Orkney in But a Picture A Day

We have been on Orkney, I love Orkney, as soon as we landed Hubby said; “It feels just like coming home.”  Indeed it does despite this.

We had blizzard conditions as we crossed the mainland having landed at St Margaret’s Hope, in the morning.  By lunchtime the fast melting snow was causing flooding.  In the afternoon we had the top down on baby and needed sunglasses and hats on to protect us from the sun as we explored Etive beach.  Then at 6.30pm we were being stung by hailstones which softened to new snow a couple of hours later before as darkness crept in at 9.30pm the wind increased once more stirring up rain to batter against the widows of our cottage.  Orkney weather, if you don’t like it never fear it will change pretty soon.

Our second day had the same mixture of weather in differing quantities, far less snow and sun, far more rain and hail ohh and wind, boy was it windy.  Yet wind in Orkney can not only literally takes your breath away, it also plays with the sea to breath taking effect.  As the waves battered the Head of Row occasionally sending plumes of spray up through the Hole ‘o Row and funneled into Skaill Bay, Skara Brae itself had to be closed because the weather would make visiting the site too dangerous.  Yes the wind and waves were that bad, no wonder our Neolithic cousins moved out.  I know, I know it probably wasn’t beside the ocean in Neolithic times, just humour me.

One of the advantages of returning to somewhere you already have some knowledge of is, when the weather is not playing and your plans are scuppered you already have sorted away in the old grey matter some options.  Last time we visited South Ronaldsay had been our temporary home and both of us wanted to revisit there, Hubby the Churchill barriers, me the Italian Chapel.  If you don’t already know about it go and read about it here or you can read what I had to say about it and see some more pictures from our last visit in 2013 here, the part about the chapel is at the end of the post (the weather was better that day!).  Since our last visit they have made some changes.  Previously there was an honesty box for donations and to buy postcards and books and no staff.  Now there are two small nissen type huts, one to take a modest £3 to enter.  A couple of years ago three of the stations of the Cross were stolen so now you are watched via cameras from the hut as you pray and look and marvel, plus the chapel now has a steady flow of income to help with its upkeep,.

Of course just as you can’t go to Orkney, in my opinion without visiting The Italian Chapel, neither can you not take heed of its more ancient past.  I say ancientbut this little gem is only from the relatively more recent past in Orcadian terms of the bronze age.

I am updating this blog each day whilst we are still on Orkney, although it wont be posted until our return, the idea was one photograph for each day, and while it has been tricky on other days today is the hardest of all, because today I saw my first authentic puffin in the wild.  (I say authentic as last time we left Orkney we thought we might have seen on the cliffs from the ferry, but weren’t certain, this time there was no doubt.)  A couple of hours later and I am still excited about it, how can today’s photograph be anything other than the puffin?  Well the puffin followed an old Orkney tradition of being a Saga teller so there will be a further post just on the puffin and for today it is gillemots from the Brough of Birsay strutting their stuff, well one of them.

From one exciting day to another, that is what it is like being on these special isles.  We headed off for some island hopping, one of the aims of this visit.  Today it was supposed to be Rousay and Wyre plus hopefully finding a local fisherman who would take us to Eyehallow.  Ferry issues meant we only managed Rousay itself – actually ferry issues meant we were nearly marooned on Rousay overnight, fortunately we weren’t. Rousay is the location of Midhowe chambered cairn.  The chambered cairn is a magnificent 100 ft long and 30 ft wide and well worth the journey, the iron age broach beside it is also a fine example but as you only get one picture it will be of the cairn which is housed in a modern building to protect it from the elements.

If you have been around for a while you will be well aware that I do like a graveyard, they contain social history, local history, art history and more than a little humour, among the somber and sorrowful words.  Orkney provided a stone which contained both humour and art.  The gravestone on the left, is not broken despite looking as if it might be and the lettering goes round the edge rather than the usual line upon line.  Going up and round from left to right it reads – Found the secret of immortality and took it with him to the grave – the stone in turn keeps the secret as to who the he was.

On Easter Monday 1117 on the northern island of Egilsay Magnus Erlendson was killed.  900 years later Orkney is celebrating and remembering all he did for the Isles.  After his death, or was it murder, his body was buried somewhere close to where we stayed Birsay when, so the story goes, 7 miracles happened including the stoney ground becoming fertile and green.   In the local church named after St Magnus – when it is not called Christ Kirk –  the celebration is taking the form of an art installation based on George Mackay Brown’s cycle of seven poems called, “Tryst on Egilsay” .  They tell the story of the peace talks held between the warring cousins Magnus and Hakon Paulson which didn’t end very peacefully with Magnus’ martyrdom. The 7 poems have provided the inspiration and visual imagery for seven large fabric waves made by artists Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson which are suspended from the ceiling of St Magnus Church.  I think, although I can not be certain that this banner represents the poem The Killers, the last line of which is:

With the evening star, the soul began its singing.

George Mackay Brown

There are two sites most think of when they think of the historic sites in Orkney, Skara Brae and The Ring of Brogar.  I will let you into a little secret, I was deeply, deeply disappointed in Skara Brae, I don’t think anyone is ever supposed to say that, but sadly that is how I feel and therefore had no interest whatsoever in returning to it this time around.  For me there are countless other sites which in many ways are more special, more visitor friendly and unless your interest begins and ends with Stone Age Villages, more interesting.  The Ring of Brogar on the other hand is another of those must visit again and again and again, but no you aren’t getting one of those photographs either, I going to do separate blog post of just photographs from Ring of Brogar.  Instead today’s picture is the smaller collection of The Stones of Stenness.

St Magnus Cathedral has some very fine stained glass windows, which with the sun shining cast colourful patterns on the stone.  There are saints and earls from the Viking past as well as those more well known to Christians regardless of where they live.  In the North Isle there is a rather wonderful one of Joseph of Arimathea, I can’t think of ever seeing a window, or indeed any other artwork in a church dedicated just to him before, but as you will have probably guessed by now that isn’t today’s picture.  Today’s picture is of the one window which all others where supposed to be similarly like, leaded plain glass, the Cathedral would have been a very different place had this plan been executed.

.If you take a walk along the coast to the Skiba Geo and then continue on for a little while to the Point of Nether Queena, you will come across a whalebone mounted upon a pole.  It is believed to be the back of the skull of a Right Whale that washed ashore in the late 19th century, now covered in lichen and standing on a pole which is actually part of the jawbone.  The wind and spray have started a gentle decaying of it, I think it looks like an eagle who had been resting on a pole now just taking flight.

A trip over to Hoy and Longhope Islands – another two islands ticked off the list – meant we discovered yet another reason to return to Orkney, we are both adamant the next time we go we will spend a couple of days on Hoy.  Orkney has something for everyone and Hoy plays that part well, there is a very sad tale from Hoy which I will tell in a separate blog post, tales of giants, lifeboats plus the wildlife, stunning scenery and history.  The picture below tells of the military history of the southern part of Hoy – it is part of a rusting Royal Navy railway truck – but also tells of the tallest cliffs in the UK, which are situated in the north of the Island famed for the Old Man of Hoy sea stack.  The layers of rust reminded me of the cliffs on much of the coast.

We started our Orkney adventure in a blizzard, we ended it in clear blue skies with the sun warming our faces as much as the islands had once more warmed our hearts.  In between those days rich with new precious memories we were also treated to some majestic sunsets.

This last picture isn’t from Orkney, it was taken on our way home when we stopped over in Inverness.  Fort George just outside Inverness is one of Hubby’s favourite places plus in the Chapel is one of my favourite pieces of angel stained glass, is an angel playing the bagpipes, I have posted this before on the blog but I can’t resist posting it again.  If like me you like your angels and are in the Inverness area, pop into St Andrew’s Cathedral on Ness Walk, they have angels by the dozen, if you aren’t that bothered about angels pop in anyway it is one of my favourite Cathedrals and there is plenty else to see and a wonderful prayerful atmosphere.


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