Our family adventures have recommenced within the boundaries of the slowly loosening pandemic restrictions and we look forward over this series of posts to highlight the great days out and extended trips now available to us in Scotland. Join us in this post during the final two days of our four day trip to the magical Orkney Islands.
2020 has been a difficult year for us all. As we start to see the green shoots of recovery, we want to see Scottish tourism flourish again and show that Scotland is open for business. Certain sites and locations may not be open or on restricted hours, but there is still an amazing range of things to do and see, with more places gearing up to open to visitors by the start of the 2021 tourist season.
Our third day on the islands started at what is arguably Orkney’s most famous attraction – Skara Brae. This site is over 5,000 years old and is the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe. First uncovered by a storm in 1850, Skara Brae remains a place of discovery today. After taking in the display in the visitor centre, you then venture outside and visit a replica Neolithic house to see how its full interior might have looked. Unfortunately, this attraction was closed due to the Covid restrictions, so we continued along the path towards the shore. After a couple of minutes, the path arrives at the archaeological site and overlooks the ancient buildings, and it is easy to imagine what life was like for the farmers, hunters and fishermen who lived here. The prehistoric houses still contain stone ‘dressers’ and box-beds. You are not allowed to enter the dwellings, but you are able to get a very good view from the path above.
Immediately next door to the visitor centre was our next stop - Skaill House, the finest 17th Century mansion in Orkney. Skaill House overlooks the spectacular Bay of Skaill and was home of William Graham Watt, 7th Laird of Breckness, who unearthed the World famous neolithic village of Skara Brae in 1850. The house was originally built in 1620 by Bishop George Graham (Bishop of Orkney 1615-1638) and has been added to by successive generations over the centuries. Today, after careful restoration work, the house is open to the public and there are many rooms to explore and stories to uncover. Visitors can experience a family home as it was in the 1950's, and discover the items collected by the family since the 17th Century. Neolithic and Iron Age finds, Captain Cooks’s dinner service, the Bishop’s bed, and Stanley Cursiter paintings are a few of the many fascinating items on exhibition here.
Birsay Earl's Palace
We then took a 15-minute drive north to the small village of Birsay, to check out the Earl's Palace. These are the ruins of the residence of Robert Stewart, half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots, who became Earl of Orkney in the late 1500s. The Earl’s Palace is a fine courtyard castle, and the outer walls remain in a remarkable state of completeness. One of the illegitimate sons of James V, Robert Stewart was a notoriously harsh earl, and the gun holes at ground level in every wall of the palace may suggest that he expected trouble. The palace’s use was short-lived, however: built between 1569 and 1574, its story effectively ended with the overthrow of the Stewart earls in 1615. An inventory drawn up by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in 1653 suggests neglect had already set in, and by 1700 the palace was roofless and decaying.
Lunch was procured at the nearby Birsay Bay Tearoom. Unfortunately, we had not booked a table, but the tearoom ladies kindly made a takeaway little picnic for us.
The Kitchener Memorial
Marwick Head is dominated by the Kitchener Memorial and this was where we were heading next. Built in 1926 to commemorate WWI Minister for War, Lord Kitchener, the memorial towers 48 foot high above the spectacular headland. He died onboard HMS Hampshire along with 736 men when the ship hit a mine just a few miles offshore on 5th June, 1916, en-route to Russia. The memorial was restored in 2016, and a new memorial wall built to fully commemorate the crew of HMS Hampshire, as well as those who lost their lives onboard the Laurel Crown whilst minesweeping in the same area on 22nd June 1916. There is a parking area just off the narrow country road that cuts through Marwick and from there it’s a ten minute walk up a steep farm track.
The Ring of Brodgar
As the afternoon drew on, we headed back in time to the awe inspiring Ring of Brodgar Stone Circle and Henge. This is the largest Neolithic standing stone circle in Scotland, which is more than 340 feet in diameter, originally consisting of 60 stones – 36 survive today, the largest of which is 15 feet in height. The Ring of Brodgar dates back to the 3rd millennium BC. As well as the massive stone circle, the site comprises of at least 13 prehistoric burial mounds and a large rock-cut ditch surrounding the stone circle. The Scottish geologist Hugh Miller, visiting in 1846, wrote that the stones ‘look like an assemblage of ancient druids, mysteriously stern and invincibly silent and shaggy’ and we think that this was a pretty good description. The carpark is a couple of minutes’ walk from the well maintained paths that take you round the stones
The Standing Stones of Stenness
In visiting this area, you actually get two standing stone circles for your efforts. Literally just two minutes’ drive down the road are The Standing Stones of Stenness. Today it consists of four upright stones up to 6m in height in a circle that originally held 12 stones. The focus of the interior was a large hearth. The stones were encircled by a large ditch and bank, the form of which has been lost over time by ploughing. Over 5000 years old, they may be the earliest henge monument in the British Isles.
The Barnhouse Settlement
While inspecting The Standing Stones of Stenness, do not miss the Barnhouse Settlement, which is just a two-minute walk up a farmer’ track that runs alongside the stones. The Barnhouse Settlement is a Neolithic site first excavated in 1984. Thousands of years ago it would have been a small group of homes, not dissimilar to Skara Brae. Indeed, these homes also had their own hearths, box beds and stone furniture. Although all that remains at Barnhouse are the lower walls of just a few of the original 15 houses, you can really get a feel for what life would have been like here 5000-years-ago. Two of the structures are larger than any of the others here or at Skara Brae, leading archaeologists to the theory that these buildings housed people of great importance.
As the day was drawing to a close, we headed back to modern civilisation and the small town of Stromness. Our main reason was to visit the Stromness Museum, but we also had a lovely time walking the quaint streets, with their awkward bends, cute houses and glimpses of the sea.
The Stromness Museum
The Stromness Museum houses collections from Orkney's maritime and natural history, including First World War artefacts from the scuttled German High Seas Fleet, items from Orkney's involvement in the Hudson's Bay Company, and collections brought home from Orcadians travelling abroad. There is also a wealth of material relating to Dr John Rae, the Orcadian explorer and surveyor of the North-West Passage. Purpose-built in 1856, the Museum houses numerous Victorian natural history collections of birds and eggs, mammals, shells, fossils, butterflies and moths, as well as antiquarian collections of artefacts. It is definitely a little-known gem of a museum and worth hunting down.
Before heading back to our accommodation at Rockworks Chalets, which was just over a half-an-hour drive away, we made one last stop, this time at the stunning seascapes at Yesnaby. This stretch of coastal cliffs is renowned for its spectacular Old Red Sandstone scenery which includes sea stacks, blowholes, geos and frequently boiling seas.
Sheila Fleet Kirk Gallery & Café
On our fourth and final day on Orkney, we had enough time to take in a few more of the islands attractions before heading back to the Pentland Ferries port at St. Margaret’s Hope to catch the 17:00 ferry back to mainland Scotland. Our first stop was the beautifully-renovated former parish church which now showcases Sheila Fleets’s jewellery collections. In addition to the church, there is a tasteful extension which houses the uniquely-designed Kirk Café. The spacious interiors really showcase Sheila’s designs and if you look around you will even see the original pulpit stretching above the display cabinets.
From Tankerness, we headed across the main island of Orkney to the small harbour of Tingwall House. Our ultimate destination there was Fernvalley, which is a wildlife centre that specialises in creating forever homes for abused, abandoned and surplus exotic animals. There are a variety of animals here at the centre from geckos and snakes to mice and meerkats! This was a big hit with Ythan, who loved investigating all the animals. From the adults’ point of view, the small tearoom at Fernvalley was absolutely fantastic, with the home made food tasting amazing.
The Brock of Gurness
Before heading to St. Margaret’s hope, we had just enough time to visit the Brock of Gurness, which is just ten minutes from Fernvally. The Brock of Gurness is a once mighty Iron Age settlement, with a small village arranged around a central, massive broch tower. The broch measures around 65ft in diameter. Defended by two rock-cut ditches and a rampart, this was clearly a place of power. It's thought the surrounding village could have featured around 14 houses and you can still see examples of all three elements at the site. The Broch of Gurness is around 2000-years-old. We have visited many brochs throughout the north of Scotland, but this one just had to be the best, which made a fitting way to end our travels on Orkney.
Remember, take the challenge, discover what is in your backyard, whether you live in Scotland, in the other parts of the British Isles or even Europe, venture into the fairy tale land of Bonnie Scotland.
Join us next time when our family adventures continue as we explore the abandoned Bon Accord Baths in Aberdeen. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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