Orkney Isles 2018: Week 2 of 2

It is always a unique pleasure to have two weeks holiday in one go.  I rarely manage it – the last time in 2015 – and it is even rarer for me to stay in one place for the whole fortnight; I can’t recall the last time I did so – unless you count Peru in 2010, of which the first few days were a conference, and the next 10 a tour around the country.  This holiday, Colin and I have taken one cottage for the whole two weeks (albeit that we spent two nights away from it, last week, on Westray and Papay) and this is a wonderful, relaxing, and rare treat.

Hoy, South Walls and Flotta

The Dwarfie Stane

Our first excursion in this second week, was to the south western islands of the Orkney archipelago.  We couldn’t visit them all, but it was fairly easy, in a day trip, to take the ferry across from Houton on the southern coast of the main island across to Lyness on Hoy, drive across the causeway from there to South Walls, and get off the ferry on its way back from Hoy on the island of Flotta, catching it again an hour and a half later to get back to Houton.

The single really rewarding and indeed awe-inspiring sight on this trip was the famous Dwarfie Stane on Hoy.  This incomparable marvel of the ancient world, contemporary with the other Neolithic archaeology of the Orkneys, is a single huge stone – a glacial erratic dropped millennia before in a stunning glacial gorge through the mountainous territory of Hoy – that has been painstakingly hollowed out, to provide a small chambered tomb.  The amount of work required – with bone and stone tools – and the simply stunning location, are surely signs that this must have been a very special burial, indeed.  The plug-stone, that sealed the tomb, now lies outside it, where it was pushed by grave-robbers who broke into the chambers from above (the roof now repaired by conservators).  I have never seen anything like it, and indeed I believe there is nothing else like it anywhere in the UK, at least.  Simply magnificent – though, as Colin said, it was perhaps disappointing not to see any dwarves.

The rest of Hoy, South Walls, and Flotta, I’m sorry to say, that we saw, are rather drab. The whole area is littered with World War I and II remains, rotting, rusting and crumbling away, sad shells of what were once hastily put-together barracks, munitions buildings, ‘batteries’, and gun emplacements.   Oh, and, of course, the 1970s North Sea oil terminal on Flotta.  The general feel of these islands, then, away from the ancient grandeur of the glacial interior and its megalithic jewel, is one of decay, waste, and the worst of 20th century industry and refuse.

By the end of the day, then, although happy to be able to tick off three more islands from our spreadsheet – including one of the ‘Top 20’ largest scottish islands (Hoy) – we were glad to return to Unigar cottages.

North Ronaldsay

The Stan Stane

The contrast, on our next excursion, could not have been greater. Taking the (very) early morning flight from Kirkwall – 15 minutes in the same plane that took us from Westray to Papa Westray – we flew to the furthest north of the Orkney Islands: North Ronaldsay.  This island is  even smaller than Papay, and has only one archaeological jewel: the ‘Stan Stane’ (disappointingly merely Scottish dialect for ‘Standing Stone’).  This stone is, however, at over 13ft high, one of the tallest  standing stones in the Orkneys (the tallest being on the island of Eday – which we’re saving for our next trip to the northern isles).  The Stan Stane is said to have been the site of annual dancing among the locals, on the New Year.

The Stan Stane

It sports, moreover, uniquely, a small hole in the middle, although there seems not to be any record of marriage or birthing rituals similar to those at the holed stone at Stenness.

North Ronaldsay sheep

North Ronaldsay also boasts a unique breed of sheep. DNA tests on bones found in Scara Brae suggest that the North Ronaldsay breed are in fact likely the survivors of the sheep first brought to the northern isles at the start of the Neolithic here, c4000BC. A small, hardy breed, some grey, some black, some white, and a few brown or ‘tanny’ in colour, they were kept, when the rest of the island was given over to cattle, by the building of a wall or dyke all around the island, demarcating the beach area for sheep, and the inland pasture for cows. North Ronaldsay sheep, as a result, eat seaweed, and can develop copper poisoning if allowed to eat too much pasture. Their mutton is said to have a distinctive flavour, as a result, and is much prized at specialist restaurants. The lady in the Post Office claimed to have sold some of her sheep to The Star Inn, Harome – one of my favourite restaurants, where Colin and I had our 2nd Anniversary. (After Honeymooning on the Isle of Arran, our first anniversary was in Lerwick, Shetland, our third on the Isle of Coll.)

North Ronaldsay sheepskin

We had a fascinating tour of the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse – though I elected not to climb to the top, after our four mile walk from the airport to the  Stan Stane to the lighthouse, and with another two and half miles yet to walk back!  But after a lovely lunch in the little cafe, (though there was no mutton on sale!) I could not resist a ‘tanny’ North Ronaldsay sheepskin from the little Lighthouse shop, and we walked back to the airport via Linklet bay, watched all the way by the seals.

Linklet Bay, North Ronaldsay

The full gallery of photographs is, as ever, on Flickr

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An Orkney Holiday

I have stayed three times, now, at the wonderful Unigar Cottages, and ought really to give them a plug.  Very comfortable, well appointed, and in a quiet part of the island near to Scara Brae, but only 25mins drive from Kirkwall and less to Stromness, and only 10mins to the Ness of Brodgar.

Unigar Ginger Tom

Here, too, this time, we have befriended a young ginger tom, who has delighted our evenings with his skittish affection.

The Orkneys have pretty much everything. As one local told us, on Papa Westray, Kirkwall is the centre of the universe, and indeed it has all the sporting and leisure activities one would expect of a good sized town, and supermarkets, pubs, hotels, clothes and specialist shops, as well as an airport (serving the isles, Aberdeen, and Manchester) and the ferry port.  But the Orkneys have a population of little over 20000, and there is plenty of space, of green, and only one murder in the last 20yrs (a very strange affair, I’m told.)

The Foveran, St Ola, Kirkwall, Orkney

Orkney also has some fabulous restaurants, including the wonderful Foveran, where we had this year’s Wedding Anniversary dinner, and a fantastic evening it was too!

Orkney Isles 2018

Week 1 of 2

In the summer of 2018, Colin and I returned to the Orkneys.  On our visit in 2015 we had seen pretty much all there is to see on the ‘mainland’ island, and taken the quick and easy crossing to Rousay to see the four chambered cairns in a row there, including the impressive MidHowe.  This time, we’re here for a fortnight, with many of the other smaller islands as our principal goal.

Ness of Brodgar

Ness of Brodgar archaeological site

The first weekend was of course dedicated to revisiting the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, to see the latest finds.  We were lucky to be here in time for the second of two ‘Open Days’ when the archaeologist, Nick Card, and his team were on hand to introduce all comers to the site, the finds, and a range of demonstration activities.

2018’s finds at the Ness of Brodgar – the year of the polished axe

I headed straight for the latest finds, and exclaimed ‘There it is!’ as I saw the colourful polished stone axe that was found this summer, towards the beginning of this year’s dig.

Nick Card, Ness of Brodgar Archaeologist

As I then looked up, I soon realised it was in fact Nick Card who was standing in front of me, explaining more about the recent finds, and how much he especially liked the smaller, plainer, but exquisitely carved polished axe (to its left in the picture above), which, he told me, was more likely ceremonial, or a gift, whereas the more colourful one showed enough signs of wear to likely have been in use, all those thousands of years ago.

Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar

On the next day, we took the Heritage Scotland tour of the Ring of Brodgar, which was really interesting, and introduced us to a whole different way of looking at the ring: the henge (though without an outer bank it is arguably not like any other ‘henge’ monument) when cleared of vegetation, reveals quite light coloured stone, which would have made a clear whitish circle visible for miles around.  It had been dug out in ‘sausage shaped sections,’ possibly by different communities, before each section was finally knocked through to the others, to complete the ring.  Moreover the stones seemed also to come from various parts of the island, erected upon the ring nearest to their origin, perhaps representing, or erected by the same communities who had dug that section of the ring.  The monument becomes more like a community space, perhaps for meetings (where marriages, for example, could be arranged) or some kind of parliament, or perhaps where markers of special events in that community could be laid, from time to time.  In this way, the ring becomes a process, rather than a finished monument with a purpose.  All fascinating stuff.  But of course no-one really knows….

Isles of Westray and Papay

Map of Westray and Papay

Our first big excursion from the ‘mainland’ of Orkney was to the Westrays.

We took the car ferry from Kirkwall to Rapness, and drove slowly up to Pierowall – the only town on Westray – where we had a room in a lovely B&B for the night: No.1 Broughton.  Our host cooked us a very nice dinner.

The Pierowall Stone


On Westray, there were two principal visits to make: the Westray Heritage Centre, where one can find, on display, the Pierowall Stone, a stone decorated in a very similar manner to those found in Knowth, Ireland, found in the local quarry;

The Westray Wife

and the Westray Wife, one of three figurines – the only representations of humans found in any Neolithic dig in Orkney, unearthed at the Noltland Links neolithic site, near to Grobust beach, in 2009.  Here – faintly – one can see the ‘eye-brow’ motif on the face of a human figurine for the first time.

Noltland Links archaeological site, Westray

This site was a second visit, where we were fortunate enough to be given a free – if quick – guided tour to the site, where there are a wealth of both neolithic and bronze age buildings, being gradually uncovered by wind and rain, as the sand dunes are gradually denuded in a shift in weather patterns that first revealed the archeaology beneath in the early 2000s.  There are decorated stones here, paved walkways between the houses, and thousands of finds awaiting dating and -eventually – display.

Decorated stone at Noltland Links archaeological site, with the ‘eye-brow’ motif
Noltland Links archaeological site, Westray
Logan Air flight from Westray to Papa Westray

The following morning we took the shortest scheduled flight in the UK – the 2 minute journey to Papa Westray – known as Papay by the locals. Here we stayed at the Beltane House Hostel – a community run affair built recently with good funding and very comfortable.

Knap of Howar, Papa Westray

On Papay there are again two principal sites to visit, the first of which we saw on the first day as part of the all day tour with the Papay Ranger, and second on a special trip he took us on, by boat, on the following morning. The first notable site is the Knap of Howar, a Neolithic dwelling similar to, but slightly older than Scara Brae, and was inhabited between 3600BC and 3100BC.  [For comparison, the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed c.2560BC, and the henge at Stonehenge – the first part of that monument, was constructed in 3100BC, the final site completed about 1600BC .]  The Knap of Howar is very impressive, showing very fine masonry, the distinctive ‘dresser’ style internal furniture, and walls (now surrounded by earth to help keep them up) several feet thick and high.  The two buildings are all that is visible of who knows how much more.

South Cairn on the Holm of Papa

And secondly the Holm of Papa, a tiny island off Papay where there are two cairns, the most impressive of which, the South Cairn, with a new concrete roof, includes in its SE chamber three wonderful neolithic carvings.  It is likely, in the fourth millennium BC, that the sea-level was lower, and the Holm of Papa a rise, beyond a low-lying, possibly marshy area of Papay, rather than a separate island.  It is possible even Papay was connected to Westray.

The carvings in the cairn, along with chevrons and dots, also display the ‘eye-brow’ motif common to many of the decorated stones in this area.

Decorated stone inside South Cairn on the Holm of Papa, with ‘eye-brow’ motif
Decorated stone in the South Cairn on the Holm of Papa
Decorated stone in the South Cairn on the Holm of Papa