We left early for the ferry from John O’Groats to Orkney.
The sun shining, we stepped off the boat onto the flat, green pastures of the islands. As time was limited we had decided to leave the car and take a bus tour to the sites.
Flat Orcadian fields
The Orkney Islands have an interesting and extremely long history. Inhabited for over 8500 years these flat, windswept islands have been territories of Norway, Scotland and the U.K. and are very proud of their Viking heritage.
Orkney served as a key naval base in both World Wars and the Churchill Barriers are a major legacy of the conflicts. Built by prisoners of war these “civil structures” join some of the islands allowing road connections where once boats were necessary. Their construction was strategic though, sealing vulnerable entries to what was arguably the British Navy’s most important harbour and protect the fleet from U-boats.
The beautiful coastlines of the Orkney Islands
As we drove along the coast of Scapa Flow it was difficult to imagine how the German navy of 1919 felt as they scuttled their ships. The remains of the many vessels sunk in this bay are now a major dive attraction. Some of the ships are designated as war graves and, out of respect, off limits to recreational divers.
Kirkwall is the capital of Orkney, and home to the only roundabout on the islands. A small city with a pretty harbour and a spectacular Viking cathedral. There are plenty of shops and cafes to browse as well as the city museum and historical sites.
We headed out of Kirkwall to Stromness for lunch and a wander around the pretty fishing town, before moving on with great excitement to our next stop; Skara Brae.
This Stone Age settlement, over 5000 years in age, was discovered in 1850 under the sands of Orkney after a large storm destroyed some of the dunes. Excavated over many years the small village viscerally connects the ancient with today. Recognisable elements of human habitation abound. There are beds, dressers, fireplaces and many other trappings of daily life.
The small museum holds many of the artefacts found at the site and there is a replica house to visit, giving an eerie insight into those ancient times.
The whole site is incredible and well worth the effort to reach!
Onwards again to the Ring of Brodgar. The largest stone circle anywhere in the world. Over 100m across these ancient, enigmatic stones have stood in place since around 2500BC. Just why they’re here no one knows.
This ancient monument overlooks another site, Maeshowe, a Stone Age burial mound, built thousands of years ago to be illuminated by the sun as it sets between the hills at midwinter each year.
Nearby another, even older stone circle partially remains. Possibly the oldest in the U.K. work was being done on the standing stones of Stenness in 3100BC. The stones were used in traditional rituals well into the 1800s when one of the stones was blown up by a disgruntled landowner. The remaining stones are now the heart of “Neolithic Orkney” a world heritage site since 1999.
Our final stop, the Italian Chapel, brought us back into living memory.
This stunning chapel was constructed by Italian POWs using found objects, creativity and a lot of concrete. In 1943 they began work on a place of worship, creating everything by hand from various found and recycled objects.
Domenico Chiocchetti, a church decorator imprisoned at the camp, painted the interior. After the end of the war he returned twice to the islands to help restore the frescos. His daughter sang at the 70th anniversary mass and the chapel is still in use today.
It is a stunning building, well worth a visit for its unique and lasting impact.
Back on the boat to John O’Groats I decide I’ll be back to Orkney, there’s so much more to discover on these tiny, amazing islands!