Time travelling in Orkney

This postcard is a little late, I'm afraid, because I hit the wrong button yesterday and wiped 1000 words by mistake. So here it is, a little the worse for wear, sellotaped together and with the stamp upside down.

Stromness, our port of arrival on Wednesday night, remained our home until Sunday. We decided to hire a car on Thursday and see the sights of Mainland, as the biggest island is called. However, rather than giving you a geographical description of our travels and ending up with you being car-sick from the mad dash from one time period to another, maybe it would be better to give you an account based on the dates of the various sights we saw.

In this case, the first item has to be Skara Brae - a settlement of people from 5000 years ago (1000 years before the pyramids in Egypt) which is on the west coast of Mainland. Winter storms stripped the sand and grass off some dunes in 1850 thereby uncovering some stones and the archaeologists moved in and did the rest. There's an excellent visitor centre there with a reconstructed stone-age house and lots of other material on the period and a path leads down to the actual site on the edge of the bay, coastal erosion having brought the sea a lot closer to the settlement than the builders had intended.

Leaving the Brae (I'm going to break my own rules now), we visited Skaill House, a delightfully rambling manor house from the 18th century, where various Lairds and Lords Lieutenant made their home and which is now looked after by Scottish Heritage. Bishops lived in, ER visited (and so did Princess Anne) Captain Cook came to call (a little earlier) and the sister of the pretty girl in the gift shop was playing that night at the folk festival.

Jumping a few thousand years forward from Scara Brae, and glossing quickly over the chambered neolithic tomb at Unstan, we also visited the Broch at Durness. This was a two storey stone dwelling with village around it, dating from 400 BC or thereabouts. The gulls were having a wonderful time paying in the wind over the low cliffs: soaring, banking, swooping to within an inch or two of the water, then turning once more to complete each lap with never a wingbeat. Presumably they were doing the same in 400 BC.

Then we leapt forward another 1000 years or so, to the Viking settlement on the Brough of Birsay - a tidal island with rocky causeway.

This settlement had a church and a long-house and also a Sauna!

It had been the seat of government in Orkney during the period when the Norwegians were in control. Today, the red-billed Oystercatchers flew in pairs over the rabbits which were hopping confidently around on the close cropped springy turf, through which dwarf bluebells were poking their heads of flowers.

The rocks here were of various types of sandstone and on one side of the causeway had fractured into perfect equilateral triangles.

Come on, you geologists out there - why is that?

The Vikings also started the building of the cathedral in Kirkwall around 1000AD - it was some part of a deal whereby someone got the ownership of the island by promising to build a really magnificent church dedicated to St Magnus, whose descendents owned the island at the time. And it is a really magnificent church too, made of red and yellow sandstone quarried in Orkney. It seemed, from the various bodies interred there, that many Orcadian people made their name by keeping well away from the Orkneys once they were grown up - there were Indian Governors, African missionaries and polar explorers, but not many people who got famous by staying near their islands.

In the medieval period, the islands were governed by Earls appointed by the King of Scotland. These Earls were justifiably not popular as they seemed to spend most of their time getting the locals to build them palaces - one at Kirkwall next to the Cathedral and one at Birsay. Two generations of Earls were eventually convicted of treason and beheaded by James 6th in the 16th Century.

In 1798 the HP Sauce factory was founded. We visited it of course, with its gurgling stills, its steaming tuns of wort, its peat fires and its malting floors and even took away with us a few samples of its 12-year old product for sampling on board.

1918 saw the most heavily armed part of the German navy arriving in Scapa Flow ("Mainland" forms the northern coast of this large harbour) and anchoring in ranks in the northwestern corner. Then they were scuttled by their crews while the allied powers were trying to work out what they should do with them. You might have expected that Robin and John would have been out there diving the fleet, and we could have done, on Friday. But we had already contracted the car and to be honest the cold grey water, whipped up by a stiff northerly, did not have much appeal.
In 1939 a U-boat with a very resourceful captain succeeded, on a night with a high spring tide, in threading his way between the blockships in Lamb Sound on the east of the harbour, and sinking the Royal Oak - one of our battleships anchored inside, with the loss of almost 900 crew. And he managed to navigate his way out again - quite a feat! It was decided that the sounds had to be blocked more effectively than with sunken ships, so Italian POWs, captured in Libya, were sent to Orkney to make 60,000 10-ton concrete blocks of the barriers and set them in place. The prisoners were given permission to turn one of the nissen huts into a Chapel, and this survives to this day - a little gem of trompe d'oeil artistry done by one of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti.

Following a 21st century pub lunch, on Friday afternoon we carried on past Lamb Sound over the "Churchill Barriers", (which were finally finished by the Italians just a week or so after VE day), and down to South Ronaldsay to have a look at John O'Groats and the wicked Pentland Firth that we had avoided crossing. It was actually a lovely afternoon and we had a pleasant stroll along the clifftops, Fulmars and Gulls performing aeronautic feats all around us, while pink, white and blue wildflowers decorated the path. All the flowers on Orkney seem to come at once - there are primroses, cowslips, daffodils, bluebells and rhubarb - all in their prime during late May.

Robin was finally getting the hang of the gearbox on the hire car by now, a day and a half after taking it over, and we got back to Stromness in time to hand it back to the owners needing a good service after travelling backwards and forwards in time through 10,000 years.

Saturday was a morning of torrential rain with thunder and lightning. We didn't venture far from the boat until the evening, when we made it to the Stromness Hotel to catch a bit of folk music. Not quite folk music as I remember it! It was mainly violins that the performers were playing - they were of several types: young men with attitude and short haircuts who competed with eachother for the lead on the variations, sometimes with their personal guitar-strummer lending weight to their attacks, young women who played steadily following all the swoops and contortions of the melody and its variations, other young women who followed the fingering of the rapid music at least some of the time, but never seemed quite confident enough to lay bow to string, and older men with longer hair (or no hair) who took over the soloing when the youngsters had fiddled themselves into the ground.

In another pub two young bagpipers were performing, one with elbow-driven pipes and one with a conventional highland model - they had no trouble drowning out any opposition that they didn't allow to share their melodies. The audiences were predominantly not listening that much to the music - but the players were most of the time seeming to play to their musicians group rather than to the room. One leather clad middle-aged guy with a pin through his nose, earrings and a pony tail was listening intently - he looked like he bent steel girders for a living with his bare hands and forehead, but maybe he was a talent spotter for one of the record companies. We supped our pints of excellent Scapa Ale and got to bed around 2 o'clock when we couldn't get served any more.

Love to all, from the crew of Voltair: Dick, Frank, John, Robin and Vaughan

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