On 10th September we set sail for one of the UK’s more remote spots, the Orkney Islands.
Though situated only about ten miles from the Scottish mainland, Orkney has a Scandinavian past that makes most native Orcadians a quarter Norwegian.
Since arriving we’ve had a crash course in life on the Orkney Islands, as we’ve walked its coasts, wandered its towns and dodged its many cows.
A day on from sailing away, here are ten things I learned about life on Orkney:
1. Orkney’s flag is similar to Norway’s flag
Norse people settled on the islands from around the 8th Century and Orkney was ruled by the Norwegian kingdom for 600 years.
The islands were a sort of Viking HQ, a base for raids elsewhere in Scotland.
Though rulers and raiders had such enigmatic names as Thorfinn Skull-splitter, and King Eric Bloodaxe, archaeology tells that us that the most common occupation for Vikings was farming – and one look at Orkney’s farmland tells you what a prize it must have been.
Norwegian rule wound down after 1468 when the islands were given to the Scottish Crown as part of a marriage dowry.
Orkney’s Viking age is told in the Orkneyinga Saga, a 12th Century narrative that was written in Iceland. There’s a saga centre in Orphir on the mainland, though sadly it will remain closed until 2021.
2. Hitchhiking is a no-go, for now
Before arriving we’d read that Orcadians often stop for walkers and offer them lifts.
We knew right now this wouldn’t be so common, there being a pandemic and all, but after a 6.5 mile walk down the main road on South Ronaldsay, found no drivers willing to stop – and that was completely understandable, even before the latest round of government restrictions. With a second wave imminent, it will be that way for some time to come.
Tired as we were (our coastal walk after the road hike was 10 miles!) I reckon we saw more of Orkney in those few extra hours than drivers zipping about from A to B get to see.
3. Don’t trust the grass
Perhaps it’s mysterious Orkney voles, unfinished drainage works, or escaping cows causing damage but I’ve learned the hard way that even innocently flat-looking patches of grass must be viewed with utmost suspicion in Orkney.
Within hours of walking South Ronaldsay’s roadsides, I tripped twice and my brother fell over hidden animal burrows; a few hours later l fell into a massive, shoulder high hole that had been completely imperceptible (until I fell in). Luckily I escaped with just a few grazes!
What’s more, sometimes the grass doesn’t even look real – like the fields of epic long grass we’ve spotted near the sea, smoothed by the wind as it grows (see entry number seven).
4. Cows are a-plenty
Where to start with the cows? They are quite literally everywhere. You cannot pop to Co-op for a loaf of bread or glance out of the window without noticing a field of cows somewhere nearby, lolling and munching.
As it turns out, Orkney has the highest density of cattle in Europe – up to 30,000 of them.
And with great density comes sometimes uncomfortable proximity.
Caught in the act (see my GIF, above), our neighbouring field of cows one morning escaped opposite our cottage near Stromness and proceeded on a jolly. They were eventually herded back that morning by a very subdued farmer, only for his sheep to escape the next day.
And of another memorable moment of bovine behaviour, let me just describe the moments before I fell down that hole I told you about:
A small coastal country lane, barely wide enough to fit a Ford Ka. On either side, two fields of cows, both alike in mafia-style indignity, their clans’ respective bulls braying, snorting and maddeningly mooing at each other. Leaning as far over their barbed wire fences as they possibly can, leaving very little space on the lane. We stand before this scene, frozen.
I beg my brother to change our course, try another route. The cows start to jump around, turning themselves into two story cows. They don’t seem to see us but I figure that’s because we haven’t walked directly into their crosshairs – yet.
I plead again, ‘let’s go back to the coast path, it’s a longer route, but who cares!’
My brother, getting his shit together, looks again at a nearby path with DO NOT ENTER signs across it – it swerves away from the cows and, he realises, is accessible to walkers.
In my relief, I jostle onto the flat grassy verge at the start of our new path…. and fall down a ruddy great hole.
5. There’s no shortage of seals either
Both harbour and grey seals can be in the waters around Orkney.
Best observed in harbours or bays, they look like grey-coloured buoys, placid in the water as they survey its contents, before bobbing under to hunt.
On one walk, we saw over 20 seals on a 10 mile stretch of coastline, and I’m sure there were many more gliding around undetected.
6. Magnus means a lot
Magnus Erlendsson was an Earl of Orkney, born in 1080. He actually jobshared with his cousin Håkon Paulsson, who was envious of his greater popularity.
So envious in fact that he had his cook murder Magnus c1117 on the island of Egilsay.
This led to what I would describe as Medieval Magnus Mania in Orkney, something his cousin likely didn’t appreciate.
A church was built on Egilsay to commemorate the slain earl, he was made a saint a few years later and his nephew Earl Rognvald arranged for the building of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall (pictured), still completely stunning today and unique in its style and origins from other Scottish churches.
Today, visitors can walk the St Magnus Way, a 55 mile pilgrimage route around other sites of interest in the St Magnus story.
7. It gets windy
So windy, Orcadians use hardcore pegs to hang washing outside and have it not blow away. Sadly they can have cloth-ripping consequences for certain undergarments as the pegs are difficult (and painful) to take off. So long, faithful M&S pants…
8. Neolithic history is everywhere to be found
And it is stunning!
Many of the Neolithic sites so far uncovered on Orkney are thought to have been built or erected before the Egyptian Pyramids, or even Stonehenge. Despite a Norse influence on most place names and 600 years of Norwegian rule, the extent and complexity of Neolithic life on Orkney has been steadily revealed thanks to continued archaeological efforts.
Here are my top picks, based on what’s open right now:
Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic settlement. You need to book in advance at the moment to be able to visit (adult £7) and Historic Scotland could really use the support. It’s run really well, the houses are fascinating to walk around and pore over, and the beach just behind is wonderful for a stroll. The southern half of the bay is popular with surfers, too.
Fun fact: in its heyday, the beach would not have been so close, but erosion has created the bay. Inhabitants would instead have had supplies of fresh water from now-disappeared lochs and lochans (small lochs).
Part of an RSPB Reserve, the stone circle as it is now features 35 of the original 60 standing stones. Pre-dating Stonehenge by a few hundred years, Brodgar is at the heart of Neolithic Orkney.
There aren’t too many of them standing anymore, but you’ll find a small circle inland and a few opposite by Stenness.
One of the loveliest views on the island is just up-road, looking back down towards Stenness, with Brodgar in the distance. The proximity of these two ceremonial sites really shows how important the area was in Neolithic times. History right before your eyes.
Just behind the Stenness stones is Barnhouse Settlement. It doesn’t get much press compared to Skara Brae, and we were the only visitors I could see, but its a pretty spot overlooking Loch Harray, with a chance to spot resident swans and otters (if you’re lucky).
Go mostly for the great coastal walking, as although you can see the outside of the tomb, you can’t get into it at the moment.
Fun fact: although originally named Isbister Chambered Cairn, it changed name after a book called Tomb of the Eagles was published, on account of sea eagle skeletons found inside, along with 16,000 human bones.
There are also many other brilliant sites dotted about on the Orkney Islands that you just pass here and there on walks. And many that sadly aren’t open at the moment, like the Maeshowe tomb near Stenness, with its epic stature and ancient graffiti.
9. Kirkwall hosts a barmy annual sport called a ‘ba’
It not being Christmas or New Year’s Day, I don’t have a first hand account of this frenzied sport, but the lovely Orkney Museum in Kirkwall (currently open Tuesdays, Thursdays & Fridays) has a display all about it, alongside numerous ba balls earned by various Uppie or Doonie victors.
Uppies and Doonies? They are two teams of Kirkwall men from either the Uppie or Doonie halfs of the town. They meet twice each year on Christmas and New Year to pass (well, fight) a ba ball from Kirkwall’s Merket Cross in the centre towards their respective sides of town. Victoria Street for the Uppies and Albert Street for the Doonies.
Five facts about The ba:
⁃ Some say there’s been a ba played in Kirkwall since Viking times.
⁃ A women’s ba match took place on Christmas Day in 1945, won by the festively named Barbara Yule. They also played a New Year’s Day match, which was the second and last game to be played by women. Too much of a good thing?
– A boys ba takes place at 10am, for under fifteens. The shortest ba took only four minutes, while the longest six hours.
⁃ In the men’s ba, consumption of alcohol is a key element of proceedings.
⁃ It has been known to regularly go on for many hours, potentially related to the previous point.