Our stay in the Highlands earlier this year would have been incomplete without a trip to Orkney, an archipelago of islands sprinkled across the sea, 10 miles north of the Scottish mainland, and 300 nautical miles from the south-western coast of Norway. With only a few days to explore, we stuck to the western part of Mainland Orkney, with its collection of many Neolithic, Pictish and Viking construction remnants.
We took the 2-hour car ferry from the harbour town of Scrabster to Stromness – from the Norse strøm (strong tides) + nes (headland) – the second most populated town in Orkney. Called Hamnavoe (safe harbour) in Viking times, we could easily have spent several days wandering the narrow slate and cobbled lanes, flanked with stone houses, docks, and walls – a dizzying array of gorgeous stonework. The inevitable rain-shower (even on a day that started out clear, sunny and bluebird blue) gave us a chance to pop into the Pier Arts Centre, to wander the galleries and peek out at the rain-soaked and sinuous Hepworth sculpture gracing the courtyard.
With the sun shining again (and fortified by a tailgate picnic of local beremeal biscuits and Orkney cheddar), we headed into a pastoral wonderland of gently rolling hills, the sea never far from sight. Around every bend in the road, standing stones and mounded landforms suggested the possibility of undiscovered chambered tombs, stone circles and the deep mysteries of former civilisations.
Nordic traces were few, and far between, but placenames, describing landscape features (though anglicised by map-makers and surveyors), suggested a derivation from Old Norse, and signage sported variants of Magnus and Ola in their names. In folklore, the Orkney trow may have drawn on connections to the Norwegian trolls. The Viking presence was clearly evident in the settlement at the Brough of Birsay (an archaeological site spanning the Pictish and Norse periods), and the collection of 12th-century runic inscriptions (graffiti!) inside the Maeshowe chambered cairn.
At the Barony Mill, they still grind locally grown bere, an ancient form of barley that may have been brought to Britain by Vikings in the 8th century. In its early days, it was also called “bygge”, originating from bygg, the Old Norse term for barley. Ideal for northern climates, the relatively low-yield crop is tolerant of the cool temperatures and short growing season in Orkney and Northern Norway, and is still used for traditional bread and beer making. At the Orkney Brewery, I found beer (øl and ale) with names like Northern Light, Norseman, Dragonhead – and Skull Splitter, named after Thorfinn Einarsson the 7th Viking Earl of Orkney.
Flying on the occasional flagpole was the Orkney flag. Adopted in 2007, it includes the colours red and yellow from the Scottish and Norwegian royal coats of arms, and symbolizes the islands’ Scottish and Norwegian heritage. The previous (unofficial flag) of Orkney was attributed to St Magnus (Magnus Erlendsson was Earl of Orkney from 1108 to 1117), and consisted of a yellow field with a red Nordic cross.
I found the Norse influences to be elusive, and buried deep in Scottish history, but this northern land and seascape must have hinted at home for early voyagers and settlers. Within the span of two days, we toured through a spectacular island landscape with a rugged coastline and a long history of farming and fishing. We hiked through lush green pastures (and dodged sheep manure) to find bird blinds on remote hillsides and tucked under giant windmills. We spotted families of seals swimming along the shore, heard the call and saw the bright orange beaks of oyster catchers, a familiar Scottish coastal sound/sight. We wandered around castle ruins – turned into a soccer field by local youth. We drove across moorlands, rich in peat used for whisky distilling, the wild heather just coming into purple bloom.
We visited circles of stones and circular brochs, and walked across to an island on a causeway accessible only two hours either side of low tide. Our self-guided tour included a visit to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the 5,000 year old excavated village of Skara Brae, (Orkney’s neolithic star), the magnificent Ring of Brodgar stone circle, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Broch of Gurness and the chambered tombs of Maeshowe. All surrounded by an air of mystery, with researchers still debating the purpose and meaning of the constructions.
We squeezed in a lot, at a surprisingly relaxed pace, a testament to the concentration of rich neolithic and historical treasures in the Western part of Mainland Orkney. Back home again, the golden beauty of the Vermont hills, still bright with the last remnants of autumn foliage – ease the longing for the breathtaking land and sea vistas of the far north. For now.