Finally, I have found time to tell you all about the last stint of my Scottish road trip – a visit to the Orkney Islands.
Orkney is an archipelago around 8 miles north of the Scottish mainland, made up of around 70 islands, less than a third of which are inhabited. It is an amazing, mystical place, where it can be seemingly sunny, rainy, windy, overcast and foggy all at the same time. Orkney is popular with fans of ancient history and archaeology because of it’s UNESCO world heritage status for the neolithic structures you can visit there.
I took a ferry from John O Groats, past the Old Man of Hoy, to the town of Stromness on Mainland (the largest island in the Orkneys). The sun was setting as I made the crossing, giving the most amazing light as I took pictures of the Old Man, a huge, ever-changing sea stack which uncannily resembles a figure, stood in the crashing waves, guarding the islands from trouble.
On my first morning on Orkney, I drove out to see the Ring of Brodgar, a 5000 year old stone circle, which I thought would be very much like Stonehenge. Not so! Not only is the Ring of Brodgar the most northerly stone circle, is is also utterly enormous, at over 100 metres in diameter. It is also positioned on a stretch of land between two lochs, which means the light reflecting off the water makes the whole environment feel utterly magical.
The Vikings invaded Orkney around 1000 years ago, and believed that the stones were actually Gods who, after a night of revelling, stayed up too late and were turned to stone as the sun rose. The stones are so large, that as you look up at them, with the clouds moving quickly in the background, you can almost imagine that they are coming back to life.
I also visited Skara Brae, which is a neolithic village that was completely covered in sand until a freak storm in 1850 ripped the coast line apart, revealing the untouched stone dwellings beneath, perfectly preserved. I’m not even going to try to describe the place – suffice to say, this is Bucket List stuff: one of those sights you simply must see before you die!
I also had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of stepping inside a number of neolithic burial tombs, not least the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay, and the world-famous Maeshowe on Mainland, which pre-dates the Pyramids (!). The experience was certainly something that I will never forget, not least because I was following a long line of visitors to the ancient site – the first people to discover the site were the early Viking warriors, who used Maeshowe as a shelter during their raids. So, amongst the amazing stone carvings almost 5000 years old, you will spot lines of Viking graffiti, written in runic alphabet. Simply amazing.
Of course, my trip wasn’t just about neolithic adventuring – I also made sure I found time to sample some of the best that the Orkneys had to offer. Not least, ales from the Orkney Brewery, and a wee dram from the acclaimed Highland Park Distillery. Well, it would have been rude not to…
I also, predictably, immersed myself in the arts and crafts heritage of the islands. Orkney makes this super-easy for visitors, by promoting an annual Orkney Craft Trail, which signposts you to artisan workshops, galleries, boutiques and exhibitions. I found myself on a virtual treasure hunt across the islands, looking for the next Craft Trail sign, leading me towards some of the islands’ hidden treasures.
I spent a lot of time on South Ronaldsay, a large island to the South West of Mainland, which is reachable by road bridge. It was here that I visited the Tomb of the Eagles, and also had the chance to visit the beautiful Italian Chapel, a stunning place of worship built and decorated by Italian POWs during WWII. You can still sense the blood, sweat and tears of the POWs that went into building it – the Chapel was a real labour of love that gave the prisoners something to focus on, and deserves a blog all to itself really!
Whilst there, I chanced upon a fantastic studio which was a yarn shop, gift boutique and art gallery in one. It was called The Workshop and Loft Gallery, and it was hidden down a street in the village of St Margaret’s Hope. The Workshop is a craft cooperative which was set up 35 years ago by local artisan producers. It stocked knitwear, textiles and yarns, as well as jewellery, ceramics and wonderful art work from local artists.
It will come as no surprise to you that I ended up buying some local yarn as a souvenir of my trip – especially as it was lambing season whilst I was there. Across the islands you could hear the bleat of sheep and watch the gamboling of cute fluffy little creatures as they learned to use their legs for the first time.
I bought some skeins of yarn which had been transported down from North Ronaldsay island, of an aran weight. The rare breed, North Ronaldsay sheep are unusual, due to the fact they live on a diet of seaweed. I don’t know if this adds any special quality to the yarn!
Also on South Ronaldsay was the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery, which was filled with the impressive, large scale tapestries of local artist, Leila Thomson. If you are lucky (sadly I wasn’t), you can watch Leila work from the gallery. Her tapestries are moving (emotionally not literally!) depictions of life, death, nature, family, memory and the Universe….pretty big themes! If you make it to Orkney it’s definitely worth seeking out this gallery – the pictures on her website simply do not do the works justice.
Anyway, with time being short I also spent as much time as possible exploring mainland and some of the other neighbouring islands. Mainland is home to many artists and craftspeople, with one notable one being potter Andrew Appleby, known locally as the ‘Harray Potter’, after the name of the Mainland Parish in which he works. Andrew runs Fursbreck Pottery, which has shops in both Kirkwall and Stromness. I throught the items were beautiful, and I couldn’t resist buying some handmade ceramic buttons to remember my trip by.
I also visited countless other studios and galleries, but I don’t want to bore you completely! Suffice to say, the heady Orcadian combination of ancient historical sites, wild landscapes, and creative outlets left me fizzing with creativity and ideas.
I took hundreds of photos of natural textures, which hopefully I would like to recreate in some craft project, using my North Ronaldsay yarn, my Fursbreck ceramic buttons, and a few other things that I picked up along the way.
Hopefully I will be able to incorporate some features that remind me of the fascinating layers of history I encountered across the islands – Neolithic burials, Viking graffiti, and WWII buildings.
As we know, all good things must come to an end. Eventually it was time to begin the 14-hour, 580 mile journey South, back to Doncaster which I have always affectionately thought of as ‘The North’. This holiday taught me that it is anything but! Thanks for being patient in waiting for posts from my adventure, I hope they were worth the wait. I promise to be a little quicker in writing up the results of my makes from the items I picked up along the way!
12 days, over 1000 miles, and an unforgettable adventure.