Orkneyinga Saga – The History of the Earls of Orkney

Orkneyinga Saga cover

Orkneyinga Saga – The History of the Earls of Orkney was written around the year 1200 by an Icelandic man and was translated by Hermann Palsson.

It’s a window into the life and times of those who lived in the most northerly area of what is now the British Isles, but was then a Viking culture. There’s a lot of fighting, feuding and feasting and also a lot of travelling about, sailing between all of the islands and as far down south as England, and back and forth to Norway.

This is an interesting read and I imagine that for people who have written historical novels set around this time then it would have been a rich source of tales to buff up, pad out and turn into entertaining tales for a more modern reader.

Again, I’m really glad that we went to the Orkney Islands last year and ran around for a week visiting all of the many places mentioned in these sagas. It was only comparatively recently that Orkney and Shetland became part of Scotland, until 1472 they were ruled by Norway and Denmark, but then became Scottish possessions as security for an unpaid dowry of Margaret of Denmark when she married King James III of Scotland.

If you’re interested in seeing the places we visited have a look at these previous blogposts.

Broch of Gurness, Orkney Islands

Broch of Gurness in Orkney is one of the many sites that we visited when we were there in June 2017. When we went there early one morning the man in charge of the place was just about to shut it and go home as he didn’t think that anyone would brave the terrible weather, it was a howling gale. I’m really glad that we experienced it like that though as as soon as we got into the shelter of the broch it was so calm and quiet, and we had the place to ourselves.

Broch of Gurness, Entrance

Jack has done a couple of posts about it and if you’re interested in seeing more photos of the place have a look here and here.

Brough of Birsay, Orkney

In June 2017 we had a week’s holiday in the Orkney Islands, a strange and amazing place full of archaeology. I did blog about quite a lot of the places that we visited, then life got in the way – and books and more travelling and such – so some blogposts fell by the wayside. So if you’re interested in seeing the Brough of Birsay have a look at Jack’s recent blogposts about the Brough of Birsay here and here.

Most of what can be seen nowadays at the Brough of Birsay dates from the Viking settlement of the place between 800 and 1200, but before they invaded the Picts built a settlement in the 600s and 700s.

To reach Birsay you have to wait for the tide to go out and then you can walk over on a narrow causeway, it’s just a short walk of a few minutes and when we set off the weather was fine. But as soon as we set foot on Birsay we were blasted by a storm of howling winds and horizontal rain which drove into us like spearheads. In seconds we were drenched and it took two days for my anorak to dry out! Jack posted about the causeway here.

I’ve recently finished reading Dorothy Dunnett’s book King Hereafter which features Thorfinn as the main character, and I was really chuffed to think that I had visited what is thought to be his home in Orkney.

Thorfinn

Earl’s Palace, Birsay, Orkney, Scotland

Earl's Palace , Birsay, Orkney

I’m casting my mind back to early June when we had a week’s holiday in Orkney, it was the first time either of us had been there. The Earl’s Palace at Birsay was one of the places on our list of places to visit.

Earl's Palace  Birsay

It’s a ruin, as you can see but that’s no surprise as it was built between 1569 and 1579. Earl Robert Stewart built it, he was an illegitimate son of King James V – so a half-brother to Mary, Queen of Scots and he obviously had high ambitions for himself. He was a bit of a swine by all accounts – but weren’t they all?!

Earl's Palace  at Birsay, Orkney

His son seems to have been even worse though. I always remind myself when I visit any stately homes or castles that the people who built them only managed to do so because they were the most violent bullies in an age when that was what was needed to get to the top of society. Thinking about it though – I’m not at all sure that things have changed much over the years!

Info Board

Birsay is a very small settlement, but I enjoyed a walk around the graveyard there, that was when I realised that the surnames on Orkney are so different from those in other parts of Scotland. They’re mostly of Viking descent, so no Macs or Mcs here – well very few if any.

Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, Hoy, Orkney

The small island of Hoy is a fairly short ferry trip from the Orkney mainland. The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre is well worth the trip. The area was very busy during both World Wars as it’s so strategically placed it’s a perfect place to position a large part of the British Navy, meaning the population exploded with the arrival of loads of sailors and soldiers and airmen too.

This inevitably led to a change in the opportunities of the local females who up until then didn’t have much to choose from when it came to getting married. When the navy finally weighed anchors and sailed off permanently the local females’ horizons must have closed in on them again. To compensate for this disappointment it seems that they were encouraged to take up pig farming instead of getting married. No difference some might say! I liked the cartoon below which appeared in a local newspaper at the time.

Cartoon

The author Compton Mackenzie (Monarch of the Glen, Whisky Galore) owned a couple of the islands and was stationed here and donated his uniform to the museum.
Comptom Mackenzie's Battle-dress

It’s really quite a good museum with exhibits inside and outside, although I’m not too interested in military hardware.

Gun

I was happier with the more domestic parts such as this mock up of a typical 1930s interior, although I feel that they could be doing with a nice 1930s three piece suite, if I had known that I would have donated one to them before we moved, as I ended up giving it to a local college to practice their upholstery skills on.

1930s room

You can have a look at an air raid shelter, there must have been more of them scattered around but possibly they’ve all been filled in again.

Air-raid shelter

There’s also a tearoom, done out to look like it would have in the 1930s, but it was full of people partaking of the cup that cheers – as usual, so I didn’t take any photos of it. They had tasty cakes though.

The sign above the door seems to be the original one.
Church Army Sign

Hoy is well worth a visit. I’m only annoyed that we didn’t realise that the ferry is such a small one with not much room for vehicles, so you have to book ahead, we were too late to book so we just went as foot passengers, so could only explore by foot. Next time we’ll take the car and travel across as much of Hoy as we can as there’s obviously a lot more to see than we managed, going from these images.

The Island of Hoy, Orkney

We got a ferry from Houton to Lyness on Hoy, there’s a military museum there and a cemetery, both within easy walking distance of the ferryport, which is just as well because we had to go as foot passengers. We hadn’t realised that the car ferry was so small and you have to book up a few days in advance to make sure of getting on to it.

A yacht in Scapa Flow, Hoy behind.
Yacht + Hoy from Scapa Flow

This area was very strategic during both World Wars of course and Scapa Flow is famous as the Germans scuttled their navy there at the end of World War 1. That turned out to be quite handy eventually as the metal from the wrecked ships has been very useful due to the fact that it hasn’t been contaminated by the radiation from nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan towards the end of World War 2 and subsequent nuclear tests. NASA used the metal to make instruments for experiments in space – something like that anyway!

Mainland Orkney to left, Scapa Flow to centre, Graemsay to right
Yacht in Hoy Sound, Orkney

Graemsay and Hoy from Ness Battery, Stromness
Graemsay and Hoy from Ness Battery

Hoy from south Stromness

Hoy from south Stromness

If you want to see photos of the War cemetery on Hoy hop over to Jack’s post on Lyness Naval Cemetery.

In the cemetery there is also a Memorial to HMS Hampshire, the ship in which Lord Kitchener died.

HMS Hampshire Memorial, Lyness War Cemetery

Skaill House, Orkney

Skaill House

Skaill House is just a stone’s throw from Skara Brae on Orkney, in fact it was the owner of the house who discovered Skara Brae on the beach after tons of sand had been blown off the settlement during a huge storm in 1850. If you buy a ticket for Skara Brae it also gives you access to the house. It’s apparently Orkney’s finest 17th century mansion, it’s certainly very homely for such a grand house.

Skaill House

The dining room is just a nice size, it would be very cosy I think. The dinner service on display in the built in dresser belonged to Captain Cook, it was on one of his ships and he gifted it to the then owner of the house. It’s very fancy, I had imagined that anything onboard would have been much more utilitarian.

Skaill House  dinner Service

The library is great with lots of 1930s-1970s book club favourites as well as older no doubt rarer books.

Skaill House  Library

Skaill House  Library

I took a lot more photos but that’ll do for now. I really enjoyed going around Skaill House but according to some comments I’ve seen it seems that not everyone has been all that enamoured of the house and only went to see it because the ticket was included in the price of the Skara Brae one. They even thought that having Captain Cook’s dinner service on display was ‘scraping the barrel’. Honestly – some people just live to moan about things online!

Stromness, Orkney, Scotland

I liked this really quaint looking house in Stromness.
quaint house

Stromness is a really small town with just one very narrow street of shops strung along the edge of it, and as you can see it’s very narrow, you have to press yourself to the wall whenever a car goes past – which is often, and sometimes you even have to dive into a doorway if it’s a big vehicle. We were never brave enough to actually drive along this street – not wishing to kill anyone!

Stromness Street , High Street

Stromness street

Stromness, High Street

The pavements/road surfaces are interesting though, there seem to be fossils embedded in a lot of them.

fossil paving , Stromness, Orkney

This very old doorway is just off the High Street .

Carved doorway

Stromness like every other High Street in the UK has at least one charity shop, it’s a cat charity and Moxy the cat is apparently NOT FOR SALE.

Moxy the cat in charity shop

There are some cracking photos of Stromness online, you can see them here.

The Kitchener Memorial and Marwick Head, Orkney

We were just driving along a very skinny road when we noticed a signpost saying Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, Orkney. Obviously we knew that Kitchener had drowned not long after the beginning of World War 1 when the ship he was on, HMS Hampshire, hit a German mine, but we had no idea it happened just off Marwick Head. This massive tower was built in his memory.

Kitchener Memorial from path

A view of the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, Orkney.

Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head on Orkney

Marwick Head is absolutely awash with rabbits as you can see, they aren’t at all bothered by humans it seems.

Rabbits

It’s a long way down and it was windy so I wasn’t going to go too close to the edge, some people are thrill seekers though.

More Cliff at Marwick Head, Orkney

It’s a beautiful area and there’s a lovely cliff path if you fancy a long walk. If you click on the photos you can zoom in to enlarge them.

Marwick Head, Orkney

Over the Sea to – Orkney

At the beginning of June we had a week’s holiday on Orkney, the first time either of us had visited those islands. Even the trip over on the ferry was quite exciting, although as usual whenever I’m on ‘wild’ water it was a flat calm! It was also a wee bit misty.

Pentalina

Stroma in the photo below is one of the islands between Caithness and Orkney.
Stroma

Below is a photo of Stroma cliffs and some abandoned houses.
Stroma

Stroma lighthouse is now automated as are all of our lighthouses nowadays.

Stroma lighthouse

You can still clearly see the fortifications that were built on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay below. Orkney was a very busy place during World Wars 1 and 2 due to its strategic position and relatively safe anchorage in Scapa Flow. It wasn’t a popular posting for the sailors and soldiers but the women of the islands were glad to see them, it was their passport off to somewhere ‘more exciting’ for many of them as they married servicemen!

Sth Ronaldsay Fortification

The ferry gets in at Saint Margaret’s Hope, the third largest settlement in Orkney and before you know it you’re off and driving across various islands via causeways. We were on the road to Stromness and our holiday rental cottage.

St Margaret's Hope, South Ronaldsay Closer View