ORKNEY DIARY, PART ONE
John Campbell set out for Caithness and the Orkneys.
DAY 1 - FRIDAY
As the train rolled into Thurso it seemed to me everyone was passing through to somewhere else. I was no different. I decided to stay a while. I had a few hours till I had to make the two mile journey along the coast line to the ferry terminal at Scrabster. That influenced my choice, but the fact was this would be my third time in Thurso and I'd given it a clean pair of wheels on prior visits.
The triangular area between the River Thurso and Thurso Bay is known as Old Thurso It holds the roofless, 12th Century St. Peter's church, a sandy beach - which would be nice when there is not a skull-splitting wind howling across it, and the remains of a rather drab castle across the river.
In the New Thurso there's a Sinclair family monopoly in Sir John Square; a statue of Sir John Sinclair, erected 1893, a St. George's Fountain erected in 1894 by Tollemache Sinclair for his dad Sir George and the war memorial was unveiled by Sir Archibald of that ilk.
The Pentland Firth is a furious fellow. Seven conflicting tides do battle for supremacy, ganging up to ensure the numerous attempts to swim between the two landmasses remains unconquered.
We survived and made Stromness. At the end of the pier a story unfolds of endeavours and achievements.The Orkney born arctic explorer, John Rae’s statue is kitted out in the Arctic clothing. Born in 1813, Rae lead successful expeditions charting the last link in the Northwest passage, also brought news of the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Expedition. Inuits told Rae that all were dead. Returning to London with sensational news that the doomed men had been driven to cannibalism, Rae became the object of public condemnation. Only in 2014 was a statue erected in Westminster in his memory.
AN OCEAN OF TIME
I found myself cycling Stromness' winding streets and picturesque sea-front cottages, as I made my way for Point of Ness camp site, a mile or so hence; but like all good journeys there was much to detain me.
George MacKay Brown OBE died in 1996. I have read many of his works. His house sits by this street. If he was ever in need of inspiration, a glance from his side window would surely have sufficed.
Orkney was a victualling point for ships, which took on men, too. Not far beyond Brown's house lies Login's well. Water from the well was used to supply Captain Cook's “Discovery” and the afore–mentioned Sir John Franklin's vessels.
I next came across the Liberty Cannon, atop a grassy knoll. It came from the American privateer “The Liberty” captured in 1813. It was fired when ships requiring men or provisions entered harbour.
A long cliff top walk watching the sun setting with the Island of Hoy on my left, an array of WWII gun batteries to my right rounded off a promising first few hours on Orkney.
DAY 2 - SATURDAY
The Stromness to Linksness - passenger only - ferry chugged up the sound, skirting round Graemsay in ever-growing seas. My eyes drawn upwards to the forbidding hills of Hoy opening out as we approached the remote little pier. A well-graded single-track road took me away from the shore line, turning inland towards Britain's only Neolithic Tomb – the Dwarfie Stane. This immense red block, eight metres by two metres, into which a short passage has been carved, with two interior chambers. Marks of the original work in the third century BC are clearly visible on the roof.
At the car park I chatted to the jolly RSPB volunteer, watching over the Sea Eagles’ nest high above. She filled in my considerable knowledge gap about Scotland's largest bird of prey, the white tailed sea eagle. Nicknamed flying barn doors due to their eight foot wingspan, they were re-introduced to Scotland in 1975. The birds nesting above the Stane were the hundredth breeding pair and the first to nest on Orkney for 142 Years. No sightings were afforded us, before undulating my way along a magical moorland road towards Rackwick.
Hoy is Orkney's second largest island, twenty miles long, but has only two roads and a population of under three hundred. Rackwick, beside a resplendent boulder and sand bay, overlooked by imposing cliffs, cannot be home to many of these as only a single old woman, with a life's history showing on her face, and a cold wind stirred amongst the crofts.
LIVES LOST, LIVES SAVED
Riding back almost as far as the pier at Linksness, I was now on the only other 'major' road on the island, the B9047. Regardless of classification, this was a single-track road. Stopping at the highest point, Scad Head, I drank in the view; the small island of Cava, Orkney Mainland, islands afar, and the waters of Scapa Flow.
Not far from Scad Head at the end of a small path leading inland stands Betty Corrigal's gravestone. In the 1770's she killed herself when her lover left her unmarried and pregnant. As a suicide she was not buried in consecrated ground, but in an unmarked grave on the moor. She was discovered in 1940 by men digging for peat. Her perfectly preserved body was identified and re-interred in it's current location. Irony is that lying unknown for 160 years, Betty now rests in one of the most famous graves in Orkney.
Plummeting down the summit of any hill on a bike is a majestical experience. Today was no exception, the road in due course falling to sea level, skirting the translucent water and white sands of Mill Bay. Soon after, rolling to a stop at the Royal Navy Cemetery on the outskirts of Lyness, it was immediately apparent the dead out-number the living on Hoy. Row upon row of war graves and a central cross of sacrifice spread out. Begun in 1915, when Scapa Flow was the base of the Grand Fleet, the cemetery shelterss ix hundred and ninety four souls; shore personnel, from the ships HMAS Sydney, HMS Vanguard, Opel, Narborough, Hampshire and Royal Oak, as well as some who died at the Battle of Jutland, Germans who died during the scuttling of their fleet and a German aircrew.
South of Lyness road and land flatten out - oh, and a car passed me - my first and last on Hoy. I headed towards the Longhope Lifeboat Museum. After the overpowering war and death in the naval cemetery it was affirming to see boards with lists of dates and names of lives saved. Indeed, since their inception in 1874, Longhope lifeboats have saved in excess of 600. Chapeau!
At the southern extremity of Hoy is a causeway, built during WWII, onto South Walls for a quick look around Longhope Village and then the Hackness Martello Tower and Battery. The village is focused around the harbour. Its purpose not to please tourists; its a working village. The Martello was built between 1813 and 1815 to provide defence for against the French and Americans.
MUCH NEEDED CAKE
I had retraced my pedal strokes to Lyness, ever so thankful it was June; the continual showers of hailstones and rain and the strengthening wind, which had been problematic all day, a joy. Therefore, a sign for an arctic memorial seemed apt. My discomfort paled into insignificance compared to those who served in the Arctic Convoys. The memorial was unveiled by Russian and British WWII veterans.
Immediately adjacent sits the sprawling Scapa Flow Visitors Centre. However, with the total absence of a shop of any description so far today, I made a beeline for the café, Mfor a transformational mug of coffee and a raisin and cinnamon cake.
A former Royal Navy base, the Visitors Centre and Museum, is built around the fuel oil pumping station. Scapa Flow provides sheltered anchorage in a commanding position from which to control the North Sea and North Atlantic. The base for the Navy's Grand Fleet in WWI and the Home Fleet in WWII, by 1940 over 12,000 military and civilian personnel were stationed here.
Hoy has two ferry terminals, negating the need for a lengthy return journey. The Lyness ferry terminal is only minutes from the visitors centre. As I rolled my bike onto the car deck, destination Houton Pier, Orkney Mainland, I promised to come back and meet the other two hundred and ninety residents of Hoy some day.
DRINKING DEN AT CHURCH SHOCKER
I had heard of a drinking hall of some repute a few miles yonder from Houton. Alas, apart from a few foundations and grassy bumps, the former Viking hall of Earl’s Bu is no longer serving. Compensation, of sorts, lay just beyond in the shape of Scotland's only surviving circular medieval church, the Orphir Round Kirk. Built around 1120, it's design inspired, when the boys where on vacation, by the church of the Holy sepulchral in Jerusalem. Adjacent to both Bu and Orphir Kirk is the Orkneying Saga Centre; a disappointment.
Back on the A964, I circumvented the headland gale by going up a steep hill, bad day when a 9% hill is your favoured option. Hysterically, upon reaching the summit I had to pedal manically to reach 9mph on the way down hill.
Following a quick visit to the the Unstan Chambered Cairn, for a peek at the Norse runes, I was engaged in chat by an elderly lady. Happy to oblige we nattered about my trip, her beloved garden and much more besides. We ended up having a cuppa in her kitchen and parted like long lost friends. Totally unexpected and memorable for it.
Alongside the A965, lying under an imposing grass dome is Maeshowe, the 4,700 year-old chambered stone tomb built so the midwinter sun shines along the entrance passage. First excavated by archaeologist James Farrer in 1861 he discovered those pesky Vikings had beaten him too it, and carved graffiti on the walls. Booking is required in advance to access Maeshowe via a guided tour.
Content with a close look of the outside, it was time to join the B9055 which bisects Loch Stenness and Loch Harray, giving access to a feast of ancient history. Standing stones affect me beyond logical explanation. A wind made out in the Atlantic now came to the shores of these freshwater lochs at a rate approaching a cheetah at full speed. It is ironic these were called the Standing Stones as I was having difficulty doing the same. No matter, the conditions seemed befitting of such an ancient place. A great stone hearth at its heart and only four ring stones remain of this 3,100BC site. With their sharply angled tops and maximum height of 19 feet, I was in awe, before briefly getting back on my bike, to the watch stone, a lone monolith of 18ft guarding the causeway.
In contrast to the giant Stones of Stenness, the twenty-seven stones that make up the Ring of Brodgar are much smaller, but command a position overlooking the surrounding landscape. I had this, the third largest stone circle in Britain, all to myself.
SKARA BRAE, GEESE AND A HAVEN BEYOND THE BREWERY
Head-locked with the incessant cheetah, I headed west to the big ticket item – Skara Brae. I knew arriving after seven on a Saturday night meant the visitors centre, with its excellent interactive galleries and film room, would not be closed. A much reduced admission charge (free) and the freedom to explore at will, sharing the place only with the breakers on the adjacent beach, were ample compensation. All to myself, the archaeological wonder that is Skara Brae; superbly preserved Neolithic houses with fine stone furniture and tools.
The disadvantage of my double-see philosophy (avoid the crowds by visiting early or late), came soon after this euphoria. I was standing outside the closed Orkney Brewery. With their motto “5,000 years in the making” taunting me, I moved on. The road to Birsay alongside Loch Broadhouse was deserted, the fields a different tale; hundreds of geese bedding in for the night. The amiable caretaker at the Birsay Caravan, Hostel and Camp-site, explained both.
It was Birsay Gala Day and by now teveryone was at a ceilidh. The geese? They were on borrowed time. Scottish Natural Heritage are working towards establishing numbers that can be sustainably managed, whilst at the same time generating important income for the locals. Trialling of the sale of harvested goose meat has gone really well, available only for sale from licensed sellers in Orkney.
(Prices at June 2015)
Enquiries 0845 748 49 50
Book 12 weeks in advance for tickets at a silly price. I travelled Glasgow Queen Street-Inverness then Inverness to Thurso a combined journey of approx. 7 hours 30 minutes for £15.10. A ticket on the day was in excess of £100.
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NORTH LINK FERRIES – SCRABSTER TO STROMNESS
Enquiries 01856 885500
Reservations 0845 6000 449
Journey time 1 hour 30 minutes
I booked and paid for my ticket via the website for £18.00. Bike goes FREE.