With breathtaking scenery, unrivalled archaeological sites and an eclectic culture, Orkney is a bucket list worthy destination for the adventurous traveller, says Dave Flanagan.
Photographer / COLIN KELDIE
They don’t speak Gaelic in Orkney, but there are trees. Not many, it has to be said, but quite a few more than you may have been led to believe. It’s also a community that doesn’t really consider itself to be remote, isolated or particularly fragile.
If you’ve never visited Orkney before, then you could be forgiven for arriving off your ferry or flight with some misconceptions about the language you might hear, the supposedly windswept and barren nature of the landscape, or the local perspective on the islands’ place in the grand scheme of things. But it doesn’t take long for the reality of this remarkable (and surprisingly accessible) archipelago to sink in.
Aside from the breathtaking scenery – think lush, rolling farmland with more hills than you might have guessed, merged with jaw-dropping coastlines and spectacular, pristine beaches – there’s the sheer vibrancy of daily life here. This is an energetic, resourceful and creative community that somehow manages to embrace and capitalise on thousands of years of very visible history, without ever feeling as if it’s stuck in the past. Indeed, the islands are leading the charge with developments in renewable energy technology and are regarded as a global centre of excellence for wave and tidal power generation.
In many respects, it’s that unique combination of the ancient and modern that defines Orkney. Life in the islands is about balance, with 21,000 or so enterprising islanders working in harmony with an unspoiled environment – and all that unrivalled archaeology and history – to carve out a highly successful existence, across a wide variety of often ground-breaking sectors.
Excellence genuinely matters in Orkney, with the pursuit of quality a thread evident in many aspects of life here, from the agriculture (there are some 30,000 premium beef cattle in the islands), to the food and drink, crafts, art, music and the booming tourism industry.
Approximately 70 islands and skerries make up Orkney, with around 17 of those inhabited. Most of the population lives on the largest island, helpfully called Mainland, though many of the inner and outer islands of Orkney also support thriving communities.
Orkney’s capital and main centre of population is the City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall – graced with the iconic 12th-century Norse cathedral of St Magnus. As testaments to Orkney’s former role as a seat of power in the Viking Empire go, there are none finer. The islands only became part of Scotland in the 15th century and the Scandinavian influence remains strong to this day, both in place names and through modern cultural, educational and business links to Norway.
But it’s Orkney’s much more distant past that truly sets it apart as a visitor destination. They have a saying in the islands that if you stick a spade in the ground, you’ll probably unearth an archaeological site. The thing is, they’re actually serious. Orkney has more ancient sites peppering its landscape than anywhere else in Western Europe, and new discoveries are a regular occurrence.
The emerging jewel in an already glittering archaeological crown is the huge Neolithic site being painstakingly unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar, close to Orkney’s iconic stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar, and the ancient chambered tomb of Maeshowe (all lying within a UNESCO World Heritage zone). The 5,000-year-old Ness, the focus of a major excavation project since 2004, is thought by experts to be some kind of enormous, ritually important complex of buildings – perhaps a temple.
For some ready excavated Stone Age interest, the astonishingly well preserved village of Skara Brae, on the Orkney mainland’s wild Atlantic coast, is pretty much unsurpassed and helps cement the theory that the islands were as significant to the Neolithic world as they were strategically important to those globetrotting Norsemen.
That key status remained throughout both World Wars, with Orkney’s vast natural harbour of Scapa Flow providing an anchorage for the Royal Navy and acting as a graveyard for the captured (and subsequently scuttled) German High Seas Fleet. The Flow, as it’s known locally, is also the last resting place of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed with the loss of 833 lives in October 1939. An official war grave, it remains strictly off limits to divers, though a busy diving industry has developed locally around the scuttled High Seas Fleet.
It was the sinking of the Royal Oak that prompted Winston Churchill to order the building of a series of causeways – the Churchill Barriers – to block off the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow. The Barriers were built largely by Italian prisoners of war, who unwittingly created their own modern day tourist attraction with their remarkable transformation of a Nissen hut – now known as the Italian Chapel – into a place of worship and peace.
Given Orkney’s incredible scenery, abundant wildlife and mind-boggling wealth of historical sites, it’s no surprise to learn that tourism is a hugely important industry for the islanders. Orkney has long been the UK’s top cruise liner destination, with thousands of passengers disembarking here every year, yet it never feels overcrowded.
The food and drink are also a big draw for visitors, though thankfully much of the islands’ best produce is available UK wide for the times you can’t make a shopping trip to the far north. In addition to the famed prime Orkney beef and lamb, there’s fish, shellfish and the much sought-after meat from the legendary seaweed-fed sheep of North Ronaldsay. Add in the output from two internationally acclaimed breweries, two distilleries and a winery, plus mouthwatering cheeses, oatcakes, fudge, ice cream and a multitude of other locally produced treats, and you really do have a foodie’s paradise.
The people of Orkney have always been practical, but with a real eye for the aesthetic. That could explain why the islands have the highest concentration of craft jewellers in the UK. Whilst many of the manufacturers draw inspiration for their work from Orkney’s landscape and history, each is unique and the variety of jewellery on offer locally is dazzling.
Orcadians also love the arts, with the St Magnus Festival the highlight of an incredibly diverse diary of annual cultural events. A popular folk festival also takes place in May and you can regularly hear jazz, blues and rock around Orkney, too. In addition, there are festivals covering nature, science, storytelling and wine, to mention just a few.
Luckily, the country sports enthusiast is also very well served in the islands. In particular, the wild brown trout fishing on Orkney’s lochs enjoys almost legendary status amongst anglers, while the islands’ geographical position ensures there’s plenty of sport for the wildfowling enthusiast. Visiting anglers should get in touch with the ever helpful and welcoming Orkney Trout Fishing Association, while fieldsports lovers looking for a luxury package should head for the magnificent Balfour Castle on the island of Shapinsay.