Hauntingly beautiful wide open vistas, a proud Norse heritage and a thriving local community. Is it any wonder that the islands of the Orkneys cast such a magical spell over visitors?
For many people, the Orkney Islands are no more than a small smattering of tiny specks on a map of the British Isles, sitting off the eastern tip of the Scottish mainland. Along with the Shetland Isles (which are even further north), the Orkneys represent the far reaches of the United Kingdom where it stretches up into the North Sea and the realms of Scandinavia. In fact, so far north are these outposts, that Orkney capital Kirkwall sits on the same latitude as the Nordic capitals of Oslo and Stockholm – but thanks to the Gulf Stream, enjoys a milder climate.
Few people realise that this remote archipelago is made up of 70 or so unspoilt isles boasting a rich and colourful history that harks back to ancient times. The Orkneys revel in their individuality, borne of their Viking ancestry that is obvious today from Scandinavian place names and Norse architecture, adding an evocative twist to the ruggedly beautiful landscapes. Only 20 of the isles are inhabited, and these are home to around 21,000 people, with 9,000 of them living in Kirkwall – a designated city and Royal Burgh in its own right – located on the main island, curiously referred to as the “Mainland”. This is the bustling heart of the islands, where the main paved street and twisting wynds or lanes are refreshingly full of independent shops selling artisan produce along with a healthy selection of arts and crafts produced by islanders.
History buffs will discover a city brimming with reminders of its Viking past dating from when Kirkwall was founded in the 11th Century and named Kirkjuvagr, meaning Church of the Bay. At its heart stands the beautiful red brick St Magnus Cathedral, Britain’s most northerly cathedral and one of the country’s finest examples of medieval architecture.
Work on its construction started under the rule of the Vikings and at a time when the sea reached as far as the cathedral’s steps; only receding in the centuries that followed as areas of land were reclaimed.
Away from the capital, visitors can explore the pristine, untamed surroundings; from rolling green fields to craggy cliffs and dazzling white beaches that look as though they have been transported from the Caribbean. The countryside is dotted with ancient relics pre-dating even the Vikings when the islands were inhabited by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes. In fact, this archipelago lays claim to more archaeological sites than anywhere else in Europe.
Among the most distinctive are the Standing Stones of Stenness, one of the earliest stone circles in the UK, and the Ring of Brodgar where 27 of the original 60 stones forming a stone circle of mathematically precise proportions are still standing. Anyone wondering how early islanders lived their lives can step back 5,000 years at the carefully-preserved Neolithic village of Skara Brae, but the Orkneys’ more recent history is gripping too.
Another captivating attraction is the World War II naval base in the large natural harbour of Scapa Flow where visitors are driven across the Churchill Barriers, causeways of concrete blocks linking the islands. These were built to protect the base from enemy submarines following the disastrous sinking of the battleship HMS Royal Oak by a German U-boat just after war was declared in 1939.
A more uplifting wartime relic is the pocket-size Italian chapel on the uninhabited isle of Lamb Holm, built by Italian prisoners of war during WWII, and with beautiful religious frescos, ornate pillars and stained glass windows. It is the last thing you would expect to find on the extremities of British soil, but it neatly encapsulates the varied appeal of these islands, bringing those tiny specks in the atlas to life.