this turned out to be – and we may just let some of the photos do the talking for us. Durness Beach – a spectacularly scenic beach where we tried to out-shoot a professional photographer up to his hips in water trying to capture that elusive shot.
Then to Smoo Cave, which is located at the eastern edge of the village of Durness. It is a dramatic location, being set deep into limestone cliffs. Smoo Cave is quite large – 200 feet long, 130 feet wide and 50 feet high at the entrance. We weren’t quite sure what to expect as you can’t see the cave from the road. Getting out of the car we walked across the bridge towards the entrance path. As we were crossing the bridge we heard voices. To our astonishment, these were coming from the cave below our feet. Looking down over the parapet of the bridge we could actually see into the cave. Following the path down from the bridge we came to the entrance of the cave, where a small footbridge takes you over a stream and into the furthermost part of the cave itself.
We decided to take a trip out to Cape Wrath – the most north-westerly point on the British mainland. At the point is Cape Wrath Lighthouse, which was built by Robert Stevenson (a relation of Robert Louis’) in 1828. The name of the headland derives, not from the stormy waters of the area but from the Norse word for a turning point, for here the Norsemen turned their ships to head for home.
To visit the lighthouse we had to cross the Kyle of Durness by a tiny ferry boat (more like a fishing boat!) – and then travel twelve miles by minibus along a track which was very rough and very narrow but had some magnificent views.
At Cape Wrath itself, we had views of the Clo Mor cliffs which, with a drop of 620 feet, are said to be the highest cliffs on the British Mainland. Just to the east there is a virtual sheer drop of 900 feet. Looking east from the lighthouse you can see the sea cliffs stretching out towards Durness – cliffs which provide ideal habitats for many sea birds.
We spent an hour at the Cape. When we arrived back for our ferry we found that the tide was ebbing at a faster rate than seemed to us desirable. With some scraping of the boat’s keel on the sandy bottom, we did however avoid a night stranded on the wrong side of the water! The photos just do not do justice to the Mor cliffs – or the Kyle. We found it to be one of the most beautiful places we have been to.