For very seasoned travelers, Orkney — the archipelago that dangles just above the crown of Scotland — has a special allure. When I tell most people I’m going to Scotland, they say, “Oooh! Edinburgh!” or “Pretty! Highlands!” But the extremely well-traveled squint their eyes and ask me, almost conspiratorially: “Will you make it to Orkney?” And when I tell them yes, a momentary flash of jealousy passes over their face. “You’ll have to tell me about it.” It’s an order, not a request.
Why is Orkney the holy grail of Scottish travels? For one thing, it’s remote: At best, you’re in for a three-hour drive due north of Inverness, then an hour and a half by ferry. Unless you take the slow route that I did: Two days up the west coast, then across the north coast of Scotland.
Crossing the 10-mile Pentland Firth to Orkney, you feel as if you’ve traveled more like 1,000 miles. Orkney is a world apart. For most of its formative history (875-1468), Orkney was a prized trading outpost of the Norwegian realm. The Vikings left their mark, both literally (runes carved into prehistoric stone monuments) and culturally: Many place names are derived from Old Norse, and the Orkney flag looks like the Norwegian flag with a few yellow accents. Today, while Orkney is technically Scotland, it doesn’t quite feel like Scotland — with no real tradition for clans, tartans, or bagpipes.
Over the next few days, I’ll report on Orkney’s two big claims to fame: its amazing prehistoric sites and its fascinating World War II heritage. But first, let’s get our bearings.
The Old Man of Hoy, one of Orkney’s main landmarks, is a 450-foot-high sea stack that towers up in front of Britain’s tallest vertical sea cliffs. To see it, you can hike seven miles round-trip…or you can just look out the window on the ferry to Stromness.
Orkney’s main island is — confusingly — called “Mainland.” It just goes to show: One person’s island is another person’s mainland. (If that’s not an old adage, it should be.) While there are a few dramatic cliffs on its perimeter, most of Mainland is flat and carved into tidy little farm plots.
Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall, is home to St. Magnus Cathedral, build in classic Romanesque style by the same stonemasons who did Durham’s famous cathedral. (In Durham, the style is called “Norman” — but the Normans never made it this far north.)
St. Magnus is my favorite church to tour in all of Scotland. It’s jammed with quirky and fascinating details, like this tomb of artic explorer John Rae — who seems to be really enjoying his nap.
Gravestones line the walls of the nave, each one carved with reminders of mortality: skull and crossbones, coffin, hourglass, and the shovel used by the undertaker. One touching epitaph reads: “She lived regarded and dyed regreted.”
I enjoyed staying in the Orkney countryside, at Holland House. After staying in dozens of B&Bs, I thought I’d seen it all. But this place has a particularly thoughtful custom: The day after I checked in, I noticed they were flying the Stars and Stripes. Apparently they have quite a flag collection, and pride themselves on displaying the flags of their guests.