Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles

Orkney
In my school library in Canada, there was a curious old volume printed in 1909 called “The Orkney Book.” It was written for schoolchildren living in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland and told them about their land, culture and history.

This book fascinated me with its stories of Viking warriors and mysterious stone circles. I studied the grainy black and white photos of those remote islands and dreamed of going there. Last week I finally did.

Orkney, as Orcadians call their home, is a group of about 70 islands between the North Sea and North Atlantic. The exact number is a matter of dispute because in addition to the numerous inhabited islands, some with a population as low as one, there are many more uninhabited islands and skerries. When is an island really an island and not just a rock sticking out of the sea? I suspect this has been the subject of many long conversations in Orcadian pubs.

My wife, 6-year-old son and I landed in the tiny airport at Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital. With a population a little above 7,500, it’s not exactly a booming metropolis, but it does account for more than a third of Orkney’s population. What Kirkwall lacks in size it makes up for in history and character. In the broad harbor are moored numerous fishing and pleasure boats and a few larger vessels. Beyond can be seen other islands, green humps rising out of the gray sea.

Dominating the Kirkwall skyline is the 12th century St. Magnus Cathedral built of red sandstone. It was built in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, a Viking at a time when most Vikings were nominally Christian. He built it to house the remains of his uncle Magnus, who had become a saint after having his head split by an axe in traditional Viking fashion. Magnus had been an Earl of the Orkneys, ruling for the Norwegian king along with Magnus’ cousin Hakon, who was Earl of another part of Orkney. This co-rulership led to trouble and when Magnus and Hakon met to sort things out, Hakon betrayed him. Hakon didn’t want his own hands soiled by a kinsman’s blood and called on his cook to perform the foul deed. Soon miracles started happening around Magnus’ grave and he was proclaimed a saint.

Kirkwall also has an excellent museum tracing Orkney’s history from the surprisingly active prehistoric period to the modern day. There’s also a cool Wireless Museum filled with a huge collection of old radios; one from 1912 actually works and on another set you can practice your Morse code. My son was more interested in the old TV where you could play Pong, a video game from an era that must seem as remote to him as the Neolithic.

%Gallery-160901%Our next stop was Stromness, a half-hour bus ride from Kirkwall. As we got off and gazed over the cluster of gray stone buildings huddled around the harbor, my son asked, “Is this the other place they call a city?”

Well, after growing up in Madrid, I guess it doesn’t seem like much of a city to him, but with a little over 2,000 people it’s the second biggest town on the islands. It has a thriving artistic community and many artists display their work at the Pier Arts Centre. There’s also a large museum about the lives of the hardy local sailors, whalers, and explorers of days gone by. Many of the displays are of the things they brought back from their travels, everything from artwork from Niger and Greenland to whalebone scrimshaw and necklaces made from human teeth.

The highlight of our visit to Stromness was walking along the shore and around a promontory. Soon we left the town behind us and looked out over the cold waves. Seals popped their heads out of the water to study us. “Look, a seal! Look, a seal!” my son kept shouting as he spotted another and another. A few rocks became identified as seals too, and spotting more seals took on the uncertainty and excitement that adults generally reserve for UFOs. We clambered over the remains of a World War II gun emplacement, one of many on the islands, and admired the high hills of Hoy island, shown in the photo above.

Both Kirkwall and Stromness are on Orkney’s main island, which Orcadians call the Mainland even though mainland Scotland is barely twenty miles from its southern shores. For those wanting a base from which to get out and about on the islands, either of these two cities is a good bet. Many of Orkney’s top attractions are on the Mainland and Kirkwall and Stromness have regular ferry services to other islands. While we stayed in Kirkwall, my wife and I found Stromness more attractive. Its old architecture and quieter streets had a more traditional feel.

We’d only been on Orkney for 24 hours and we were already hooked. I was looking forward to seeing the countryside and the smaller islands.

This is the first in my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney!”