The conference finished at lunchtime on Thursday. We had picked up our hire car that morning, so we were able to set off as soon as we had finished lunch. We drove as far as Inverness, stopping on the way at Kildrummy and Glenbuchet castles. We had wonderful sunny weather, and our visit to Kildrummy was enlivened by the sound of lawnmowers and whipper-snippers, and the smell of fresh-cut grass. Glenbuchet turned out to be in the middle of a sheep paddock – someting I hadn’t factored in when I decided not to change out of my conference-going clothes. However, I managed to avoid stepping in anything nasty. Both were enjoyable – Kildrummy (13th century) was larger and grander, but considerably more ruined than Glenbuchet (1590), which had most of its walls still intact.

The next day, which was bright and sunny, we drove up to Scrabster, where we were booked on the ferry to Orkney. It was an extremely large car-ferry, with restaurant, bar, etc. More importantly, it was the scenic ferry route, going around Hoy (we got a good view of the Old Man of Hoy) and into picturesque Stromness. Getting off the ferry, we went straight to our B&B, “Ashleigh”. It wasn’t an old building, but it was central to all the things we wanted to see, it had a view over the Loch of Harray, and the room was huge and well appointed. The owner, Audrey Poke, was very nice and helpful, and, as we discovered the next morning, provided a wonderful breakfast. Definitely a high rating on the B&B scale.

After offloading all our bags, we went to see the nearby Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar. Both were originally stone circles in henges – Stenness had much larger stones, but only a few were left standing, whereas you could still tell that Brodger was a ring (see photo). They both clearly had the ditch (feature of a henge) and causeway still visible. Stenness is the oldest henge in the UK, and Brodger may well be the third oldest – they are both older than Stonehenge.

We had seen that there was a “Taste of Orkney” céilidh happening nearby, so we went along. It wasn’t a tourist thing – more like a local community concert. So some performances were not exactly traditional (e.g. ballet students dancing to an Abba song) but there was a fantastic pair of drummers, a flute/guitar pair (playing Shetland rather than Orkney tunes!) and a brilliant folk singer. He sang a song that I think was called “Proud women rule us with their tears”, inspired by Flora Macdonald, that was beautiful. There was a supper (local Orkney produce) and then a dance, that we didn’t stay for. It was 11pm by the time we got back to the B&B – and still light.

The next day, which was again bright and sunny (we had fantastic luck with the weather!) we started off with a trip to Kirkwall, to do some shopping and to see St Magnus Cathedral, the Earl’s Palace and the Bishop’s Palace. The last two were ruins – but all three were, by a considerable margin, the most recent things we were to visit that day. At midday we went back to the Ring of Brodger for a (free) guided walk, which covered not only the history but also the local flora and fauna. The guide (Elaine) told us that Brodger, Stenness, Skara Brae and Maes Howe had together been designated a World Heritage Site – the “heart of Neolithic Orkney”. As well as these four sites, the area has a number of other standing stones, and is just littered with artefacts. However, because of this, they are not allowed to dig more than two inches into the ground without permission, and they have to have an archaeologist present when they do so. This means that just putting up a signpost can be a lengthy process!

From here, we went to the next component of Neolithic Orkney – Skara Brae. This is a Neolithic village which has been amazingly well preserved. Basically, it was completely buried in sand, and then revealed as the result of a big storm in the 19th century. It was certainly interesting, and amazingly well preserved, but it didn’t feel “special” in the same way that Brogder and Stenness did.

The last item in the quartet is Maes Howe, a burial chamber. We had booked to do a “twilight” tour at 8pm (not that this was really twilight!) which meant that we had time to go to the Brough of Birsay first. This is an island that you can walk to during low tide (which happened to be in the evening) and which has the remains of a Viking settlement. We then walked to the top of the hill, which had a lighthouse, and views of the cliffs. It also had a number of bird watchers.

After the slight disappointment of Skara Brae, visiting Maes Howe was more like the other places – it really felt special. It is a covered burial chamber – again, far older than Stonehenge, probably about the same age as Newgrange in Ireland, though not as big. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t look like anything much from the outside (see photo) but the inside was amazing. We had to stoop down and shuffle through the entrance passage (whereas in Newgrange, we could stand upright but it was so narrow we had to go in sideways.) The inner chamber had three areas for placement of bones, although any bones that may have been there were lost when it was excavated in the 19th century. Like Newgrange it is precisely aligned so that during the winter solstice the sun’s rays shine directly into the central chamber (though in this case it is the rising sun where as Newgrange is the setting sun – or maybe it is the other way around …). The other fascinating thing about it is that, millennia after it had been abandoned, the Vikings found it. It is possible that they may have used it to store treasure, but it is certain that a number took shelter during a fierce winter storm. The chamber is full of Viking graffiti.

We were only booked to stay two nights on Orkney, so reluctantly we had to leave on Sunday morning. We were booked on the shorter, cheaper, less-scenic ferry from St Margaret’s Hope. On the drive over, we stopped to look at the Italian Chapel – built by Italian prisoners-of-war out of two Nissen huts. An amazing piece of work – the inside is painted to look like the stonework of a cathedral.

The ferry went from St Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay, which is between Dunnet Head (Britain’s most northerly point) and John O’Groats. So we went to see both. With its lighthouse and sea and view of Hoy on the horizen. Dunnet Head felt splendidly remote (see photo). John O’Groats … didn’t.

On the subject of remoteness, one thing that struck me on Orkney was that we managed to fluke visiting places at a time when most other people weren’t there. In fact, except for Skara Brae it was remarkably quiet, and easy to get photos without lots of people in them – and even Skara Brae wasn’t overly crowded. Apparently Saturday is often a quiet day (people coming for a week are leaving/arriving), but even so we were very lucky in that regard.

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