Out & About

You can come to Orkney knowing that you want to visit Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, St Magnus Cathedral and the Italian Chapel. You can plan to go bird-watching, follow the Craft Traill or visit the smaller islands but Orkney will still take you unawares. As Dorothy Dunnett wrote, "It isn't really like anywhere else, although you think it's going to be."

A local guide can not only enhance your experience of our well-known attractions, we can introduce you to the other places you didn't know you'd fall in love with. If you're lucky enough to be planning a trip here, let me help you with your plan and then let me take you "oot and aboot" in these beautiful surprising islands.



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Skara Brae St Magnus Cathedral Heather at Ring of Brodgar Italian Chapel

Skara Brae


These walls were old before any of the Seven Great Wonders of the World were built. The Neolithic village of Skara Brae was lived in from about 3,100 to 2,500 BC. The sand moved in when the people left and the houses lay under the sand dunes until 1850, when a storm revealed enough of the stones for the local landowner, William Watt, to realise there was something to investigate. This building was labelled the workshop, as there was a hearth but no beds and a large quantity of tools and pottery. I see it as the fore-runner of the smithy and the cobbler's shop: places men had a good excuse to go and meet up around the fire.

St Magnus Cathedral


St Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137, is one of the two oldest cathedrals in Scotland, along with Glasgow. It is built of local sandstone and was founded by Earl Rognvald, in honour of his murdered uncle, Earl Magnus. There is an active Church of Scotland congregation but, perhaps uniquely, the building is not owned by the church. When King James V visited Orkney in 1486, he made Kirkwall a City and Royal Burgh and he gave the Cathedral to the people of Kirkwall.

The interior is as beautiful as the exterior and it is possible to book places on a tour of the upper levels and out onto the parapet below the spire. If you have a head for heights, the hidden corners of the building and the views of Kirkwall are really worth the climb. If you would like to find out more, go to http://www.stmagnus.org/contact_us.html

The Ring of Brodgar


The Ring of Brodgar is the third largest stone circle in the UK, after Avebury in Wiltshire and Stanton Drew in Somerset. There were once probably 60 stones in the 104m diameter circle and 27 are still there, up to 4.7m tall. Nothing has been found to give a carbon date for the ring but archaeologists believe it dates from 2500 - 2000 BC.

We used to believe that the stones were brought from Vestrafiold, a hill north of Skara Brae, but we have learned recently that some of the stones come from Orphir, as far in the opposite direction. Any consideration about the purpose of the ring must take into account the ditch that surrounds it. Originally about 3 metres deep and 6 metres wide, it was dug into the bedrock, using bone tools and probably took about 80,000 man-hours.

The Italian Chapel


Italian POWs were brought to Orkney in 1942, to help build the Churchill Barriers which block the channels on the east side of Scapa Flow. When they said they would like a chapel, they were given two Nissen (Quonset) huts joined together and with only concrete, plasterboard, paint and whatever they could find around them, they made a startlingly beautiful building which is still in use today. The chapel wasn't expected to last, created as it was from such perishable materials, but a Preservation Committee was formed in 1958 and word started to spread about the remarkable building. In 1960, the BBC found the principal artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, back in his home town of Moena, in the Dolomites. They paid for him to return to Orkney for three weeks, where he renewed friendships and did some restoration work.

Stones of Stenness Maeshowe Interior Earl's Palace Stromness

Standing Stones of Stenness


The Standing Stones of Stenness is the oldest known stone circle in the UK. Animal bones and pottery found on the site have dated its construction to about 3000 BC.

There are holes for 12 stones, though we don't know if they were all erected, and they were surrounded by a ditch that was 2 metres deep and 7 metres wide.

The stones are much larger than those in the Ring of Brodgar, the stone on the right is 5.7 metres tall. When you are looking at the size of these stones and wondering how they were transported and erected, bear in mind that you are only seeing about two-thirds of the stone.

Maeshowe Interior


From outside, you can't see why Maeshowe is described as the finest chambered cairn in western Europe but once you negotiate the 10-metre long passageway, the reason becomes obvious.

I used to give evening tours here and always felt as if I was performing a conjuring trick when I took people inside. These enormous stones have stood there, perfectly aligned, for 5,000 years.

For a few weeks around the Winter Solstice, the sun shines straight down the passageway. I saw if for myself in 2015 and was astonished by how bright the strip of light was, slashed across the floor and up the back wall.

As if this wasn't enough, in the 1150s the Norsemen broke in through the roof and wrote on the walls, leaving the largest collection of Runic graffiti anywhere in the world.

Earl's Palace


Orkney only became part of Scotland in 1468. Margaret, daughter of Christian I of Denmark and Norway married James III of Scotland and Christian didn't have the money to hand so pawned Orkney for 50,000 florins of the Rhine and then added Shetland for another 8,000.

Life carried on peacefully enough for almost 100 years; James V visited in 1486 and made Kirkwall a City and Royal Burgh. Then, in 1564, Mary, Queen of Scots, made her half-brother Robert Stewart Earl of Orkney. He and his son Patrick are remembered for their oppression of the islands that only ended with Patrick's execution for treason in 1615. There is one good thing to be said for the father and son: they had good taste in architecture. Patrick's palace, completed in 1607, is just across the road from St Magnus Cathedral and is described as the finest surviving example of Renaissance architecture in Scotland.

Stromness


Stromness, our second town, is in the south-west corner of the mainland. The first record of activity there is a licence for an inn in 1595 but the town really grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, around the safest harbour in the north of Scotland. 'Ness' means headland, so the town's name refers to the headland on the right of the picture, 'the headland in the stream, or current'. This view looks south-east, out of the harbour, past the Stevenson lighthouse on Graemsay and over the Bring Deeps to Scapa Flow.

Yesnaby North Gaulton Castle The Hole o' Row Buckle's Tower

Yesnaby


Almost all of the west side of the Mainland is cliff. There are spectacular walks all the way from the Brough of Birsay in the north to Stromness in the south but if you don't have time for that in your first Orkney visit, some of it is marvellously accessible. This picture was taken less than 100 yards from a little car park. If you have an hour to spare, there is a lovely walk south to the rock stack known as the Castle of Yesnaby or north to the Broch of Borwick.

North Gaulton Castle


If you walk from Yesnaby to Stromness, you will see the spectacular and almost two dimensional North Gaulton Castle. Its 15 minutes of fame came in 1994, before the days of computer generated images, when a Rover car was airlifted onto it for a commercial.

Hole o' Row


The Hole o' Row (it rhymes with how) is in the headland next to Skara Brae on the Bay of Skaill. The Atlantic waves that often thunder onto our western shores are popular with surfers but hard on the cliffs. In his 1976 book, called simply 'Orkney', Ronald Miller, Stromness-born professor of Geography at Glasgow University, wrote about the pneumatic attack from the sea. "When a wave crashes against a cliff it compresses the air in front of it and drives this into the numerous bedding planes and joints of the flags. When the wave falls back this compressed air explodes outwards and may loosen or even carry with it some of the rock and at the same time open up the bedding planes and joints so that the pneumatic pressure is communicated progressively further and further into the cliff... especially if guided by dykes or faults."

Buckle's Tower


If you look to the right as you head towards the village of Finstown from the Stromness side, you'll see a tower up on the hill that is said to be another single-handed project. William Buckle was a herd-boy, spending the summer making sure the animals didn't wander off. There is an old quarry on the top of the hill, with thousands of flat stones still lying around and William thought he might as well put them to use. I'm told he managed to build so high because he left projecting stones as steps and then broke them off when he was finished.

Are You Coming Out? Swans Ness of Brodgar Structure 8

Are You Coming Out?


The most popular bird with visitors to Orkney is the puffin but they are not very easy to find. I didn't see one until I was in my forties. They spend most of their lives out at sea, only coming to land from early May to late July. Thousands nest on Sule Skerry but it is an uninhabited island beyond the western horizon. Most of the remainder go to the Castle of Burrian in Westray so you can take a ferry there and spend hours watching puffins come and go. If you only have time to visit the Mainland, there are a couple of places we could try. I took this picture at Marwick Head but the best place is the tidal island known as the Brough of Birsay. I know a spot on the cliffs where we can look down to a ledge which usually has several birds on it.

Swan Ride

Mute Swans are very common in Orkney, especially on the Stenness and Harray Lochs. According to Tim Dean in the Orkney Book of Birds, there can be up to 500 non-breeding and wintering birds on those two lochs and about 120 nesting pairs throughout the islands. Two pairs, for several years now, have nested right beside the Brig of Brodgar, between the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ness of Brodgar. I never tire of taking pictures of the cygnets but this is my favourite. I had seen that five had hatched last year and was worried when I only saw four a week or two later, until I noticed this little head.

Ness of Brodgar


The Ness of Brodgar is one of the most important archaeological digs in the world; National Geographic Magazine made it their cover story in August 2014. The scale and quality of the buildings here are unparalleled but they lay undiscovered, just inches below the surface of farmland, until 2002. Geophysical surveys showing an astonishing number of anomalies and the discovery of a notched stone led to funding for test pits. Only one of the twelve pits didn't find something and, looking at the aerial photo, it is hard to see how they found a clear spot. Excavations have gone on for 6 to 8 weeks every summer since then but the director, Nick Card of Orkney College's Archaeological Institute, says they have still only seen a tenth of it. Unfortunately, the site has to be covered over when not being worked on. Visit the website, www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk to learn more and, if you are in the USA or Ottawa, check here www.nessofbrodgar.com/2017-usa-tour/4592499930 to find out if Nick Card is going to be giving a lecture near you in February or March 2017.

Structure 8


If you look carefully at this picture of Structure 8 at the Ness of Brodgar, you can see a hole in the bottom left corner. This is the handiwork of my grandfather, Peter Leith, in 1925. He was well known for his interest in history so, when the farmer, Mr Wishart, turned up a large decorated stone with his plough, he told him about it. My grandfather went along to the Ness with a spade and, according to the report in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, "...went to the trouble of digging in the hole. He continued to find any amount of stones, and about a depth of 5 feet lower down, came upon another cist." He was inside one of the most impressive Neolithic buildings yet found but thought he was excavating small graves. Everyone is thankful he missed the wall and the site lay safely tucked underground until more scientific methods could be applied to the site.

Daffodils Bluebeels at Woodwick Happy Valley Binscarth

Daffodils


You have to pay attention in Orkney in the spring, to see all the flowers at their best. For some of them you need to seek out some special places but the daffodils are everywhere. It is still possible to miss the best because my favourites, the ones with the double-trumpet, are the earliest and you need to catch them before they are blasted by a spring gale.

Bluebells at Woodwick


Woodwick House in Evie was the home of one of the many branches of the Traill family in Orkney and they planted the trees here about a hundred years ago. Toc H used Woodwick as a rest home for servicemen during WWII. Men in need of recuperation spent a fortnight in this peaceful spot.

Happy Valley


Driving along the road from Kirkwall to Stromness, when you reach the junction that will take you to most of our world-famous Neolithic sites, turn in the other direction and you will find one of Orkney's hidden gems. Happy Valley in Stenness was created by one man, Edwin Harrold, who spent most of his life planting trees along the side of the burn next to his house. After Edwin died in 2005, the Friends of Happy Valley (it is hard to think of a cheerier name for a group) was formed to look after it and in May 2011 it was declared an official nature reserve.

Primroses


The mayflooers, as we call them here, come next. They aren't as showy as the daffodils but you can find beautiful clusters like these on the banks of the burns or the verges of some of the quieter roads.

Kame of Hoy Rackwick Rackwick Old Man of Hoy

Kame of Hoy


This is the second highest hill in Orkney: 433 m (1,421 ft) to the neighbouring Ward Hill's 481m (1,578 ft), but I'm not sure how many Orcadians could tell you its name. Maps show the summit as Cuilags but we speak about the Kame o' Hoy, the headland at the north end. It used to be said that it displayed the profile of Sir Walter Scott, honouring his part in boosting our early tourist trade by setting a large part of his novel, The Pirate, here. My parents told me that the neighbouring valley was known as the Valley of the Seven Echoes because that's what you could get if you stood in the centre. Just around the corner is the Old Man of Hoy and St John's Head, the highest vertical seacliffs in Britain at 352m (1,154 ft).

Rackwick, Hoy


Rackwick in Hoy is a beautiful fertile valley tucked between the hills. Before the road was built in the early 20th Century, it was so isolated that I have been told of a woman who never left it all her life. It used to have a small but busy farming and fishing community but this dwindled down to one farmer, Jack Rendall. But now, as our population grows again, people are moving back into the valley, though not to farm and fish. The composer Peter Maxwell Davies used to live in one of the houses far up the distant hill.

Rackwick, Hoy


This is the view down into Rackwick from the path to the Old Man of Hoy. The only way to see our most famous rock stack close up is a 3-hour round trip up the hill and around the other side.

It is a strenuous walk and takes quite a chunk out of a day trip to Hoy but the views are breath-taking.

The Old Man of Hoy


The Old Man of Hoy is 449 ft (137m) high, one of the tallest rock stacks in the world. This is the view from the 7pm sailing of the Northlink ferry Hamnavoe from Scrabster to Stromness.

The Old Man was first climbed in 1966 by Chris Bonington, Rusty Bailie and Tom Patey. The following year, the BBC filmed three pairs of climbers over three days and this early outside broadcast was enormously successful. A recent documentary about the filming of the outside broadcast is on youtube. www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYfxQBE9QkI

Sands of Wright Corrigall Farm Museum Corrigall Farm Museum Summer Sunset

Sands of Wright


Orkney is lucky enough to be almost entirely sedimentary rock, giving good farmland and perfect building material. All around the islands you will see fertile fields surrounded by good stone dykes, as we call our walls. Along the top, you will see stones lined up vertically. This is known as the rag and is a way to use the more irregular stones to finish off the dyke. This dyke overlooks the Sands of Wright, where the Boys' Ploughing Match is held every August.

Corrigall Farm Museum


The farm house, byre and barn of the Corrigall Farm Museum have been restored to show what life was like for most Orcadians in the 19th and early 20th Century.

The buildings are beautiful examples of the natural building materials we are blessed with. The strata of the rock varies in thickness, so from different quarries you could get good solid building stone or flagstones for the roof or 'brigstones', the path around the buildings.

My g-g-g-grandmother, Margaret Corrigall grew up here. She married James Flett of Nessbreck, the neighbouring farm, and that is where my great-grandmother, Jemima Jean Corrigall grew up.

Corrigall Farm Museum


In the farmhouse at Corrigall, you can smell the peat smoke from the open fire and see how the baking used to be done on the girdle. I learned to bake over a peat fire but thankfully by the 1960s it was inside a cast-iron Victoress stove.

To the left of the fire is the ale-kirn. Home-brewed ale used to be a staple part of the diet. If you want to have a go yourself, my grandmother's recipe is here http://www.aboutorkney.com/brewing.html

Summer Sunset


There are no guarantees with the Orkney weather but, if you are here for a week or two in summer, there is a good chance of seeing an eye-catching sunset or two. I have seen a suggestion that the salt in the air enhances the colour but I don't know whether this is true. I do know that, with windows facing north-west, I'm well-placed to see the best of them. The picture was taken in early June, so the sun had only just set at about 10 pm.

Cathedral Faces Sparrows Binscarth Red Sky in the Morning

Cathedral Faces


The more closely you look at the Cathedral, the more it makes you smile. At the top of the Cathedral tower, unnoticed by almost everyone, dozens of faces look down on the town. I can find nothing written about them, but they must have been added during the extensive restoration at the beginning of the 20th Century. You can see that they, the three courses of stone below and the parapet above are less weathered than the rest of the stone. The faces go round all four sides and are a mixture of men and women, old and young, along with some animal heads. This eccentric addition to the tower is a wonderfully appropriate tribute to Sheriff Thoms, whose bequest paid for the restoration. His nephews tried to contest his will, suggesting he was mentally incompetent. One of the examples they used was his request in his will to be buried in a wicker coffin, "to give him a head-start in the general scramble of the resurrection"

Sparrows


The interior of the Cathedral is filled with delights that are well worth searching out. Some are hundreds of years old, some were added during the restoration and several are the work of the skilled woodworker Reynold Eunson. These sparrows were added to the end of a choir stall, when a second minister's chair was being created in the 1960s. They are the birds mentioned in St Matthew's Gospel, who are sold in the market for a farthing, and the coin is lying behind the leaf to the left. Although one has had an unfortunate accident with his beak they still make a cheerful little pair

Binscarth


As you drive into Finstown, with Buckle's Tower on your right, Binscarth is on your left. There is a house and farm but when Orcadians say Binscarth, they mean the Plantings. There are not a lot of trees in Orkney so we appreciate the ones we have. When Robert Scarth was deciding where to put his house in 1850, he put sticks in the ground, with cotton rags tied to the end, and left them over winter. The least tattered rags showed him the most sheltered spot to build his house and he used them to find the best places to plant trees, resulting in the largest plantation on the Orkney Mainland. A century later, the Forestry Commission adopted the idea of tatter flags and it has since been used all over the world, to help determine where to plant trees. There is a lovely walk through the trees and on to Wasdale Loch.

Red Sky in the Morning


... sailor's warning. This was taken in Stromness, in January 2009 and the warning was hardly necessary as the wind was blowing so strongly it was an effort to stand up against it. I was in Stromness to take my son Matthew to catch the ferry from Stromness to Scrabster, which went despite the weather. Sometimes the weather is just too bad for a crossing and, many years ago, a Royal Mail inspector came to find out why the mail wasn't getting to Orkney every day. The weather happened to be particularly bad that day and the St Ola wouldn't normally have sailed but the Captain set off with the inspector aboard. They had only gone a mile or two out through Hoy Sound when the inspector told the captain his point had been proved and they could turn back to Stromness. The captain replied, "Ah no, hid's hell or Scrabster noo." By the time the inspector staggered off the boat at the other end, it had been conceded that the mail boat sailed at the captain's discretion.

This map was drawn by my sister Anne Brundle, to illustrate the islands and parishes of Orkney for The Birds of Orkney, 1984.

Anne's Map