On the day of our arrival into Orkney waters, there was a mist over the hills but it quickly became clear that the various islands that make up the Orkneys are sparsely populated with small areas of buildings and large areas given over to farming.
Our destination was the Orkney capital, Kirkwall which is by far the largest town in the islands. The Kirkwall’s skyline is dominated by the St Magnus Cathedral known as ‘The Light of the North’. Orkney’s ancient capital can be traced back to Norse times in the 11th century when it was called Kirkjuvagr. For centuries, Orkney was under Norwegian jurisdiction, before becoming part of Scotland in the 15th century.
Although Orkney may seem remote to the rest of Europe, people have been living here for at least 10,000 years. In recent times, archaeologists have found ceremonial stone circles, tombs, prehistoric villages and many other ancient monuments.
A shuttle bus took us on a short ride from the Liner terminal to Kirkwall and we began to explore some of the narrow streets in the town. One of the streets took us to the harbour which is still very much a working harbour with fishing boats, small boats and ferries.
The waterfront has a small number of hotels, bars and restaurants, behind the waterfront is a number of small shopping streets. Orkney’s shopping streets are refreshingly free from the usual high street names and celebrates the island’s creative community with local jewellery, arts, crafts and contemporary fashion shops.
It was still relatively early with most of the shops and attractions closed, so we decided to take a small detour out of town to an area that is famous with its scenery and its part in British and German Naval history.
Taking the road out of town, we then joined the Crantit Trail which took us through some of the scenic countryside full of sheep, cows, horses and wildlife. After around 40 minutes walking we found ourselves at Scapa beach overlooking the famous Scapa Flow.
Scapa Flow is a wonderful large natural harbour surrounded by islands, it was from here in 1916 that Admiral Sir John Jellicoe led the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet to the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval engagement of the First World War. Scapa Flow was home to the British Home Fleet during both World Wars, it was also here in 1918 that the German High Seas Fleet was interned after the Armistice and then was scuttled in 1919.
Not far from the beach was where a German U-boat in 1939 launched a torpedo attack on HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 833 crew. Near the beach there are a number of memorials to this tragedy and are a grim reminder that the idyllic scene in front of us was not always so.
Also near to the beach is the Scapa Distillery which produces a single malt whisky, less known than the nearby Highland Park Distillery, the Scapa Distillery was founded in 1885.
After a very short stay, we decided to take the local bus back into Kirkwall. A trip on the local bus is always a good way to see areas a bit off the tourist trail and an opportunity to chat with the locals.
Back in town, the quiet morning had given way to a bustling town centre as locals and visitors were mingling in the shopping streets and at the attractions.
St Magnus Cathedral is probably Kirkwall’s ‘must see’ attraction. It is the most northerly cathedral in Britain and was started in 1137 at a time when Orkney was ruled by the Vikings. A stone minster was founded by Earl Rognvald in memory of his uncle St Magnus who was martyred on the island of Egilsay. Inside it is a fascinating mix of museum and cathedral with a leaflet that points out some of the key artefacts.
Equally interesting is the Orkney museum which is set in an large old building called Tankerness House, it tells the story of the Orkney’s from Neolithic times up to the present day.
In the town centre is the large stone Earl’s and Bishop’s palaces which provide a reminder of Orkney’s importance in the medieval times.
In many ways Kirkwall for centuries has been an important transport hub and still is, bus routes go across mainland Orkney and the port for ferries to Aberdeen, Shetland and the North Isles. Kirkwall Airport, with links to Scotland, Shetland and in the summer months Norway, is only three miles from the town.
In the short time we were in Kirkwall, we managed to enjoy some of its fascinating history and could understand that it was an important place in many ways because of its unique landscape. Even the shops were quite quirky which made a change from the often sterile high streets in the UK.
Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.
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