Dunedin writer Neville Peat visits a fabled Far North
place of selkies and standing stones, with a human history so
old the Vikings appear relative newcomers.
Like jigsaw-puzzle pieces on a dark-blue canvas, the islands
of the Orkney archipelago form a group of scattered, indented
and irregular shapes separating the North Sea from the
Atlantic Ocean an hour's ferry ride north of the Scottish
There is plenty of "north" about Orkney. Straddling latitude
59 degrees north, it is so far north and climatically
challenging that trees don't like it. To find an equivalent
spot in our southwest Pacific region you would need to sail
750km south of subantarctic Campbell Island.
Orkney's climate - cool, wet and windy much of the year, with
sunbathing days a rarity but 20 hours of daylight a day a
given in summer - can also be challenging for many visitors.
Orkney does have attributes, though. It has attracted
visitors and settlers for nigh on 6000 years. People were
living on these islands centuries before the construction of
the Egyptian Pyramids began and more than 3000 years before
the Great Wall of China was built. Vikings occupied Orkney
from 1400 to 600 years ago, taking over from the Iron Age
Picts, who built stone towers called brochs.
Before them were Neolithic peoples, whose stories, in the
absence of written records, are largely hidden.
Thus Orkney has seen the passage of Stone Age, Iron Age and
the Bronze Age peoples. The evidence is found in large
chambered burial mounds, excavated remains of oval stone
buildings and mysterious standing stones up to 6m tall - all
of which make the Vikings, let alone the Scots, seem like
The archipelago that successive cultures inherited was worn
down by ice-age glaciations - the last lot of ice retreated
about 13,000 years ago - and by erosion from wind and rain.
Sea-level rise following the last ice age drowned the shallow
land bridges and created today's maritime jigsaw puzzle.
There are 70 islands and islets in the group, 16 of which are
The largest, Mainland, is about 45km across, and is home to
three-quarters of the population of 20,000.
Most of the islands are low-lying as if hunkered down against
the gales and sweeping rain. Their gently rolling and open
topography is covered by perennially green farmland,
peat-rich heathland and grassland. Lochs and wetlands are the
calling cards of the ample rainfall.
Unless you fly from Inverness or Aberdeen, you are likely to
be relying on ferries for transport to Orkney.
The fast catamaran Pentalina takes an hour to cross
Pentland Firth. She is remarkably steady in 4m or 5m seas in
the most exposed part of the strait.
Her course is determined by the strong tidal races and
whirlpools that churn at either end of the mid-strait islands
of Stroma and Swona and hint of the growing commercial
interest in Orkney of harnessing wave and tidal energy, as
well as wind power.
On Stroma, houses and farm buildings stand abandoned, glass
windows removed, inhabitants, once more than 500, gone.
Clearly it was too hard to make a living here.
The ferry takes 30 cars, loaded over a stern ramp, and from
where the ferry docks in Orkney, at the delightfully named
village of St Margaret's Hope, you can reach the capital,
Kirkwall, in 20 minutes via a series of causeways called the
Churchill Barriers. These were built during World War 2 to
deter enemy submarines from raiding the old Royal Navy
anchorage, an island-encircled bay called Scapa Flow.
It is advisable to take a car to Orkney because the neolithic
wonders and other attractions are well spaced across the main
Kirkwall, whose name is derived from old Norse meaning Church
Bay, is a town of 7500 people that squeezes on to a narrow
neck of land between the two sprawling lobes of the main
island. Streets are narrow and confusingly one-way in the
centre of town, but you can get your bearings from a visitor
centre and guidance on the ancient history from the quaint
Accommodation comes in all forms - hotel, bed and breakfast,
guest house, self-catering unit, holiday home, hostel,
backpacker lodge and caravan park. We opted for a friendly
family-owned hostel with kitchen and warm lounge called
Orcades, a short walk from the town centre.
On the cobble streets and in the enticing cafes, listen for
the Orkney lilt, which mixes Scots and Welsh accents in a
charming way. You will hear strange words, especially for
food - bannocks (scone-like crispbreads) and clootie
dumplings (spicy, dried-fruit puddings).
Kirkwall home gardens are limited but do their best to
encourage trees and shrubs. New Zealand cabbage trees, flax
bushes, hebes and pittosporums are conspicuous. On seaside
streets are signs warning motorists to watch for otters
crossing to the water to feed on fish and crabs.
The town's centrepiece is St Magnus Cathedral. Built of local
red sandstone, it has Viking origins going back nearly 900
years. The remains of a martyr, Earl Magnus, are secreted in
the church, which used to come under the wing of the
Norwegian diocese of Trondheim. When Scotland usurped Norse
rule in 1468, it became Presbyterian. An estimated 100,000
people a year visit its spectacular interior.
Within earshot of the cathedral bells is another popular
place for visitors - the Highland Park Distillery, which has
been producing whisky for more than 200 years and exporting
it. I took the hour-long tour because I knew it still used
peat in its kilns to impart a fragrant smokiness to the
malted barley, the basis of Scotch - and I had a book in
In the 19th century, Orkney peat was shipped to Inverness for
the Glen Mhor Distillery, which produced the malt whisky
ordered by Ernest Shackleton for his 1907 British Antarctic
Expedition. In 2007, New Zealanders working on the
conservation of his expedition hut at Cape Royds found three
cases of whisky under the hut. I intended unravelling the
whole story in a book.
The visit to Highland Park Distillery led me to the company's
peat source on heather-clad Hobbister Moor, which has enough
peat to keep the kilns going for another 250 years. Hobbister
Moor is also a great place for birdwatching - hen harrier,
falcon and redshank among the species.
Carry on west and you soon reach Mainland's second port and
second-largest town, Stromness, a cafe stop and staging point
for exploring the neolithic highlights nearby. They include
the great standing stones of Stennness which, unlike those at
Stonehenge, you are able to get up close to and shelter
behind in strong winds, and the prehistoric coastal
settlement at Skara Brae, surrounded by farmland with beef
cattle and a few sheep that reputedly eat seaweed.
Stromness is also good for getting a look at seals. Their
dark, sad but knowing eyes speak of the old Selkie traditions
- of fisherfolk and sailors who ended up living as seals
after offending the gods, of seals talking and singing of
lives past. There seems to be a rivalry between Kirkwall and
Stromness of Napier-Hastings proportions. When you ask at the
Kirkwall visitor centre about Mainland's "must-sees", as we
did, top of the list was not one of the tomb or
standing-stone sites but a 70-year-old wartime monument to
peace called the Italian Chapel, at Lambholm. Standing
strangely ornate in the middle of farmland about 10 minutes'
drive from Kirkwall, the chapel was built in 1943 by Italian
prisoners of war from the North Africa campaign. Several
hundred were kept on Orkney until the end of the war. Mostly
they helped built the Churchill Barriers but a group was
offered two half-round Nissen huts to create a small church,
the interior of which was transformed by the artwork of one
of the POWs, artist Domenico Chiochetti. His beautiful
trompe-l'oeil paintings feature a Madonna and Child behind
Orkney impresses as a land apart from Scotland, defined by
the sea, the elements, traditions and structures ranging far
back in time. Orcadians, as the locals are known, have
emigrated around the world. Some helped settle the Scottish
south of New Zealand. On Stewart Island/Rakiura, Orkney is
remembered through the Traill family - Charles Traill, the
island's first postmaster and storekeeper, established the
Foveaux Strait ferry service - and the pioneering endeavours
in commercial fishing and shipbuilding of Captain James
From the sing-song accent of modern Orcadians to the eerie
presence of the Stone Age sites, Orkney is a step worth