To the Orkneys!
After a discussion with our hosts at the Royal Hotel we decide to take a bus trip around the Orkneys. The decision is predicated by a desire to take a much needed rest from driving. We depart Thurso for a short 20 minute drive to John o’ Groats.
On the way we pass by Dunnet Head.
Dunnet Head is a peninsula on the north coast of Scotland, that includes the most northerly point of the mainland of Great Britain. The peninsula is east of the Thurso, and on a clear day, it affords excellent views of the islands of Stroma and Swona to the east, and Hoy and the Orkney Mainland, 15 km (nine miles) away to the north, across the Pentland Firth.
A further 3 miles and we reach John o' Groats, a village popular with tourists because it is usually regarded as the most northerly settlement of mainland Great Britain, although this is not a claim made by the inhabitants and is false.
The town takes its name from Jan de Groote, a Dutchman who obtained a grant for the ferry from the Scottish mainland to Orkney, recently acquired from Norway, from King James IV in 1496. People from John o' Groats are known as "Groatsers". Local legend has the name John o' Groats termed to reflect the Dutch ferryman's charge of one groat payment for the ride to the islands.
The phrase Land's End to John o' Groats (LEJOG) is frequently heard both as a literal journey (being the longest possible in Great Britain) and as a metaphor for great or all-encompassing distance, similar to the American phrase coast to coast.
The ferry takes just 40 minutes to cover the old sea route to Orkney across the famous Pentland Firth which links the Atlantic Ocean with the North Sea.
The Maxi coach was waiting for us at Burwick.
In a very few minutes we are ready to drive across the Churchill Barriers which were built in the 1940s and thread five islands together to form the eastern boundary of Scapa Flow.
Scapa Flow is a body of water in the Orkney Islands sheltered by the islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy. It is about 312 square kilometres. It has a shallow sandy bottom not deeper than 60 metres and most of it about 30 metres deep, and is one of the great natural harbours/anchorages of the world, with sufficient space to hold a number of navies. Viking ships anchored in Scapa Flow more than 1000 years ago, but it is best known as the site of the United Kingdom's chief naval base during WWI and WWarII. The base was closed in 1956.
The Viking expeditions to Orkney are recorded in detail. King Haakon IV of Norway anchored his fleet, including the flagship Kroussden that could carry nearly 300 men, on 5 August 1263 at St Margaret's Hope, where he witnessed an eclipse of the sun prior to sailing south to the Battle of Largs. En route back to Norway Haakon anchored some of his fleet in Scapa Flow for the winter, but he died that December whilst staying at the Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall.
Historically, the main British naval bases were located near the English Channel to better face England's old enemies of France, Spain, and the Netherlands. In 1904, in response to the build-up of the German Kaiserliche Marine's High Seas Fleet, it was decided that a northern base was needed, to control the entrances to the North Sea. Originally, Rosyth was considered for the base, and then Invergordon at Cromarty Firth, but construction in both places was delayed, leaving them largely unfortified by the time of the First World War. Scapa Flow had been used many times for exercises in the years leading up to the War, and, when the time came for the fleet to move to a northern station, Scapa Flow was chosen for the main base of the British Grand Fleet, even though it was also unfortified.
John Rushworth Jellicoe, admiral of the Grand Fleet, was constantly nervous about potential submarine or destroyer attacks on Scapa Flow, and the base was reinforced with minefields, artillery, and concrete barriers starting in 1914. No German U-boats were able to enter the harbour during the war, and only two attempts were made. The first, by U-18, took place in November 1914; but the sub was rammed by a trawler searching for submarines while it was trying to enter Scapa Flow, causing the submarine to flee and then sink. The second attack, by SM UB-116, in October 1918, encountered the sophisticated defences then in place, was detected by hydrophones, and then destroyed by shore-triggered mines before the boat could enter the anchorage.
After the Battle of Jutland, the German High Seas Fleet rarely ventured out of its bases at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, and in the last two years of the war the British fleet was considered to have such a commanding superiority of the seas that some components moved south, to the first-class dockyard at Rosyth.
Following the German defeat in the First World War, 74 ships of the Kaiserliche Marine's High Seas Fleet were interned in Gutter Sound at Scapa Flow pending a decision on their future in the peace Treaty of Versailles. On 21 June 1919, after nine months of waiting, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, the German officer in command at Scapa Flow, made the decision to scuttle the fleet because the negotiation period for the treaty had lapsed with no word of a settlement (he was not kept informed that there had been a last-minute extension to finalise the details). After waiting for the bulk of the British fleet to leave on exercises, he gave the order to scuttle the ships to prevent their falling into British hands. The Royal Navy made desperate efforts to board the ships to prevent the sinkings, but the German crews had spent the idle months preparing for the order, welding bulkhead doors open, laying charges in vulnerable parts of the ships, and quietly dropping important keys and tools overboard so valves could not be shut.
The British did eventually manage to beach the battleship Baden, the light cruisers Nürnberg, Frankfurt and Emden, together with 18 destroyers, but the remaining fifty-two ships, the vast bulk of the High Seas Fleet, were sunk without loss of life. However, nine German sailors died when British forces opened fire as they attempted to scuttle their ship, reputedly the last casualties of the First World War.
Primarily because of its great distance from German airfields, Scapa Flow was again selected as the main British naval base during World War II. However, the strong defences built up during WW1 had fallen into disrepair: defence against air attack was inadequate; the blockships sunk to stop U-boats from penetrating had largely collapsed; and, while there were anti-submarine nets in place over the three main entrances, they comprised only single-stranded looped wire. There was also a severe lack of the patrolling destroyers and other anti-U-Boat craft that had previously been available. Efforts belatedly began to repair the peacetime neglect, but it was too late to prevent disaster.
On 14 October 1939, under the command of Günther Prien, U-47 penetrated Scapa Flow and sank the WWI era battleship HMS Royal Oak anchored in Scapa Bay. After firing its first torpedo, the submarine turned to make its escape; but, upon realising that there was no immediate threat from surface vessels, it returned to make another attack. The second torpedo blew a 30-foot (9 m) hole in the Royal Oak, which flooded and quickly capsized. Of the 1,400-man crew, 833 were lost. The wreck is now a protected war grave.
Three days after this submarine attack, four Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 bombers raided Scapa Flow in one of the first bombing attacks on Britain during the war. The attack badly damaged an old base ship, the battleship HMS Iron Duke, with one bomber shot down by an anti-aircraft battery on Hoy.
New blockships were sunk, booms and mines were placed over the main entrances, increased anti-aircraft batteries were installed at crucial points, and Winston Churchill ordered the construction of a series of causeways to block the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow; they were built by Italian prisoners of war held in Orkney. These "Churchill Barriers" now provide road access from the mainland to Burray and South Ronaldsay, but block maritime traffic.
The Churchill Barriers are a series of four causeways in the Orkney Islands with a total length of 1.5 miles. They link the Orkney Mainland in the north to the island of South Ronaldsay via Burray and the two smaller islands of Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm.
In response to the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered the construction of several permanent barriers to prevent any further attacks. Work began in May 1940 and was completed by September 1944. However the barriers were not officially opened until 12 May 1945, four days after the end of WWII in Europe.
A project of this size required a substantial labour force, which peaked in 1943 at over 2,000.
Much of the labour was provided by over 1300 Italian POWs who had been captured in the desert war in North Africa, and were transported to Orkney from early 1942 onwards. As the use of POW labour for War Effort works is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, the works were justified as 'improvements to communications' to the southern Orkney Islands.
We continue along the northern coast of Scapa Flow with beautiful views of the Hoy hills across the water.
Some views from the bus as we head to Stromness.
We arrive in Stromness in time for lunch and while others take walking tours of the port we head to the Ferry Inn for their famous fish and chips combined with a pint or two of Tennants. Stromness is surely one of Britain's most picturesque towns, we imagined.
Stromness is the second-biggest town on the Orkney Islands. It is in the south-west of Mainland Orkney.
The name "Stromness" comes from the Norse Straumsnes. Straum refers to the strong tides that rip past the Point of Ness through Hoy Sound to the south of the town. Nes means "headland". Stromness thus means "headland protruding into the tidal stream ". In Viking times the anchorage where Stromness now stands was called Hamnavoe, meaning "peaceful" or "safe harbour".
First recorded as the site of an inn in the 16th century, Stromness became important during the late 17th century, when England was at war with France and shipping was forced to avoid the English Channel. Ships of the Hudson's Bay Company were regular visitors, as were whaling fleets. An unusual aspect of the town's character is the large number of buildings decorated with displays of whale bones outside them.
After lunch, back on the bus and off to the neolithic village of Skara Brae.
Skara Brae is a large stone-built Neolithic settlement, located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, Orkney.
It consists of ten clustered houses, and was occupied from roughly 3180BC to 2500BC. Europe's most complete Neolithic village, Skara Brae gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status as one of four sites making up "The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the "Scottish Pompeii" because of its excellent preservation.
In the winter of 1850, a severe storm hit Scotland causing widespread damage and over 200 deaths. In the Bay of Skaill, the storm stripped the earth from a large irregular knoll, known in Scottish as a howe, which had been a local landmark. When the storm cleared, local villagers found in place of the howe an intact village, albeit without roofs. For about the next 75 years there were no serious scientific investigations of Skara Brae. In one weekend in 1913, the site was plundered by a party with shovels taking away an unknown quantity of artifacts. In 1924 another storm swept away part of one of the houses and it was determined the site should be made secure and more seriously investigated. The job was given to University of Edinburgh professor Vere Gordon Childe. In mid-1927 Childe traveled to Skara Brae for the first time.
Skara Brae's inhabitants were apparently makers and users of grooved ware, a distinctive style of pottery that appeared in northern Scotland not long before the establishment of the village. The houses used earth sheltering but, being sunk into the ground, they were built into mounds of pre-existing domestic waste known as "middens". Although the midden provided the houses with a small degree of stability, its most important purpose was to act as a layer of insulation against Orkney's harsh winter climate. On average, the houses measure 40 square metres in size with a large square room containing a hearth which would have been used for heating and cooking. Given the number of homes, it seems likely that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time.
It is by no means clear what fuels the inhabitants used in the stone hearths. Vere Gordon Childe was sure that the fuel was peat, but a detailed analysis of vegetation patterns and trends suggests that climatic conditions conducive to the development of thick beds of peat did not develop in this part of Orkney until after Skara Brae was abandoned. Other obvious possible fuel sources include driftwood and animal dung, but there's evidence that dried seaweed may have been a significant source. At a number of sites in Orkney investigators have found a glassy, slag-like material called "Kelp" or "Cramp" that may be the residual burnt seaweed.
The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Each dwelling was entered through a low doorway that had a stone slab door that could be closed by a bar that slid in bar-holes cut in the stone door jambs. A sophisticated drainage system was even incorporated into the village's design, one that included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling. Seven of the houses have similar furniture, with the beds and dresser in the same places in each house. The dresser stands against the wall opposite the door, and would have been the first thing seen by anyone entering the dwelling. Each of these houses has the larger bed on the right side of the doorway and the smaller on the left. Lloyd Laing noted that this pattern accorded with Hebridean custom up to the early 20th century suggesting that the husband's bed was the larger and the wife's was the smaller. The discovery of beads and paint-pots in some of the smaller beds may support this interpretation. Additional support may come from the recognition that stone boxes lie to the left of most doorways, forcing the person entering the house to turn to the right-hand, 'male', side of the dwelling. At the front of each bed lie the stumps of stone pillars that may have supported a canopy of fur; another link with recent Hebridean style.
The eighth house has no storage boxes or dresser, but has been divided into something resembling small cubicles. When this house was excavated, fragments of stone, bone and antler were found. It is possible that this building was used as a house to make simple tools such as bone needles or flint axes. The presence of heat-damaged volcanic rocks and what appears to be a flue, support this interpretation. House 8 is distinctive in other ways as well. It is a stand-alone structure not surrounded by midden, instead there is a "porch" protecting the entrance through walls that are over 2 metres thick.
The site provided the earliest known record of the human flea Pulex irritans in Europe.
The Grooved Ware People who built Skara Brae were primarily pastoralists who raised cattle and sheep. Childe originally believed that the inhabitants did not practice agriculture, but excavations in 1972 unearthed seed grains from a midden suggesting that barley was cultivated. Fish bones and shells are common in the middens indicating that dwellers supplemented their diet with seafood. Limpet shells are common and may have been fish-bait that was kept in stone boxes in the homes. The boxes were formed from thin slabs with joints carefully sealed with clay to render them waterproof.
This pastoral lifestyle is in sharp contrast to some of the more exotic interpretations of the culture of the Skara Brae people. Euan MacKie suggested that Skara Brae might be the home of a privileged theocratic class of wise men who engaged in astronomical and magical ceremonies at nearby sites like the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. Graham and Anna Ritchie cast doubt on this interpretation noting that there is no archaeological evidence for this claim, although a Neolithic "low road" connects Skara Brae with the magnificent chambered tomb of Maeshowe, passing near both of these sites. Low roads connect Neolithic ceremonial sites throughout Britain.
Next to Skara Brae is the Skaill House.
Skaill House is the finest mansion in Orkney steeped in 5000 years of history. Skaill House was built in 1620 and in its 400 year history all 12 of its Lairds have been related and all have contributed to the history and collection in the house. The first owner was Bishop George Graham (Bishop of Orkney 1615-1638) who built the house on the site of a farmstead thought to date to the Norse period. Also notable was the7th Laird William Graham Watt who discovered Skara Brae in 1850.
Next our route takes us onto a narrow tongue of land between the lochs of Harray and Stenness with a photo stop at the mystical Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness.
The Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic hengeand stone circle on the Mainland, the largest island in Orkney. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Most henges do not contain stone circles; Brodgar is a striking exception, ranking with Avebury Stonehenge) among the greatest of such sites.
These are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain. Unlike similar structures such as Avebury, there are no obvious stones inside the circle, but since the interior of the circle has never been excavated by archaeologists, the possibility remains that wooden structures, for example, may be present. The site has resisted attempts at scientific dating and the monument's age remains uncertain. It is generally thought to have been erected between 2500BC and 2000BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness. A project called The Ring of Brodgar Excavation 2008 was undertaken in the summer of the year in an attempt to settle the age issue and help answer other questions about a site that remains relatively poorly understood. The results of the excavation are still preliminary.
The stone circle is 104 metres in diameter, and the third largest in the British Isles. The ring originally comprised 60 stones, of which only 27 remained standing at the end of the 20th century. The tallest stones stand at the south and west of the ring. The stones are set within a circular ditch up to 3 metres deep, 9 metres wide and 380 metres in circumference that was carved out of the solid sandstone bedrock by the ancient residents. Technically, this ditch does not constitute a true henge as there is no sign of an encircling bank of earth and rock. Many archaeologists continue to refer to this structure as a henge; for example, Aubrey Burl classifies the ditch as a Class II henge; one that has two opposing entrances, in this case on the north-west and south-east.
Examination of the immediate environs reveals a concentration of ancient sites, making a significant ritual landscape. Within 2 square miles there are the two circle-henges, four chambered tombs, groups of standing stones, single stones, barrows, cairns, and mounds. The immediate area has also yielded a number of flint arrowheads and broken stone mace-heads that seem to date from the Bronze Age. Although its exact purpose is not known, the proximity of the Standing Stones of Stenness and its Maeshowe tomb make the Ring of Brodgar a site of major importance.
The Standing Stones of Stenness are next on the tour.
The name, which is pronounced stane-is in Orcadian dialect, comes from Old Norse meaning stone headland.
The Stenness Watch Stone stands outside the circle, next to the modern bridge leading to the Ring of Brodgar.
The stones are thin slabs, approximately 300 mm thick. Four, up to about 5 m high, were originally elements of a stone circle of 12 stones, laid out in an ellipse about 32 m diameter on a levelled platform of 44 m diameter surrounded by a ditch. The ditch is cut into rock by as much as 2 m depth and is 7 m wide, surrounded by an earth bank, with a single entrance causeway on the north side. The entrance faces towards the Neolithic Barnhouse Settlement which has been found adjacent to the Loch of Harray. The Watch Stone stands outside the circle to the north-west and is 5.6 m high. Other smaller stones include a square stone setting in the centre of the circle platform where cremated bone, charcoal and pottery were found, and animal bones were found in the ditch. The pottery links the monument to Skara Brae and Maeshowe, and the site is thought to date from at least 3000BC.
Even in the 18th century the site was still associated with traditions and rituals, by then relating to Norse gods. It was visited by Walter Scott in 1814. Other antiquarians documented the stones and recorded local traditions and beliefs about them. One stone, known as the "Odin Stone" was pierced with a circular hole, and was used by local couples for plighting engagements by holding hands through the gap. It was also associated with other ceremonies and believed to have magical power.
In December 1814 Captain W. Mackay, a recent immigrant to Orkney who owned farmland in the vicinity of the stones, decided to remove them on the grounds that local people were trespassing and disturbing his land by using the stones in rituals. He started in December 1814 by smashing the Odin Stone. This caused outrage and he was stopped after destroying one other stone and toppling another.
The toppled stone was re-erected in 1906 along with some inaccurate reconstruction inside the circle.
We leave the stones and head for Kirkwall.
Kirkwall is the biggest town and capital of Orkney. The town is first mentioned in Orkneyinga saga in the year 1046 when it is recorded as the residence of Rögnvald Brusason the Earl of Orkney, who was killed by his uncle Thorfinn the Mighty. In 1486, King James III of Scotland elevated Kirkwall to the status of a royal burgh; modern road signs still indicate "The City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall".
The name Kirkwall comes from the Norse name Kirkjuvagr (Church Bay), which was later corrupted to Kirkvoe, Kirkwaa and Kirkwall.
Kirkwall is a port with ferry services to Aberdeen and Lerwick, as well as the principal north islands in the group. At the heart of the town stands St. Magnus Cathedral. It was founded in memory of Saint Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney 1108-1117 by Earl (later Saint) Rögnvald Kali. Next to the Cathedral are the ruins of the former Bishop's Palace and Earl's Palace.
St. Magnus Cathedral,
Apart from the main historical buildings mentioned above, Kirkwall has many 17th-18th century houses and other structures in the local vernacular style. The 'Kirk' of Kirkwall was not the Cathedral (which was originally at Birsay), but the 11th century church of Saint Olaf of Norway. One late medieval doorway survives from this church. Kirkwall also once had a medieval castle, which was destroyed in the 17th century.
One of the major annual events in the town is the Ba Game, held each Christmas Day and New Year's Day between the Uppies and the Doonies, each team representing one half of the town. It is one of a number of Ba Games played in the streets of towns around Scotland; these are examples of traditional football games which are still played in towns in the United Kingdom and worldwide.
Dating back to the mid 17th century the two sides are the Uppies and the Doonies, or more correctly, "Up-the-Gates" and "Doon-the-Gates" from Norn gata (path or road), although it is also common in Scots. Originally the side any individual played on was decided by whether he (or she) was born up or doon the gate. For ferryloupers (incomers, though more literally ferry jumpers,) and people from the isles or rural areas their side is determined by the route taken on their first arrival in Kirkwall, by family influence, or by the side their friends play on. The game was traditionally played by men from Kirkwall and the surrounding area of St.Ola, however in recent times the games popularity has grown to include players from all areas of Orkney, including some of the outer isles. This has led to the game becoming very large (and physically demanding) with sometimes in excess of 350 men playing at any one time. Non-Orcadians are not encouraged to participate for this very reason. Safety of players and property is top priority and the feeling among those associated with the game is that it has now become too large to be manageable from a safety aspect and the game does not need any more players.
On Christmas and New Years Day the Boys Ba is thrown up at 10:30 and the men's Ba at 13:00 at the Market Cross on the Kirk Green opposite the Cathedral, usually by an older Ba stalwart, but occasionally by some public figure, with up to 350 players eagerly awaiting the chime of the bells. The Ba disappears into the scrum, which may spend some considerable time on Broad Street. Much exciting surging and turning play often occurs on this wider part of the street, which can frequently determine the final outcome.
Occasionally the Ba appears out of the scrum and someone makes a dash through the crowds of spectators. To the casual onlooker this can happen at any moment, but the seasoned Ba watcher can often see what is happening long before the Ba suddenly erupts. Breaks sometimes occur on Broad Street, but can occur anywhere where one side gains sufficient control of part of the scrum.
The Doonies have the benefit of a flat push to Albert Street, while the Uppies have a hard push up to the top of Tankerness Lane. The game may also go down one of the flagstone lanes, or down Castle Street onto the open Junction Road. Once there either side may gain the upper hand by means of a smuggle and run, or the scrum may become immobile in one of the many closes and yards.
However if the Uppies manage to enter Victoria Street, or the Doonies Albert Street, the opposition have a much harder time, due to the narrowness and the press of often many hundreds of keen spectators. All the same the Ba may be restricted for several hours in any of the many lanes and neither side ever gives up the struggle until the goal is reached.
The Doonies goal is the sea, normally within the Basin of the Harbour, but so long as it is immersed in the salt water of Kirkwall Bay, the Ba has gone doon. The Uppies must round the Lang, or Mackinson's corner at the junction of Main Street with New Scapa Road, opposite the Catholic Church. Once Up or Doon, lengthy argument often ensues before a popular individual winner is acclaimed. When the winner is finally decided, many players repair to his house, where much needed refreshment rapidly appears. To stalwart Ba players the ultimate honour is to have the trophy of the game, the Ba itself, awarded to them by their team. To be awarded a Ba, a player generally has to have played consistently well for a long period of time (usually around 20 years minimum). Ba winners range from outstanding players in their early thirties to veterans in their mid to late forties.
Leaving Kirkwall we head back to the ferry with a stop at the Italian Chapel.
The Italian Chapel is a highly ornate Catholic chapel on Lamb Holm in Orkney. It was built by Italian prisoners of war during World War II, who were housed on the previously uninhabited island while they constructed the Churchill Barriers to the east of Scapa Flow. Only the concrete foundations of the other buildings of the prisoner of war camp survive. It was not completed until after the end of the war, and was restored in the 1960s and again in the 1990s. It is now a popular tourist attraction, and a category A listed building.
Italian prisoners of war, captured in North Africa during World War II, were brought to Orkney in 1942. They constructed the Churchill Barriers. 200 were based at Camp 60 on Lamb Holm. In 1943, Major T P Buckland, Camp 60's new commandant, and Father Giacombazzi, the Camp's priest agreed that a place of worship was required.
The chapel was constructed from limited materials by the prisoners. Two huts were joined end-to-end. The corrugated interior was then covered with plasterboard and the altar and altar rail were constructed from concrete left over from work on the barriers. Most of the interior decoration was done by Domenico Chiocchetti, a POW from Moena. He painted the sanctuary end of the chapel and fellow-prisoners decorated the entire interior. They created a front facade out of concrete, concealing the shape of the hut and making the building look like a church.
Chiocchetti remained on the island to finish the chapel, even when his fellow prisoners were released shortly before the end of the war.
Finally, back to the ferry, over to John O' Groats and off to Thurso for supper and a little whiskey to contemplate the great day.