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O N T O U R: The Orkneys
Where in the UK are there pre-historic remains going back 5,000 years? Where is a burial ground that pre-dates the Pyramids, perhaps 2,500 years old. Also a stone circle from before Stonehenge. And where in the same region is, what was for a short period of 35 years, the world”s most famous military port, the tomb of a great many more ships that ever sank at Pearl Harbour? And where today a burgeoning tourist industry flourishes catering for those interested not only in ancient history and the Royal Navy but also ecology and nature?
In many ways the oil boom of the 1980”s onwards had little effect on the Orkneys, Sumburgh on the Shetlands, at an even higher latitude, the main aviation gateway for the offshore traffic.
The Orkney Islands lie 40 minutes by passenger ferry to the north of John O”Groats across the sometimes turbulent Pentland Firth. The ”natives”, all 19,000 of them, do not consider themselves to be Scottish, more independent British, although of course for political purposes they do sit in the Edinburgh parliament (and at Westminster too).
In the ninth century the isles were conquered by the Vikings and remained under Norwegian control for 600 years before being ceded to Scotland. Today 20 of the 70 islands are inhabited, the smaller ones by mostly owner framers who produce renowned beef products.
A holiday in the Orkneys is a holiday with a difference. Allow for a week. Getting there is no problem. You can fly to Kirkwall via Aberdeen or take the ferry from the same point. In the very far north there are short sea crossings from John O”Groats and a car ferry from Thurso. Kirkwall, the capital, is a busy and attractive little town with a population of 6,000 dominated by the massive St Magnus cathedral, founded in 1137, created in brown sandstone and not affected by Henry VIII”s break with Rome which occurred before King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. Opposite the cathedral is a delightful museum, Lotto funds put to effective use. Don”t be fooled into thinking that the high street is traffic free. Large paving stones give that impression. Be careful, cars do venture up the street outside Woolworth”s.
The geography of the Orkney”s means that the main ferry port is Stromness (seen left) the second town of the islands about half the size and 30 minutes drive from Kirkwall. However the capital serves as the hub for the outer island ferries operated by Orkney Ferries. You can get to most of them, there and back in a day. Loganair under the BA banner, operate an inter-island service including the world”s shortest scheduled air route, from Westray to Papa Westray, which takes two minutes.
Where to start in the Orkneys. There is much to see but the first port of call must be the Maeshowe burial chamber, 10 miles north west of Kirkwall and very well looked after by Historic Scotland. Constructed around 2,700 BC from huge Orkney flagstones ” some of which weigh up to 30 tonnes ” and clay, a narrow and low roofed entrance passage leads into a large central chamber perhaps 20 feet square. Three smaller side-cells branch off from this central chamber. It is a remarkable piece of stone age engineering. Just a little bit further, on Loch Harray, is the Ring of Brodgar, a sort of mini-Stonehenge (but much older) originally of 60 stones of which 36 now remain either as uprights or broken stumps. Lovely heather covers the site.
Not far away is the village of Skara Brae, 10 one-roomed houses dating from much the same time. What is amazing is that they even had kitchen dressers in those days and British Airways should note that the concept of individual sleeping cocoons is not new. These houses have them too. The visitors” centre tells you the history of this world famous monument.
Scapa Flow is Britain”s largest natural harbour, or rather mooring area. The Royal Navy”s home during two world wars it was also the focus of three great tragedies. The explosion on the battleship Vanguard in July 1917 which took nearly one thousand lives, the dramatic sinking of the Royal Oak in 1939, and the final voyage of HMS Hood in 1941. The grave of the Royal Oak can been seen from the Churchill Barriers, a road built, largely by Italian prisoners of war, blocking several entrances to the Flow and stopping any subsequent attack by submarine or surface ship. Gunther Priens famous attack was carried out on the surface. Not only did the Italians build roads but they also constructed, in their spare time, a most wondrous chapel. A converted Nissan Hut disguises a beautiful and remarkable interior. Scapa Flow is also the last resting place of the defeated Kaiser”s High Seas Fleet Fleet, 72 ships scuttled on 21 June 1919. For many years they provided a steady income for the scrap metal merchants
For the more energetic there is fishing, diving, sailing and even a par 70 5,500 yard golf course. Kirkwall and Stromness both have a good selection of hotels and eating places. There is even ten pin bowling to keep the children occupied. Today the Orkney”s are very much tuned into being holiday islands ready to make you welcome. http://www.visitorkney.comhttp://www.orkneyjar.com