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Like Shetland, Orkney used to be run by the Norwegians, until the middle ages when the Scots claimed it back! Orkney has been inhabited for thousands of years, as evidenced by the many neolithic relics which litter the islands, most famously the village of Skara Brae. It also played a pivotal role during both world wars, and has more recently been developing tourism and alternative energy.

After visiting Shetland in 2003, I got a taste for the islands and was keen to visit Orkney, but it wasn't until 2007 that a suitable excuse arose. We did 3 days cycling round the archipelago, having started from Thurso, and spent one night each in Stromness and Kirkwall. Although it was August, the weather had other ideas and it was sometimes harder cycling downhill than up because of the wind. Brrr.

Northlink ferry

The Northlink ferry from Thurso to Stromness takes only about an hour and a half, but of course you have to get to Thurso first, which isn't near anywhere.

The ferry takes you around the island of Hoy, with its huge cliffs and emblematic "Old Man of Hoy", a sea stack standing alone from the cliff face.

Old man of Hoy


A view across to Hoy from the Orkney mainland, with some standing stones in the foreground.

Stromness as viewed from the ferry on arrival, the large building in the centre is the Stromness Hotel. They were running a beer festival that weekend in the posh bit upstairs, which was a far cry from "The Flattie" pub down the bottom.

Stromness Hotel

Stromness street

Looking up Victoria Street in Stromness, many of the streets are paved in Orkney flagstone as opposed to tar. This is a typical busy Saturday morning.

An eerie view up one of the deserted streets in the dead of night.

Stromness at night

Dark alley

Once again a shot down the dimly lit narrow streets of Stromness.

The Neolithic Standing Stones of Stenness, outside of Stromness and near to the Ring of Brodgar. They are remarkably thin for their relative height, a good four or five metres.

Standing Stones of Stenness

Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar is perhaps Orkney's most well known stone circle, built around 4500 years ago. Some of the stones have fallen over, one when it was struck by lightning during the 1980s.

Skara Brae is a Neolithic village on the shores of the Atlantic, which although it was built 5000 years ago, wasn't discovered until the 19th century when a storm blew away the sand in which it was buried. It is one of the oldest known settlements in Europe, along with the likes of Jarlshof in Shetland and the megalithic temples of Malta.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae house and dresser

Such details are preserved as the hearth, storage alcoves and dresser, giving an insight into the way people lived thousands of years ago.

The Atlantic shore at Skara Brae is very close to the village, which is protected by a concrete barricade. We went for a swim, and it was absolutely freezing. This being Orkney however, we weren't the only ones having a dip.

Anyone for a dip?


The following day we headed over to Kirkwall, the largest town in Orkney, this is the main street.

St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall is much larger and more splendiferous than any cathedral I'd expect to find in a town this size. It did well to escape the reformation, and is in remarkably good condition

St Magnus' Cathedral

Churchill Barrier

Back in 1939 the British fleet were at anchor in the bay of Scapa Flow, when one of those dashed Jerry U-boats sneaked in and sank HMS Royal Oak. To keep Hans and Fritz in check, Winston Churchill ordered that Scapa Flow be barriered in, and the resultant causeways now bear his name, the Churchill Barriers. They also make it much easier to cross between the islands now.

As a further precautionary war measure, a number of ships were scuttled in the shallow waters around Scapa Flow to act as blockships. The rusting hulks of some are still visible above the waterline. There are many more vessels at the bottom of Scapa Flow making it a popular spot for wreck divers, although some such as HMS Royal Oak are war graves and therefore strictly off limits.


The Italian Chapel

The Italian Chapel was constructed during the second world war by Italian prisoners of war, hence its name. Although the body of the kirk is made from an old Anderson shelter, it hosts some surprisingly delicate paintings, and is still in use today.

Orkney is also a popular spot for big hairy bikers, there were a load of them boarding the same ferry as us from St Margaret's Hope. This particular crew wore jumpers declaring their membership of the "Fat Bastards' Pie Eating Club".

Like a bat out of hell...

St Margaret's Hope

The village of St Margaret's Hope, towards the south of Orkney. We caught the boat from here back to Gills Bay on mainland Scotland.

More evidence of war remnants can be seen from the ferry, lookout stations and old gun batteries.


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