The Islands - Orkney

Sometimes called "The Orkney Islands" (but never "the Orkneys", please), Orkney is an archipelago of more than 70 islands, 20 of which are inhabited, located off the north coast of Scotland. Ferries serve Orkney from John O'Groats, Scrabster and Aberdeen, and there is airline service from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness, at least. The main island in the archipelago is Orkney Mainland, home of the two largest communities - Kirkwall and Stromness. 

For other Scottish Islands, see:

Scapa Flow - Isle of Hoy - Stromness

From the MV Hamnavoe crossing from Scrabster to Stromness. The route leads through the Pentland Firth, potentially one of the roughest stretches along the entire Scottish Coast - but our luck held, and the water was calm and smooth for our crossing. 

The Hamnavoe's route takes you close in to the island of Hoy, and the Old Man of Hoy, a 449-foot-tall sea stack. 

A Fulmar flying close to the water next to our ferry.

The clouds were low over the heights of Hoy (which means "High Island").

The Sandside Point light on the low-lying Island of Graemsay marks the entrance to Scapa Flow, historical mooring of the Royal Navy and now an important port for shipping North Sea oil.

Passing Oxan Point lighthouse on Graemsay, with Hoy in the background.

MV Hamnavoe entering Scapa Flow

Another view of Graemssay, with the higher ground of Hoy in the background.

The Hamnavoe docks in Stromness, second-largest town in Orkney Mainland.

Driving through the old portion of Stromness is an experience - one to be missed if at all possible.  Take the road further up the hill to bypass the town. The streets are narrow and two-way with no place to turn around or, in many spots, even to pull over. The rougher cobblestones in the middle of the street were to provide surer footing for horses in wet weather. 

Stairways link the upper town of Stromness to the waterfront

Free Kirk

Italian Chapel - Lamb Holm

The Italian Chapel on the small island of Lamb Holm, which you reach by driving over the first of the Churchill Barriers guarding the eastern approach to Scapa Flow. The island was home to thousands of Italian prisoners of war during WWII, brought to Orkney to build the Barriers. They asked for permission to build a chapel, and were given a couple of metal Nissen Huts (we'd call them Quonset Huts) for the purpose. The huts were joined end-to-end and a false facade was built on one end to simulate a church. 

The interior of the huts was finished with materials scavenged from the Churchill Barrier works and salvaged from block ships which had been sunk in Scapa Flow. The walls were plastered and painted to reproduce the stone walls of the churches the Italian prisoners would have known in their homeland. 

The stone blocks are actually flat plaster, skillfully painted so that the lighting and shadows on the edges of the blocks matches the light coming from the windows. The wooden plaque is real, however. 

Skara Brae

Skara Brae, a Neolithic village which had been buried in a storm around 2500BCE and re-emerged nearly four thousand years later in another storm in 1850. The houses at Skara Brae were surprisingly sophisticated. They had sanitary sewers and built-in furniture such as stone dressers and bed compartments. The houses had central hearths for heating, and waterproof holes in the floor which might have been used for keeping seafood alive or for cooking by dropping heated rocks into the water (or, maybe, both). 

You can't go into the real houses, but the visitor centre has a reproduction of the house in the panorama above which you can enter. 

Entrance to the reproduction house.

Another of the houses at Skara Brae. Originally, the house would have been almost a quarter mile from the water, but erosion has taken much of the land (and who knows how many houses) over the thousands of years since they were in use. 

The houses in the village were linked by recessed stone-sided passageways which might have been roofed over as well, which provided protection from the weather in the long Northern winters.

Ring of Brodgar - Stones of Stenness - Ness of Brodgar

Brodgar is an isthmus between the salt water Loch Stenness and the freshwater Loch Harray. The Ring of Brodgar, at the northern end of the isthmus, is a Neolithic henge (circle) about 340 feet in diameter, which originally had sixty or more standing stones. Twenty-seven stones remain today.

Another view of the Ring of Brodgar, with Loch Harray in the background.

The Standing Stones of Stenness stand at the southern end of Brodgar. Originally there were twelve stones, arranged in a circle. Only four survive. Others existed as recently as 1814, when the farmer who owned the land took them down and destroyed them because he was annoyed by the crowds of tourists who he said were trespassing on his land to use the stones in rituals. Fortunately, he was stopped before toppling all of the stones. 

The archeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar, halfway between the Ring and the Standing Stones. 

The digging at Ness of Brodgar started in 2004, and almost immediately it became obvious that the site was full of Neolithic archeology. As years went by, it became obvious that this was an incredibly important ritual center in the Neolithic, predating - and possibly even more important than - Stonehenge in England. 

To date, twenty-seven monumental structures have been found at Ness of Brodgar, as well as a huge wall surrounding the complex. This trench was being dug as we watched, looking for evidence that the wall which has been found on the northern and southern boundaries of the site also extended along the Loch Stenness side. So far, they've found lots of rubble, but nothing which is conclusively a wall. More digging will follow...

The walls of Structure Eight. 

We were able to meet Dr. Nick Card, the director of the Ness of Brodgar dig.


Albert Street is the main shopping street through the old town of Kirkwall. Early in the morning, it's quiet and scenic. Add five or six thousand tourists from huge cruise ships which dock at Kirkwall (there were two due to visit that day), and it's not nearly so quiet. 

St. Magnus Cathedral stands in the middle of Kirkwall. 

Construction started in 1137, so the huge windows, flying buttresses and wide aisles we expect from the later Gothic cathedrals were yet to be developed. 

Nevertheless, St. Magnus has a majesty all its own.

Memorial to the HMS Royal Oak, a battleship sunk by a German U-Boat in Scapa Flow in 1939 with a loss of 833 sailors. The sinking of the Royal Oak was the impetus for Churchill's ordering the building of the Churchill Barriers which brought the Italian POWs to Lamb Holm. 

Hammer-beam roof of St. Magnus Cathedral

Kirkwall Harbour at around 11:30PM, taken while we were waiting to board to the MV Hrossey overnight ferry to Aberdeen.


A hike in the Mull Head Nature Reserve on the end of the Deerness Peninsula, south and east of Kirkwall, starting with a short walk to The Gloup - because how could you not go to someplace called "the Gloup"? 

The view southward from Deerness to the islands of Coppinsay and Corn Holm.

As it turns out, The Gloup is a collapsed sea cave. The word "gloup" derives from the Norse, and means "chasm" - but I'd rather believe it describes the sound the water makes as it washes in and out, "...gloup...gloup..."

The path leads past the Brough of Deerness, a section of the peninsula which is separated from the main part by water at high tide. It being low tide while we were there, the Scouts decided to follow a side trail down, across and up to the top of the Brough. 

Broch of Gurness

The Broch of Gurness is one of the best-preserved brochs on Orkney. A Broch is a circular tower with double walls which is found only in Scotland, and dates to the Iron Age (c. 500-100BCE). A staircase between the walls provided access to upper floors. No one knows exactly how brochs were used - were they fortifications, refuges, religious sites, or status symbols for a rich landowner or family? 

A village of stone houses occupied the space outside the Broch. 

Inside the open center of the Broch of Gurness there are several hearths and a buried cistern, among other structures. 

Archeologists think this was a stone toilet.

HMS Tern (Twatt Airfield)

During WWII, the Royal Navy established several airfields on Orkney so that aircraft carriers mooring in Scapa Flow could fly their aircraft off before they entered the anchorage. This is HMS Tern, the airfield at Twatt, which we visited because... welll... how could you not visit someplace named Twatt? And besides, the idea of an abandoned WWII airfield appealed to the Scouts as we were planning the trip. You can just walk around and explore the ruins of the field, so we did.

A miniature Spitfire on a memorial at the field echoes the real aircraft which once landed here. 

The control tower at HMS Tern

The ruins of the cinema at HMS Tern - you can see the ports for the projection booth and the marks in the wall where it was once mated to a large Nissen Hut where the audience sat. There are plans to restore the cinema some day.

Ness Battery

Ness Battery, a harbour defense gun battery protecting the western entrance to Scapa Flow, just outside of Stromness. Ness Battery was used in both WWI and WWII. The Fire Command tower guided the guns at the battery - and other batteries around the Scapa Flow anchorage generally.

Mounting for a WWII six-inch gun, overlooking the entrance to Scapa Flow - a smaller gun was mounted here in WWI. The heights in the distance are the Isle of Hoy.

A century of salt air has taken a toll on anything made of steel.

Outside view of the six-inch gun emplacement, above. 

Rear entrance to the six-inch gun emplacement.

The Mess Hall had a series of murals representing, oddly, southern England, painted on the walls by a homesick soldier.

Brough of Birsay

The Brough of Birsay is an island off the northwest coast of Orkney Mainland. The Brough can only be accessed by a causeway at low tide (plus or minus an hour or two depending on the tides). The island is home to a lighthouse, Norse and medieval settlements, and many nesting birds. 

Norse village and Church, with the causeway and Birsay on Orkney Mainland in the background. An hour or two later, there was only water to be seen betwen the Brough and Birsay proper.  

Reverse of the view at right, looking from Birsay to the Brough.


A nesting pair of Fulmars, overlooked by a Puffin

Pair of Razorbills

The Puffin - when we planned the visit to Birsay a year before, we'd all hoped we would see these engaging little birds, and after a bit of searching the cliffs, we did. They're every bit as photogenic as I'd expected. 

A Shag - a variety of cormorant - with her chicks in their nest on the cliffs.

Puffin-watching on the cliffs at the northern end of Birsay.

Flow patterns in the stone near the causeway.

Stone found in a tidal pool along the causeway - is it a fossil, or some sort of mineral inclusion? I'm not sure. 

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Photos Copyright 2018 Mike Brown