These seventy windswept islands 90 minutes by ferry from Scrabster, on the north east coast of Scotland are seldom visited by Americans.
I spoke recently at a conference in Edinburgh, and took a week to visit the islands. You can take a ferry or fly there.
Two good places to stay are the Lynnfield Hotel, which has a fantastic restaurant, and the High Park Cottages which are close by which are self catering.
You visit these islands if you are a hiker, interested in history, a photographer, or a fisherman. It is mostly a farming community, with a famous distillery at Kirkwall. Highland Park is supposed to be most outstanding whisky in the land—The Famous Grouse—founded in l795.
The Orkneys have 160 of the most spectacular prehistoric monuments to be found anywhere in Britain.
Most date from 4,000 years ago, the Neolithic or New Stone age. Skara Brae is justly famous as the best preserved village in Europe.
Close to the Standing Stones of Stenness, which lie on the Brodgar peninsula and the Ring of Brogar which was a large circle of 60 stones, larger than Stonehenge, which is truly spectacular. There are only 27 of the stones still standing in the circle, and this was the highlight of my trip.
These are even more striking than the Callendish stones on the island of Lewis in the Western Hebrides. The story goes that each New Year’s Eve the stones all march to the water’s edge and next morning, you can see the earth at the bases has been disturbed. If you see them marching you will die within the year, so no one dares to take a peek.
The bird life is outstanding, with tens of thousands of Puffins, Guillemots, and Kittiwakes. On the heather-clad moorlands one enters the realm of the birds of prey.
Hen Harriers still nest there, and you see Red-Throated Divers. The wild flowers have varieties which grow nowhere else, and the islands are called a fisherman’s paradise.
The Orkneys, like the Shetland Islands, are steeped in history linking them to the Vikings, so they don’t consider themselves Scottish, more Norse, which is shown in their language and customs. No tartans or bagpipes, people play the fiddle.
Kirkwall is the capital of Orkney and the little town sits in the middle of West Mainland, and with one road around the island, you can't get lost. St. Magnus Cathedral is worth visiting, built in the l2th century as well as the prehistoric sites of Maeshowe, and Skaill House is one of the most complete l7th century mansion houses. The Laird of the Clan guides visitors around his home.
What was of interest to me, is the history of World War II when Churchill closed off the entrance to the loch (lake) to stop German submarines from entering. Some 75 German ships were sunk in the straits. In l942, 550 Italian prisoners of war captured in North Africa were brought to Orkney to help build the Churchill Barriers. These were the four causeways designed to block eastern access to Scapa Flow following the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak by a German U-Boat in l939, when 1,500 men were lost. You can see the battleship close to the shore, just like you can at Pearl Harbor.
Due to the lack of a chapel for their use, the prisoners built and decorated what is now known as the Italian Chapel.
A wonderful jewelry designer, Sheila Fleet, has her workshop in an old school house and her sister Leila has the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery. Wild About Orkney is an excellent tour guide since its difficult to get around the islands to the various sites.
This is a wonderful part of Scotland to visit if you want an off-the-beaten-path experience. Where else can you play golf at midnight in the summer? It’s always windy, with unpredictable weather.
In Orkney, the air sings. Go and enjoy the music.
Maureen Jones is president of All Horizons Travel at 160 Main Street. Members of her staff are experts in business travel, cruises, and all types of leisure.