Heart of Neolithic OrkneyAugust 25, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅
Not only mainland Scotland but its northernmost isles have been on my list of places to visit. Being only an hour and a half by ferry from Scrabster (on the mainland), the Orkney Islands are readily accessible, even for a day trip. Comprised of around 70 islands, less than a third are occupied by Orkney's 21,500 inhabitants. Our rather grand ferry took us past the Old Man of Hoy, a 137m vertical stack of the west coast of the island of Hoy, apparently popular with rock climbers (presumably when the weathers a bit finer!).
With only 2 and a half days to explore, we deferred exploration of the pretty town of Stromness, instead heading straight to Orkney's capital Kirkwall, where we would pick up our hire car and settle into our B and B. In contrast to our previous few days amongst the beautiful Scottish Highlands, Orkney's agricultural expanses were somewhat of a culture shock. However, we weren't there for the scenery. The Orkney archipelago boasts the densest concentration of archaeological sites in Britain, and this would be the focus of our exploration.
After settling in to our B and B, we easily navigated our way to the car hire venue, only to be met by a rather dour Scottish woman. Having exhausted all other car hire options, I had booked with this company, knowing that we'd only have the car for just over a day. "We're not open on Sunday" she reiterated and "No you can't drop the vehicle and keys off - I have to check the vehicle myself when you return it". Deciding against paying an extra £40 for 4 hours, we opted to return the car 24 hours later, hoping to locate another vehicle for the remainder of our trip.
What this meant was that we then spent the next 10 hours trying to squeeze in as many of the neolithic attractions as we could. Luckily many are a relatively short distance from Kirkwall and before long we'd come across Cunween Hill Chambered cairn. Perched well above the surrounding farms, this 5000 year old communal burial chamber was used for generations and then seemingly abandoned. Feeling as if we were in the Great Race, we dashed to the hugely impressive Standing Stones of Stenness, giant monoliths that tower above their surroundings, their circular arrangement perplexing generations of archaeologists. A nearby pre-historic Barnhouse Village gave us a prelude to the Stone Age village of Skara Brae (which we would visit later that evening). The equally impressive Ring of Brodgar rose hauntingly in the setting sun. Along with the Maeshowe burial mound, these Neolithic remains comprise the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, declared a World Heritage site in 1999. While this collective name is a modern idea, the area was clearly an important place in the past.
Driving further north and coastward, the single lane roads were largely devoid of traffic. The local horses offered a short respite, as did a walk along the beach at Marwick Head, Kitchener's Memorial reminding us of the loss of the HMS Hampshire (and Minister of War Lord Kitchener) to a mine off the coast in 1916.
Despite our best efforts, we failed to find dinner in the sparsely populated north. Arriving back in the "metropolis" of Kirkwall after 9pm proved equally challenging! Luckily a friendly "local" (ex-South African Enzo) guided us to a passable curry house. Satiated, we finally collapsed into our bed, wondering what the morrow would bring.Read more