St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

St Magnus Cathedral

After a few decent days of weather on Orkney a storm rolled in, terrible high winds and torrential rain, so we decided to drive to Kirkwall which is the main town on Orkney. We dashed from shop to shop in a bid to avoid the worst of the rain, not that there are that many shops in Kirkwall.

St Magnus Cathedral beckoned us over the road and although there were quite a lot of people inside – that didn’t detract from the beauty of the place. I usually much prefer the atmosphere in small churches (not that I am at all religious) as some large places of worship often have that ‘fear of God’ about them, but this cathedral felt like a place of peace.

St Magnus Cathedral back towards door

The floor is particularly lovely.

St Magnus Cathedral Floor

As is the font which is encrusted with semi-precious polished stones.
St Magnus Cathedral Font

St Magnus Cathedral altar

St Magnus Cathedral Wall

I love this model of a Viking ship.

St Magnus Cathedral Viking Ship

There are more images of the cathedral here.

Unstan Cairn, Stenness, Orkney

Unstan's chambered tomb

Just by the salt water Loch of Stenness is the Unstan cairn, another Neolithic burial chamber. But this one you can just drive up to and explore on your own. There’s a gate over the entrance but it isn’t locked.

Unstan's tomb

The chamber has a modern-ish roof and a skylight in it so it’s surprisingly bright when you get in there.

Again, you have to bend down to get through the low tunnel.
Unstan's tomb

As you can see, this Neolithic burial chamber is partitioned off in places. These big slabs of stone are all over the island and have been used for buildings all over the place, very handy, they’re even used for fencing off fields sometimes. A lot of crouched skeletons were found in this burial cairn, along with a large number of pieces of pottery.

Unstan's tomb

Quite a lot of the stones have been carved/grafittied over the years, some of it quite modern probably but the photo below might be of original carvings.

Unstan cairn

A couple of horses were grazing in the field just outside the chamber.
horses + Loch of Stenness

It’s well worth stopping off at Unstan Cairn if you’re visiting Orkney.

Maeshowe on Orkney

Ever since I realised that Maeshowe existed I’ve wanted to go there as I’ve always had an interest in Neolithic (Stone Age) monuments and their significance to the winter/summer solstices. Maeshowe is aligned with the winter solstice and the sun shines onto the back wall of the tomb then – if it is a sunny day of course! As you can see, from a distance Maeshowe is a green mound, Orkney is full of such mounds but only a tiny amount of them have been excavated – exciting stuff. If I lived there I’d be tempted to get my trowel out, especially as one woman told me that every time she dug in her garden she found something ancient and interesting.

Maeshowe Mound

You can see a photo of the interior here.
You have to go on an escorted tour to get into Maeshowe and unfortunatley they don’t let you take any photos of the inside of it, not that there is much room to do that anyway. The tomb is 5,000 years old but in more modern times, 1153, some Vikings broke into it to shelter from a snowstorm which lasted for days and they filled in the time by carving runes on the walls, you can read more about that incident here.
Maeshowe Mound

Below is a photo of the entrance and you have to bend almost double for about six yards/metres in a tunnel before you reach the interior.
Maeshowe Chamber  entrance  ce

The land around Maeshowe has cows grazing all around it and one American father pointed out to his wee boy that a calf was getting a drink of milk from its mother – he said: These are happy cows. I don’t think they had ever seen anything so rural before.

The photo below is looking over from Maeshowe to the Stones of Stenness and the Ness of Brodgar.

Stenness and Brodgar 2

There’s a lot more information on Maeshowe here if you’re interested.

Orkney Houses

One thing that I really like about going to visit new places is the different types of houses that have been built there. Most places have their own distinctive style, or they did have before the 1960-s anyway.

The wee house below is at Skara Brae and is used as a teeny exhibition centre. It is obviously well maintained which is just as well as it is more or less right on the beach and the weather is often wild.
a house a Skara Brae

Sadly the Orkney islanders have mainly opted for warmth and comfort in recent years, not that I blame them as I have recently done that too. But a lot of traditional houses on Orkney have just been abandoned and are now ruins. Every since I was a wee girl I’ve had an urge to bring any derelict houses I see back to life, it seems such a shame to me to leave a house standing empty, especially nowadays when there are so many homeless people around, but that doesn’t apply in Orkney I hope. The ruin below is just above the beach near Skara Brae.

ruin  near Skara Brae
Even I have to admit that it’s probably a wee bit too far gone, the location is great though.
a ruin

It looks like most of the local buildings have been built from stones taken off the beaches, there are certainly plenty of them where you can just pick up perfectly flat straight stones. Some houses that aren’t that far gone in dereliction still have their stone roof more or less intact.

In some ways the old buildings are quite similar to newbuilds now as small windows were preferred, presumably to keep the cold and wind out as much as possible. I was very taken by the house below which I managed to snap while Jack was driving past it. If I had a flagpole I’d be very tempted to fly a Jolly Roger/pirate flag from it too! That house has been harled/cement rendered to try to keep the weather out and preserve the stone underneath.

Pirate flag

I think it might be possible to rebuild these old homes, using a modern house structure as a sort of lining, all well insulated of course. Then you could have the best of both worlds – a lovely quaint building with character and the warmth of a modern home. I’d be tempted to give it a go – if Orkney wasn’t so far away.

The house in the photo below is now used for storage I think.

an old house in Stromness

The building below may have been just for storage or animals, on the other hand, if there are a few wee windows on the other side, it might have been a house at some point in the past. It has a slate roof though, not stone.

Orkney buildings
People in Orkney are very friendly, well the ones we met were anyway. One windy evening we were walking along the back road, struggling with a small map we had been given, and a motorist stopped to ask if he could help us. We told him we were looking for the location of Norna of the Fitful Head‘s home. She was a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate. As it happened the friendly gentleman had built his house right at what had been Norna’s gate, but of course her house was no longer standing. It was probably just by the escallonia bush on the right below.

Bitsy Miller

Sir Walter Scott had based his character Norna on Betty Miller (the motorist called her Bitsy) who was a sort of white witch who made her living selling ‘fair winds’ to sailors, apparently at sixpence a wind, a lot of money in those days. With sailors being superstitious and fearful of rough weather, she did a good trade in fair winds which I think she sold to the sailors in a piece of cloth. It was an ingenious way of making a living, even better than the snake oil merchants of America’s wild west. As you can see from the photo below, the motorist has named his house Fairwinds, in memory of her.

Bitsy Miller

There are ruins all over the place, often with a modern-ish house very close by, they have just built the new home in the garden of the old one. It’s quite difficult to take photos of places on Orkney though as often there is no suitable stopping place and the roads are very narrow with passing places, so stopping would cause a traffic jam.

The photo below is of Stromness from the south. If you’re interested in Polar exploration – this is the harbour that Captain Cook’s ships Discovery and Resolution called in at to replenish their stores of fresh water and food.

Stromness from south

The well they used was sealed up in 1931 and as you can see they now have it covered to protect it.

Well for sailors

Skara Brae, Orkney

We were quite lucky as we got to Skara Brae before it became too busy, we looked around the remains and then walked along the beach, and when we got back to Skara Brae three tour coaches had arrived. I don’t think it can be quite the same experience when there are that many people there.

Skara Brae plaque

As you can see Skara Brae is situated close to a beach. It was a huge storm back in 1850 which resulted in a huge amount of sand being cleared away, uncovering the remains of the Neolithic dwellings. This settlement is 5,000 years old, older than Stonehenge. According to the historian Neil Oliver Orkney was the centre of the world back then!

first structure

The rectangular ‘boxes’ on the right of the photo are the beds, they would have been filled with heather and animal skins to make them cosy.

house  at Skara Brae

It is a bit like The Flintstones, with all the furniture being made from rocks, but I really like the shelves/dresser. Some Stone Age woman was really proud of her home and did her best to make it comfortable.

shelves

This is a view of Skaill beach from the edge of Skara Brae.

Skaill Beach, Orkney

Standing Stones, Orkney

On this Summer Solstice I thought I would do a post about the Neolithic stones we recently visited on Orkney.

The Standing Stones of Stenness are well worth going to see although it can get a bit busy. We were lucky, there weren’t too many people around and we did get them to ourselves for a wee while. You can see the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe from this location, and when you go for a walk around you are literally tripping over settlements which haven’t been excavated yet, there are just too many of them around and presumably not enough resources to start digs.

Stones of Stenness Information Board

This area was well populated 5,000 years BC, in fact Orkney was the centre of the Neolithic world apparently! Unfortunately I didn’t notice the electricity pylon sticking above one of the stones in the photo below.

Standing Stones on Orkney

It’s a great location near the banks of the sea loch the Loch of Stenness and the freshwater Loch of Harray.
Stones of Stenness

Just to give you an idea of how big the stones are, below is a photo of me beside one, somewhat windswept!
Stone of Stenness and me

Another holiday – Orkney

Yes I know it’s only three weeks since we got back from our holiday in Belgium and Holland, and I still have a lot of blogposts to write about that trip, but we’re off to Orkney tomorrow, a place neither of us have been to before.

We have to drive north up to John O’Groats to get a ferry over to Orkney, I’ve been told that it’s usually a fairly rough passage – I live in hope!

We decided to go to Orkney when a friend recommended it, he had had a great time and was going back for more. Apparently a week isn’t long enough to see everything of interest, there are loads of neolithic sites to visit, standing stones, burial chambers and remains of settlements.

I have no idea what the internet connection is going to be like, but I’m going to try to schedule some blogposts before we leave anyway. The weather forecast doesn’t look too wonderful for the beginning of the week, fingers crossed it isn’t too bad!

Visit Scotland – and Stromness, Orkney

I’ve received another email from Visit Scotland, telling of the many attractions of this country. You can see it all here.

We’re already booked up for Stromness in Orkney later in the year and you can see some of its attractions here.

It looks very peaceful in this photo but I imagine it must be quite a busy place – when the ferry comes in anyway.

Stromness

Visit Scotland – Orkney

Scapa Flow

One of the places we hope to visit this year is Orkney, doesn’t the photo of Scapa Flow above look great?! It’s all incredibly historic, or maybe I mean pre-historic.

The photo below is of Skara Brae, I’ve wanted to go there for years even although I thought it was just what you can see in the photo, but last week I saw it on TV and the site is much bigger than this. The dwellings are 5,000 years old.

Skara Brae

You can see lots more photos of Orkney on Visit Scotland here.