Orkney Isles Soctland : Worth the effort
January 1, 1970
by Matthew Pye
Being born in a place of unquestionable beauty
I come from a tiny island off the northern coast of Scotland. The Orkney Isles, or Orkney as i prefer to call it. My parents moved there in the mid seventies, following my grandparents who moved there from Sheffield in England to retire. These were remarkably different times from now, but even then my parents understood the value of living in such a beautiful, quiet and safe place. My grandparents, or rather my grandfathers big reason for wanting to live there was that he was a fantastical fisherman and Orkney, still today, has some of the best loch (or lake) fishing in all of Scotland, perhaps in the whole of the UK.
My parents moved to Orkney coincided with the acceleration of the oil and gas business in the North Sea, Orkney has benefited greatly from the oil boom of the seventies and eighties and my father was gainfully employed until his retirement and my mother, a qualified nurse, was also employed in the major hospital of the island. Life in the Orkney Isles treated them quite well and my sister and i were both born and raised on the Island, living there permanently until we both left for University when we were 18.
OK, this is not an article about my life, its about the island, i get that. I’m trying to set the scene here, because i come from a place which is regarded as one of the most important historical sites in the world. Last year Scotland’s 10 most valuable historical tourists attractions counted 3 separate attractions from Orkney. So you have to understand that on a daily basis i would travel past places of such historical importance that countless travelers from around the world visit Orkney to see these stunning attractions. And for me it was always a bit underwhelming. I guess, because i don’t know, that if you live in Rome all your life you don’t gush over the Colosseum and if your a native Parisian the Eiffel Tower holds no romance for you once you’ve scene it a few thousand times.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder and more reflective
As i mentioned, i moved from Orkney in 1997, to Edinburgh, i moved back in 2002 stayed for 5 years and then left, for what seems to be a permanent length of time. Since i left i have always been surprised, through the places i have traveled how many people i met that actually had traveled to Orkney. Usually on organised tours or cruises and always, without hesitation these people i met would speak so wonderfully of how much they enjoyed the place. Sure, they were being polite, but the detail in which they spoke was always quiet memorable for me. They really paid attention to those places that i had gone past literally thousands of times.
It struck me as well that these people really TRIED, and mean took a great deal of effort and of course money to be able to visit Orkney. The islands are accessible only by boat, from Scrabster 2 or 3 times daily and from Aberdeen 2 or 3 times weekly or by plane two or three times daily from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. If you fancy driving, then from Glasgow or Edinburgh you’ve got around a six hour drive followed by a 90 minute boat ride. It’s serious travelling. But once you arrive there is a serious amount to see. I have chosen three starkly different but totally engaging sites, but there are so many more.
This is the most important site in Orkney and probably the most well known. There are some theories being explained now that community life as we know it in the UK may have even started in Orkney and that Orkney may have been a kind of religious and cultural hub of those times. Those times were 5000 years ago mind. Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement, entirely built from stone and turf. There are eight almost perfectly preserved houses within the settlement and it’s estimated that they were occupied from around 3180 BC to 2400 BC. Skara Brae has UNESCO World Heritage Site Status and is the jewel in the numerous sites that make up the Neolithic attractions in Orkney. TO put this into perspective, in terms of age, Skara Brae is older than the Pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge in the south of England. As well as the homes themselves there were numerous artifacts recovered from the site, which was uncovered during an enormous storm in 1850, all of these are on display at the Skara Brae visitors centre, which also gives a great insight into the discovery and development of the site.
Saint Magnus Cathedral
St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall is perhaps the most iconic of all Orkney tourists sites. It’s construction began in 1137, when Earl Rognavald, a Norse Earl ruled over the Orkney Islands. It was developed over the following three centuries to take its current form. The architecture of the building is it’s most striking feature. From outside the building feels quiet imposing around the single storey buildings around it, but it is not enormous, however upon entry the lack of large, long windows, a feature in more modern churches and the narrowness of the building in comparison to its vast ceiling gives it a far more spacious feel. The stone in which the Cathedral was built is locally sourced from a red sandstone quarry near Kirkwall and touches of yellow sandstone from one of the outlying isles , Eday. The Cathedral is still in operation today hosting weddings, christenings and regular Sunday services as well as concerts and other events.
The Italian Chapel
Orkney had a huge role in World War Two, not something which i can compress into this blog. But one of the many monuments which is still in existence today is the Italian Chapel, near Kirkwall. In 1942, somewhere in the region of 500 prisoners of war were brought to Orkney to work on the construction of the Churchill Barriers, these barriers were to block the natural gaps around Scapa Flow where the British Navy moored their fleets. After a year it was decided that these prisoners needed a place of worship and the chapel was constructed. From crude materials the prisoners joined two nissen huts together and lined the interior with plasterboard and concrete left over from the construction works. Domenico Chiocchetti, one of the prisoners, was responsible for nearly all of the interior decoration, which is still in good condition until this day. The Italian Chapel is one of Orkney’s top tourist attractions to this day, to frame that for you it receives a jaw-dropping 100,000 visitors a year.
Those are just three stunning places, i could go on for much more. The Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, Scapa Flow, The Tomb of the Eagles, i could write a book. So many have. And those are just the places to see, the scenery the culture of the islands is as unique as the attractions.
In reflection, i was lucky to grow up in a such a place. The freedom and safety offered to me was something i took for granted, as were the stunning sites that surrounded me. I am happy to give them as much promotion as i possibly can, and if you have the time and the desire, give Orkney a chance, it’s more than worth it.