Farewell to Orkney
06 July 2017
Early start on the 30th to get down to St Margaret’s Hope by 7.15 am for the first ferry. We had to reverse on between two towering containers. Inch perfect!
A lovely sail across the overfalls and tidal races of the Pentland Firth, past two now deserted islands in the stream. Then that was it, the Orkney adventure over for this year. A quick trip to John O’Groats for the obligatory photo, and off south.
That’s all for now folks. Don’t forget to comment if you have read and enjoyed this blog. Sometimes it registers on Facebook, sometimes it doesn’t, I never know unless someone comments on FB.
Reg, Ju, Liz, Bagshaw and Jack
The Southern Islands
01 July 2017
Before heading south, we went back north to Twatt near Birsay, for a guided tour of a world war two airfield there, called HMS Tern. It turned out to be huge, with no fewer than five runways, a control tower which we visited, lots of accommodation and catering establishments, and best of all a cinema, parts of which are still intact. Apparently it was easier at the end of the war just to grass over these runways, so now they can’t be seen at all. They were very narrow, so the navy fliers could train to land on aircraft carriers. There is a lottery fund application to turn this site into a flight museum. I hope they get it.
Then we went back to Dounby and shopped at the coop for food and petrol for our next few days.
We have been fascinated by the history of these islands, from neolithic times up to now, and the effect the two world wars had on Orkney has been a lasting one for the islands of Lamb Holm, Glims, Burray and South Ronaldsay. Clever fortifications protected the naval fleet in Scapa Flow in WW1, but when the Royal Oak was sunk by a U-boat that had sneaked in, Churchill decided to connect all these islands by permanent barriers or causeways. These replaced the rusting blockships which can still be seen beside the causeways. A massive civil engineering undertaking, but now these islands aren’t really islands any more. All you need is a car or a bus and you can go to Kirkwall very rapidly.
We decided to stay at one campsite on South Ronaldsay for four days, looking at different parts of what would have been islands fourteen to seventeen each day, as far as the weather would permit. The campsite was incredibly basic, with a very unpleasant stand-alone loo come chemical disposal location, with no hot water, and a very distinctive unpleasant smell. Urgh. Bizarrely, the campsite had no monile phone service, but inside the loo, suddenly we had 4g! But we stayed, as the campsite commanded a terrific view of the North Sea. There was only one other rig there, a caravan.
Over the four days we visited the Tomb of the Eagles, the Tomb of the Otters, Cairns Broch archaeological dig, the Italian Chapel and the Fossil Museum. We always hit popular tourist attractions at the crack of dawn, before the b and b brigade have finished their full Scottish breakfasts, and before the coach parties have rounded up their punters. Tomb of the Eagles was like that, there is now a very organised and informative visitor centre there, and we and another couple had the benefit of the first guide lecture of the day, before setting off along the cliffs to visit the tomb itself. The guide showed us three of the skulls which had been found in the tomb by the farmer. He had given it a name, Jock Tamson, because he reckoned it was one of our ancestors, and we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns. I liked that!
The tomb itself was impressive, accessible by means of a small sled, and a rope along the roof of the entrance tunnel by which to pull yourself along the three metre passageway. All went well until the sled wheel stuck half way, at which point I turned over and did the rest with feet and hands. Inside all the amazing finds have sadly been taken away, but the construction of the tomb, as a building, was awesome.
The Tomb of the Otters was a different story. Situated right beside a modern bistro on the cliffs of South Ronaldsay, it was only discovered by the landowner in 2010 when he wanted to expand the car park, and the big lump in the middle of the propsed carpark turned out to be a neolithic tomb!. A very enthusiastic guide told us all about it, then finally we were taken to the entrance, and allowed to fold ourselves into a tiny little space. Only one of the five chambers have so far been excavated, and only two people can crouch inside at a time. This won’t be on the cruise ship passengers’ itinerary any time soon.
The visit there was spoiled by the atmosphere in the bistro of unhappy staff, but the food was lovely.
On Wednesday morning we went to look at the dig at Cairns Broch. We got there really early, before various minibuses turned up full of archaeology students and volunteer workers. We hung around for a while and suddenly there was a tall young man ready to give us a guided tour of the ongoing dig, as people around us scraped and dug and filled wheelbarrows with spoil, did drawings of trenches, took photographs of details. We learned than brochs began at 300 BC, and were gradually destroyed, filled in, built on top of, from 160AD onwards. They were not military or defensive, more likely the headquarters of a chief. All brilliant stuff. Ole showed us some of the most significant finds they had made, a jewellery mould which Ortak now produce silver copies of, a blue glass bead that proves there was a great deal of trade going on. In one area of the constructins round the broch was a jewellery workshop. We were there for over two hours, in brilliant sunshine, learning a lot!
There were some great walks, including one on Hoxa.
We noticed on Wednesday however that Reg’s engine was sounding a bit rougher than usual. When we got back to the campsite we had a look, and realised it was the exhaust which had got noisy. I got down on the ground and found something long thin and metallic dangling underneath the exhaust, which looked as though it had broken off from something. We decided to include a trip to a specialist garage in Kirkwall,on Thursday.
Our first task though was to go to the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. It was built by 1000 Italian prisoners of war, who were building the Churchill Barriers at the time. We got there just after nine, and were the first people to see it. We had it all to ourselves for ten minutes.
We went to the Scapa distillery for a tour while we waited for the appointment to get the van fixed. We had lunch at Hatston. Then Maconochy’s fixed our exhaust in an hour. Thank goodness.
Hoy and Flotta
01 July 2017
On Wednesday we had a relatively quiet day, just a couple of walks along the beach near Moaness ferry pier, then up to Hoy Kirk which no longer functions as a church, but as a community arts centre. It is hosting an exhibition of Peter Maxwell Davies life on Hoy, and the music he made there, for local people. A lullaby for the first baby born at Rackwick for generations, a lament for a drowned ram, a farewell to Stromness. The woman running the exhibition waxed lyrical about the concert held there on Tuesday by all the musicians we saw on the ferry. The Lullaby for Lucy was sung in the presence of the grown-up Lucy who was there with her own children. Apparently she had never heard it sung before.
We were plied with tea and biscuits as we looked at the exhibitin, and entertained by excerpts of the composer’s music.
After that we went to the small cafe on the road to the pier and had lunch, accompanied by a blast of internet. Broadband is in short supply in Orkney, whatever you may hear on the media.
To our relief the supersize motorhome that had dominated the carpark the previous day and night finally departed as we were on our way back to the van. Our wild campsite was all ours again!
On Thursday we went back down to South Walls, and did the walk round Cantick Head. The weather was kind to us, sunny and dry. The house at the lighthouse was for sale. The view of the Scottish coast was clear, to the south.
After the walk we had a picnic lunch in the van, and got our breath back. Then we went along to visit the Martello tower owned by Historic Scotland, near Longhope. To our surprise there was a guide, a very nice possibly ex military man who talked us through the building and use of this watchtower in the Napoleonic wars, when the possible intruders to these waters could have been French or American privateers. Later of course it played a part in the world wars, particularly the first. Then to our delight he took us to the Martello tower itself, and we clambered up the ladder to the door three or four metres up the wall, and discovered what life had been like for the sentinels posted there. A huge gun was set up normally on the roof (it was away for refurbishment on our visit) and it was capable of firing shot or later shells for up to one and a half miles, to disable any enemy ship attempting to access Scapa Flow. Thanks to Norah’s kind gift of Historic Scotland membership this personalised guided tour was completely free for us!
We headed back towards Lyness and parked again by the waiting room. Since there was not much left in the fridge and we did not need the fan heater as the temperature had gone up a lot I decided not to take up the previous generous offer to hook up to the power socket in the waiting room.
On Friday morning we boarded the ferry, the Hoy Head, for Flotta. This was island fourteen of our trip, and it was really interesting from a historical point of view. Nowadays the home of a huge oil terminal, which occupies most of that part of the island close to the ferry terminal, Flotta’s role in the two world wars can be seen all over the landscape, and particularly round the coast. At the crucial south entrance to Scapa Flow, military installations along the coast watched and listened for enemy vessels, particularly U-boats, trying to gain emtrance to the Flow where the home fleet were all anchored. In WW1 the listening system worked, detecting one U-boat and blowing it up.
First we visited the Buchanan Battery on the north coast. We later walked out to a huge lookout building at the top of cliffs looking south. All these buildings are derelict and dangerous, so it is not possible to go in and check them out. We wondered how long ago things have to be before Historic Scotland takes an interest in a military establishment or building?
I popped into the shop for a couple of items and met the proprietor, a doughty lady of 82, who chatted away about island life. Apparently the school on the island does not function, as all 13 of the children on Flotta are home-schooled! How appalling is that?
We had lunch near one of the piers, then visited the mothballed site of the local airfield. Apparently it was used a lot when the company that built the oil terminal were around. Now there are no scheduled flights from or to here.
Instead of going back to Hoy we headed back to the mainland, and bought some supplies in Kirkwall to make dinner for us and James that evening.
A very pleasant weekend ensued, chilling out at James’ place again. We took him out to dinner on Saturday to say thanks for all his marvellous hospitality during these nine weeks we have been on Orkney. He picked the restaurant, the Foveran near the Scapa distillery on Scapa Flow, and it did not disappoint, great food, relaxed friendly service, a real treat.
A very quiet day on Sunday, then on Monday off down the barriers to the southern isles.