Orkney: Storm Ali – What a Twatt!

Storm Ali brought some very wet and windy weather to Orkney; it’s been pretty much like the weather we had on previous days, but without the bright interludes! Undeterred, we’ve completed our list of Orkney “must-sees” and caught our ferry back to the mainland.

Overview: 3 days, 65 miles

We visited a few more places in West Mainland on Tuesday, then headed down to Stromness on Wednesday. After a very wet morning exploring the town, we retreated to huddle in SOK for 24 hours as Storm Ali passed, wondering whether it would all calm down in time for our Thursday afternoon ferry crossing.

Rewinding to Tuesday, the weather at that point was just “normal” wet and windy so we went to visit the Broch of Gurness, which is on the North East coast of West Mainland overlooking Eynhallow Sound. Brochs are, in a sense, nothing special; it’s estimated that 2000 years ago, there were 500-700 of them spread across North and West Scotland. There were at least 11 overlooking Eynhallow Sound alone:

Little remains of most of them, which makes the Broch of Gurness well worth a visit. Brochs are Iron Age fortified houses / status symbols dating back to the last few centuries BC and first few centuries AD. They’re windowless drystone walled towers that would probably have had conical thatched roofs. The walls are double, leaving space between the inner and outer walls for storage and staircases (or were they just sensibly planning ahead for the invention of cavity wall insulation?).

The people who lived in the brochs seem to have had quite nice lifestyles, which apparently included imported wine and olives.

Brochs complete with villages are unique to Orkney and the North of Caithness. The Broch of Gurness would have been about 10 metres tall and was surrounded by three rock-cut ditches with stone-faced ramparts. Between the innermost ditch and the broch itself are the remains of 14 small stone houses.

A single entranceway leads up to the entrance to the broch (from top left in the photo above), and a passageway runs round the outside of the tower, with all of the houses opening onto either the entranceway or the passage.

Orkney must be absolutely packed full of unexcavated gems. The Broch of Gurness was only discovered in 1929 when Robert Rendall, a local poet and amateur naturalist, sat down on his stool to sketch the scenery and was somewhat perturbed when one leg of his stool disappeared into the ground….. We’ve started pointing out the suspicious-looking lumps in the landscape as we drive around.

On the subject of suspicious lumps, these are the Knowes of Trotty, a collection of 12 Bronze Age barrows:

There was no information on site, despite it featuring on the standard map available from tourist information offices. Luckily we had a good book to tell us all we needed to know:

It was soon after we left the Knowes of Trotty that we spotted a good road sign:

This suddenly reminded Mark that he needed to visit Twatt. He’d seen photos online of folk posing next to the “Welcome to Twatt” sign. Forget all that UNESCO World Heritage stuff, this was what Mark had come to Orkney to see….. We found Twatt, but there are no road signs. Perhaps the locals just got fed up with people standing in the road taking selfies? Or perhaps the council got fed up with replacing stolen road signage?

The best we could do to put a smile on Mark’s face was Twatt Church, which has kindly provided a suitably marked bench.

The church is closed and for sale. It’d make a lovely house (pity about the weather though…). £150k could buy the suitably minded the right to snigger uncontrollably every time they have to recite their home address…… Or perhaps it could be the HQ of a new cult (the “Church of Twatt”)? I’m sure we could all recommend a few founder members….

From Twatt, we drove down to Orphir on the South Coast. The Orkneyinga Saga centre wasn’t what we expected. We thought it’d be a flash modern visitor centre with a hefty entrance fee and a lavishly stocked gift shop. No – it’s community run and unmanned (donations welcome).

There are some well-prepared wall displays explaining what sagas are. Having been to Iceland and read The Sagas of the Icelanders (ed. Jane Smiley) on my return, I’d come across sagas before but wanted to know more about the Orkneyinga Saga. It turns out that the Orkneyinga Saga was written in Iceland sometime around 1200AD by author unknown – presumably someone who had visited Orkney and heard the tales of the Earls of Orkney and their various exploits, returned home and decided to write it all down.

Here’s one idea we both loved. It’s a family tree showing the descent of the Earls of Orkney (and how they’re related to Rollo, who founded Normandy – his descendants include William the Conqueror, the royals, and that bloke from Eastenders).

See the little pictures (in the tree on the right, not the random royals on the left)? Well, obviously, there were no cameras back then so whoever created the family tree has done the next best thing – found some suitable characters and added beards, hats etc to make them more “Viking”. Rognvald, the nephew of Magnus (we came across both of them when we visited Kirkwall) does bear more than a passing resemblance to Sean Connery!

They’re brilliant! Einar “Wry Mouth” looks like Jeremy Paxman, Havard “Harvest-Happy” is David Jason, and there’s a chap called Guthorm who’s Spock’s Viking doppelganger…. If I can lay my hands on a suitable stack of celebrity-filled magazines (obviously I’m far too tight to ever buy such things) I might have a go at my own ancestors in similar vein….

Next to the Orkneyinga Saga Centre are a couple of not overly impressive ruins. Orphir was the site of the Earl’s Bú, the 12th century manorhouse of the Earls of Orkney. Some stone foundations near the modern-day churchyard might be part of it:

Inside the churchyard are the remains of a 12th century round church, the only one surviving in Scotland. The story goes that after Earl Hakon had his cousin Magnus murdered, he felt all remorseful (yeah, right…..) and so took himself off to Jerusalem. This was only 20 years or so after the First Crusade, so a tourist jaunt to Jerusalem probably carried plenty of traveller kudos…. He must have been insufferable when he got back…..

Anyway, possibly inspired by the round rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, he decided to have a round church built back on Orkney, round churches being briefly fashionable back then. The thing that struck me was that it wasn’t very big. Was Earl Hakon not very remorseful after all? or had he just blown all his cash on his extravagant holiday?

On Wednesday morning we headed to Stromness, Orkney’s second largest town. It’s very different to Kirkwall, with a narrow winding paved main street running parallel to the shoreline and steep closes leading down to stone piers.

We really enjoyed visiting Stromness Museum:

Here’s my favourite object on display. It’s the Skara Brae Buddo, a 9.5cm tall human figurine carved from whalebone that was found in a bed at Skara Brae. Awwww….

Stromness has a long maritime history. The Bay of Stromness is a sheltered deep anchorage that was an important port for ships crossing the North of Scotland. In 1824, of 91 ships’ pilots registered in Scotland, 24 were based in Stromness.

From the 1770s onwards, North Atlantic whalers from East coast ports like Hull and Dundee stopped off at Stromness to take on fresh food and water on their way to their hunting grounds. Many Orcadians went to work on the whaling ships.

Similarly, from 1702 onwards, ships from the Hudson’s Bay Company stopped at Stromness for provisions and crew. By 1800, over three quarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s workforce were from Orkney.

Login’s well, from where the ships took fresh water, was somewhat underwhelming:

Probably the most famous of the Hudson’s Bay Company employees was Dr John Rae, whose family home was the Hall of Clestrain between Stromness and Orphir. It’s still there, albeit not in great condition. It’s been bought recently by the John Rae society and is to be refurbished.

After completing his medical studies, John Rae went to work for the company in what is now Canada and became a very successful arctic explorer, favouring a “travel / live like the natives” approach over the big government-sponsored expeditions of the day. In addition to finding the final navigable link in the Northwest passage, he discovered the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition (which disappeared in the 1840s whilst searching for the Northwest Passage). Perhaps John Rae would be more famous today if he hadn’t mentioned the word “cannibalism” in his report – not at all what Victorian sensibilities wanted to hear!

We liked the John Rae cartoon in the museum:

One item they had in the museum particularly interested us: the only surviving Halkett cloth boat. We’d been led to believe at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth in April this year that Halkett cloak boats were successfully used in the arctic (old post with diagram here) but no, it seems that the boats John Rae used and declared to be very good were folded up and carried like a knapsack, not worn as a cloak. Presumably, someone pointed out to Halkett that a wearable cloak boat was a ridiculous idea?!

The rain was absolutely lashing down by now, so after dodging into the library to download some TV using the free wifi, we retreated to SOK for the rest of the day.

Today (Thursday) brought more wind and rain in the morning but a couple of brighter interludes in the early afternoon. Our ferry from Stromness to Scrabster was at 16:45. We’d chosen to come back by a different route as this is the only ferry route that passes the Old Man of Hoy.

There was a bit of a swell but as it turned out, the crossing wasn’t too bad at all and we got some lovely views of the West coast of the island of Hoy and the Old Man of Hoy along the way.

Back on the Scottish mainland, we’re looking forward to a slightly slower pace of tourism over the next few days…..


  1. Lovely to have this Orkney “fix” — and it reminds me how lucky I was during my own couple of weeks among the islands, in that I only had one day with horizontal rain (though quite a few with ordinary vertical rain…). John Rae a big hero to many Canadians (including me) and among the Inuit, because unlike almost all other British explorers he listened to and learned from the Inuit and sensibly adopted many of their techniques. This horrified “proper” British explorers, of course!

    Liked by 1 person

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