Visit and the surrounding villages and stay in bed & breakfast accommodation:
Orkney Islands, Orkney. This group, which should not be called the “Orkneys”, is a county, not a loose archipelago. True, it is a county lying some 20 miles to the North of the mainland of Scotland by Caithness, and containing sixty-seven islands, of which about twenty-one are inhabited. It is perhaps best called an “island county”, with its own mainland, in many respects more important to it than the mainland of Scotland. The city of Kirkwall, with the Cathedral of St Magnus, almost nine centuries old, is more properly described as its capital than the county town.
The mainland of Orkney, a richly indented island with close on 200 miles of good-surfaced road, is not only the biggest island of the county but contains more land than all the other sixty-six islands together. Its capital of Kirkwall is a port on the central South East side. The only other town, rather than township or village, on the mainland is also a port, Stromness, on the central South West side. Kirkwall is an ancient city dating back to the years when these islands were part of the Norwegian dominions. Stromness did not rise above the status of a fisherman's village until the mid 17th century, when, under the Scottish crown united with England, it became of significance as a port for the expanding trade between Scotland and the Baltic. it was also the last port of call for ships of the Hudson Bay Company and whalers bound for the Davis Straits.
Both Kirkwall and Stromness are essentially northern towns in aspect; and Kirkwall, with its roots deep in the Norse past, immediately strikes the eye of the British visitor as being foreign — foreign in a Scandinavian way.
The second largest island in the county, and the one possessing the most spectacular display of cliff and rich scenery, is Hoy, South South-West of the mainland. It can be reached by a motor boat from Stromness, and is well worth a visit. In comparison with the rest of the county of Orkney, it is mountainous, and it has some fine cliffs. The Old Man of Hoy is an extraordinary isolated rock-stack, or piece of columnar rock, which rises directly to a height of 450 ft from a brief peninsula or projection of rock at the West of the island. This noble column, which in appearance would almost seem to have been erected by man as an unilluminated lighthouse, is a well-known landmark, and on a clear day can be seen from Caithness on the mainland of Scotland. At the North West of Hoy, St John's Head rises to as much as 1,140 ft. Near Rawick Valley is a rock-cut bomb of early Bronze Age locally called Dwarfie Stone, mentioned by Walter Scott in The Pirate.
Between Hoy and the mainland of Orkney is the famous island-protected naval base of Scapa Flow, which played such a large part in the two world wars of this century. This all but impregnable harbour is one of nature's (and Orkney's) gifts to the United Kingdom of Great Britain. It was in Scapa Flow that the German Fleet, having surrendered itself, scuppered and sank itself immediately after the First World War.
The most southerly island in the county is South Ronaldshay, highly and richly agricultural even for Orkney. This island contains St Margaret's Hope, traditionally but erroneously connected with the Maid of Norway, the infant granddaughter of King Alexander III of Scotland, who died in Orkney on her way to Scotland from Norway. St Margaret's Hope is more probably named after Margaret, saint and Queen of Scotland. Through the lesser island of Burray, South Ronaldshay is now connected with the Mainland of Orkney by the Churchill Barriers.
The other islands of Orkney worthy of mention here are Stronsay to the East; Rousay and Eynhallow, on which is a small, ruined, insular chapel; and Egilsay to the East of Rousay, containing the remains of a round-towered church near to where St Magnus was killed in 1116. Stronsay lies to the East of the Mainland; Westray, Eday, and Sanday to the North East. Stronsay is purely agricultural. On Westray there is the astonishing Noteland Castle built in the 16th century by Gilbert Balfour. From this it will be seen that the mainland, with Hoy protecting it, lies mostly to the West.
Orkney, as has been stated elsewhere here, is consciously a Norse county of islands. This is evident not only in the names of nearly all places and of some inhabitants, but in the attitude of the people, who never let you forget that they only came into the kingdom of Scotland by means of an “unredeemed pawning operation” between the Scottish and Danish crowns in 1469.
It would be a great mistake, however, to suppose that the Norsemen, some time in the first Christian millennium, took over uninhabited islands, or that the human story of Orkney began with them. There were Pictish, and possibly Celtic, and long before them megalithic, people from the Mediterranean, who were inhabitants of Orkney long before the first Norse galley was seen off Orcadian coasts. This is made manifest in the rich prehistoric remains that the Norse found and left for us to see today. The most noteworthy of these — such as Maeshowe, which the Norse broke into — will be dealt with under separate headings.
The Norse possession of Orkney, vigorous and ruthless though it may have been, brought considerable civilization to the county. One has only to look at the cathedral in Kirkwall to be aware of this. Moreover, there is no evidence that, in their ruthless conquest of the islands, the Norsemen exterminated the previous inhabitants. Pre-Norse, as well as later Scottish blood, certainly mingles in the Orcadian stock today.
The Norsemen may indeed have been conquerors who would stand no nonsense, but the Scottish occupiers, particularly the Stuart earls at the time of James V, by their arrogant and cruel rule succeeded in antagonising the Orcadians of their time in a manner that is still remembered. Orkney — partly because of her Northern situation (let us not call it “remoteness”), partly because of her admirable agricultural self-sufficiency, but also as a self-consciously foreign community within the kingdom of Scotland, and later within the United Kingdom — kept clear of British affairs. She was, for instance, all but untouched by the Scottish political and dynastic upheavals of the 18th century. Nor had she any desire to be touched by them.
There are some Scots (and not Orcadians, at that) who claim that Orkney is the finest farming county in the kingdom. Whether one admits this or not, it is certainly a very fine farming county indeed — all the more remarkably so for being an island county split up to a certain extent within itself and far away (inasmuch as most of us are concerned) in the northern seas.
There were Celtic, pre-Pict, and Iron Age inhabitants, but there is no Gaelic in Orkney, nor ever has been. The speech of the Orkney people today is a pleasing sing-song kind of English, affectionate in sound rather than proud or caressing like the Hebrideans'. It is said that, till the 18th century, the old Norse tongue survived in remote parts of the islands. It has left words and phrases in their language today.
They have in our century given to the body of English literature one of the most distinguished and sensitive poets of our time, Edwin Muir, and one novelist, Eric Linklater, whose richness of fancy has delighted many readers in these islands and in Northern Europe.
It is much easier to visit Orkney from Scotland than it is to go to many places in the remoter Highlands of the mainland. There is a daily air service to Kirkwall and a regular steamboat connection with Aberdeen and Thurso.
The attractions of Orkney to the visitor, especially in midsummer when, in these latitudes, the days seem never to darken into full night, are many. The horizons are broad and the air is invigorating. The feeling of being on holiday in a successful and go-ahead group of islands stirs one to contented action and not to introspection. Despite a small but definite and incomprehensible drainage of the population to big centres in Scotland, there is no melancholy (poetic or depressing) in Orkney.
There is good if rather brisk bathing and excellent sailing and boating from Kirkwall, Stromness, and Loughope. There is sea fishing too in abundance.
But the best fishing is in the freshwater lochs. Orkney's rich soil and limestone basis encourages the rapid growth of the brown trout. The best and most varied brown-trout fishing in all Scotland — mainland and islands — is to be found in Orkney. A record brown trout for the British Isles of 29 lb. was claimed to have been taken from the Stenness Loch on the Orkney Mainland.
Nearby islands: Hoy
Nearby towns: Kirkwall, Stromness, Thurso, Wick
Nearby villages: Birsay, Finstown, John o' Groats, Scapa, Shapinsay, Stenness
Have you decided to visit or the surrounding villages? Please look above for somewhere to stay in:
- a bed and breakfast (a B&B or b and b)
- a guesthouse
- a hotel (or motel)
- a self-catering establishment, or
- other accommodation