Why go to the Orkney Islands in winter?
Because I was in the middle of doing a lap around Scotland for £1-a-journey using Megabus.
While in Aberdeen, I made a last-minute decision to book a £30 return trip on the NorthLink ferry to the Orkney Islands. In years gone by I had researched the ancient sites there and somewhere I wanted to visit. It was a now or never opportunity.
Leaving Aberdeen harbour late afternoon, I stood on the ferry rooftop taking in the view of Aberdeen beaches and out into the North Sea. After a six-hour journey I arrived at 11pm in Kirkwall; the largest town on the Orkney Islands. for a late check in.
Next morning I walked around the small Kirkwall town centre in the drizzle and gusty wind. The central feature is the red sandstone, Viking built 900 years ago; St Magnus Cathedral. When Scotland took over Kirkwall from Norway in 1486, King James III gave the cathedral to the local community so it has no particular denomination for the congregation.
Across the road, in a 16th century merchant house, is the free Orkney Museum displaying the 5000 year history of the Orkneys up until today - including Pict and Viking artifacts. There is so much to take in, spending a few hours wandering room to room is essential.
Viking Scar dragon plaque made of whalebone
The main Kirkwall harbour business is ferries and fishing boats. Cruise ships dock for day trippers venturing out on organised tours of the “mainland island” archeological sites and whiskey distilleries.
At night, live music is popular in the snug pubs where each of the three nights I kept warm by their open fires.
OUT AND ABOUT
The historic sites I wanted to visit on the mainland island are all on one circular Stagecoach bus route - the T11. A day ticket to get on and off is £9.
Being the off-season, I got prime position top-front on the double-decker. The only other passengers were two old ladies with their shopping. Dodging free range chickens scurrying across the road occasionally, the farmland scenery was magnificent under the big grey sky.
First stop was Stromness half an hour west of Kirkwall. This is where I want to stay next visit to the Orkneys. With centuries-old stone buildings making up an unpretentious and alluring fishing village.
Skara Brae, the 5000 year old Neolithic “village” was the major attraction of my visit. Consisting of nine dwellings, the complex is well set out with the visitors centre a short walk from the bus stop.
First there is a four-minute introduction movie about archeological finds. A reconstruction of a house as it would have looked complete under a grass mound. Stone furniture has been placed around the fire pit in the centre of the living space.
In the middle of the dwelling there is a stone age fridge
The site is on the edge of the Bay of Skaill and very exposed to the North Atlantic weather. There is not a tree to be seen for protection and eventually erosion won in 1850 when Skara Brae was uncovered by a storm. Following paths to peer down at the underground dwellings looks like a mini golf course with nine bunkers.
Back on the bus for a twenty minute ride to the Ring of Brodgar. Here is the third largest granite stone circle in Great Britain. Originally 60 stones made up the circle with 27 now left standing with some chiseled with graffiti from over the centuries. The general consensus is that the building of the Ring of Brodgar was around 2500BC, although unproven and debatable.
The bus timetable is infrequent so I had time to walk over to Harray Loch. The water was freezing when I tested it with my hand, yet crystal clear with small schools of fish swimming within sight. Another rain squall was closing in. Luckily the bus stop here has a shelter.
When the bus finally arrived, I was so cold that I decided to skip the Standing Stones of Stenness and go straight back to Kirkwall for a hot shower and pub fire. I managed to snap a photo of the four tall stones remaining at Stenness as the bus passed by.
Approximately a mile from Kirkwall there is a walking trail to Scapa Bay. Also called Scapa Flow, which might ring a bell for the various navy battles during the world wars. There are ten shipwrecks in the bay including German boats.
The bay is quieter now days with oil rig boats moored on the working pier. I walked along the windy but deserted beach to the cliff tops to pat some friendly cows and sit in some rare sun rays.
I've learnt the Orkneys are a destination not to rush through. There are so many things to see on the 70 islands that make up the Orkney Islands. There are burial mounds all over the islands practically untouched.
In the warmer months the inter-island ferries run more often, as does the bus. Comfortable Summer weather to explore the many hiking, cycling and camping possibilities in a unique and uncrowded place.
My small taste of Orkneys left me kicking myself as I didn't spend more time to see more. I will definitely return to explore the other islands.
Skara Brae - Adult £6.50, Child £3.90
All photos taken by myself.
From my visit in 2013