From the past to the present: ancient tombs and contemporary art

Having spent the morning packing up we visited two neolithic tombs on our way back to Stromness. Unstan’s Tomb is situated near the loch shore by a cottage. A couple from Aberdeen had cycled from Stromness and were having their lunch beside it. We chatted for a few minutes and then I went inside for a look. There was a short creep through a low passage and then into the chamber.

Unstan's Tomb 12 June 2015 (1 of 1)

There was even some 19th century graffiti.

Unstan's Tomb 19 Cy graffiti12 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Next on the list was Maeshowe. Entrance to this tomb is very controlled and regimented. You can only go on guided tours of up to 25 people. I am quite claustrophobic and was a little concerned when I discovered that there was a long (10 metre) passage into the chamber and wondered how 18 people would cram in there. When the guide announced that photography was not allowed that did it for me and I contented myself with the description and pictures in my Orkney history book. Back in Stromness, we discovered a little gem – the Pier Arts Centre. There is a permanent collection on display upstairs which has a number of Ben Nicholson and other 20th century paintings and sculptures. This Sean Scully painting reminded me of a textile project I am planning and I also liked Ross Sinclair’s Neon. Downstairs was closed as it was being rehung for the next temporary exhibition. The public library here is also very civilised with brown leather sofas for relaxing in.

Sean Scully Pier Art Centre Stromness 12 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Ross Sinclair 2007 neon Pier Art Centre Stromness 12 June 2015 (1 of 1)

After a final coffee in Julia’s cafe before they closed, we had a meal in the Ferry Inn and then watched the boat unloading. After the usual assortment of buses, vans and cars, the ferry turned around and then a large mobile home was slowly reversed off and into the car park. I am not sure how easily they will get it to its destination on the island roads. Then it was time to settle into our cabin and await the early morning departure.

A cathedral, palaces and the last beach of the trip

Having visited a small chapel yesterday, our first call today was St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. It is our most northerly cathedral and dates from the 12th century. Nearby are the ruins of the Earl’s and Bishop’s palaces.

St Magnus Cathedral 1 11 June 2015 (1 of 1)

After wandering around town, a couple of art exhibitions and a quick lunch, it was time to head out of town for the last beach walk of this trip. Waulkmill Bay is near to the RSPB reserve on Hobbister Hill we visited a couple of days ago. It is a Site of Special Interest and has some unusual plants which attract insects and many bird visitors. The tide was out and after walking down the cliff-side steps, we were able to wander across the huge expanse of sand. Several oystercatchers were feeding, a family were having a picnic and another couple were walking their dogs. On the way back to the cottage we saw that one farmer had set up a fake raptor as a scarecrow.

Waulkmill Bay 11 June 2015 (1 of 1)Waulkmill Bay 2 11 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Stromness to South Ronaldsay via fossils and an Italian chapel

We spent the morning exploring Stromness, dodging the cars in its narrow streets and enjoying the very interesting museum which covered the local history and natural history plus the town’s links to the exploration of the North West Passage, the Hudson Bay Company and parts of Africa. There are narrow passages down to the water and running up the hill. Stromness still has an independent bookshop and a great cafe.

Stromness 5 10 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Stromness 3 10 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Stromness 2 10 June 2015 (1 of 1)

After lunch we headed south across the Churchill Barriers at Scapa Flow which are now causeways to link four islands. The first, Lamb Holm, has an Italian chapel built from two Nissen huts by the Italian prisoners of war who worked on the barriers.

Italian Chapel Lamb's Holm 2 10 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Weddell Bay had a little corner near the barrier which was great for shell and sea glass hunting. We also stopped off at the Fossil & Heritage Museum which in addition to all the fossil collections, also had an exhibition on the barriers. I discovered what a belemnite was, which interested me as we have several fossils which are cross-sections of its guard. We find them regularly on White Park Bay in Northern Ireland. Further on we passed the shipwrecks near the barriers.

Churchill Barriers 4 10 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Once we were on South Ronaldsay it was a fairly straight run down to Burwick where the ferry departs for John O’Groats. On the gable end of one roadside house we passed, someone had stencilled ‘brothel’ in large letters. At Burwick we watched the ferry depart and looked at the huge pile of concrete shapes waiting to be added to the harbour wall defences.

Concrete 4 Burwick 10 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Back in St Margaret Hope where we had booked our evening meal it was time to have an aperitif. We wandered past a house which obviously belonged to the local hoarder as the garden was full of stuff as was the inside of the house as far as we could see. The first hostelry we found turned out to be dark inside, no-one in the public bar and no-one else in sight. We walked straight out the back door and on into the Murray Arms where we had a very friendly welcome in the bar and whiled away an hour with the newspaper until our table was ready in a nearby restaurant. St Margaret's Hope 1 10 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Birds, books and an old friend

The RSPB’s Hobbister Reserve was our first stop today. We walked around the moor hearing several birds and spotting a skylark (too far away to photograph) and a wheatear (nearer but bobbing around too quickly for me to get a shot). We met a few other people, one of whom was keen to find out if we had seen a hen harrier. Unfortunately the raptor total was zero. Nearby there was a large peat-cutting operation which turned out to be for Highland Park Distillery.

Hobbister 9 June 2015 (1 of 1)

At Ophir, we looked at the unusual circular Nordic church remains and walked along the shore of the bay for a while.

Remains of circular church Orphir 9 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Orphir Bay 9 June 2015 (1 of 1)

We then headed into Kirkwall via Highland Park (the most northerly distillery in the world) and nearby Scapa for the distillery photo book. We had lunch in town centre place which was not busy. It had free wifi and two guys had obviously overstayed their welcome as they were asked to move to the public library as ‘a cruise ship is coming in’. After lunch we were wandering around town and unexpectedly bumped into a friend from Aberdeen who unbeknown to us, was working here. We spent a great couple of hours ensconced in a coffee shop catching up. When she had to leave to get on with work, we wandered off to the secondhand bookshop we had spotted on arrival and found some more reading material.

The Brough, a broch and beaches

The first port of call this morning was Birsay, only accessible at low tide. The Brough was where the Bishopric of Orkney was based before it moved to Kirkwall and there are the remains of the church and associated buildings here.

Crossing to Birsay 2 8 June 2015 (1 of 1)

After we crossed over to the island, we found the grass being mowed and strimmed around the Brough so headed up over the top of the hill (every incline is a bit more training for the volcanos we will be hiking in Sicily in September) to see the lighthouse.

Lighthouse 2 Birsay 8 June 2015 (1 of 1)

The lighthouse is automatic and solar powered. Oystercatchers were seen and heard on top of the island and back down at the Brough, one in particular was hanging around.

Oystercatcher 2 Birsay 8 June 2015 (1 of 1)

In the village we look in at the 18th century church and the Earl’s Palace whose inhabitants have had a chequered history. We then dropped by the antique centre and had a chat with the proprietor. I was intrigued by the story behind his move from Cornwall to Orkney and we talked about his origins in the Scillies and unhappiness with the way he felt Cornwall was heading. He was happy in Orkney but like the woman we spoke to yesterday, very unhappy with the ocean liners which now arrive, disgorging coaches full of people who hurtle round the sites (and usually arrive at Birsay when it is high tide). I found a book to add to my natural history library (Furred Animals of Australia) and had to stop him giving me a ridiculous discount on what was already a cheap book. After that, it was time for a beach walk on Evie Sands.

Evie Sands 3 8 June 2015 (1 of 1)

We then carried on along the coast and visited Gurness Broch. Unlike the brochs I recall from Northern Scotland, this one has houses built around it which were occupied during the life of the broch.

Gurness Broch 1 8 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Old stones – Skara Brae, Brodgar and Stenness

Many years ago, when our son was young, we had a number of trips to Brittany, Cornwall, West Cork and the Outer Hebrides. All these have important neolithic sites but his cry was ‘not more old stones!’. Hopefully now, he would be more appreciative. We had planned to start at Stenness and then work our way to Skara Brae via the Ring of Brodgar. However, just as we were about to get out of the car at Stenness, a very wintry shower fell and everyone ran for cover. We decided to do things the other way round as we could see that the clouds were clearing in the west. Skara Brae was a real treat as I had learnt about it in primary school but never visited it. We know something about those who lived in them but there is even more we do not know about their culture and language and beliefs. The exhibition in the visitors’ centre was very busy so we pushed on outside to look at the real thing and afterwards had a walk on Skaill Beach and looked inRing of Brodgar 5 7 June 2015 (1 of 1) the house.

Skara Brae 1 7 June 2015 (1 of 1)Skara Brae 4 7 June 2015 (1 of 1)-2

We then decided to head off to the Ring of Brodgar ahead of the coach and minibus who were gathering to leave Skara Brae. Once there, we got into conversation with a local guide about some comments we had heard from acquaintances in various parts of the Highlands and Islands relating to English people moving there (‘white settlers’) and the fact that very few locals want to work with visitors. She was more optimistic about Orkney, saying that some of the Orcadian diaspora (some of whom I have known at school and university) are now returning and that the population had increased by 5% in the last census. She also said that cruise ships now stop off in Orkney with 4,500 people on board. I was quite glad that the stones were quiet when we were there.

Ring of Brodgar 3 7 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Our last stop was Stenness, whose stones are some of the oldest in Britain.

Stennes 1 7 June 2015 (1 of 1)

The high winds today triggered my trigeminal neuralgia so I took some time out before planning tomorrow’s activities.

Over the Pentland Firth to Orkney

We did not sleep very well last night and a lie in would have been in order had we not got a ferry to catch. We had said out goodbyes to Mrs McKay last night. In the last year she has suffered the death of her husband, her sister and her nephew. She told us she was the last survivor of six siblings. On hearing that we were medics she advised us of her poor opinion of the local doctors and asked us if we would work up here. Not an option as we are in sight of retirement. We were soon on the road this morning. It started sunny with great views over the bay from Bettyhill.

View from Bettyhill 6 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Further on, towards Thurso, the burning of the heather had started and as it was so close to the road, two fire engines were parked up on standby.

Burning the heather on road to Thurso 6 June 2015 (1 of 1)

After some supplies shopping in Thurso we were at the port and soon on the boat. It was a remarkably smooth crossing given the recent winds. Lots of people were sitting out on the sun deck but we soon ran into a rain shower and there was a rapid evacuation. As we approached the sandstone cliffs of Orkney, I knew I was back on the tourist trail as dozens of people crowded against the starboard deck rail to get the obligatory shot of the Old Man of Hoy.

Old Man of Hoy 2 6 June 2015 (1 of 1)

Coming into Stromness, we passed the Ness Battery and the campsite on the point of Ness, before we swung into our berth. We are now ensconced in our very comfortable hilltop cottage with the wind howling outside but hot food and some wine inside.