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

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