Monday, 30 April 2012


One recurring feature of the coast that I have noticed while writing this blog is that ferocious storms, while scary at the time, can throw up hitherto unknown treasures. This was the case on Sanday in 1985 when a local farmer was walking along the beach at Scar on the northwest coast after a particularly bad storm and noticed some bones sticking out of a sandbank which had been partially stripped away by the storm. The bones turned out to be part of a Viking boat burial, and the find was hailed as one of Orkney's most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century. The burial has been dated at around 875 to 950 AD. Other ancient remains on the island include a burial chamber at Quoyness, a Neolithic settlement at Pool and the Styes of Brough, where a 29" Viking sword was found. For nature lovers, there are plenty of opportunities to view birds and seals, while walkers can enjoy long stretches of sandy beach.

North Ronaldsay, 4 Km north of Sanday, is the most northerly of the Orkney islands. The island featured heavily in the Orkneyinga Saga with much warring and bloodshed. There are a number of ancient sites on the island, but from the more recent past there is Holland House, built in the 1700s; the gardens next to the house attract large numbers of migrating birds. There is a bird observatory on North Ronaldsay where bird migrations are monitored. An old stone lighthouse stands in the northeast of the island known as the Old Beacon, or Dennis Head Beacon, which was built in 1789 by Thomas Smith. The lighthouse, which is in a state of ruin, achieved third place in the BBC Restoration Village series in 2006. It has since been replaced by a newer lighthouse which stands nearby.

Map of the area.

© 2004 Peter Ward, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 29 April 2012


This group of islands to the northeast of Orkney Mainland have dozens of ancient sites between them. The hilly island of Rousay is peppered with Neolithic cairns such as Blackhammer with its 47ft long burial chamber, compartmented into seven stalls by means of standing slabs. Even bigger than Blackhammer is Mid Howe, dubbed the "Great Ship of Death", with a 76ft long main chamber, divided into twelve stalls. Taversoe Tuick is a split-level burial mound, the upper entrance at ground level and the lower one reached through a 19ft sunken passage. Visitors are free to wander round the sites, and there is a visitors centre, the Trumland Orientation Centre, which provides detailed information on the sites and on the island in general. For nature-lovers, the geology of the island is characterised by glacial terracing, and the northwest coast boasts impressive cliff formations and extravagant displays of wild flowers.

Egilsay is home to a 12th century Viking church, St Magnus, whose 15m high round tower rises up above a roofless nave. The church is one of only two remaining examples of this type of church. According to the Viking Sagas, Earl Magnus met his cousin Earl Haakon on Egilsay in 1117. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss peace terms, but peace was the last thing on Haakon's mind and he had Magnus murdered. A cenotaph marks the spot where the evil deed took place. At the Onziebust RSPB reserve on Egilsay, if you are lucky, you may see as well as hear the increasingly rare Corncrake. Waders and seals can be seen at Loch of the Graand.

The main point of historical interest on the tiny island of Wyre is Cubbie Roo's Castle. The name Cubbie Roo is a version of Kolbein Hruga, the Norse chief who built the castle in 1150. The castle, which is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga, is one of the oldest castles of its type in Scotland. Next to the castle is the Romanesque St Mary's Chapel, also built in the 12th century by Cubbie Roo or his son. The Wyre Heritage Centre welcomes visitors, providing information on the island's more recent past as well as on Cubbie Roo's legacy. As well as a variety of birds, both common and grey seals can be observed on the island, the best viewpoint being the Taing, the pointy bit at the western extreme of Wyre.

Map of the area.

St Magnus' Church, Egilsay © 2006 Helen Baker, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 26 April 2012


Stronsay and Eday are two of the scattering of smaller islands to the northeast of the Orkneys. Stronsay's only real settlement of note, Whitehall, was caught up in the herring boom in the early 19th century until it ended in 1930. Now the only fishing that takes place here is for lobsters. Earlier, in the 18th century, it was kelp which provided the economic mainstay, with 3,000 people employed in collecting and exporting kelp for use in making iodine, soap and glass. The topography of the island is characterised by gentle bays with lovely sandy beaches, while the main geological point of interest is the Vat of Kirbuster, a large natural arch. The tiny island of Papa Stronsay, visible from Whitehall, is populated by monks. Stronsay can be reached from Kirkwall by ferry or air.

Fans of antiquities should head for the island of Eday, which counts among its ancient treasures a large standing stone called the Stone of Setter and the Vinquoy Chambered Cairn. The antiquities can be viewed by keen walkers on the Eday Heritage Walk, which also takes in Mill Loch, which has a hide for viewing the red-throated divers that breed there, and Red Head, with its dramatic red sandstone cliffs used by nesting seabirds in the summer. The terrain on Eday is mostly moorland rather than farmland, and there used to be a thriving trade in peat from here, which was used as fuel on some of the other islands, and was also exported to distilleries on the mainland. On the east coast of the island is Carrick House, built in 1633 by the Laird of Eday, which is open to visitors during the summer months on Sundays by appointment. The pirate John Gow, on whom Sir Walter Scott's book The Pirate is based, was taken prisoner here after his ship Revenge ran aground. There are more chambered cairns and bird colonies on Eday's little brother, the nearby Calf of Eday.  Eday's small airport is visited by the Scottish airline Loganair.

Map of the area.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012


The small island of Shapinsay can be seen from Orkney's capital Kirkwall, and consists mainly of rolling farmland. The main point of interest on the island is Balfour Castle, built by the Balfour family of Westray in 1848 using the proceeds of their adventures in India. The castle is now a private house, and therefore not open to visitors - the link provided gives some information about the property dating from before this time. The village of Balfour was built to house the workers from the castle's estate. The ferry crossing to Shapinsay from Kirkwall takes less than thirty minutes and used to include entrance to the castle, but now visitors are limited to wandering the island, which apart from the castle has an Iron Age broch (drystone tower) called the Burroughston Broch. There are some rocks nearby where seals can be seen lazing around. Birdwatchers should head to the Mill Dam RSPB reserve, where the hide can be used to spy on the teal, shovelers, wigeon and occasionally pintails which use the wetlands here for breeding. There are sea caves and cliffs on the east coast, while the best sandy bay is at Sandgarth Bay in the southeast.

Map of the area.

Monday, 23 April 2012


The small harbour town of Stromness sits on the west shore of the nordic-sounding Hamnavoe, with the town's Golf Club at its mouth. The town had strong links with the Hudson's Bay Trading Company, formed in the 17th century, which used to recruit local men from the town, and in 1791 appointed a local agent in Stromness, in fact by this time at least three-quarters of the Company's workforce were Orcadians. The Company was said to have preferred the good men of Orkney because they were cheaper than the English and more sober than the Irish. Login's Well, in the main street, has a stone next to it with an inscription claiming that the well supplied water for Captain Cook's Discovery, Sir John Franklin's arctic exploration vessels and for the Hudson Bay ships. Stromness Museum has displays telling the story of those times. The Pier Arts Centre has a collection of 20th-century British art.

One of the oldest events in the Orkney calendar is the Stromness Shopping Week, which dates back to 1949 and takes place each July. Its creation was a post-war attempt to attract traders and shoppers to the area to counteract the austerity of the times. However, contrary to what the name suggests, there is far more to the week than just shopping: the jollities on offer include the Yard of Ale, a Beer Race and sporting events for all ages.

The ancient village of Skara Brae, which is administered by Historic Scotland, was buried underneath dunes for 4,000 years, but came to light during a storm in 1850. The sand in the dunes had done a good job of preserving the walls of the houses, and even some of the domestic furniture, which included clay-lined food boxes used for refrigeration. There was even a sophisticated drainage system and possibly toilets, making these Neolithic homes more civilized than some of the 19th-century crofts!

Map of the area.

'Skara Brae' photo (c) 2008, yellow book - license:

Friday, 20 April 2012


Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, evidently stole Birsay's thunder at some point in history. St Magnus Church in Birsay dates from long before Kirkwall's St Magnus Cathedral, having been in continuous use as a place of worship for over 900 years, and is thought to have been Orkney's first cathedral. But the church is by no means Birsay's only point of historical interest: the whole of this part of the Orkney Mainland is redolent with historical remains from way back through the ages. Earl's Palace, built in 1574, was the main residence of Robert Stewart, the illegitimate son of James V. Relics of rural life in the 18th and 19th centuries include Click Mill and Kirbuster Farm Museum.  Barony Mills, which unusually were used to mill barley, are free to visit and include one dating from 1873 alongside older mills awaiting restoration.

The Brough of Birsay, reachable by a causeway at low tide, is a paradise for nature lovers, carpeted with sea pinks during the spring and with several bird reserves to choose from: Birsay Moors, Marwick Head and The Loons wetland reserve. Brough Head, graced with a lighthouse built in 1925, is colonised by sea birds. Many of Birsay's oldest remains are to be found at the Brough of Birsay, including Pictish and Viking farmsteads and a 12th-century Romanesque church.

Map of the area.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Kirkwall is the main town on the largest island in Orkney, and as such is the "capital" of the archipelago. It is both a city and a Royal Burgh, and has an impressive cathedral, the Cathedral of St Magnus, dedicated to an 11th century earl who was murdered and subsequently canonised. In fact a skeleton discovered during rebuilding work may have been that of the earl, since he is believed to have died from a blow to his skull from an axe, and the skeleton in question had an injury apparently caused by an axe. The neighbouring Bishop's Palace and Earl's Palace are administered by Historic Scotland. Life in the Orkneys is displayed in the Tankerness House museum. For whisky enthusiasts, there is the Highland Park Distillery.

The Orkneys saw plenty of action during both World Wars, and there is a wireless museum in Kirkwall which covers military communications from 1930. Scapa Flow, the body of water to the south of the Orkney Mainland, was used as a naval base during both wars, and there are still sunken German warships in the area, which are a popular draw for divers, with the M.V. Invincible offering expeditions to the sunken ships. During World War II a German U-boat torpedoed HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow, and a buoy placed at the point where the vessel sank marks a war grave in memory of the tragedy. It was this incident which prompted the building of the Churchill Barriers (see South Ronaldsay post). In 1940 a Norwegian steamer called the Cometa was torpedoed near the British contraband control base at Kirkwall. The 42 survivors were taken to a port in the northeast of the Scottish mainland.

Webcam of the harbour.

of the area.

Sunday, 15 April 2012


One of the most famous coastal features around the coast of Scotland is the Old Man of Hoy, a tall sandstone sea stack which featured in a live BBC outside broadcast in 1967 when Chris Bonnington and other climbers took part in the Great Climb. The stack is within the North Hoy RSPB Reserve, where in summer rare red-throated divers can be seen. Although it is the second largest of the Orkney Islands, the population of the island is less than 300. This is presumably due to the terrain: Hoy is a high, rugged island, in fact the name Hoy comes from the Old Norse for "high island". The main town on the island is Lyness, which is linked by ferry to the island of South Walls, the island of Flotta in Scapa Flow and to Houton on Orkney Mainland. During World War II, Lyness was the base for HMS Proserpine, the main base for the fleet at Scapa Flow. There is another ferry from Moness to Graemsay and Stromness. Hoy's most imposing house is Melsetter House, dating from 1738 and open to visitors by appointment.

Map of the area.

'Old Man of Hoy' photo (c) 2006, Simaron - license:

Saturday, 14 April 2012


South Ronaldsay is reached from the mainland of Scotland via a 45-minute ferry service between John O'Groats and Burwick. The island is linked to the Orkney Mainland via a series of causeways called the Churchill Barriers, which pass through Burray, Lambs Holm and Glimps Holm on the way between the two points. The Churchill Barriers were created during World War I when the navy needed the ability to counter a Baltic-based German fleet. Further details for those interested can be found on the Undiscovered Scotland website. Although no longer needed for combat purposes, the roads which have been constructed on the barriers provide a useful link between the little islands of this Scottish "atoll", which forms the eastern edge of Scapa Flow, one of the largest natural harbours in the world.

The main town on South Ronaldsay, St Margaret's Hope, got its name from a royal tragedy. Margaret, also known as "Maid of Norway", lost her grandfather at under three years old in 1286, and succeeded to the title of Queen of Scotland, and a few years later was betrothed to the future King Edward II. She was still only 7 when she made the voyage to Scotland to start her new life, but she became terribly seasick and died near the Orkneys. The town nestles in a sheltered bay on the north side of the island, and is connected to Gills Bay on the mainland of Scotland by a ferry service. Visitor attractions in the town include the William Hourston Smiddy Museum, which explains the role of the blacksmith in the local communities, and the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery. A short distance to the east of the town is Pool Farmhouse, which houses an aquarium displaying the marine life of the area. Widewall Bay on the west coast, with its unusual "hammerhead" shape, was once a sheltered haven for nordic invaders. At Liddel in the southeast of the island, the remains of an ancient settlement have been found, and Liddel Farm has a museum devoted to the nearby Tomb of the Eagles, a large burial chamber dating from around 3000BC, so named because of the large number of sea eagles' talons and bones found there.

Map of the area.

Herson, Widewall Bay © 2006 Lis Burke, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 11 April 2012


The route from Lands End to John O'Groats has long been one of the holy grails for people seeking to break records, raise money for charity or simply fulfil a personal goal. The most favoured methods of travel between the two is by bike or on foot. In 1880 cycling companions H. Blackwell and C. A. Harman were the first known cyclists to attempt the ride, completing it in 13 days. This record was broken in 1885 by one J. Lennox, who managed 6 days and 16 hours. The following year, an 18-year-old called George Pilkington Mills broke the record twice, once on a penny farthing and once on a tricycle, achieving 5 days and 10 hours on the tricycle. And so it has gone on down the years, with ever faster times achieved courtesy of ever more high-tech machines. The current record is held by Gethin Butler, who made it in 1 day, 20 hours, 4 minutes and 20 seconds in 2001. Perhaps the most poignant achievement of a cyclist was that of the late Jane Tomlinson, who made the journey in 2003 while terminally ill with cancer (this was but one of her cycling achievements, which included a bike ride across America).

Then there are the walkers, who over the years have included a number of celebrities. Former cricketer Ian Botham was one of the best-known: he completed the walk for charity in 1985 following a chance visit to a children's ward. The first recorded walk between the two end points actually went in the other direction: brothers John and Robert Naylor made the trek south in 1871. Not all of the walking events were undertaken with charity in mind. In 1960, the holiday park entrepreneur Billy Butlin organised a road walking race from John O'Groats to Lands End which was entered by 700 competitors, and which offered a prize of £1000, bagged by 19-year-old Wendy Lewis. There is a wonderfully nostalgic piece of footage covering the event on the British Pathe website.

Finally, as is so often the case with such endeavours, there have been a fair number of oddballs making the trip over the years. In 2005 a golfer from Kent called David Sullivan walked the north-south route hitting golf balls all the way. In 2010 three skateboarders made the journey in 21 days, a record for skateboarding the route. A number of people have made the journey on ride-on lawnmowers, the first being Stuart Boreham in 1996. In 2009, John Carver made the trip by "flyke", a flying bike. Also in 2009, US Navy pilot Rick Ryan claimed the record for a wheelchair. In 2008, an enterprising pensioner made the most of the recently introduced free bus passes for the over-60s by making the journey up and back on public transport, for free!

Those who make the journey northwards are greeted by a roadside scattering of houses, hotels and shops.  Further down the road leading to the small harbour there is a complex of gift and craft shops and cafes with further accommodation options.  To gain a real sense of an end to end, one has to push on a bit further to Duncansby Head. Orca can sometimes be seen off the coast of this corner of Scotland.  Back in John O'Groats, the name of the village derives from the Dutchman Jan de Groot, who was charged with setting up a ferry service between the mainland and Orkney. The ferry which operates from the tiny harbour nowadays offers wildlife cruises around the coast and day tours to Orkney during the summer months. John O'Groats is a cheap date compared with its brash Cornish opposite number Lands End, with free parking, no 'attractions' with expensive entrance fees and no photographers lurking at the signpost ready to grab your money for the privilege of having your photo taken.  The day we visited, the experience was enhanced by the sound of bagpipes wafting through the air courtesy of a visiting piper.

Map of the area.

The harbour, with Orkney visible on the horizon

Monday, 9 April 2012


The Sinclair family name is so prominent in these parts that there is even a bay named after them. Sinclairs Bay is just to the north of Wick, with Noss Head Lighthouse marking its southern extreme. Near Noss Head are the remains of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe, one of the earliest seats of the Clan Sinclair, built in the late 15th century. The castle suffered a series of conflicts, but the cause of its final demise is unclear. There is a school of thought that Cromwell's troops started its demolition, as had been the case with other castles. The bay is fringed by a long, sandy beach, with the Burn of Lyth running into it halfway along. The village of Keiss is graced by another castle dating from around the late 16th century, built by George the 5th Earl of Caithness, and now partially ruined. It must have made an impressive sight in its heyday, towering above the clifftop. A little further north still, the village of Auckengill is home to the Northlands Viking Centre, which exhibits the Viking Heritage of Caithness, and goes back even further in time to the pre-Viking kingdom of the Catti.

Map of the area.

© 2008 Fergus Mather, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 8 April 2012


The name Wick derives from the Norse word "vik", which means "bay". The layout of the town is medieval, although most of the buildings are 18th-century. One particular part of town known as Pulteneytown, a herring town which was designed by Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, was granted £1.5m from Historic Scotland a few years ago for regeneration, enabling the restoration of many of the area's beautiful buildings. In 2006 a street in Wick called Ebenezer Place made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the world's shortest street, trumping the previous holder of the record in Bacup, Lancashire. Wick suffered a tragedy during World War II, when bombs which were intended for the harbour instead hit a house, killing 21 civilians, including 11 children. The large number of children killed was in part due to the fact that it was the first day of the summer holiday, and there were many children playing outside at the time. A war memorial now marks the spot where the house stood.

There are a number of attractions in the town for visitors. Wick has its own distillery, the Old Pulteney Distillery, which produces a Single Malt Whisky. There is also a Heritage Centre covering many aspects of local life and history. Boat trips are available along the Caithness coast, allowing visitors to observe the coastline, castles and wildlife, which occasionally includes whales or dolphins. Old Wick Castle, dramatically situated on top of steep cliffs one mile south of the town, is thought to have been built in the late 12th/early 13th century. For the birdwatchers, there is the Wick River Walk, which includes a tidal estuary which is a haven for wading birds, while further inland small birds such as the sedge warbler and reed bunting can be observed.

Map of the area.

© 2007 Stanley Howe, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 5 April 2012


The women in this part of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries must have had incredible stamina. At Whaligoe, a steep flight of up to 365 steps (estimates vary between 330 and 365) zigzags down to Whaligoe Haven, a small natural harbour. The steps were built in the late 1700s to facilitate the unloading of herring, in spite of the spot having been dismissed by Thomas Telford, who was prospecting the area, and who described this location as "a terrible spot". At the bottom of the steps is a platform where the fish were unloaded from the boats down below, and the fisherwomen, some of advanced years, would carry the fish up the steps in creels (wicker baskets) . Sometimes the fish would be salted in barrels part-way down the steps, in which case the fisherwomen would carry the salt down the steps, which must have been incredibly precarious. The ruins of the old salt store are still visible, as is the barking kettle, a stone cauldron which was filled with bark and cow urine and used to boil nets, while on the cliff top there is an old 19th century herring station. The name Whaligoe derives from "whale geo" or "inlet of whales", and this stretch of coast has a whole series of these "geos". A walk down the steps and back up makes an exhilarating coastal experience, especially when accompanied by the cacophany from the many nesting fulmars. Just inland of Whaligoe there is a 5,000-year-old burial tomb called the Cairn o'Get.

Map of the area.

File:Whaligoe Steps - - 893169.jpg
Photo by Sylvia Duckworth, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 3 April 2012


Lybster owes its existence to a member of one of the prominent families around these parts, the Sinclairs. General Patrick Sinclair, a local landowner, started Lybster as a planned village. He named part of the wide main street Quatre Bras (Four Arms) in honour of his sons, who fought at Waterloo. The village, which was once a major herring port, has a distinctive harbour, with a small inner harbour providing extra protection within the bigger harbour, which lies at the mouth of the Reisgill Burn. The original harbour was designed to take over 100 fishing boats, but at the height of the herring trade here there were nearly 300 boats operating in the area, with Germany being a particularly big export market for the local catch. Many of the coastal communities around Britain have a particular weather event which stands out in the collective past, and in Lybster's case it was a severe storm in 1847 during which seven local fishermen lost their lives and the harbour was badly damaged. The harbour was repaired and improved but there was further storm damage 30 years later. Lybster's herring trade was in decline by the end of the century.

There are some beautifully restored buildings by the side of Lybster harbour which house a visitor centre called Waterlines with an exhibition about the history, geology, wildlife etc. of the area, and a cafe downstairs. The exhibition includes a remote CCTV trained on the breeding bird colonies of the nearby cliffs which can be used to observe the birds going about their business.  Lybster's diminutive golf course is one of the shortest 9-hole golf courses in Scotland.  A book written by the local author Neil Gunn (see Dunbeath post) called The Silver Darlings was made into a film in 1947, which was partly shot in Lybster.

Map of the area.

Sunday, 1 April 2012


The name Gunn (see the previous post about the author Neil Gunn) is prevalent around these parts, and there is a Heritage Centre in Latheron's 18th century kirk devoted to the Clan Gunn, a powerful Caithness family, which makes an extraordinary claim, namely that one of the Gunns reached the Americas a century before Christopher Columbus. The Gunns were Norse in origin and decided to settle in this northeast corner of Scotland when they came on one of their raids. There are Bronze Age standing stones to the north of the village, and nearby Latheronwheel has a cute little harbour with a path leading to clifftop walks.  Just outside the village is the Buldoo Standing Stone, the tallest in Caithness, standing at just over twelve and a half feet high and dating from the Bronze Age.

Map of the area.