Travel review: Orkney, Scotland

The famous standing stones. Picture by Colin Keldie.
The famous standing stones. Picture by Colin Keldie.

Island life is like whisky – an acquired taste. But being real connoisseurs we took on the challenge with gusto as we felt sure we had a vintage on our hands.

And boy the quality just oozed out as we escaped the hustle and bustle of daily life and headed to the northern extremes of Scotland and to Orkney.

The Italian Chapel, Orkney

The Italian Chapel, Orkney

Not the obvious place for a holiday in October, but The Orkneys are reknowned for their all year round mild weather and Ruaridh (9), Flora (7) and I were blessed with dry skies and not so chilly temperatures.

It’s a long hike up from Lancashire unless you are flying, but part of the appeal of going to islands is to use the ferries and so we broke our journey up with a stop at Inverness, before we headed the two and a half hour journey up to the port of Scrabster on the mainland to catch The NorthLink Ferry to the port of Stromness. This is one of four routes to the islands.

Our Orkney guru and all time good egg Dave Flanagan from the Orkney Marketing Scheme had recommended we take this route as it’s a shorter time at sea, which can be temperamental at this time of the year, and also you get a cracking view of The Old Man of Hoy, recently made famous by the Roald Dahl film The Big Friendly Giant.

This 449 foot sea stack on the island of Hoy, is part of the make up of The Orkney Islands and is one of the tallest in Britain and was created by the erosion of the cliff through hydraulic action in the 1750s. It is popular with climbers and as Flora said, it looks like a rabbit from the side! There is also a fear it may soon collapse into the sea, so even more of a reason to see it for yourself.

Skara Brae - Picture by Colin Keldie

Skara Brae - Picture by Colin Keldie

With 70 islands, Orkney is a vast place, but we headed for the mainland, aboard our floating palace which nodded to its links to the Vikings with a huge cartoon of one across its hull. Many locals feel more connected to Norway than they do to Britain and are proud of their past.

The journey was a lovely one, we were lucky to catch a quiet crossing and took full advantage of the facilities on board including free Wi Fi, a fully stocked restaurant and bars and a play area for the children. There was a pirate themed treasure hunt for the children too and a great shop for mum to look in, as Ruaridh and Flora looked for clues.

We docked into Stromness a little early thanks to a nice calm sea and headed off to our base for the three nights in the capital, Kirkwall or Kirkjuvagr as it was called in the 11th century, meaning the church of the bay.

It is home to St Magnus Cathedral, the most northerly in Britain. A fine piece of Romanesque architecture, it took 300 years to build and is a wonderful structure with lovely stained glass. It dominates Kirkwall, a capital which has plenty of independent shops and cafes.

Old Man of Hoy. Picture by Colin Keldie.

Old Man of Hoy. Picture by Colin Keldie.

The Ayre Hotel is a great wee place to stay in. Its homely atmosphere and well cooked food is matched by modern accommodation. We stayed in the hotel’s self catering apartments, which are heated by air source pumps, showing Orkney is some way ahead of the rest of the UK using renewable energy.

The apartments had all you need for a great stay, with a fully equipped kitchen, comfy bedrooms and lounge and a spacious bathroom. Free parking and WiFi and a handy location just near to the town centre, made the hotel ideal.

As our visit was quite short, we enlisted the service of Lorna Brown, a guide who runs tours tailored to your needs. With two children aboard, Lorna had a task to ensure they were kept entertained while she passed on her expertise, but her easy going style (and a box of Orkney fudge!) won Ruaridh and Flora over !

The first thing you notice about Orkney is the lack of trees! The landscape is quite barren and renowned for being subjected to high winds, but it has a sort of magic about it, reflected brilliantly at our first stop, the Ring of Brodgar, said to be the most iconic symbol of the islands’ prehistoric past and part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage site. The ring was built around 2500-2000BC and covers an area of around 8,500 square metres and is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles. This site of ritual ceremonies is strangely symbolic and very peaceful. Later on in the week, we were tickled to see three similar stones standing proudly in a private garden surrounded by flowers!

From here we went to Skara Brae, which is a stunning archaeological site sitting on the beautiful bay of Skaill and is said to be one of the best preserved Stone Age villages in Europe.

Dating back to 3200 BC, the village was kept in good condition as it lay beneath sand dunes. It was discovered in 1850 when a storm battered the bay and blew away the sand. Today, you can see the tiny houses the people lived in, complete with furnishings of its day and all linked by a communal covered passage. Nearby is Skaill House, built in 1620 by Bishop George Graham on the site of a Norse farmstead.

Orkney has many links to the great World Wars of the 20th century and one lasting legacy is The Italian Chapel, built by prisoners of war who had been shipped in to work on giant causeways called Churchill Barriers to protect the vast Scapa Flow from the enemy.

The prisoners transformed two old Nissan huts into a beautiful chapel and used materials they had, to create the fittings, resulting in a wonderful piece of art.

Other not so beautiful buildings such as watch towers and concrete bunkers are scattered around the island to remind visitors of the war and also poignantly sunken ships which were deliberately taken down to act as a barrier to stop the enemy reaching shore.

One of Flora’s favourite sights was Maeshowe, which may look like a large grassy mound, but underneath lies one of the finest burial chambers in Western Europe. The tomb is said to be 4,800 years old and a masterpiece of Neolithic design.

There is so much to see and do in Orkney, that three days doesn’t really do justice. We also enjoyed visits to Stromness Pier Arts Centre, a fabulous place in the heart of a very pretty town and local museums, all which have free entry and tell the story of Orkney.

Our favourite spot was the picturesque St Margaret’s Hope and not just because the Orkney ice cream was in abundance, it really is a pretty place.

But as with all places, the people play a massive role in how somewhere feels and the Orcadians could not have been more welcoming. It was like the good old days when motorists actually stopped to let each other pass, shop assistants smiled and said hello and most importantly wanted to tell you why they loved Orkney so much. What more do you need to know to convince you to go?!

Factfile: Travel: There are various routes from mainland Scotland across to Orkney. We chose the Scrabster to Stromness ferry, mainly because you get a cracking view of The Old Man of Hoy. Run by NorthLink Ferries, this service is slick and efficient and child friendly too! For route, timetable and fare information, log onto www.northlinkferries.co.uk

Accommodation: We stayed in the main town of Kirkwall and the handily positioned Ayre Hotel, where there is plenty of free on site parking, meaning you can walk to most central places. This comfortable and friendly hotel also has self catering apartments. Log onto: www.ayrehotel.co.uk

Tourist Information: Thanks to fabulous assistance from Dave Flanagan of the Orkney Marketing Scheme, we enjoyed a fun filled and interesting four day trip. They are a savvy lot in Orkney and tourist information is easy to find. Check out: www.visitorkney.com and www.orkney.com

For individual sight-seeing tours, Lorna Brown of See Orkney is well worth using as your guide. Her family run business caters for all types of tours. Log onto: www.see-orkney.co.uk