The Magic of Orkney

If you want to add some real magic to your life, beg, borrow or steal your way to Orkney: a group of Islands nestling in the wild seas beyond the far north of Scotland, once home to ancient Picts and Vikings, and teeming still with a host of otherworldly creatures.
Low-lying and wind-driven, these seventy or so, almost treeless, islets are studded with burial mounds, ruined brochs and standing stones which have stood sentinel for thousand of years. Ragged cliffs line the west coast whilst the more sheltered bays to the east offer sandy beaches, often strewn with seaweed. On rocky skerries, families of selkies rest, safe for a time from the perils of the sea.
There is so much history here – from the ancient to the modern with the tragic remains of wrecks from both first and second wars in Scapa Flow, which served as a sanctuary of sorts in time of war. A ferry ride away is the dramatic Isle of Hoy with the highest cliffs and its unique wildlife. On a clear day, the wrecks are visible in the ocean below. Great for divers so I’m told!
The wide array of birdlife offers many delights as well, drawing in twitchers from around the world. This visit, I saw my first puffins at Castle Burrian on the Isle of Westray, a ferry ride away to the north. Where in the world could you sit for several hours alone on a cliff top watching puffins manically rise up from their nests and fly down in small groups to land on the blue-gray ocean swell, several hundred feet below.
Noisy seabirds fill the skies over these cliffs, whilst migratory birds enjoy the more peaceful inland lakes. I found a nesting swan on the side of Harray Loch within sight of ancient stones markers and a massive archeological dig. One of the joys of Orkney is being able to walk unhindered around statuesque individual stones as well as stone circles like the Ring of Brodgar – an awe inspiring sight which always takes my breath away no matter how many times I see it.
Other treats for me include a visit to Skaill Bay where a significant part of my story in ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ takes place. I’ve been fortunate to be able to stay in the apartments at Skaill House several times and love the museum there. To wander at sunset around Skara Brae – a ruined neolithic community uncovered in a storm – is very special indeed.
Apart from many smaller villages, the main island of Orkney offers two substantial towns – Kirkwall, home to the glorious, red sandstone medieval St Magnus cathedral, and Stromness, a sturdy seafaring port whose deep harbour allowed vessels from the Hudson Bay Company to collect hardy Scots en route to a new life in the icy wastes of northern Canada.
Along their narrow lanes and ancient streets, both towns offer an intriguing glimpse into the lives of Orcadians who were once citizens of Norway. Scotland purchased control over Orkney as part of a regal dowry contract several hundred years ago but the Scandinavian flavour of these communities remain to this day.
Of course, there is so much more to Orkney than this post could possible do justice. There are heritage museums and glorious arts and crafts – and make sure you visit the Harray Potter for his coffee cups based on a neolithic design. Oh and some great whisky! I adore the peaty monsters from Islay, but Orkney’s Highland Park and Scapa are two of my all-time favourites!
If you want to know more, you can visit the Scottish National Trust and Historic Scotland sites and a wonderful website, to learn more about the culture, history and heritage of these extraordinary islands.