“Probably the worst weather we’ve had all year”: finding space under big skies in the Orkney Islands, Scotland

A couple of years ago, I was taken with a book called The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. The author, whose parents are English but who had grown up on the Orkney Islands, returned to her hometown after a tumultuous decade in London that had culminated in alcoholism. Her beautiful book charts her recovery, and her relationship to the islands she grew up on.

Around the same time, a series called Secrets of Orkney, about the islands’ spectacular archaeological treasures, aired on the BBC. At the time I was living in Brussels, working full time and cycling through cold wind and rain to and from the office each day. When I got home in the evenings, it was a pleasure to snuggle on the sofa with a hot chocolate and learn about the Stone Age tools and pagan rituals that were being thrown up through archaeological digs on these distant islands. Both the book and the series put the Orkneys firmly on the map, and I resolved to visit someday.

Fast forward two years, and I was on my way to the Orkneys. A spur of the moment decision with Sonia made us both leap with excitement and we booked our trains from London.

That journey in itself was beautiful, especially north of Newcastle. Then, before we even got to the Orkneys, we were taken on a winding, gorgeous journey from Inverness through the Scottish Highlands by coach. From our windows could be observed a scraggy coastline dotted with rocks and, occasionally, a seal; sweeping hills populated by sheep and small stone houses; and crumbling castles owned by American businessmen.

By the time we got to John O’Groats, we had already drunk the wine from the sights around us and we stepped willingly into the wind, arms outstretched, making little screams of delight. “Take us, take us to the top of the UK!” A couple of brave little fishing boats bobbed in the harbour.

John O’Groats
I went to Bluff, New Zealand, not so long ago.

The Orkneys are the permanent home of roughly 21,000 people, most of them living on the main island in Kirkwall (about 16,000 people). In Greek and Roman literature, the islands have been known as ultima Thule, meaning the northernmost isles known to people.

Whither, ah, whither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Orcades,
Where sea-gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.

BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

This is big sky country; it seems to wrap around the land as does the glass of a snow globe. Windswept and largely treeless because of it – their roots are ripped out of the earth by the constant ungodly gales – the economy is based almost entirely on agriculture.

As a result, you’ll see cows (mostly of Aberdeen Angus variety, unfortunately not many of the charming Highland cattle) and sheep (hardy types with thick wool, with one especially well-adapted breed subsisting almost entirely on seaweed) speckling the green fields.

First impressions: the islands are largely flat and treeless
One of Kirkwall’s main streets, opposite the cathedral

We learned that the Orkneys run on 100 per cent renewable energy – that’s wind and tidal power, which they have plenty of.

True to expectations, we established that the weather would be terrible all week, but determined to enjoy ourselves nonetheless, we booked a seven-hour tour of Orkney’s sites of archaeological interest. This took us to such sites as the Ness and the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, and some old Viking churches.

Our fantastic tour guide told us that it was the worst weather she’d seen all year, including winter. It was 11 degrees that day, with winds of 50mph. Every time we got out of the minivan to explore, we were buffeted back by incessant rain and bluster – but we got to see the very things we’d been so excited about on that BBC programme. The Ness of Brodgar!

The neolithic stone circle, Orkney’s famous “Ring of Brodgar”
A hardy sheep shelters behind a neolithic stone during 50mph winds.
Skara Brae, an amazing Hobbit-like settlement dating back about 5,000 years
Inside the 900-year-old cathedral in Kirkwall, built by the Vikings

Another day, we donned every item of clothing we had with us and braved a visit to Orkney’s second-largest island, Hoy, to go hiking. The weather held out for us initially – we managed to reach the Old Man of Hoy 10 minutes before the fog rushed in to obscure it entirely, which is more than can be said for the stragglers behind us, who turned up at the cliff’s edge with quizzical looks: where is this pile of old rock I’ve just tramped two hours to get to? The poor things didn’t get so much as a silhouette of the impressive stack.

Hoy was well worth seeing, its landscape very different to the main island’s. It almost seems mountainous, though the highest elevation is less than 500m, with sharply rising mounds and a sense of majesty about it.

The island of Hoy (“high”)
A fantastic bay on Hoy, which is viewed on the 3-hour round-trip walk to the Old Man of Hoy
The Old Man of Hoy, one of the UK’s tallest stacks at 137m, sits off the island of Hoy, Orkney’s second largest island. The island is mountainous and its name means “high”.

Other days, we just ate lovely local food – including fresh fish for Sonia, and a selection of Orkney cheeses for me – and used the weather as an excuse to drink endless hot chocolates while doing the rounds of every cafe on the main island.

We also went to the main museums at Kirkwall (free) and Stromness (£5 entry), and both had surprisingly large collections that were interestingly laid out and well put together. I wish we’d had longer at the latter in particular – I was interested in the whaling exhibits and the astonishing taxidermy collection of island fauna, which unfortunately I only had 10 minutes to look at and which included hundreds of bird species alone.

Every cafe sells delicious hot chocolates… which we needed a lot of.
Lovely Stromness, a much prettier town than Kirkwall.
A beach in Stromness
View from a seaweed-strewn beach in Stromness, Orkney’s second largest town

Elsewhere in Orkney, signs of Europe are everywhere: from the pair of hairy pigs, a special Hungarian breed brought here by an intrepid farmer who wanted to breed them, only to discover both were male; to the beloved Italian chapel built by prisoners of war in the 1940s; to the flags of Scandinavian countries fluttering everywhere, and the Kirkwall International Airport justifying its name with flights to Norwegian cities during the summer.

Image result for mangalitsa hog
The Hungarian Mangalitsa hog [Photo: Wikipedia]
The Italian chapel, built by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s. To this day, Orcadian schoolchildren still do exchanges with the town in Italy where the chapel’s architect was from.
The ceiling in the chapel

So, yes, the weather was crap. The Orkneys exposed us to the sorriest climate they could muster and ensured that we suffered from sodden feet and wind-whipped red cheeks for most of the week while the rest of the country bathed in a balmy mid-20s heatwave down south.

On the other hand, without the driving rain and relentless cold we wouldn’t have had all those excellent excuses to sample hot, hearty local pies, cheeses, and hot chocolates. And we wouldn’t have had such a realistic glimpse into island life, dispatching us of any Romantic notions about being alone with the elements throughout the winter.

But Orkney is Romantic, with a capital R: it’s sublime, it’s elemental, it’s brutal. The weather is not the only story; one can imagine the poetry that just the meeting of the two seas, Atlantic and North, could inspire. And the knowledge that people have chosen to inhabit these isles since long before the Egyptians were building their pyramids in desert climes is comforting. People have done it before, and they’ll do it again. And as with many places, the longer I stayed, the more I realised there was to see. I only wish we’d had longer.

Recommended reading 📚 

  • The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016)
  • Attention All Shipping: a Journey Round the Shipping Forecast by Charlie Conelly (2004)
  • The Naked Shore of the North Sea by Tom Blass (2016)

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