Visiting Orkney: The Practicalities

Orkney
A week in Orkney was not enough. These 70+ islands just north of Scotland have a rich history and vibrant natural life. In a week my family and I explored stone circles, spotted seals on the beach, climbed cliffs to see nesting birds, and walked on uninhabited islands. Despite a very full seven days, we saw less than a tenth of the Orkney Islands and I have a feeling less than one percent of what they have to offer. If you’re looking for something a bit different for your next vacation, try Orkney. Here are a few tips to make your trip easier.

Getting there
Regular flights service Kirkwall airport from Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Inverness. There’s also a long ferry from Aberdeen if you want to bring a car along. The ferry is no cheaper than the flight and takes several hours from Aberdeen as opposed to just one, so if you aren’t bringing a car, it’s probably best to go by air.

Getting around
This can be a bit tricky. There’s a public bus service but it’s a bit limited and isn’t timed with the ferry service. The ferries are better. They serve all the inhabited islands and are reasonably priced. Most are car ferries so you can bring your vehicle along. You have to be careful with the ferry times, however, as the last ferry often leaves pretty early.
Considering renting a car to get you to the more out-of-the-way attractions, but be careful if you aren’t accustomed to driving on the left.

%Gallery-161806%Where to stay
Most people stay in Kirkwall or Stromness, the two largest towns on the Orkney Mainland. Kirkwall has more ferries to other islands, but my wife and I felt that Stromness had more atmosphere with its old stone houses and thriving art scene. Not that Kirkwall is hurting for art. We stayed just around the corner from The Reel, a great cafe/pub/music venue that hosts three or more concerts of traditional Scottish music a week.
Both towns have plenty of hotels B&Bs, and short-term apartment rentals. We got a two-bedroom apartment in central Kirkwall from Kirkwall Apartments for £550 ($856). We prefer to get an apartment because it feels more homey and relaxed than a B&B, we can cook our own meals to save money, and it comes out to about the same cost. I haven’t checked out other short-term letting agents so I have no basis for comparison, but I was satisfied with our place. It was clean, central, and Kirkwall Apartments had good customer service.
If you have a car and want to be out on your own, a little digging online will bring up many country cottages for rent. There are also B&Bs on some of the more remote islands. This is something I’m tempted to try the next time I go. Yes, there will definitely be a next time!

What to see
This series has gone over some of the highlights. There are plenty more attractions on the various islands. Check out the Visit Orkney website for more information.

Background reading
Reading up on a place before going always enriches the experience. A good place to start is with the “Orkneyinga Saga,” a Viking saga telling the history of the islands with plenty of battles, intrigue, and even a few Christian miracles. For more modern work, check out Orkney’s star author George Mackay Brown, who wrote numerous stories and poems about his beloved islands. Orkney also has numerous contemporary authors and poets, such as Pamela Beasant, who draw their inspiration from Orkney’s rich history and evocative landscape.
For some online reading, don’t miss Orkneyjar, an amazing website by the news editor of the Orcadian newspaper. The site offers a seemingly endless treasure trove of knowledge about Orkney’s nature, history and folklore.

Where to go from here?
Once you’re this far north, why not keep going? It’s a short hop on a plane to the Shetland Islands, an even more remote chain of Scottish islands. There are plenty of natural and archaeological wonders up there. You can also take a ferry, but it takes several hours over rough seas and goes by night, so you don’t get to see much. The plane sounds like a better option.
If you have a hankering for remote islands chains, there are also the Faroe Islands, about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. One marine biologist described them as, “Orkney on steroids.” Sounds good to me!

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Orkney

My First Experience Driving On The Left Side Of The Road

driving on the left
The best way to see the Orkney Islands in Scotland is by car. The buses don’t go to many of the most important attractions and don’t correspond well to the ferry schedule. On the other hand, distances are fairly short, so I decided to rent a car for a couple of days.

The only problem was, I had never driven on the left side of the road.

That fact and my Arizona driver’s license didn’t faze the guy at the rental agency in Kirkwall. The only question he asked was if I had ever had any moving violations.

“No,” I replied.

At this point my 6-year-old son chimed in, “BUT PAPA, WHAT ABOUT THAT TIME IN ARIZONA YOU WERE DRIVING TOO FAST AND THE POLICE STOPPED YOU? THEY MADE YOU PAY MONEY.”

Thanks, kid.

The guy at the rental agency smiled.

“Yeah, there was this speed trap in a small town in northern Arizona. The speed limit goes from 70 to 40 with no warning. They got me,” I admitted.

“There’s a bad one north of Aberdeen,” he told me. “The speed limit goes from 60 to 30 and then down to 20.”

“Good thing I’m not driving to Aberdeen,” I said.

“The car comes with damage insurance after the first £500. For £5 a day you can have extended insurance after the first £200. Basically with the first option we’re betting you won’t get in a crash and with the second option you’re betting you will.”

“Well, I don’t think I’m going to get in a crash but I’ll take the extended coverage anyway,” I replied.

Famous last words.I rented an automatic. The last thing I wanted to deal with while driving on the left for the first time was shifting with the wrong hand. I got in the car and accustomed myself to sitting on the right side of the car. After making sure everyone was strapped in, we headed out.

If you want to learn how to drive on the left, Orkney isn’t a bad place. There isn’t much traffic and not many roundabouts. It’s not ideal, though. Most of the roads are two narrow lanes with no shoulder. This means that on city streets and country lanes, many people park halfway on the road. At times I found myself weaving past parked cars and having to go almost entirely into the other lane before heading back into my own lane to dodge the next parked car.

This obstacle course was no problem for the first day and Orkney’s long summer twilight ensured that I didn’t have to drive in the dark.

I was feeling pretty confident as we headed out on the morning of the second day. This driving on the left thing was turning out to be pretty easy! Today would be no problem. We drove out from Kirkwall and into the rolling green countryside. We passed through a village and I moved to the right to pass a car parked on the edge of the lane when …

CRUNCH

I looked over at my side view mirror. The casing was gone.

“Oh Gadling! I just broke the Gadling mirror! I probably broke that Gadling’s Gadling mirror too! GADLING!!!”

I turned the car around.

“Let’s go back and see how much Gadling money I owe that Gadling Gadling.”

The worst part of this whole thing was that it was my fault. While he had been parked partway onto the road, there was no oncoming traffic and I could have easily got around him. I misjudged the distance because it was on my left and I was sitting on the right side of the car. I had no one to blame but myself. I hate it when that happens.

We drove back to find a burly old man standing by the side of the road holding his side view mirror and parts of mine. “Burly old man” sounds strange but that’s what he was. He was 70 if he was a day but had a chest like an ox, with massive arms that ended in spade-like hands. His weathered face had a stoic northern look to it. There was no murder in his eyes. I got out of the car.

“It looks like I owe you some money,” I said.

“Yes,” was all he said.

I examined the damage. It was a good thing I took that extended coverage because this was going to come out to well over £200. Neither of us had the number of a garage on us so he invited me back to his house to look at the phone book.

I like to visit the homes of the local people when I travel but I prefer to arrive in happier circumstances. His house was off the main road in a little cluster of homes on a windswept hill. A sign in the tidy living room said, “A fisherman lives here with the best catch of his life.” A fisherman. That explained the burliness. Hopefully, he’d continue playing the part of the stoic Scot and not gut me like a flounder.

Luckily everything went well. The fisherman remained stoic, only showing his anger by repeating the phrase “all I want is my mirror fixed” a few more times than necessary. The rental agency didn’t take back the car, so we were able to visit the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. And I learned an important lesson about driving on the left: after driving on the right for 25 years, it’s not so easy just to flip your perceptions and expect to be able to judge distances perfectly.

I just wish i hadn’t said “Gadling” in front of my son so much. It’s such a filthy word.

[Photo courtesy user webhamster via Flickr]

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Visiting Orkney: the Practicalities!

A Look Inside A Scotch Whisky Distillery

whiskeyI must admit that despite my name I’ve never been much into whiskey. Rum? Yes. Beer? Yes. Wine? Yes. Absinthe? Yes. Mead? Oh yes! But whiskey has never really been on my radar.

A taste of 25-year-old Scapa whiskey changed all that.

Scapa prides itself as being the second northernmost Scotch whisky distillery in the world. Highland Park Distillery beats it by less than a mile. There are more northern whiskey distilleries in Scandinavia, but of course those aren’t Scotch whisky distilleries.

The Scapa distillery was founded in 1885 and sits on the southern shore of Mainland Orkney. I met with Ian Logan, International Brand Ambassador for Chivas Brothers, to take a look around this distillery that’s otherwise closed to the public.

As we entered, Logan explained that Scapa is a small operation that produces 120,000 liters of single malt whisky a year. I thought that sounded like a lot but my guide simply shrugged.

“A major distillery will do that in two weeks,” he said.

Scapa only has three employees who work equipment that’s a mix of the old and new along with a few museum pieces. The mill, for example, is 75 years old and was built by a company that no longer exists. Their still is a Lomond still from the 1930s and the only one still in operation. This equipment works just fine for a small distillery like Scapa so there’s no reason to change it.

“A distillery is all about consistency,” Logan explained.

After the sifting and milling, a combination of local spring water, sugar, and starch is poured into the mash as it’s slowly turned. Two more infusions of water follow. Fermentation takes 135 hours and then it’s sent to the Lomond still to be distilled.

%Gallery-161374%After the whisky cools, it’s put into 190 liter casks on site.

“Not many places fill their own casks these days. Most send it to a central point,” Logan said.

The casks are all American white oak, which lends a vanilla flavor. As Logan took me around the rows of casks in their warehouse, I noticed most of them were stamped “Jack Daniels.” According to U.S. law, barrels may only be used once. They are then sold to the UK where they’re reused. Used casks are actually better for Scapa’s purposes because that first use gets rid of the stronger flavors and later uses give a mellower whisky.

Casks are reused three times for single malt whisky after coming from the U.S., and then are used for blends.

“It’s a terrible analogy but a cask is like a tea bag. The more you use it the less you get from it!” Logan joked.

Logan then sat me down to try their 16-year-old and 25-year-old samples. I lack the vocabulary of the connoisseur, so let me just say that I found both to be mellow, smooth and rich with a velvety texture. I could certainly taste the vanilla that comes from the American oak, along with hints of other flavors I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Logan offered me some water to mix with it but I found this diluted the delicate flavor. This newbie drinks his whisky straight.

If you can’t find Scapa at your local liquor store, you can order it from many online retailers and also find it as one of the elements of the popular Ballantine blend.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “My First Experience Driving On The Left Side Of The Road!

Beauty In Wartime: The Italian Chapel In Orkney

Orkney, Italian Chapel
The remote Orkney Islands north of Scotland became important during both world wars. With German U-boats prowling the Atlantic, shipping between the United Kingdom and North America was diverted as far north as possible and passed by Orkney. The islands were protected by a series of bunkers and forts that can still be seen today.

The remote islands also proved to be a good place to put prisoners of war. Camp 60, on Lambholm, housed some 500 Italian soldiers captured during the North Africa campaign of World War II. They had a pretty good life considering the circumstances. By day they worked on building barriers between the islands to inhibit U-boat traffic, and in their spare time they built themselves a bowling alley and printed their own newspaper.

They were far from home, however, and still prisoners, so they needed some spiritual inspiration. Thus they got permission to convert two Nissen huts into a Catholic chapel. The prisoners quickly organized. Former artisans volunteered to decorate and paint the chapel, or devise candlesticks and a rood screen out of scrap metal and wood. Less skilled prisoners did the heavy work.

%Gallery-161322%One Italian POW described why the prisoners rallied around the project: “It was the wish to show oneself first, and to the world then, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed wire camp, down in spirit, physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free.”

Check out the gallery to see this amazing little chapel – all that remains of Camp 60. It’s been lovingly preserved by the people of Orkney and regularly visited by the former prisoners and their families.

The above photo was taken by Gregory J. Kingsley, who obviously went on a nicer day than we did.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “A Look Inside at a Scotch Whisky Distillery!”

Eynhallow: Visiting Orkney’s Haunted Isle

Eynhallow
Orkney is an ancient land where prehistoric monuments still dominate the landscape, along with the wide sky and surrounding sea. Plenty of strange stories have grown up about certain places. Some of the strangest have to do with a little island called Eynhallow.

Eynhallow has been deserted since 1851. Considering that it’s a little less than 200 acres of treeless grass and rocky cliffs surrounded by dangerously strong tides, it’s a testament to Orcadian toughness that it was ever inhabited at all.

For a long time, the stories say, it wasn’t inhabited by people, but by the Finfolk. The Finfolk were a race of magical beings who in the summer lived on the island, which was then called Hildaland. This island itself was magical and was usually invisible to mortal eyes.

The Finfolk were evil beings and sometimes abducted people, much like the elves of European folklore before fantasy writers turned them into metrosexuals. One day a Finman abducted the wife of the Goodman of Thorodale, an Orcadian farmer. Thorodale saw a tall, dark figure making off with his screaming wife in a boat. The brave farmer rowed after them and the Finman turned his boat invisible and escaped. Thorodale grieved for his wife until one day he heard her voice singing to him over the waves, telling him to visit a wise woman on the island of Hoy. This woman told him how to get his wife back and kick the Finfolk off Hildaland. The rest of the tale is told here.

Hildaland, after it was rid of its pesky Finfolk, became known as Eynhallow, a corruption of the Norse word for “Holy Island.” Fanciful folktales aside, there may have been a reason for this. Some believe that a monastery once operated on the island and this is why the Vikings called it a Holy Island.

%Gallery-161239%This seems to have been confirmed when a medieval church was discovered on the island. It had been lived in and built around by the last nineteenth-century residents until disease killed many of them and the rest fled. It was only after it was abandoned that scholars realized what it was. The church building may, or may not, have served a monastery. No excavations have yet taken place. But why would a sizable church and perhaps a monastic community have been built on such a small island, only to be ignored by medieval chroniclers and completely forgotten?

I visited on an annual trip hosted by the Orkney Archaeology Society, a friendly group of professional and amateur archaeologists who love the land and its past. They wanted to explore the mysterious church building. This wasn’t a simple outing to an uninhabited island. Two visitors supposedly disappeared on a trip there in 1990. Some say the ferrymen bringing the group there and back simply miscounted; others say it may have been vengeful Finfolk.

Orcadian folklore hints that the island is still magic. It’s said that if you cut grain there after sundown, it will bleed, and a horse tethered to the ground will always be found running loose after dark.

We set out across the chilly gray water at 7:30 p.m., which in the Orkney summer means it’s still bright enough to read outside. We passed between the islands of Mainland and Rousay and one of the group members pointed out several medieval brochs on either shore.

After about 20 minutes, Eynhallow appeared before us as a green hump in the sea. There’s no pier on Eynhallow, so the ferry ground to a halt on a rocky beach, upsetting hundreds of terns that flapped and squawked at us. Soon we were tromping down the beach. The ferry had some other runs to make so it pulled away with a scrape of steel on stone and chugged off. We were temporarily marooned on an island inhabited only by malevolent spirits. I love my job.

After we left the angry terns behind, all we could hear was the wind. We headed inland across thick grass and wildflowers to reach the mysterious church. It’s a strange building and I can see why the archaeologists are puzzled by it. Parts are skillfully made, while others looked slapped together, probably by the later farmers. A staircase leads up to nowhere and debris and lumps in the earth suggest a series of outbuilding that may have been the monastery. From what can be seen, it certainly looks like a planned community built at once, with the later farmers’ additions put on every which way.

It’s a lonely place now. Grass and nettles have overgrown the site and birds have built nests in holes in the walls. As we explored, one of the group, a singer at a local church, stood in the nave and sang in Latin in a deep, resonant voice. The effect was eerily beautiful.

After puzzling over the church, we headed out to circumnavigate the island. Now, it was about 9 but this far north it meant we had a good two hours of twilight left. The increasing gloom only enriched the colors – the deep green of the grass sparkled with lighter shades of wildflowers, the pale blue of the sky, the endless gray of the ocean. The shore had brighter hues. Red cliffs studded with tufts of wildflowers housed nests for raucous birds. Fulmars, cormorants and puffins were everywhere. Angry mothers guarded their chicks by flapping their wings and squawking at us. They must have been warned by the terns.

The natural beauty continued all around the island. Waves lashed against the jagged rocks and birds studied us from sheer cliffs. As we made our way around we came across several cairns. Some were guide markers for fishermen, while others may have been ancient. A flock of sheep came out of nowhere and passed on by with barely a look at us intruders. We rounded a bend and humped over a hill and there ahead of us shone the lights of the ferry. It had come back for us.

I almost felt sorry.

For more on Eynhallow, check out Orkneyjar’s excellent collection of Eynhallow pages.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Beauty In Wartime: The Italian Chapel In Orkney!”