The Orkneys have been on my list of places to visit since I first read The Boy with the Bronze Axe aged knee high to a whats-it. Fortuitously, the one I go on holidays with also had Orkney on his list of places to visit and – even better – loves organising complicated holidays, which I find is an excellent skill in other people.
There is a lot that I liked about the Orkneys but the most noticeable thing is that they aren’t Scotland. There is only so much Bonnie Prince Shortbread and Mary Queen of Plots that I can take without wanting to vomit tartan coloured porridge. The thing I hate about the McTartanisation of Scotland it it sells the place so incredibly short.
Deep breath in, Aphra. Deep breath out. Show the nice people a soothing picture of dampness.
The Old Man of Hoy standing coyly behind water, spray, mist, har and rain. I was expecting our entire stay to be a series of studies in grey and silver.
Right. Orkney. Did you know Orkney was Norwegian until 1472? Considering that the Scottish and English crowns united a mere 134 years later, the islands bounced more or less directly from being Scandinavian to British.
Top five most noticeable things about the Orkneys:
- Almost everyone you speak to is either English or Scottish; Orkadians are relatively far and few between. On the other hand if you move to Orkney just about the only thing you can do is open a craft shop so I suspect that a disproportionate number of in-comers end up in the tourist industry.
- It is full of cool and fascinating Neolithic Sites.
- The pubs are invisible outside Stromness, they masquerade as other things like B&Bs and tea-shops, it’s as if Prohibition Chicago was being run by very nice ladies who knit doilies. The pubs are perfectly normal inside, when you can find them.
- There’s a lot of sky and no trees but it’s not bleak. In midsummer, anyway.
- Eating out is expensive and not particularly good. This may have something to do with the invisible pub syndrome. However, the stuff made on the islands like beer and cheese is excellent.
Ach, why not just give you some photies:
I felt a little colour-starved and liked this display of Crocs in Stromness.
Skara Brae is one of dozens of Neolithic sites showing seven or eight neolithic houses uncovered during a great storm in 1850. This one has excellent visitors’ centre with themed gifties and a reproduction of the largest of the houses which one can scramble around in, but other sites are isolated and desolated. You really are spoiled for choice.
Life at Skara Brae wouldn’t have been that different from the life of 18th or early 19th Century Orkadians. You cannot see it in this photograph, but they built themselves box beds, dressers and benches out of the long flat local stones. I found it surprisingly easy to imagine myself living there.
I’m sparing you most of the beach-shots, but I did wonder if these rocks in particular had been covered with an oil-spill some time ago.
It is easy to see how simple it would have been to have hefted some squarish, flattish rocks up off the beach to build little stone houses or bloody great brochs.
This is the Broch of Gurness. Brochs are much wierder than the houses, being towers with hollow walls and sealed chambers with Ritual uses. “Ritual” is of course archaeology-speak for “we don’t know what the fuck they did with it”, in the same way that “Anon” is editor-speak for “a woman”. I rather like the idea of an Anthropologist from Mars finding a my little pony and saying it had ritual uses. Anyway, this was a bleaker, emptier, lonlier neolithic site than Skara Brae with, as I said, nasty sealed chambers underneath it.
Orkney had an interesting 20th Century too. In 1919 the German Navy scuttled their fleet there, clogging one of the best northern harbours with the wrecks of 70+ ships. You can go diving there and poke around if you like. Actually, I think that was what I liked the most about Orkney; you can poke around them in ways which are simply not permitted at UK Heritage Sites any more. It feels wrong but – hey. This particular photograph is nothing to do with the WWI fleet at Scapa Flow; this is a remnant of WWII, when Churchill got Italian prisoners of war to build causeways between four of the islands to block off the sea-ways between them and to build road transports along the top. The Italians were given permission to convert a nissan hut into a chapel but I find being a tourist in consecrated spaces to be in rather poor taste so I didn’t photograph it. It should feature in any book on trompe d’oeil.
And here is a Churchill Barrier, great lumps of concrete which were poured into wooden crates, tumbled into the sea and finished off with a road on top. I am curious to know what difference the barriers made to the sea currents around there. The seaweed, by the way, stinks.
I photographed this because I liked the colour and texture. It is very Swedish, and it is interesting how un-Scandinavian the rest of Orkney is, though I don’t know Norway to compare it with. Most of the houses are modern, rather squat, ugly pebble-dashed affairs built in the last 20 years or so. And good for them. I once asked a Min of Ag inspector what they farmed on the Islands and was impressed by his one word snarl: “subsidies”.
I’d have photographed a lot more of this building, but the cows in the field behind me got terribly excited. We were the most interesting thing that had happened near them for about the last three years, and maybe we’d feed them or something. They were benign, but curious. And running towards us. My nerve broke, so I only took a couple of photos and left. Orcadian cows seem serene creatures viewed from a nice safe distance, they calve much later than their southerly sisters which makes for sweetly maternal fieldscapes.
The place is very light all the time in the summer, even when the sky is overcast. But when the sun comes out, the colours are dazzling.
The sky is there all the time. No trees, of course.
When you see it like this, you can understand why it seems so attractive to incomers. It never got darker than dusk, but in the winter…
To be honest, I could probably handle the darkness; I’ve lived and worked in Sweden and Orkney isn’t that far North. What I couldn’t cope with in the winter, and found trying while we were there, was the wind. Some people find wind invigorating. I just feel hectored and bullied and harangued by it.
And I cannot leave the place without one final neolithic site.
If you like your megaliths silent, brooding, windswept and desolate, with a curlew hovering above the centre of the circle screaming defiance into the wind, then this is definitely the place for you.
So there you go. And back we will go, next year. I found being there refreshing, invigorating, and thought-provoking. In the meantime for a dose of reality here are some Orkadian webcams.