ORKNEY: TOWN OF KIRKWALL
St Magnus Cathedral dominates downtown Kirkwall. It was built of red sandstone in the twelfth century, by the nephew of the man who would become St Magnus.
Kirkwall was celebrating "Norwegian Constitution Day," so we celebrated along with them. We thoroughly enjoyed a free concert in the Cathedral, where we listened to the wonderful voices of the Stromabank Pub Choir. They sang a wide variety of songs, from one possibly penned by King Henry VIII, to a Latin hymn to St Magnus and the Norwegian National Anthem. Their instruments included autoharp, recorder and even ukulele. Half of their program was made up of Orkney-specific songs, including the evocative "Orkney Anthem."
We noticed this tomb from our seats in the Cathedral. Possibly a distant relation of Gil's?
Traveler's Tip: bring your binoculars to cathedrals - they allow you to explore the carvings up high, safely and inconspicuously.
The soft red sandstone of the Cathedral has weathered a lot in the past 900 years, but it is still beautiful. We neglected to take a tour of the Cathedral, but hope to on our next visit to Orkney.
It seems anyplace we travel, no matter how long we spend there, there is always far too much to see with just one visit...and Orkney seems harder than most)
One of the narrow streets ("strynds") of Kirkwall.
We had a light lunch in The Strynd Tearoom.
(Everytime we visit the U.K. Becky insists that we lunch in some tearoom or the other. Everytime I patiently explain that "tearooms are for girls" and I really should be eating in pubs instead and everytime I am embarrassed to find the tearoom full of working guys like myself)
The Orkney Museum, just down the road from the Cathedral, was excellent, and we could have spent more time here.
The collection includes ancient and Pictish relics, and a variety of Viking items, including a carved whalebone plaque (for smoothing linen?) and a whalebone comb. This is an ancient stone "cist," used for human burials.
It's time for the Tog! In celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day, Kirkwall puts on a "tog," or what we would call a parade, complete with the very fine Kirkwall Pipe Band (notice the mix of old and young members), small children waving Norwegian flags, and families dressed in Norwegian attire. Orkney and Norway share a common heritage, and keep their cultural links alive. (And I have to confess, I am one of those odd people who sometimes cry at parades, and pretty much always cry when hearing bagpipes. So yes, the tears were rolling as the band paraded by.)
I'm waiting in eager anticipation. I can hear the pipes coming! (Get the hanky out!)
(Small town, local parades seem to be much the same the world over and I love 'em.)
Below is the main street of Kirkwall (photo borrowed from Google Streetview as we seem to have neglected to take our own), which goes from the harbor to the Cathedral and beyond. It seemed quite busy with shoppers, including ourselves (still searching for footwear), and it was easy to forget that it was not "pedestrianized" - every so often someone would drive slowly through.
We eventually found appropriate new boots for Gil, with the helpful assistance of staff in several shops. I think we went to one of the "outdoor" stores at least four times (I'm sure it was only three). We then headed to the justly-famous Highland Park Distillery, just south of Kirkwall. Gil is slightly excited about visiting the source of his favorite single malt whisky.
Highland Park has won international awards as "The Best Spirits (not just whisky) in the World" many times over. It's not just me, it's awesome.
Highland Park is one of the few distilleries left who have their own " floor maltings." This distinctive pagoda roof of the maltings is merely ornamental nowadays at many distilleries, but it's still the real deal here at Highland Park. I believe we were told that 20 percent of the total malt used at Highland Park is smoked over Orkney peat (more about that later). The Highland Park website is an excellent introduction to the whisky making processes, and to Highland Park in particular. (Breaking News: We later found out that Highland Park is working with local farmers to grow barley on Orkney...look for the first bottles to be released around 2021.)
Our Highland Park guide, Chris, who was most excellent. I learned so much, some of it so elementary I am embarrassed. For example, I thought a bottle of 21 year old was different from a bottle of 18 year old only in the number of years before the bottling. Wrong! There are a number of factors, including the choice of oak casks that are used for aging.
This is the peat fire, below the maltings kiln floor, which imparts smokiness to the finished taste of the whisky. It burns with a low intensity, with the naturally scented smoke drifting up through the floor to the malted barley.
Coke is used to feed the "hot" fire, which stops the germination process, after the barley has been smoked with peat fires and moved to the kiln floor.
The whisky is aged in oak sherry casks. The oak comes from either America or Spain, and the flavors imparted to the spirit are quite different depending on the source. Below, once a log scaler, always a log scaler...(or not)
(I'm permanently scarred)
Below are implements used in cutting the peat.
We departed from Highland Park (with a bottle of 18 year old safely tucked into the car "boot") and drove west on A964 in the general direction of Stromness. Along the way, we saw a sign for a nature reserve, and I "made" Gil turn there. The road petered out, and we didn't see any special wildlife, but we did accidentally find - ta da! - the peat cutting area used by Highland Park! Here, the turves are stacked for drying. The company owns the land, but leases it for a token rate back to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), so it seems like a win/win arrangement. [At Highland Park, we were told that there was enough peat to last over 2,000 years, and that it was sustainably managed (something to do with putting down straw after they cut).]
Below, you can see the sort of boggy area that will become peat in the future.
ORKNEY: ORPHIR, EARL'S BU, ROUND CHURCH
We continued west a few miles, then stopped at Orphir, where we explored the remains of Earl's Bu, a Norse farmstead which was home to some of the Norse Earls who were so important in Orkney's history. Among the ruins were the remains of Scotland's only circular mediaeval church, dating from the early 12th century.
Also on the grounds of Earl's Bu is the Orkneyinga Saga Centre where we learned about ancient Viking history (and Gil took the opportunity to explore his ancient Viking roots).
(Why, oh why do I agree to do these sorts of things? They always turn out to be embarrassing)
ORKNEY: SKARA BRAE
On our last full day in Orkney, we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site*** of Skara Brae. 5,000 years ago, ancient people built this village, with neatly walled houses and community dwellings, connected together with tunnels.
(***along with Maeshowe, Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar)
After about 600 years of habitation, the Skara Brae site was covered over for thousands of years, and then was revealed again by a violent storm in 1850. Each dwelling was equipped with built-in stone dressers, beds, door, toilet rooms and hearths. It was truly amazing to look upon such ancient remains and feel quite at home and connected to real people from thousands of years ago. Although we were drenched with rain and blown about by the strong winds during our visit, we were still awestruck.
The site is now on the edge of Bay of Skaill, protected by a seawall from the action of the waves, but it used to be a fair distance from the coast. A guide told us that the entire Bay of Skaill did not exist in the heyday of Skara Brae. Before the seawall was built, at least one stone house was lost to the sea.
Note the dresser, hearth and bed. These domestic features were not uncommon in Orkney even into the twentieth century, as you will see when we visit Kirbuster Farm Museum.
The next three photos were taken in a reconstructed Skara Brae home. Visitors are free to explore the reconstruction.
Yup, it had been raining outside...hard.
ORKNEY: SKAILL HOUSE
Next to the Skara Brae site and Visitor Center is Skaill House, home of the lairds of Skaill since the 1620's. The Skara Brae remains were on the laird's land, until they donated the site to the state. The house was quite interesting, but certainly seemed a remote and windy outpost in which to live.
The last laird, who erected the seawall at Skara Brae to protect the site, lost his only son at the age of 14 in the 1920's. The laird's second wife lived in Skaill House until 1991. One of the guides told us that she had met the last laird's daughter, who is still alive in her 90's, and who is still greatly concerned that the Skara Brae site be properly protected.
From the dining room, which contains Captain Cook's dinner service (somehow taken from his ship when it landed in Orkney after Cook's disastrous last voyage), you can look out onto the sunken garden. (Sinking a garden seems a good idea, with all the wind!)
We "met" Robert Yule earlier at Kirkwall's St Magnus Cathedral (or at least saw his tomb). Here he is again as a young man; he married into the family.
This low, deep window in the library makes perfect sense when you sit in the laird's chair. It looks right across to the Skara Brae site.
Every library needs a secret compartment!
Typical Becky - walking around the house with the guidebook!
The original 17th century courtyard of Skaill House.
Time for lunch! The Skara Brae Visitor Center's cafe is excellent. We had homemade cullen skink soup and bread.
(I would never, ever have imagined that I would eat, much less love, a haddock soup but everytime it showed up on a menu I had to have it)
ORKNEY: KIRBUSTER FARM MUSEUM
This museum was quite interesting, and we could have spent a lot more time exploring the nooks and crannies. According to The Rough Guide to Scotland, this museum "offers an interesting insight into life on an Orkney farmsteading in the mid-nineteenth century...Despite being inhabited until as late as 1961, it has retained its firehoose, in which the smoke from the central peat fire is used to dry fish fillets, and eventually allowed simply to drift up towards a hole in the ceiling; the room even has the old neuk-beds, simple recesses in the stone walls, which would have originally been lined with wood."
The front garden, surrounded by stone walls and outbuildings, was lovely this time of year (May).
This is a kiln for drying grain (usually barley, seen from the back and front).
Looking out the window of the stone farmhouse, you can see the whalebone arch that forms the entryway to the rustic courtyard.
One of the charming things about this museum is that we were practically the only ones there, and the guide was so nice to us, even though it was nearly her lunch time. Here, she is showing us a typical Orkney iron oil lamp. To the left is an Orkney chair, with its woven curving back and sides.
This scene is chock-full with interesting items. Note the hearth on the floor and a glimpse of the stone-lined bed in the background. Remember these from Skara Brae? Note also the round white griddle on the stone wall/stove. The griddle is used for baking the flat bannocks of barley. Fish and hams are hanging above, getting smoked by the actual peat fire burning below on the hearth. Those are actual fish, by the way (I thought they were rubber). The peat fire burns very low, and we didn't really notice or mind the peat smoke. We couldn't smell the fish, either. The room felt quite cozy, really.
Doesn't that cupboard built into the stone wall look familiar? (hint: think neolithic)
A close-up of the stone "neuk-bed" and the two tiered iron oil lamp.
A newer part of the rambling stone farmhouse.
A large outbuilding was filled with all manner of farm equipment.
Guardians of the farmstead.
ORKNEY: BROCH OF GURNESS
The Broch of Gurness, on the northeast side of West Mainland, is an immense stone tower, dating from around 100 BC, with the remains of stone homes and buildings scattered around it. The tower's walls still stand up to 12 feet high. You can see stone shelving and fireplaces still in place.
There are apparently two roads to the Broch...and we evidently took the "rough" version.
"(rough version?!?" Wow, now there's an understatement. The road was strictly meant to be an access for tractors to the fields. The "Gray Ghost" was never intended to take this sort of abuse)
In the background, you can see the broch itself, surrounded by various outbuildings and houses.
The small hole used to hold the "post" of a stone door.
(I was simply blown away by this stonework. Truly amazing!)
"The Rough Guide to Scotland" says "The Visitor Center...is also worth a quick once-over, especially for those with kids, who will enjoy using the quernstone corn grinder." Why should kids have all the fun?
Visitor Center note - there is no public restroom, and this place is pretty isolated (lol, tell me!). Just thought you'd like to know, since it's quite a bumpy ride (word!) back to a bathroom...
ORKNEY: RING OF BRODGAR
For us, the Ring of Brodgar was the outstanding site of Orkney, and we happened to save it for our last day. Imagine a vast (100+ meters) circle of huge standing stones (possibly up to 60), on a peninsula between two lochs. Realize that you can walk right up to them; no tickets, no officials, just other visitors and the ubiquitous sheep for company.
(Agreed! If I were to pick a "favorite thing" from our trip the Ring of Brodgar would be it. Words and pictures do not do it justice)
It was raining fiercely when we arrived, but the skies cleared in a few minutes, bathing the stones in fantastical, ever-changing light.
You might be amused by our car-bound experience as we waited for the rain to stop, or at least back off a bit.
We went wild trying to capture just the right picture - there were too many over-the-top views to take in, and the light kept changing from awesome to incredible. We finally realized that we needed to put away the cameras and just walk around and absorb the awesome spectacle before us.
The stones can be a handy refuge from the wind and rain!
ORKNEY: STORY TELLING EVENING
Our last night in Orkney, we enjoyed an evening of "Peat Fire Tales" in the Hotel Stromness. Gil had a glass of whiskey and I had a beer, and we settled back next to the peat fire, along with several other out-of-town guests, to listen to spooky tales of long ago.
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