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Orkney Islands, a Journey into the Past of Mankind

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Northeast of Scotland in splendid isolation the Orkney Islands, an archipelago of 70 islands, are situated. 20 of them are inhabited by Orcadians, natives of Orkney, who have a high sense of their identity, not to be confused with the Scots.


Orkney Islands 1976, Stromness, TheOldest House
Orkney Islands 1976, Stromness, TheOldest House
These islands have been a favourite hideout for the Picts, the unruly Vikings, the refugees from Scotland and Norway, a convenient stopover for travellers, merchants, explorers from Norway en route to the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, America, an object of greed and envy for the powers of Norway, Denmark, Scotland, and Britain. Here Germany and England fought against each other in two world wars (June 21, 1919, October 14, 1939, afterwards construction of the Churchill Barriers). But now peaceful activities are pursued of birdwatchers, geologists, archaeologists, historians, hikers, bicyclers.



5,500 years ago, these Islands were inhabited by prehistoric Neolithic tribes (Skara Brae), followed by the Iron Age Picts (weems or underground houses, broghs or round towers), dispossessed by the Norsemen (875), replacing the original population and their language with Old Norse, Christianised (995), under Norwegian rule until 1231, annexed to the Scottish Crown (1472), replacing Old Norse with the Scottish language. With the Scots came the evil of the feudal system and the prosecution of witchcraft. Famines stroke (16th/17th centuries), until Cromwell’s occupation of the islands brought peace again. At the beginning of the 19th century 33 proprietors owned 90% of the county, giving small tenants a miserable life, but reason prevailed: Landlords turned agricultural land into modern farms; Crofter’s Act (1886) gave tenants security of tenure and faire rent. In the 1920s the tide changed again: Tenants were able to buy at affordable price the land of the proprietors who suffered from the economic conditions. Orkney farmers resumed their freedom of the old-time udallers (Udal tenure: fundamental land tenure of the islands, absolute possession of land, adjoining foreshore, and the waters of the neighbouring loch). Today the islanders live on cattle rearing, beef production, dairy industry, boatbuilding, craft industry, and tourism.

Favourite spots:
Orkney Islands 1976, Skara Brae, Cupboard
Orkney Islands 1976, Skara Brae, Cupboard
Heart of Neolithic Orkney, UNESCO World Heritage Site Skara Brae, Europe's best preserved, complete, stone-built Neolithic settlement in the Bay of Skaill on mainland Orkney, forms with a group of monuments, a chambered tomb (Maes Howe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar), some unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites a prehistoric cultural landscape, a graphic depiction of life in this remote archipelago some 5,000 years ago. The 10 dwellings of the settlement, linked together by low alleyways, occupied for 600 years until 2500 BC, contain a large square room with a hearth for heating/cooking, stone-built pieces of furniture like cupboards, dressers, seats, storage boxes and a sophisticated drainage system including a primitive form of toilet. Near Stromness Maeshowe, the passage grave and chambered cairn, built by skilled workers, was looted shamelessly by Vikings (12th c.), leaving dirty runic graffiti on the walls.

What's really great:
Orkney Islands 1976, Rousay, Traversoe Tuick Chambered Cairn
Orkney Islands 1976, Rousay, Traversoe Tuick Chambered Cairn
Kirkwall, capital of Orkney, first mentioned in 1046, features Britain’s most northerly, only wholly medieval Scottish cathedral St. Magnus. Work started in 1137, but changes and additions were made through the following centuries. Ownership not by the church but by the city of Kirkwall is unique in Britain as is the fact that it is the only cathedral with its own dungeon. It is an impressive building, especially when you are a foreigner, somewhat lonely at times, go to Sunday service. The priest will welcome you. For a moment you belong.

Rousay, preserving evidence from every stage of the history of Orkney, offers spectacu-lar sights: The large Midhowe Chambered Cairn (2000-1800 BC) for only 25 deceased, the smaller Blackhammer Stalled Burial Cairn, the two storeys Traversoe Tuick (1800 BC) and the Iron Age Midhowe Brogh. Of them so much is left that you can understand how they were built by those skilled workers and get an impression of the importance of death in those bygone times.

Sights:
Orkney Islands 1976, Egilsay Church
Orkney Islands 1976, Egilsay Church
On Westray in the cemetery at the seaside of St. Magnus Church all gravestones look toward the sea, so that the dead will have a view. Ancient Notland Castle, a castle you really could live-in comfortable as those people set great store by heating their place, a defence work but also a home, is worth visiting. But the most fascinating sight are the Craighs near the lighthouse, the bird’s cliffs, stretching out for miles.
On a rainy day I went with a supply vessel to Egilsay to visit the 12th century church with the round tower, standing lonely besides an old, lived-in farm. With the permission of the owner, I went back by a small trail between meadows, one with a herd of cows, peacefully grazing. I must have been a sight because suddenly they stampeded and only stopped just in front of an electric fence. I breathed deeply and ran, followed by their curious eyes. The siren of the ship was calling me.

Accommodations:
Orkney islands 1976, Egilsay, Curious Cows
Orkney islands 1976, Egilsay, Curious Cows
Accomodation/Hangouts: As I visited the Orkneys in 1976 I can’t tell anything about Accomodation and Hangouts.



My pictures are too old to be scanned. Colours don’t last that long.



PS.: As you are yelling for photos, I decorated the report with some of my old ones.

Other recommendations:
Orkney Islands 1976, Orphir, Earl's Bu, The Hosts
Orkney Islands 1976, Orphir, Earl's Bu, The Hosts
Take a bike.

Take a supply vessel (ship) to visit the other islands.

Visit Hoy.

Visit the Italian Chapel, Lambs Island, built by Italian Prisoners of War, see J. Sanchez, Kirkwall.

On Shapinsay the Balfour family, its former owner, built their Scottish Baronial-style Balfour Castle (1848).

The wreckage of the German fleet is now a protected war grave.

Viking graffiti: “Thorni bedded Helgi”. Some things never change.

Studies from the field of population genetics reveal: Up to one third of the Y chromosomes on the islands are derived from western Norwegian sources).

Orcadians, natives of Orkney, regard themselves as Orcadians first and Scots second (Annexation to Scotland (1472), for him speaking from “Scotland” means the land south of the Pentland Firth, speaking of “mainland” means Mainland Orkney. Native Orcadians refer to the non-native residents of the islands as "Ferry Loupers", a term that has been in use for nearly two centuries at least.

Published on Friday March 13th, 2009


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Fri, Apr 10 2009 - 12:35 PM rating by jorgesanchez

Well written and very nostalgic for me, having also been in Kirkwall

Sun, Mar 29 2009 - 11:13 AM rating by davidx

I had a holiday booked in Orkney in 1996 but had to cancel because of illness. You have made me push it up my wish list.

Sun, Mar 15 2009 - 02:24 PM rating by krisek

Christl, beautifully written! I love your narration. I wish you were able to provide a little more practicalities (accommodation, places to eat, etc), but I guess we can find some of that in other reports. Thank you for taking time to share your travel experiences from the past.

Fri, Mar 13 2009 - 03:11 PM rating by frenchfrog

Nice report, but it is a shame that the pictures are missing! Sounds such a great place to visit!

Fri, Mar 13 2009 - 01:50 PM rating by porto

Christl,I love your report on a place I have yet to visit,Thank You.

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