They are remote islands because they are in the far north, one step away from Norway. The Vikings landed here in the 8th century from the Scandinavian peninsula, mingling with the Picts. The history of Orkney was very particular and only at the end of the fifteenth century, they returned to the Kingdom of Scotland when they were sold as dowries for the marriage between Margaret of Denmark and King James III.
An unforgettable part of our trip to Scotland was to visit the remote Orkney Islands. We left John O'Groats at 8.45 in the morning.
The crossing lasted about 45 minutes, on a ferry that we will never forget. We boarded May 1 and we soon realized that for the Scots, May is already a good season, so the heaters were turned off on the ferry and all the doors were open! Imagine a little how much cold we have taken, imagine it and then, multiply it to the nth degree!! We were tight in our jackets, all covered and hooded. They were maybe 7/8 degrees and there was a cold and icy wind coming from every direction! Despite the cold, however, we were foolhardy and we went upstairs, outdoors and, goodness of a warm sun, we enjoyed amazing views as we were approaching the Islands.
The archipelago is dotted with prehistoric villages and standing stones. Hospitality is like that of a time. Stop and talk to the locals, they will be happy to tell you stories of when the island was conquered by the Vikings. The Orkneys present spectacular landscapes. Only a few miles separate them from the mainland, but the waters of the Pentland Firth are very treacherous as evidenced by numerous wrecks that lie on the sea floor and which amplify the air of mystery of these islands, often shrouded in mist.
Moored at the port of Burwick, our adventure began. The people here, when they meet you, smile at you: blue eyes like the sky of Scotland and a smile that immediately makes you feel welcome. They seem happy and I thought it could not be otherwise, having grown up immersed in so much beauty and nature. On the island there are very few trees because of the strong winds that sweep them away and the gaze is lost to look at the horizon!
During the first part of the journey, we skirted the Churchill Barriers, barrages built in 1940, during the Second World War with the aim of running aground submarines in the Scapa Flow bay, one of the largest natural harbors in the world.
Along the Churchill Barriers, you can still see the wrecks of submarines and ships that have stuck here, still and unchanged, like sea giants, drowsy forever. About 74 German ships were held under seizure here! During the war, 55 ships sank and sank, while others were stranded in the shallow waters. Many were recovered, but others still lie on the seabed and attract divers from all over the world. A part of the magical world of Orkney, hides under water and is to be discovered. If you are interested in diving, you can contact Diving cellar or Scapa Scuba, if you are interested in diving!
The barriers created by the barriers join the 5 islands that are part of it: Mainland, Lamb Holm, Glims Holm, Burray, North and South Ronaldsay. Booking in advance, you can also take a boat tour, which will take you right there, to visit them and see these wrecks up close, so as to fully enjoy their charm and majesty.
We visited both Stromness and Kirkwall, the two main centers of interest in the Mainland (ie the main island of the archipelago, whose translated name means "mainland", and which often gave rise to misunderstandings and confusion). These are two picturesque, enchanting and wonderful towns. Walking through their streets you can breathe sea air, peace, taste of life imbued with fishing. The tangled nets are scattered across the pier, the sun warms that day and all around us symphonies of seagulls and vitality.
There remained in our heart!
Stromness is a picturesque town. Walking through these streets, which have changed little compared to the eighteenth century, see the seaside villages, boats docked at the doors of the houses and the many stone cottages, it was really funny. The city is in an excellent state of conservation, everything is taken care of in every detail, it will seem like you are walking inside a painting. As we explored, we felt more and more free and happy, relaxed and incredulous, before so much beauty.
Stromness is one of the main ports of the Orkney Islands, its name derives from the ancient Norwegian "straurmness", which means "promontory in the current or in the tide". It is located in the south-western part of the island of Mainland and overlooks the bay of Hamnavoe one of the widest accesses to the Scapa Flow bay.
We took several hours to visit the city and eat something; I suggest fish, because here it is really magnificent! And do not miss a visit to the city museum. It was very funny to turn in absolute tranquility and freedom for these streets and around every corner there was a unique panorama to be immortalized in photos and in the heart, forever! While I was walking, I often asked myself, how could it be beautiful and unique, to be born or have lived for a part of my life on that island. Disconnected and yet connected to the rest of the world, free to breathe every day such pure air, which almost seemed different from that to which I have always been accustomed. The people seemed really serene and happy, calm, as if to mark so different time in that place, make them unaware of the frenetic pace that instead infects us all. Orkney presents lights and shadows, there are not only beauty and enchanted landscapes. Winter is stiff and with very few hours of light, it often pulls an incessant wind and the ferries do not arrive if there is heavy seas. Many young people, escape from here overwhelmed by the sense of "imprisonment to the rock" that makes them feel trapped on the island. Obviously it is very different to want to visit an island and live there, feeling that you can not leave when you want.
We continue our journey and arrive in the charming town of Kirkwall, which is the most populated of the islands of the Scottish Maindland and the main island of the Orkney archipelago; it is the commercial fulco and the administrative capital; located in a bay, set back from the sea.
Kirkwall will literally kidnap you, if you are lucky like us and you will find a beautiful sun you can see it in all its beauty and magnificence. The sky as well as the sea will present 50 shades of blue, as well as the green of the grass and the golden beaches.
We explored and wandered through the winding lanes or "wynds" and made a stop in the sun to drink a coffee and eat a delicious scone, sitting in the town square, enjoying the view of some real island life.
Initially we made an exlporative tour through the narrow streets and enjoyed the magnificent view of Scape Flow and we did not fail to see some seals that were swimming peacefully, immersed in a paradise setting. Wonderful indeed! I love them, they have such a funny nose and then we went to our other destinations. Orkney is a perfect destination if you want to see marine animals, wild flora and fauna or if you want to visit islands lost, inhabited or uninhabited for years.
At kirkwall we visited St. Magnus Cathedral, known as "The light in the North". It dates back to 1137 and founded by the Viking Regnvald, the nephew of the martyr Conte Mangus. It is dedicated to Mangus, which contains its relics. It was built with a unique unmistakable red stone. Its interior is wonderful and full of finds with a cemetery attached. A really beautiful example of Norman architecture.
Mysticism and the air of mystery await you. St. Mugnus is imposing and massive, I really enjoyed visiting and staying for a while, sitting between those benches to think and look at the sun's rays, which were slipping between the mosaics of the windows. One of these windows is dedicated to Triduana, which depicts this saint, whose remains are to Papa Westray, serene and with the halo, crossed by the light, which she could no longer see, after having gotten their eyes.
The municipality of the Orkney Islands spends on average 120 thousand pounds each year to heat it and at least 100,000 visitors come here.
The architecture of the Cathedral is a mixture of Romanesque and early Gothic. The oldest part is located in the choir area, the transept and the eastern aisle. The cathedral was enlarged between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and probably other works were done in the following centuries.
Who was St. Magnus? Well, Count Magnus inherited the Norse County of Orkney along with his cousin. The two argued and in 1116 there was an attempt at peace. The two decided to meet on the island of Egilsay, but Count Haakon did not respect the agreement and presented himself with 8 ships instead of one! Haakon did not kill Count Magnus directly, he ordered the ship's cook to do so. Thus it was that Count Magnus was martyred for peace in the Orkneys. Stories and legends about the sanctity of Magnus increased and while Rognvald-Kali fought against Haakon's son. In 1120 to conquer the Orkney county, he asked divine help to his uncle, martyr and promise, to dedicate a large stone church to him if he succeeded. Both were made Saints and their relics are found among the stones of the Cathedral, in the part of the choir. The cathedral of St. Magnus was part of the Norwegian Archdiocese of Trondheim in the years before the Reformation. They then became part of the Scottish Kingdom in 1468. In 1486 it was donated to the Kirkwall citizens of the Scottish King James III.
The second stop was the Orkney Museum, a small pearl located in a historic building near the Cathedral, full of Viking departments and additional sections. There are also stones carved by Pitti.
Other "must do" stops include "The Earl's Palace" and "The Bishop's Palace", one in front of the other. Just cross the streets and are close at hand.
“The Earl’s Palace forms three sides of an oblong square, and has, even its ruins, the air of an elegant yet massive structure, uniting, as was usual in the residence of feudal princes, the character of a palace and of a castle”
Sir Walter Scott – The Pirate
The Palace is one of the greatest examples of French Renaissance architecture in Scotland.
For the locals, it represents the memory of one of the darkest periods in the history of Orkney and concerns the role of Stewart Earls. Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Orkneys were under the dominion of the Stewart. That was a nefarious period: the inhabitants were tortured, forced to work without being paid and suffered every kind of abuse. The construction of the building began in the 1600s, with the idea of connecting it to the Bishop's Palace, to make it into a single block, without succeeding and debiting the cash registers a lot. The works stopped in 1607, when Patrick Stewart was arrested and resumed only after its execution in 1615. The palace became the home of the Bishop of Orkney.
Bishop's Palace is the older of the two and is also located in the center of Kirkwall, as I have already mentioned and dates back to the mid-12th century.
In Kirkwall there is also the Highland Park Distillery and if you love whiskey it is a stop you can not miss!
After spending part of the day visiting Kirkwall, Stromness, Scape Flow and all that I have just described, we headed to Scara Brae, located next to the bay of Skaill on the west coast of the main island of Orkney, now a natural heritage UNESCO.
Skara Brae was already a thriving village, before Stonehenge was built, before the pirates of Giza. Let's take a step back in time of 5,000 years to explore the best preserved Neolithic settlement in northern Europe.
Submerged in sediments that concealed it from the human eye, it was discovered after a storm, which in 1850 caused it to re-emerge from the sands of time. Skara Brae is an incredible place to explore! For many years this exceptional discovery, was neglected and left to itself, no excavations or works were carried out, until the University of Edinburgh intervened, bringing it to light and making it one of the most interesting archeological attractions to visit. Today managed by Historical Scotland (HS).
What you will see in Scara Brae:
Past the visitor reception center, where you can buy the guide to visit the site (if you want), you will go "back to the past" of about 5000 years. You can walk freely among the remains of the houses over the centuries and the weather, enjoying breathtaking views, with a sea as a backdrop that looks like the Caribbean, so blue are the waters and incredible colors, which will make your visit to Scara Brae even more magical.
It is impressive to see how many artifacts have been preserved and to imagine how people may have lived in these places, far from time and the world.
We also visited a replica of a Neolithic house, seen its interior, passaged, and tried everything. It has been rebuilt for visitors, based on the original ones found. Come in, explore and imagine yourself living there... 5000 years ago, during the Stone Age!
Then we followed the path outside, surrounded by greenery and the sky overlooking the remains of ancient buildings, brought to light for us. There lived their lives as farmers, hunters and fishermen, of an ancient civilization.
The prehistoric houses still contain many objects, which thanks to the centuries in which they were buried, are perfectly preserved. You will see sketches of stone beliefs and beds.
The inhabitants of Skara Brae were also builders and the houses were shelters built using the ground and dug into the ground. The main property of these houses, in addition to a certain stability, was thermal quality, to protect people from the harsh Orkney climate. On average, the houses measured 40 m² with an oven in the middle, necessary for cooking and heating. As few trees grew on the island, the inhabitants used the remains of storms and whale bones, with the addition of turf, to build the roof of their buried houses.
The houses were complete with stone built furnishings, including wardrobes, wardrobes, chairs, beds and closets. A sophisticated drainage system inside the village allowed the existence of a rough form of bathroom in each house. During the excavations of these houses stone and bone fragments were found. These dwellings may have been used as a laboratory for the creation of small tools such as bone needles or flint axes.
Skaill House, towers over the bay; it is an imposing 17th-century building, precisely from 1620, built for the bishop. It is adjacent to Skara Bra, visible already from the site of the excavations and included in the comulative ticket you buy to enter.
I can tell you that being there, walking around this archaeological site in the open, feeling the wind on him and the soft sun that warms you just the bones, are an emotion that you will never leave behind and that will remain inside every cell . It was a beautiful sunny day when we were lucky enough to visit the excavation, but there was a cold wind coming from the sea... brrrrr... unforgettable!
From here, when the sky is clear you can glimpse the cliffs of the Isle of Hoy, impressive and evocative and the profile of Graemsay. The Orkneys are full of high cliffs like those of Yesnaby and Hoy, scattered with cliffs overlooking the sea and strong sea currents, the cause of many shipwrecks.
After leaving the archaeological site, we headed to The Mystical Ring of Brodgar, which along with other monuments of prehistoric interest, is located in the part of the West Mainland. Along the road to Scara Brae lies this large circle of Menhir, some of which are more than 5 meters tall. It is located on a small isthmus of land between the Loch Stenness and Harray. The interior of the Brodgar ring was never completely excavated, nor is its construction certain, but it is believed that it was built between 2500 and 2000 BC and therefore almost contemporary to the most famous Stonehenge. Seeing it with your eyes will be particularly impressive. Built in a real circle, about 104 meters wide, it was originally composed of 60 magalites, of which only 27 remain standing today. No one yet knows how, because they were erected and what they were destined for; some believe it was a religious sanctuary, others an astronomical observatory for the equinox and the solstice.
A short distance east of the Brodgar ring is the solitary standing stone, known as the comet stone. Today it is entirely Unesco heritage, due to its historical and geological importance (guided tours of the archaeological Orcadis are possible upon reservation). The Historical Scotland that today preserves and manages it has decided to use the name Brodgar in its public materials, but it is not clear how the original word has been changed over the centuries, both for the influence of the Celtic / Gaelic languages / Viking both for the pronunciation of the islanders themselves.
The menhirs of the ring of brodgar stand there imposing and silent, motionless over the centuries although polished by them, under the sky of Scotland and look at you, like silent giants. We stayed there for a while to walk, listen to the wind and birdsong. Soft erica, hard ground, the scent of history, echoes of lives passed under a blue sky that enchants only to look. Still near the Menhir of Stenness, of the original 12 there remain only 4.
Another stop not to be missed is The Italian Chapel.
The Church is located on the small island of Lamb Holm, reachable through the barriers. It is all that remains of a prison camp where many Italians were imprisoned in the Second World War, employed in the construction of the Churchill Barriers. In their spare time the inmates of camp 60 built this chapel, a message of peace for the whole world, using only scrap, scraps and a bit of cement. The main works are due to Chiocchetti (painter) and Palumbi (skilled blacksmith author of the gate and think of the heart engraved on the ground). Chiocchetti turned two barracks into a proper church and stayed to finish the work even when many prisoners returned home after the war and returned after 15 years to carry out restoration work, because the church, although loved by the inhabitants of the islands, was deteriorating. Chiocchetti loved the Orkneys as well as its inhabitants and their wonderful hospitality and after his death his family returned to the island and a requiem mass was celebrated in his memory.
The Chapel is in an absolutely unique location, it seems to come straight out of a painting. Alone, small but impressive, mystical, charming and romantic, overlooking the Bay and is a bit poignant in the feelings that aroused in me!
Michael, our guide, also told us the story of the heart engraved on the ground, under the iron gate. The story tells that a prisoner who was employed in the construction of the Chapel, fell in love with a girl from the island. The heart would be a token of love to her, a memory that has endured over the years, a pledge forever, which remained even when the prisoner left the island to return to Italy. I do not remember if Michael also told us the name of this man who realized this wonder.
To the north of Scotland there are numerous uninhabited islands, abandoned since the mid-twentieth century, when depopulation has become so important, not to allow the remaining inhabitants to remain. Among the abandoned islands of the Orkneys there are Cava, Faray, Fara, Eynhallow, Swona, Copinsay and many others, some visitable and others not.
Westray is defined as the "queen of the islands" and is the most northerly of the archipelago and the second largest in the North Isles; has a population of about 300 inhabitants. While there are about 100,000 species of marine birds and animals live there !! Majestic cliffs, lighthouses and all that most fascinates of these picturesque islands.
Papa Westray, or Papay as it is called by its inhabitants. It is located about 7km north of the archipelago, still inhabited today by about 70 people and easily visited. Also rich in archaeological finds and ideal for bird watching or if you are looking for specimens of the Scottish primrose.
Life on this island is profoundly different from that which is lived on the rest of Orkney and our cities: slow, in contact with uncontaminated nature and often inclemente in winter, where one can taste the fury of the wind and the stormy sea. Come to think of it, it reminds me of a strange feeling, a mixture of curiosity and awe. Perhaps this is the effect that new and unknown things do.
The Orkneys are disconnected yet so connected to the rest of the world! They are home to nature reserves, archaeological sites, incredible seascapes; They are a land of legends and ancestral spirits but, at the same time, they are at the forefront of research and exploitation of alternative energies, such as that of the tides or the wind (you will see many wind turbines going around the island). Renowned for having a mild climate and famous for the lifestyle and tranquility and the almost total absence of crime.
They deserve not only a visit, but more than one, to really understand them, to visit the most remote islands, to swim close to a seal or to admire the treasures that are hidden in its oceans.
As for me, a part of my heart will be forever on those windy islands, accompanied by the roar of the sea and Celtic music!