Orkney Islands

The Orkney Islands! We had a day tour planned for Thursday, but it was canceled due to high winds. Friday was the last day of the 2016 season, so we are lucky that we were able to take advantage of the tour, which was offered by the ferry company.      
We got there bright and early, and boarded the ferry by 8:45 AM. The ferry goes across the Pentland Firth from John O’Groats to Burwick in the Orkney Islands. We grabbed a good seat by a window so we could enjoy the view during the 40 minute journey.

The first half of the journey felt like driving through a car wash. Apparently they were washing something on top of the ferry, and the water and soap bubbles were streaming down our window. We saw nothing. The second half was better, view wise.  

The ferry was a bit rough. The Pentland Firth lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea and the merging of the two bodies of water is not always friendly. Most folks were OK, but a couple of folks spent about 3/4 of the journey in the toilets, retching. We were fine.
Once we landed in Burwick, we met Stewart, our guide for the day. We piled into the bus and headed for Kirkwall. That is the capital city for the Orkneys. Stewart talked about the Orkney Islands as if they were a separate country from Scotland. He was very proud that they have their own flag, modeled after the Norwegian flag.
We had a bit over an hour in Kirkwall. We spent most of our time in the St. Magnus Cathedral in the center of town. It was built in 1137 by a Viking. We were lucky because during our visit, they were setting up for the Orkney College graduation ceremony, and the musicians were practicing with their accordions and beautiful voices.

One of Orkney’s most famous folk was John Rae, arctic explorer. He is laid to rest in the cathedral. We also saw a statue of him in Stromness.

We had a few minutes for shopping at Judith Glue, then it was of to Stromness. This was a lunch stop and we had a tasty bowl of seafood chowder at The Ferry Inn. Then we wandered around a little bit, through the narrow Main Street, and enjoyed views of the small marina.

The Orkneys have a UNESCO heritage destination for some of their Neolithic sites. We visited Skara Brae and the Ring of Brogdar, and we drove past the Standing Stones of Stenness. The Skara Brae settlement is 5,000 years old.

Along the way, we saw the Churchill barriers that were built during WW2 to protect the British fleet that sat in the Scapa Flow between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Before these barriers were built, the flow was protected by sinking ships across the channels, but that system failed when the German submarine U-47 made its way through. He sunk the Royal Oak, a fully loaded vessel. Of the 1,234 men and boys on board, 833 were killed as a result. Scapa Flow had been considered impenetrable before this attack, and the resulting shock resulted in the construction of the Churchill Barriers. The barriers allowed roads to be built to connect the islands, and that is the main way that people get around today.

Final stop along the tour was the Italian Chapel. It was built by the Italian POWs during WW2 from two Quonset huts that were plastered over and painted in tromp l’oeil style (“fool the eye”) to look like stone blocks and carving. There is a sweet love story connected with the metal worker in the chapel.

Then it was back home. The ferry ride back was much more calm, and the drive from John O’Groats was easy.

Brad crashed early, and while I was up working on laundry and typing up blog posts, our host, Katrina, and her dad, stopped by (9:30 ish). Her non-profit just found out that they won a significant award and they were having a party with a band, and we were invited. I declined, but it was sweet of them to ask.

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