Orkney: South Ronaldsay to Kirkwall

Orkney is absolutely jam-packed with history. We’re three days into our Orcadian adventure and we’ve visited the Neolithic, the Second World War, and most periods inbetween….

Our ferry took us to St Margaret’s Hope on the island of South Ronaldsay. From there we could cross by road to the islands of Burray, Glimps Holm and Lamb Holm and from there onto the Mainland (as Orkney’s largest island is known). Thus far, we’ve criss-crossed the region shaded red on the map below.

Overview: 3 days, 98 miles

We arrived at Gills Bay on Thursday in plenty of time to watch our ferry arrive:

Unloading seemed to take forever as this ferry only loads and unloads at the stern and, unlike larger catamarans like the Manannan (which we travelled on earlier in the year to the Isle of Man and then on to Dublin), this one isn’t wide enough for cars to easily turn round inside. There was quite a lot of shunting!

Then it was time for us to board, and we discovered that large vehicles (which seemed to be anything bigger than a standard car) have to go on backwards…… You don’t get that at Dover! At least it meant we could drive straight off at the other end.

We were lucky to get sunny, though blustery, conditions for the crossing:

As we entered Scapa Flow, we got our first real glimpses of Orkney – a low-lying, treeless landscape. We soon passed our first Orcadian WW2 gun battery (we’ve seen quite a few since):

Scapa Flow is the 120 square mile expanse of water surrounded by islands that was the main base of the British Navy during both World Wars. It was to Scapa Flow that the German fleet was brought following the armistice in November 1918:

The armistice was due to expire on 21 June 1919. Germany had not yet formally surrendered, and the German command at Scapa Flow feared that if the peace talks failed at the last minute, hostilities might be resumed. They had no way of knowing that the deadline had already been extended, or that the departure of British ships fom Scapa Flow on the morning of 21 June was for gunnery and torpedo practice and nothing at all to do with the expiry of the armistice. In order to prevent their ships falling into enemy hands should war be resumed, the Germans decided to scuttle the lot. 52 of the 74 German ships in Scapa Flow went down; the other 22 were beached in shallow water.

Most of the German ships were salvaged between the Wars, but there are still plenty of wrecks in Scapa Flow and it’s a popular spot for divers. I felt cold just watching this group trudging out of the water:

After getting off the ferry, we first drove down to the Southern end of South Ronaldsay. At the Tomb of the Eagles visitor centre, we paid the entrance fee (£7.50 each: it’s privately run so there were no “savings” to be had) and got a great explanation of the Neolithic and Bronze Age sites we were to see. We were also shown some of the skulls and artefacts (mace heads, tools, beads etc) found in and around the neolithic tomb. By the time we left the visitor centre, the rain was bouncing. Time to don waterproofs…..

Liddle Burnt Mound (Bronze Age)

Our first stop was a Bronze Age burnt mound. Apparently, there are lots and lots of these in Britain. Some have the remains of other structures nearby (which produced the burnt material in the mound); others don’t. Here, the mound consists of burnt peat and stones, and the quantity of material in the mound indicates that the site must have been in use for around 300 years.

The structure next to the mound was almost exactly the same as the “fulacht fiadh” we saw in the South of Ireland earlier this summer (old post here).

In the photo above, you can see the remains of the burnt peat / stone mound at the back, the hearth at the far end of the structure on the left, the central trough and Mark huddled in front of it. Please forgive Mark’s expression; the rain was sheeting down at this point. He did very gamely manage to mutter “it’s far too hot in here” as he perched on his little stone bench (this will be explained shortly)….

At the fulacht fiadh in Ireland, we were told that it was used for cooking, with stones heated in the hearth and placed into water in the central trough, which could then be used to cook food. When this site was excavated in the 1970s, it was also identified as a communal cooking area, but nowadays, archaeologists think otherwise. If a site had been used for cooking for 300 years, surely some animal bones would have been left nearby? The problem is that none at all have been found…..

The best current theory is that the structure was a sauna. This might seem fanciful, but it was pointed out to us that other peoples at these kind of latitudes around the World used saunas during that period. The sloping floor to a drain in the corner fits the theory, as do the double walls to the North and East (which would have been most exposed to the cold Orkney wind). It was suggested that sometimes, the best way to work out what a structure might have been used for is to sit down in it and let your gut instinct tell you. Hence Mark’s “it’s far too hot in here”…..

From the burnt mound it was only half a mile or so to the Tomb of the Eagles.

Tomb of the Eagles (Neolithic)

Just as we got to the Tomb of the Eagles, the rain stopped and the Sun came out. That’s been the pattern of the weather so far during our stay on Orkney: a stiff breeze blowing heavy squalls past at irregular intervals, with bright sunshine inbetween.

The Tomb of the Eagles is a neolithic tomb that was in use between about 3150 BC and 2400 BC before being filled in and abandoned (this seems to have happened to a lot of tombs on Orkney around this time as practice changed to individual cist burials rather than communal tombs).

The tomb faces East out to sea:

A short passage leads into the main burial chamber, which has shelved compartments at each end and three side cells

The trolley you can see in the photo above is helpfully provided as a way to get yourself along the very narrow entrance passage.

Needless to say, Mark had to crawl in and investigate one of the tiny side cells:

The bones of hundreds of individuals were found in the tomb, both adults and children. In addition, there were piles of bones from white-tailed Eagles, which has lead to the idea that the people who used this tomb associated in some way with the eagles and that this was therefore a totemic deposit.

The walk back to SOK took us along a coastal path with some lovely views and some very noisy seals!

We had a very quiet night at the nearby Burwick ferry terminal. This is where the passenger ferries carrying day-trippers from John o’Groats dock, and the only vehicular traffic we saw was two buses arriving on Friday morning to take the passengers off to wherever they were going.

On Friday, we drove up to the Mainland, which involved crossing the Churchill Barriers, causeways linking South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimps Holm, Lamb Holm and the Mainland.

Block Ships (World War 1) and Churchill Barriers (World War 2)

The Eastern entrances to Scapa Flow were recognised as a weakness as far back as World War 1. Old steamships were requisitioned and sunk to block the channels. Some are still visible today – in the photo below, you can see the bow and stern sections of the motor schooner Reginald, built in Glasgow in 1878 and sunk in September 1914.

I just had to take a close-up photo of the house. The house looks more recent than 1914 so presumably they chose that view from their front window?

Come World War 2, disaster struck. Some of the blockships had moved or broken up over the years. A German U-Boot snuck in through one of the Eastern channels, sunk HMS Royal Oak (with the loss of 834 lives) and escaped.

The channels were now to be permanently blocked….. When work started in May 1940, manpower was a big issue. The capture of 1200 Italian POWs in North Africa solved the problem: they were brought to Orkney and put to work. Causeways were constructed using rubble flanked by five- and ten-tonne concrete blocks, and by mid 1943 the channels were declared “sealed”.

The POW camps are long gone, but one remnant of the Italian presence remains on the small island of Lamb Holm.

The Italian Chapel

One of the POWs, Domenico Chiocchetti, was an artist. When the POWs were provided with two Nissen huts, he set to work to turn them into a chapel (this cost £3 each to visit – well worth it).

Everything in the chapel is recycled, from the tiles on the floor (salvaged from a shipwreck) to the lamps (made from old food tins!). The “stained glass” is fake – the design is just painted on. Similarly, all of the “stonework” is simply paint….

Chiocchetti carried with him a postcard that his mother had given him, and copied this for the painting behind the altar.

Chiocchetti also did a sculpture in cement of Saint George and the Dragon:

He revisited Orkney in the 1960s and gifted the carved stations of the cross that are now fixed to the walls of the chapel. Apparently, to this day, school exchanges run between Orkney and Chiocchetti’s home town of Moena……

On reaching the Mainland, we turned East towards Deerness.

Brough of Deerness (Norse-Era)

The Brough of Deerness has been interpreted as a chieftain’s citadel of the Norse era. The location was certainly spectacular – a sea stack off the East coast.

To get there, we had to walk half a mile or so along a cliff path, then down a path almost to beach level and up the other side. Our book warned of a dangerous path, but to be honest it seems to have been upgraded in the reasonably recent past, with steps down and a sturdy chain fastened to the rock along the narrow path up onto the sea stack. The most dangerous thing was the slippery wet wooden staircase they’ve put in to aid the descent!

A nice view at the bottom:

On top of the sea stack are the remains of an 11th century stone chapel on the site of an earlier wooden chapel, houses, and a small number of burials.

The chapel:

The sites of the houses were just about visible as sunken outlines under the tussocky grass:

Excavations here unearthed lots of high-value objects (pottery, beads etc) hence the thought that this must have been the village of a Norse-era chieftain. There is also evidence of an earlier Pictish settlement on the same site.

After a reasonably quiet night on a small beach car park near the airport (it was quiet once the hordes of dog walkers had finally gone home and until first light, when the shooting started. I thought it was some kind of bird scaring at the airport, but Mark assures me that it was folk shooting at geese, of which we have seen a huge number).

Today’s destination was Kirkwall, the largest town on Orkney.


The Orkney Museum was extremely good (and free):

This gave us a good chronological interpretation of the history of Orkney, from neolithic times right through to the 20th century. There was another Pictish stone; this one shows an eagle, a crescent and v-rod (we saw the same design last week on a stone at Abernethy, Perthshire), and a mirror:

My favourite item in the museum was a cute Pictish painted pebble. These are only found in Orkney, Shetland and Caithness in the far North of the Scottish mainland. It’s thought that they would’ve been carried around as some kind of good luck charm:

Our next stop was St Magnus’ Cathedral:

Earl Magnus ruled Orkney jointly with his cousin Earl Hakon back in the early 12th century. Apparently, joint rule was quite common in the Norse world, but let’s face it, it was unlikely to end well. In 1117, Earl Hakon got his cook Lifolf to murder poor cousin Magnus. Magnus was a pious type, knew he was going to be killed, and prayed as he faced his murderer. Perhaps running for it might’ve been a better idea?

After Magnus’ death, strange things started to happen (the usual stuff – the sick were mysteriously cured etc), a cult grew up around Magnus, and in 1135 he was canonised. By this time, Magnus’ nephew Rognvald was in charge. He had Magnus’ relics brought to Kirkwall (which hadn’t been an important site until that point) and began construction of a cathedral to house them. Rognvald died in 1158 and was himself canonised in 1192; his relics are also in the cathedral (a good example of keeping saintliness in the family; this reminded me of Saint Thérèse and our visit to Lisieux back in April, old post here). Very sensibly, the relics have been sealed into pillars in the cathedral; that’ll stop folk wandering off with them.

The cathedral houses a memorial to the crew of HMS Royal Oak:

Mark was particularly interested in the memorial to Arctic explorer Dr John Rae:

I’m sure we’ll come across him again when we get to Stromness.

We’d booked onto a CL just outside Kirkwall for tonight, but once we got close, we realised that it was just up the road from Cuween Hill, another neolithic chambered cairn. Of course, we had to stop and have a quick look….

Cuween Hill (Neolithic)

Well, it’s certainly a tomb with a view (the rear of the mound is the green area visible at the bottom of the photo):

It was a very narrow squeeze through the passageway into the tomb.

This tomb contained the remains of at least eight individuals together with the skulls of 24 small dogs – more totemic deposits?

That’s it for now. We’ve seen lots but we haven’t even got to the sites Orkney is World-famous for yet…..

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