Destination Guide: My Orkney, Georgia Grimond
Travel journalist, Georgia Grimond, has been a regular visitor to the Orkney Islands all her life. Here, she picks ten of her favourite places on this far-flung archipelago.
Orkney is a magical land with a long history. Anchored far off the Scottish coast in the North Sea’s icy, choppy waters, it is closer in more ways than distance to Scandinavia. The Vikings, the Norseman and countless other warriors and travellers fought over it but these days it is battered mostly by the weather. Always interesting, expansive and utterly exhilarating, it is a hard-to-reach destination not to be missed.
Ring of Brodgar
On mainland Orkney, within a ring of lochs, protected by a ring of distant hills, stands a circle of enormous flat stones dropped into the ground in the Neolithic times. Twenty-seven of an original 60 stand today, reaching up to almost five metres high and drawing visitors who roam between them.
At the summer solstice, when it barely gets dark in Orkney, druids, pagans and members of the public gather. But often, particularly out of season, there’s no one else there and you can drink in the solitude and get your head around the fact people found, moved and planted these stones in a perfect circle around 2,500BC.
Ring of Brodgar, Stenness, Orkney, KW16 3JZ Open year round
Maeshowe is another Neolithic wonder not far from Brodgar, and though you may not consider yourself a history buff, this ancient burial tomb fascinates even the most uninterested.
Visitors enter crouched and almost crawling along a narrow, damp stone corridor which, after a few metres, opens into a beautifully constructed chamber with lockers built into the walls where the dead would have been laid to rest. Built in 2,700BC, the structure moves only a few millimetres a year and when inside is totally dry and sheltered from the often-furious weather outside.
On the winter solstice (if the weather permits), the sun sets between the hills of Hoy casting its light across water and land penetrating directly down Maeshowe’s entrance to light up the back wall of the chamber in a feat of incredible, prehistoric planning and engineering.
In 1153, marauding Viking warriors came through when it had been closed up and abandoned. They broke in and took shelter, writing about their travails in runic letters on the wall. They also graffitied pictures of a serpent and other animals, as well as their names and a paean to a far-off lady friend, inscribing “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women”.
Maeshowe Visitor Centre (at Stenness), Ireland Road, Stenness KW16 3LB By guided tour only, book in advance, opening times vary
The weather in Orkney is changeable, to say the least. The wind can whip at gale-force speeds, rainbows rise out of the sea at any given moment and when the clouds pass the island is the most glorious sun-trap – and it’s not unusual to experience all extremes within a day.
Whatever the weather, however, make a trip to the westerly cliffs at Yesnaby. On wild days, waves crash and froth and the sea roars and swirls. Let yourself be blown along the cliff path, the wind pulling at hair and tearing off hats. The winter light flickers long and low across the inky water and moody clouds rattle past.
By contrast, on still days, mosey slowly along the bright springy turf. Look out for the diminutive Primula Scotica, a rare purple primrose that grows in Orkney and few other places. Lie on the cliff’s edge (careful) and spot puffins nesting among the hordes of black-headed gulls, fulmars and skuas squawking on their nests. Birds circle above, dipping and diving on the breeze and the bright blue of the sky competes with the almost-fluorescent green of the grass.
The Harray Potter
Orkney is a hotbed of creativity and in shops you will see all kinds of locally made produce: Orkney soap, beer, gin, cheese and whiskey to name a few. There’s also jewellery and silverware inspired by sea creatures, shells and Celtic designs and as you drive across the island you’ll pass many galleries, workshops and ateliers that welcome visitors – and shoppers. One of my favourites is the Harray Potter. Found in the village of Harray, Andrew Appleby has been making thrown pots, mugs, jugs and dishes for over 30 years (making him the original Harry Potter). His pieces are simple but beautifully designed and glazed in rich, earthly colours reminiscent of the Orcadian landscape. Pop into his Fursbreck studio to have a look and learn more about his experiments with local Orkney clay.
The Harry Potter, Fursbreck, Harray, KW17 2JR Mon-Sat, 9am – 5pm
The Pier Arts Centre
Looking across to the busy harbour in one of Orkney’s two towns, Stromness, lies the Pier Arts Centre. Housed in a specially designed post-modern shed, it is the islands’ best art gallery and has an impressive permanent collection of works from the likes of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Olafur Eliasson. Look out particularly for renowned local artist Stanley Cursiter, who helped bring post-impression and futurism to Scotland and who painted stunning Orcadian landscapes in oil.
Exhibitions and special events run throughout the year and the shop is worth a browse.
The Pier Arts Centre, Victoria Street, Stromness, KW16 3AA Feb – Dec, Tues – Sat, 10.30am – 5pm, Jan, 11am – 4pm
St Magnus Cathedral
Enormous, handsome and fiery red, the St Magnus Cathedral stands at the heart of Kirkwall and Orcadian life. It was built over 300 years from 1137 for the bishops of Orkney in the time of Norse rule, and yet today it provides a warm and peaceful place for many more activities than just worship. The scale of it is mind-boggling with fat pillars lining the central atrium and elegant arches rising up to the ceiling. In parts red and yellow limestone have been alternated to give a chequerboard effect, and many of Orkney’s great and good are commemorated along its walls. Pop in for a walk around or join a church service to appreciate the beautiful sound of the choir.
The St Magnus International Festival runs annually in mid-summer (June 21st – 27th 2019) drawing world famous musicians and performers who play in the cathedral as well as other sites around the island.
St Magnus International Festival, 13 Albert Street, Kirkwall, KW15 1HP
In the 1940s, as part of the UK’s naval defence strategy, Orkney’s mainland was joined to two neighbouring islands by causeways. South Ronaldsay, the southern-most of the islands, is a worthwhile day trip. Driving across the Churchill barriers, as the causeways are known, takes you past huge rusted shipwrecks from World War II. The barriers were built by Italian prisoners of war on the island who also built themselves a Catholic church to worship in. Made of two Nissen huts pushed together with an ornately decorated entrance and interior, the Italian Chapel and its frescos survive today.
South Ronaldsay is lined by often-deserted white sand beaches, like Newark and the Sands o’Wright, and in season there’s a good chance of seeing passing orcas or porpoises from Hoxa Head. On the very southern-most tip, a stone-age site known as the Tomb of the Eagles is a short walk along a stunning clifftop.
First and foremost, Orkney is a farming community. The island is peppered with small farms with excellent reputations for animal welfare and high-quality produce. The best place to see the pride in this industry is at the annual agricultural shows.
Prize bulls are buffed up and coiffed, sheep shampooed till they shine, and chickens, dogs, horses and plenty of other animals brought out to dazzle the competition.
There are also usually demonstrations that might include sheep shearing, mounted games by the Pony Club or a ploughing match. Plus there are tens of trade stands showing off Orkney’s produce and arts and crafts. It’s the highlight of the year for many and always an excellent day out.
The choice of which beach to stretch your legs on is a tough one on Orkney. The mainland is punctuated with vast stretches of silky sand, tiny coves, tucked away corners of coastline and glistening rocky crags to explore. One of the best ways to choose your destination is to work out which way the wind is blowing and head in the other direction.
The Broch of Birsay is a sloping island outcrop topped with a handsome lighthouse and connected to the mainland by a causeway that’s covered at high tide. Not far away is Skaill beach which is overlooked by both the historic Skaill House and Skara Brae, the oldest village in the UK. Aikerness in Evie is a broad sweep round that looks out to Rousay, a neighbouring island. The water is shallow and often morphs from the palest green to glittering blue. And on the south-side of the island, a large tidal bay known as Waulkmill provides a huge playground of perfectly flat sand and gently lapping water when the tide is out. It’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its varied bird life and curious seals are regular visitors to its shallows.
The Orcadian Bookshop
Not far from the cathedral on Kirkwall’s main shopping street, you’ll find the local newspaper’s bookshop, The Orcadian. Pick up a copy of the weekly rag to get a taste of the non-stop activity that is island life and island news and also to find out what’s on that week. Seek out Amy Liptrott’s book The Outrun, an autobiographical account of young woman brought up in Orkney who ends up off the rails in London and returning to the islands to recover. For poetry, look no further than local hero George Mackay Brown and his many books. And as well postcards and other souvenirs, see if you get the jokes from Orcadian cartoonist Alex Leonard’s Giddy Limit series.
The Orcadian Bookshop, 50 Albert Street, KW15 1HQ