Day 126: OrkneyJune 21, 2017 in the United Kingdom
Extra long day today! Our alarms went off at 6am and we were out the door by 6:30, heading back into Inverness and the bus station. Today was the day for visiting the Orkneys, a small group of islands just off the northern tip of Scotland. We'd debated driving up ourselves, but just getting to the ferry location at John O'Groats was a 200-mile round trip, not to mention the difficulty of getting around once on the island. So we decided on a bus trip.
The bus left fairly promptly at 7:15am and wound its way up the north-eastern coast of Scotland. Plenty to look at, with small villages, rugged coastline, forests and little mountains all making an appearance. Finally we arrived at John O'Groats just after 10am, leaving us a little bit of time to grab a coffee, have a pee and then take a photo with the sign. In popular opinion John O'Groats is the northern tip of the mainland, but it's actually not! Dunnett Head a little further west is more northerly, but it's basically the most distant point of the mainland from Land's End in Cornwall. I'm not sure why that's so important, but there you go! Definitely much less touristy than Land's End, that's for sure!
The ferry over took about 40 minutes and was fairly smooth, and we were soon on a pair of coaches for our journey around the island. The mainland of Orkney is surprisingly large - at least an hour's drive from end to end, and has a (increasing) population of approx 25,000. Also very little unemployment too which is unusual for distant rural spots like this.
Anyway, our coach drove us around most of the sights here. First up was the Churchill Barriers, a series of causeways blocking the entrance to the huge harbour. During WWI and WWII much of the British Atlantic fleet was based here in Scapa Flow, and although it was closed off from two directions (and a third for the entrance), the fourth was basically a series of small inlets. During WWI they blocked these off with scuttled cargo ships, and later during WW2 they upgraded to actual causeways after a submarine got through.
Next the bus dropped us in the main town of Kirkwall, where most people went souvenir shopping. We weren't super interested, so grabbed a pie for lunch and wandered around the local museum. Fairly interesting, as Norway (through the Vikings) has quite a lot of historical influence here, and it was cool to see how that has shaped a unique local culture.
Back on the bus where we headed to the main reason for coming to Orkney: a UNESCO world heritage site! It's the prehistoric village of Skara Brae; dating back to around 3500 BC. Older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge! And still remarkably well-preserved, you can see where each of the stone houses had things like furniture, beds, entrances, the hearth and so on. It was occupied for about 600 years before being abandoned, and likely buried by the sand soon afterwards. It was only uncovered in 1850 after a massive storm blew a huge chunk of the sand away (it's right on the beach).
Did a bunch of filming as we had a bit of free time, though the wind played absolute havoc with our pieces to camera unfortunately.
Back on the bus where we visited the other half of the UNESCO site - the Ring of Broda. This is another large stone circle like Stonehenge and Avebury, more like the latter than the former. About 100m in diameter, it originally had 60 stones though only 27 of them remain. Interestingly, the stones are have slightly different composition, meaning that they're from different parts of the island. Maybe a meeting place for pacts and important ceremonies? We don't know! It wasn't a burial ground though, no remains have been found there.
On the bus again where we drove tantalisingly close past the other two bits of the world heritage site: the Stones of Stenness and the burial mound of Maeshowe. Wish we could've stopped but alas - the drawback of a coach tour. Also that whenever you arrive somewhere, 100 other people arrive at the same time!
Last stop for the day was the Italian Chapel - a shrine built inside a WW2 aircraft hanger by Italian POWs. Apparently the carvings inside are very beautiful, but it was five pounds to enter and we decided not to. Also the bus was running a bit late for the ferry back by now, so it felt a bit rushed.
Made it back to the ferry where we boarded and made the 40 minute journey back to John O'Groats. Very rough passage this time with probably a 3-4 metre swell. Onto the other bus where we drove back to Inverness over the next 3 hours, thankfully we'd ordered a sandwich each for dinner! Arrived back at 9pm, very exhausted but satisfied. Quick stop at Nandos for some chips as a late supper, then home where Schnitzel was happy to see us after being looked after by our Airbnb host (who'll be very sad to see him go!).
Overall we had a great trip and really enjoyed it. Orkney wasn't at all like we expected - very green but treeless (the wind just blows them right over). Our coach driver was funny and informative, and it was nice to have someone else doing the driving and navigating for a change!
Back south tomorrow to the Isle of Skye, after an amusing coincidence that we went the furthest north you can get in the UK on the longest day of the year! Apparently on Orkney they have a midnight golf tournament tonight, since you can basically play all night (it's still twilight well after midnight, and sunrise is around 4am with a couple of hours twilight before that).Read more