Yesterday morning we left Loch Ness promptly. Considering that I had to cope with Zoltan finishing off a full English breakfast and Molly having her photo taken for the guest house website, oh and the appearance of a red squirel in the back garden, we didn’t do badly at all. The route North from Inverness is very picturesque as the highlands give way to the altogether more gentle landscape of Caithness.

We passed numerous small castles but resisted the temptation to stop for anything but a celebrated rock shop which, rather fortunately, turned out to have little to interest me. Thus we passed through John O’Groats and arrived at Gillis Bay with plenty of time to spare before the 4.30pm crossing to Orkney. This made it possible to take a quick trip down the coast to the Castle of Mey, where one of the most beautiful rose gardens I have ever seen (or smelled) demonstrated the mild climate generated by the Gulf Stream better than all the maps and charts in the world. This pretty little castle was the beloved Northern hideaway of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the visit had a special significance for me as this had been one of the destinations on my own mother’s last solo holiday in 2005. I came away with a handful of rose petals tucked into my guide book and they are perfuming my hotel room as I write.

The ferry crossing to Orkney was uneventful, so much so that as we drove along the interconnected small islands which lead from St Margaret’s Hope landing stage to our hotel on the main island we realised that we had just missed the 999 mile reading on the trip meter and let it roll on to 001 without noticing. There was not much accommodation available when I made my bookings a few months back and so no one would take a dog for the night and Molly had to sleep in the car. I was told that she would be welcome in the bar area of the hotel but any image I had of sitting in a comfortable armchair sipping the local brew while I worked on my website were dashed when we saw that the only people in this minimally furnished establishment were clad in overalls and speaking in an almost incomprehensible dialect. They were friendly enough though, and on the third attempt I did manage to work out that one chap was trying to offer to take “ma poor wee doggie” back home to his place for the night.

After a mild night on a blanket in the Silver Lady, Molly graciously accepted the peace offering of a portion of our cooked breakfast this morning and we all set off to explore the plentiful evidence of neolithic culture in this fascinating place. Distances are not very great and we got around to all four of the sites which make up this World Heritage complex in only a few hours. The chambered burial mound of Maes Howe was followed by the standing stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and finally the incomparable village of Skara Brae.

Much has been written about this wonderfully preserved, five thousand year old set of dwellings, their personalised interiors so rudely exposed in 1850 when a great storm washed away the covering layers of sod but I’m not sure that any written description can do them justice. They are older than the pyramids and more intimate than Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, hardly requiring introductory displays or re constructive drawings to set the imagination racing with scenes from the daily life of these people whose existence was so blessed. The climate was milder, the landscape treeless and fertile, fish from the Gulf Stream were plentiful and the local sandstone both readily available and easily workable. No one really knows but it is possible to imagine an extended family getting together to build a new chamber each time a young couple made their first happy announcement. There is no doubt, however, that small family units were able to enjoy a measure of privacy and a surprising level of comfort. I particularly liked the semi-enclosed beds which must have been quite snug when lined with turf and animal skins.

As exciting as Skara Brae is it is probably only an indication of what lies just beneath the surface of Orkney because current estimates suggest that five thousand years ago the islands supported a similar population to the one that they do today (25,000). We also visited the latest excavations at the Ness of Brodgar and were treated to the sight of work in progress on what many consider to be the most important current archaeological investigation in the world.

It all makes St Magnus at Kirkwall, at a mere 800 years old, seem rather newish but this lovely building did not disappoint. The northernmost cathedral in the British Isles is believed to have been built by the architects of Durham and, indeed, it shares the massive pillars and Romanesque arches of its more southerly cousin but its gorgeous colours are all its own. Rust, ochre and pinkish sandstone have softly weathered to make this lovely building a fitting climax to our northward journey for tomorrow we turn for home.


Categories: Britain, Scotland

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