ORKNEY DIARY 2: COAST TO COAST
John Campbell took advantage of those long northern days on day three of his tour.
DAY 3 – SUNDAY
The alarm clock twittered in my ear. Four A.M.! But I had plans. I'll explain soon enough.
After going through the (wind)mill yesterday it seemed appropriate my first port of call was the Barony Mill. Built in 1873, this is the last working mill in Orkney – in winter a commercial mill, oats, barley and Orkney wheat, from May to September a visitors attraction run by the Birsay Heritage Trust.
Sweeping down into the tiny village of Birsay, the ruin of the 16th Century Earl’s Palace sits by the road side. Once the country pile of Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney, a half brother to Mary Queen of Scots, he and his son, Patrick, known locally as Black Pat,were both executed for treason in 1615.
The Palace is freely accessible.Whichever room it is you'll notice a gunport in every wall. Clearly the earls were anticipating trouble!
The life of Magnus Erlendson also came to a premature end. After his murder in Egilsay, around 1115, his body was brought to St. Magnus Church directly beside the Palace. Twenty years later, he was made a saint and his bones taken to the cathedral in Kirkwall.
THORFINN ON THE BROUGH
Now here's what the four a.m. rise was all about.
Birsay is from the Old Norse Byrgisey – the Fort Island. An appropriate name for the Brough of Birsay. It can only reached on foot, via a causeway, two hours either side of low tide. If I wanted to be on the Brough, this was the time I had to be there.
Upon setting foot on the island you are amongst the remains of Pictish and Nordic settlements of the 7th-13th Centuries. At it's height during the reign of Thorfinn the Mighty (1014-1065) the Earl of Orkney's rule extended from Shetland down the west coast of Scotland to parts of Ireland. This was his principal residence. Standing above the remains it was easy to imagine Thornfinn overseeing his manor, longboats lined up in preparation for an expedition.
I'd been told, by a couple staying in the hostel, to be sure, to walk up to the lighthouse as the views from the cliffs were superb; there was a good chance I'd see Mallimacks, Sulas and best of all Tammy Norys. Hadn't a clue.
They explained these were Orcadian bird names.
Birds were everywhere. I didn't know my Bakes from my Pickieternos, but there was no mistaking Tammy. What amazing looking birds those Puffins are.
A WALK, AGAIN
Who needs a time machine? Rolling back and forward between, years, centuries, even millennium is effortless on Orkney. Without even touching my bike, I was off along the signposted Skiba Geo footpath into the 19th Century.
The walk soon reaches a restored fisherman's hut built into the side of a cliff, along with a staircase to enable the fishermen to get to the bay. Directly outside the hut are boat nowsts; deep grooves in the ground where boats were kept over winter safe from the fierce winds.
On the opposite side of the small bay is the Whalebone. Erected around 1876, it stood until another violent storm blew it down in 2008. Repaired and re-erected by the Birsay Heritage Trust, it looks great for 139 years old.
A BROCH BY BREAKFAST
Back on my bike, beyond the village, I found miracles were not reserved for Magnus. For the first time the south-westerly was at my back. It pushed me along the A966, full of twists, turns and up and down meandering.
The panoramic view from the mainland's most northerly spot, at Costa Head and Loch Swannany, gave views of Eynhallow Island, which sits mid-channel in Eynhallow Sound; and further north to the island of Rousay, visible through the heavy showers pushing across it's shores.
I free-wheeled through Evie village and turned off for the Broch of Gurness. The visitor centre was shut due to staff illness. Brochs are circular defensive towers made of stone and unique to Scotland. I have been to many, some mere stones littered over a field, to others where large notable structures remain.
Gurness Broch is in the latter category, one of the best preserved I have seen. Excavations, in 1929, made it clear that the Broch and village was built before 2000BC and was nearly 50m in diameter with defensive ditches around the outer edges.
I found my way to Dingwall to catch a ferry,but time to explore – 5 minutes covered it! A few buildings, a waiting room and a pier was the extent of things. But’ no. Attached to the gable end of one of the buildings a hefty stone dangled from a thick rope, beside which a large sign proclaimed this as the Tingwall Weather Forecasting Stone.
The stone was dry – no rain predicted.; my lucky mascot. - not a spot of rain crossed my path the rest of the trip.
EGYPT OF THE NORTH
Known as the Egypt of the North, Rousay garners it's nick-name not from its climate but from arash of archaeological sites. This explained why I could still see my breath; at least it was sunny.
In the first 'golden' mile of pedalling Rousay clockwise I had taken in the three cracking little sites; Taversoe Tuick - a unique two storey tomb, built sometime in 3BC; the Blackhammer Tomb - accessed by the roof via a short iron ladder; and the Knowe of Yarso. Those Neolithic boys must have been a fit bunch carrying their dead to the Knowe of Yarso along a muddy hillside path that took me the best part of fifteen minutes to climb.
Rousay's single track road was be hillier than Orkney mainland, especially between the Knowe of Yarso and the Westness Walk, where a number of inclines proved what goes up must come down, …. and up and down.
A mile long coastal path - The Wetness Walk - links some of Rousay's most important sites. Leave your bike at the car park and walk down a steep grass field. You do a lot of walking on a cycling tour of Orkney if you want to get in amongst the ancient action.
A stone hangar - out of place on this stretch of coast - protects “the giant ship of the dead” aka Midhowe Cairn. The largest of Orkney's Neolithic stalled cairns, was excavated in 1932-33, revealing the remains of 25 people, along with pots and tools. Elevated walkways reveal the dimensions of the tomb.
When I visit a zoo it is always with a touch of despair; noble work and for the good of the species but …… I left the Midhowe Cairn with the same feeling.
Despair evaporated quicker than a beer when the Broch fairy gave me my second classic Broch of the day – Midhowe Broch.
A few yards further on, but thousands of years apart in age, the Broch 'only' dates from around AD1 It reaches a height of 12 feet (thought to have been three times the size in its heyday) and stands on a promontory with deep sea channels either side, with ditches and a rampart to landward.
I sauntered among the rest of the sites on the walk; the 1600's roofless St. Mary’s Church; The Wick – likely to have been the hall of Sigurd the Viking; Farm of Brough occupied as part of Sigurd's estate between 1126-1137; and, lastly, the shells of the farmstead of Skiall, derelict since the inhabitants were evicted during a land clearance in the early 1800’s. I occasionally stopped to enjoy the antics of the seals jostling noisily on the rocks.
Five miles of delicious tailwind deposited me back at the Ferry Terminal. I had a quick look in the Heritage Centre, artfully disguised as a waiting room and toilet block, then headed over to the Pier Bar. What it lacks in looks it makes up for in hospitality. With a superb coffee, a warm scone and a lovely bench acting as a wee sun trap (which almost tempted me to peel off one of my four layers) my final minutes on Rousay were well rewarded.
DOOS AND THE KIRKJUVAGR METROPOLIS
Today felt like a never ending gob-stopper kind of day; the kind when, as a youngster, I left home in the morning and didn't return until dark.
Just before Gorseness I came across the hive-shaped Rendall Dovecote, built in the 17th Century - when pigeons provided an source of meat and eggs - to serve the family living in the nearby Hall of Rendall. I'm not convinced the doo's, as pigeons are known in these parts, realise an amnesty has been declared on Orkney – I didn't see a single one on my travels.
Joining the surprisingly busy A965 at Finstown I reached Kirkjuvagr, the Viking town founded in 1040 meaning Kirk of the Bay: Kirkwall, capital of the Orkneys.
Kirkwall's size, seemed out of all proportion to the rest of Orkney. I even had to wait in a queue in the chippie, for goodness sake, before escaping to the harbour (with my fruit pudding and chips).
WHEN IS A DOOR NOT A DOOR?
When it's a........................church.
Contrary to popular belief Kirkwall does not take it's name from it's cathedral but from St. Olaf’s Church, built by Earl Rognvald Brusison, when Kirkwall was nothing more than two rows of houses.
Along St.Olaf's Wynd the only remains of the Kirk on the Bay is a doorway. It felt weird, it is weird; lurking down a lane, photographing a door (even a nice door like this one) that used to be the entrance to a church named after the King of Norway.
SINGING FROM THE HYMN SHEET
St.Magnus Cathedral does not lurk. Towering over the town bedecked in bands of red and yellow sandstone, this is Britain's most northerly cathedral. It has never been the property of the Church, belonging to the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall.
This made no difference when I tried to get inside. The choir had a dress rehearsal on.
A TALE OF TWO PALACES
Yards from the cathedral, sitting opposite each other on the appropriately named Palace Road are the Bishop's and Earl's Palaces.
Sticking with the no nonsense naming policy of Palace road, Bishops’ Palace was where the Bishops lived and the Earl's palace where the Earls lived. Even I was keeping up.
The Bishops Palace was built in 1137 for Bishop William the Old, first Bishop of Orkney. In the 16th Century it was completely rebuilt by Bishop Robert Reid - who founded Edinburgh University. A niche in the outer wall contains a white figurine of another Saint, St. Rognvald (St.Olaf's church and door builder). S
The Earl's Palace has been hailed as “the finest example of French Renaissance architecture in Scotland” As a total ignoramus of Scot’s French Renaissance architecture, and everywhere else’s, who am I to disagree. What I do know is the Palace, bathed in dappled evening sun, is an opulent sight.
However, this palace is a memorial to the dark rule of the Stewart Earls in the 16th and 17th centuries; Robert and his son Patrick used their control of Orkney's Council and courts to exact free-labour and to jail or execute those who did not comply. Their lives ended at the end of a rope, too.
THE PIRATE AND THE SUMMER HOOSE
For all the splendour of French Renaissance architecture, it was a tiny house behind the Orkney museum's gardens which captivated me The tiny rectangular stone building with lancet windows, topped by a pointed spine, seems to be a quaint summer house named after the shells or grottoes that decorate it.
Pirate John Gow and his crew acquired the vessel 'Revenge' somewhere off Santa Cruz and carried out a number of attacks before arriving in Stromness. He was soon rumbled, captured and taken to London where he was hanged - not once but twice - in 1729. The ship’s ballast was recycled to construct the summer house.
Walter Scott learned of Gow whilst lunching at the Shore Inn and was inspired to write “The Pirate.” The Shore, as it is now named, at the corner of Bridge St/Shore Street no longer looks like the kind of place where pirates are the topic of conversation, shame really.
FLYING THE FLAG
Leaving Kirkwall on the A960, approaching the airport, a bronze plaque commemorating the first scheduled air service, caught nay eye. Just about to pedal off, an elderly gentleman,came over and joined me. He was a real plane enthusiast, and thought I'd be cut from the same cloth.
Explaining my wanderlust was more bike and history orientated didn't stop us having a long natter. When he said he loved it when the “international” flights from Scotland came in, even though he had been to Scotland once on holiday and hated it, I thought he was at the wind up – but no. Typical Orcadians, he assured me, are first and foremost Orcadian, thinking of Scotland as a separate entity.
COAST to COAST AND A 100% YES VOTE
The A960 eventually fizzled out as did the minor road leading to a parking area for the fifteen minute walk to the Covenanter’s Tower Memorial.
This tall square tower recalls the drowning, in 1679, of over 200 Covenanter’s, taken prisoner at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge and being transported from Edinburgh to America. Driven ashore in bad weather, he crew escaped, but the captain ordered the ships hatches closed so the prisoners could not save themselves. One sailor tried to free them, but only fifty escaped drowning.
I had seen photographs of The Gloup - a sea cave - from the seaward side and it looked awesome. It lost much of it's wow-factor from land. That said, the path to it from the car park offered great views over to the uninhabited grassy-domed island of Copinsay. Beyond the Gloup, is the Brough of Deerness, an early monastic site.
My bike had taken me from coast to coast on Orkney's Mainland. I knew there was only one place my wild camp could be tonight – beside the massive sand dunes of Dingieshowe Beach, a sandy isthmus once the site of a Viking parliament, known as a Ting.
At the end of a very long, very enjoyable day, a full turnout of one returned a 100% YES vote to drink the Orkney beer, a Red McGregor ruby ale.
The result didn't surprise me!
ORKNEY FERRIES LIMITED
Enquiries 01856 872 044
Plan in advance as there are limited services and no late departure times (15.30 was the last ferry from Lyness to Houton on a Saturday for instance - see diary part one).
Stromness – Linksness then Lyness -Houton £8.50 return, the same price as Tingwall – Rousay return. All journeys were approx. 30mins in duration.
ROADS, TRAFFIC AND ELEVATION
Roads – Overall in fantastic condition. Do not remember a single pothole blighting my progress. Many roads on my route were delightful meandering single track types.
Traffic – Incredibly traffic free (1 car on Hoy) with the exception of the A965 from Finstown to Kirkwall.
Elevation and The Famous Orkney Wind - Orkney can never be classed as hilly, but flat it most certainly is not, despite being told so by previous car driving visitors. My route registered over 14,000ft on my Garmin.
BANKS AND SHOPS
Banks – Think there are only three - Stromness, Kirkwall and St. Margaret’s Hope, so come cash loaded.
Shops – be well-prepared as shops are few and far between in some areas.
Point of Ness camp site Owned by Orkney Council. £7.40 per tent, per night. Nice lounge with sofas, kettle, microwave and vending machines all included and loads of free Orkney literature.
Birsay Caravan, hostel and camp site . All as the Ness site,with the exclusion of vending machines and no need to try and find a 20p for the showers, as unlike Point of Ness, they are free.
Both sites have the same contact details : 01856 873 535
PUBLISHED APRIL 2016