Tuesday, 10 October 2017

North Coast 500 Side Trip - Orkney.

Visiting Orkney’s mainland was a worthwhile side trip to our main North Coast tour and it turned out to be a very wise decision although a return trip is a must and hopefully next time for a much longer period as there is so much more of interest to explore than can be covered in a seven night stay.
NorthLink Ferries
Before we boarded the RORO ferry we had a chance to have a wee look around Scrabster. Firstly, morning coffee and a chat with the locals at The Ferry Inn and then a walk up to Holburn Head Lighthouse. Designed and built by David and Thomas Stevenson with permission granted in 1859, and then in 1861 building work started after a dispute about the cost, finally up and running in 1862, its use was discontinued in 2003 and is now a private residence. We are told on the descriptive board that the design is different from the norm with the tower being of a ‘school house design’. This meant the tower is built as part of the Assistant Keepers accommodation and is unusual since most Scottish lighthouses are built separate from the house.

Holburn Head Lighthouse.

NorthLink Ferries operate a 90-minute crossing during peak times three times a day between Scrabster and Stromness. MV Hamnavoe has all the normal comforts and amenities you would expect from a major ferry company and the trip takes you close to the sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy and the red sandstone cliffs of St Johns Head.
Holburn Head
The Red Cliffs.

Old Man of Hoy.
Our seven nights on the Orkney mainland were split between two campsites; the first was Birsay at the northwest corner of the Orkney mainland and once capital of Medieval Orkney. The Birsay Outdoor Centre and Campsite is an excellent stop over offering good clean and warm facilities, free washing and drying machines and also a drying room, which is very handy after a wet day’s walking or cycling. The site also offers peace and quiet surrounded by some very beautiful scenery. The countryside is very lush and arable producing oats and barley along side some very healthy looking cattle.
The Camp Site.
Lots of healthy cattle.
The Earls Palace is situated at the edge of Palace Village, which has a general store and a petrol station, and is a short bike ride or walk from the site,. The palace was built between 1569 and 1574 by the illegitimate son of James V Lord Robert Stewart (1533-93). By all account’s Robert was not a very nice man but his son Patrick was far worse treating the local tenants very badly. The palace played an important role in a rebellion against James VI. For this Patrick and his son Robert were executed for treason in 1615. By 1700 the building had fallen into disrepair. There are however continuing excavations taking place around Palace Village revealing substantial walls beneath modern day paths and gardens.
The Earls Palace.

Palace Village.

Opposite the palace grounds is the parish church of St Magnus. This site of worship has been in continued use for over 900 years. The building has been rebuilt twice, once in 1664 and again in 1760 and has been restored in 1887 and again in the 1980’s. A beautifully maintained building with a stain class window in the church which was made in 1904 by Alex Strachan whose brother Douglas was responsible for one of the windows in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Another splendid window is in the vestibule and was made in 2013 by Shona McInness an Orcadian stained glass artist. 

The Parish Church of St Magnus.

Brough of Birsay Lighthouse sits on a grass covered tidal island known as the Brough of Birsay accessible only by a pedestrian causeway at low tide. The Lighthouse is still in use and is operated and maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board. Standing 52 metres above sea level and brick built with a rendered finish it was designed and built by David A Stevenson in1925. Also on this wee tidal island are the remnants of Norse and early Christian settlements.
The Pedestrian Causeway. 
The Lighthouse.

The Lighthouse is 52m above sea level.
Norse/Christian settlement. 

One museum that should not be missed is the Farm Museum complex at Kirbuster that incorporates a central hearth homestead dating from the 16-century and an 18th century farmhouse with the traditional Byers. This is a unique chance to get a fascinating and extremely interesting insight into four centuries of family life in Orkney.
The peat smoke.
The peat burning central hearth.

The 18th Century Farmhouse.

Farm Implements. 

The last four nights spent on the island were at the Orkney Camp Site in Kirkwall. The site is part of a larger leisure complex called The Pickaquoy Centre that provides sports, art, and leisure facilities. Their swimming pool and changing village are first rate and a facility we were happy to make use of during our stay. The camp site has very clean shower rooms which as well as a lovely warm shower included a WC and a sink, no need to change location for your early morning ablutions.

The Pickaquoy Centre. 

Kirkwall is the capital of the Orkney Islands. History will tell you that it was established by the Norse in the 11th century on the site of a natural harbour and in 1137 gained city status with the founding of the Cathedral of St Magnus. Today it is a bustling market town with an abundance of shops, restaurants, coffee bars and gift shops. Kirkwall is also were cruise liners stop for the day. On the day of our arrival one such liner had docked, the Norwegian Jade carries 2400 passengers and a large crew all of which seemed to be milling around the town and its points of interest. This was shown recently in a TV documentary but you really have to see it witness its affect on this small town and its inhabitants. The problem we were informed by locals is that these people from the liner were not spending money in the towns shops and the locals were frightened that the crowded streets and visitor attractions would put of the ‘real tourists’ who chose to come to Kirkwall and are happy to improve the economy of the area. To be honest it was so much better in town once the passengers and crew had embarked to continue on the remainder of their cruise.
Norwegian Jade visits Kirkwall.
There is a good selection of places of interest to visit in the town but one place that is a must visit is a 15/20 minute bus journey from the towns bus station to Lamb Holm to see Orkneys Italian Chapel. Italian prisoners of war captured in North Africa built it. These men were brought to Orkney to build the Churchill barriers a massive series of concrete causeways that were erected to protect Scapa Flow from enemy ships and submarines. The main body of the chapel was built initially from two Nissan huts to form a place of worship for the prisoners in Camp 60 that housed at one time several hundred Italian prisoners. The genius of Domenic Chiocchetti and his willing band of helpers transformed these basic huts into something of beauty that still holds visitors spellbound to this day.
The Italian Chapel.

Inside the wonderful Italian Chapel.

George shows his dislike of dragons.

Kirkwall's centrepiece is of course St Magnus Cathedral built from local red sandstone in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, nephew of St Magnus. A ‘welcome’ leaflet found in the cathedral tells us that when it was first built the cathedral was part of the Archdiocese of Nizaris (Trondheim) in Norway. Orkney became part of Scotland in 1468, and a few years later the cathedral was given to the people of Kirkwall by the Scots king James III. After the Scottish reformation in 1560 the cathedral was used for Protestant worship. Today the cathedral belongs to people of Orkney and is looked after by Orkney Islands Council. It has a Church of Scotland congregation and by arrangement can be used by any Christian denomination. The leaflet goes on to inform us that restoration works took place in the 1850’s and again from 1913-1930 following a large bequest when the present floors, woodwork, stained glass windows and spire were installed.
St Magnus Cathedral.  

Two other places to visit are the Earls Palace and the Bishops Palace. Both are in ruins but the 16th century Earls Palace in particular is a lot larger than you would imagine from its front elevation. Built between 1601-06 by Earl Patrick Stewart the same Patrick Stewart that was executed in Edinburgh for treason along side his son in 1615.  Patrick’s vision was to create a magnificent complex incorporating the Bishops palace but it was never finished due to lack of funds. It does however remain one of the finest examples of French Renaissance architecture.
The Earls Palace.
The Bishops Palace was built for the powerful medieval Bishop Williams in the mid 12th century around the same time as St Magnus Cathedral. When it was built Orkney was under Norwegian control, its layout was similar to Haakon’s Hall in Bergen.
The Bishops Palace.

Finally there's Orkneys Tankerness House Museum that tells the story of life in the islands over the last 5000 years, from the earliest Stone Age and Bronze Age settlers to the Picts and Vikings and the development of 19th and 20th century. The north and south wings of the ‘A’ listed building were originally Manses for the Roman Catholic clergy of the Cathedral opposite. The Manses became the property of the first Protestant priest of Kirkwall following the reformation. It was at this time (1574) that the arched gateway was built. The Baikies of Tankerness owned the house from the 17th until the 20th century. They were merchant lairds who took a leading part in public affairs and over time the house grew to reflect their wealth and status. After WW2 the house was acquired by Kirkwall town Council who in 1968 restored it as a museum and it is now owned and administered by Orkney Islands Council.
The Museum.
The Garden.

Some grand exhibits.
The sun is sinking in the west its time for a traveller to roll. 


  1. A well written piece, giving the facts about Orkney in a concise and informative article. If I have a moan its regarding the Cruise liner industry. Orkney Islands Council is also the Harbour Authority and they publish the Cruise liner visits up to 2 years in advance https://www.orkneyharbours.com/files/cruise-ships/2018.pdf?mode=view. It is therefore easy to avoid them by going to one of the smaller isles or less well known sites of which they are numerous, while they are in port.

    1. I take your point, but we had no idea that there would be a cruise liner in port when we visited Kirkwall but consequently we did see the the published list after one of the shop keepers told s about it. Next time we visit i may well check before we go into town.

  2. What are the roads like on Orkney? We have a lunar roadstar 8m long but would love to visit.

  3. The roads in Orkney are in very good condition and most are quite wide. We did not come across any single track roads.