Orkney is quite rightly famous for its magnificent neolithic sites. As well as Skara brae, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones at Stenness, the landscape is littered with less well known stones , burial mounds and features. The recent discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar are quite literally re-defining our knowledge and understanding of the period.
However, Orkney’s archaeology doesn’t end with the neolithic. The landscape is also peppered with Brochs. These are distinctive round forts and date back to the Iron age, making them about 2000 years old or thereabouts. Brochs feature all over northern Scotland with very well preserved examples at Caithness and Shetland.
Among many minor sites, Orkney’s finest example is the Broch of Gurness. This is a magnificent monument with spectacular views out to sea and the neighbouring islands. As well as the central round structure, (which you can walk right inside), there is a network of settlement dwellings and ditches surrounding the site. Less well known than its neolithic cousins, and a little further out of the way, Gurness is never very busy. We always recommend it to our guests as a visiting point and they are never disappointed. Gurness is also a great place to watch seals and seabirds – and who knows, perhaps even the occasional passing orca…
An Orca pod (killer whales) has been active in Orkney waters this week. Several people photographed them today in Kirkwall Bay.
Otters have been spotted out and about. There are even otters active on the streets in the centre of Kirkwall late at night.
Hares are very active at the moment and easily spotted in the fields all over Mainland . (Mainland is actually the name of the biggest island in the group).
Short -eared owls can be seen, active by day.
Grey seals and harbour seals are easily spotted at low tide in many locations.
Large flocks of Greylag geese are still present and can be spotted in fields by the roadside. Many of these will be moving off for the summer, but a number will remain. It is always spectacular to watch them flying over and the noise is amazing. Their numbers have increased in recent years and they cause considerable damage to the grass crop.
Not such good news – stoats are everywhere. They are cute little things, easily spotted darting about. Most turn white (ermine) in the winter months but they are now returning to their distinctive red-brown colour. They are even appearing in urban gardens now. However, they are ferocious killers of other species, especially Orkney voles and ground nesting birds. Because the stoat has been introduced accidentally to Orkney in recent years, it poses a serious threat to the owls that also rely on the voles for food. There is a programme of monitoring and humane trapping to try and control the problem, but it may be too late. In less than a decade, the stoats appear to have become very well established.
A reminder that Summer is a busy time for archaeologists in Orkney. There are many sites under investigation – the most famous of course being the Ness of Brodgar. Often the working season is very short. Sometimes the sites have to be protected from Winter rain – for a lot of the year, the Ness site is hidden beneath tarpaulins weighted down with tyres. At the Swandro site, the teams are racing against the sea. They are investigating remains by the water’s edge. Each Winter, vicious storms threaten to obliterate the evidence. These archaeologists really are racing against time.
To get a taster of the many projects going on around Orkney, click on this link:
As many of you will have read, the world famous Fair Isle Bird Observatory has been lost to fire. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but the building was completely destroyed and the residents have lost their home and possessions.
Fair Isle is administratively closer to Shetland than Orkney, but it can be seen from the hills above Kirkwall on a clear day and if visiting North Ronaldsay (home to another important bird observatory) it can look tantalisingly close.
The observatory building was assembled in sections and moved by barge from Orkney and a number of our visitors include Fair Isle on their tour itinerary. Fair Isle is not only famous for bird-watching – the wool products are distinctive and known internationally.
The loss of the observatory is obviously a great blow to the onithological community, but it will also have an impact on the tiny island’s economy. The building was the main provider of accommodation for visitors to Fair Isle, as well as an attraction in its own right.
We send the people of Fair Isle our best wishes and hope that they can recover as quickly as possible. Plans are already afoot to rebuild.
Orkney is beautiful. No one can argue with the scenery and the wildlife. Relics of the Neolithic, Viking and 20th. century wartime history of Orkney are everywhere and visitors are drawn to these fascinating sites, particularly in the summer months.
However, it is important to remember that Orkney has a thriving local economy too. Innovative renewable energy projects are all around us and the energy, shipping and oil industries are all served because of Orkney’s special location. Farming, fishing, food production, brewing, distilling, jewellery and craft making all go on here too. This work continues all the year round. Unemployment is low and Orkney feels a real working community – not just a tourist attraction.
This short film gives you a flavour of Orkney’s more industrial side:
The inter-islands air service is rightly famous in Orkney and beyond. For fifty years, these eight seater BN Islander planes have been providing an essential lifeline service for the outer islands. Operated on fixed timetable by Loganair, these busy aircraft fly in most weathers and carry farmers, teachers, residents, vets and just about everyone else (and their dog, sometimes…).
Rarely climbing above a few hundred feet, the flights are exhilarating and, while not exactly comfortable or luxurious, are a great way to see the land and seascapes of Orkney and beyond. A clear day will offer glimpses of Fair Isle and Shetland to the North and the massive Scottish mountains to the South.
Perhaps best known is the short hop between Westray and Papa Westray. This is claimed to be the shortest scheduled airline flight in the world. It is a believable claim – when the wind is right it can be done in well under two minutes.
You can experience all this for yourself. It is a great way to visit the north isles if you are short of time. If there is an empty seat, you can even do a round trip just for the ride. Generally, advanced booking for all flights is essential – this is a well used service. Flights leave from Kirkwall airport which is just a few minutes drive from Highland Park House and go to Sanday, Stronsay, Eday, North Ronaldsay, Westray and Papa Westray. Extra flights can be chartered by arrangement.
Contact details for Loganair are on the transport links page of this website.
Although much of the archaeological attention focuses on Orkney’s magnificent neolithic sites, that is not the whole story.
St. Magnus Cathedral in the centre of Kirkwall is coming under close scrutiny with this fascinating new study and investigation.
Over its 800+ year history, many people have left their mark in this building. Sometimes officially, but often not so officially. This project aims to investigate and record the marks, scratches and scribbling that can reveal much about the people who left them.
A team of volunteers is being recruited and trained to help this project. If you would like to find out more – follow these links.
A new website has just been launched which gives a fresh perspective on Orkney for locals and visitors alike…
The site is called Orkneyology (the link is below) and has been compiled by Rhonda and Tom Muir.
Rhonda is an American writer who has settled here, immersing herself in the existing and developing culture of the islands. She gives this site a valuable outsider’s perspective. You can’t get much more Orcadian than Tom – he is a celebrated Orkney storyteller, author, folklorist and historian.
The site is a potent combination of local insight, history, folklore and news coupled with practical information. It is both informative and informal and will no doubt grow into a very valuable resource for all with an interest in these islands.
Practical tips, such as what to do on a rainy day (we do have one or two) and where to find a public convenience/bathroom/wc (not always obvious) are also covered – the sort of detail that is essential for visitors but often missed by information sites.
Have a look for yourself and share with anyone who has an interest in Orkney… Click here: Orkneyology.com
Orkney has hosted several major events that have helped to commemorate (not celebrate, Mr Trump) the centenary of the end of the First World War. From this comparatively small community, more than 500 men were lost in the conflict. Their names are remembered on the memorial gate close to the cathedral and on smaller memorials throughout the islands. Apart from the tragic and wasteful loss of these individuals, several incidents brought the effects of war close to home.
Scapa Flow became an important base for the Royal Navy. From here, many ships sailed to the Battle of Jutland in 1916, where a number of major vessels were lost along with thousands of crewmen. Just days later, Lord Kitchener, (he of the famous “You” recruitment posters) was lost along with over 700 crewmen when his ship struck a mine just off the west coast of Orkney. Although less well remembered, tragedy struck again when the battleship HMS Vanguard exploded at her moorings in Scapa Flow, killing more than 800. The misery continued in 1918 when two navy destroyers, HMS Opal and HMS Narborough were lost with all but one of their crews after smashing into the cliffs at South Ronaldsay. Even after the armistice, the drama continued with the internment of the German fleet in Scapa Flow. The defiant German admiral ordered the scuttling of dozens of vessels to keep them out of allied hands. In the confusion that followed, there was further loss of life.
It was therefore fitting that Scapa beach was chosen as one of the sites for Danny Boyle’s Pages of the Sea event on Armistice Day. This large scale interactive event involved people creating a huge image of a lost Orkney soldier which was finally washed away by the incoming tide. Details of the project are here:
At the same time the magnificent cathedral of St Magnus in Kirkwall took on the role of backdrop for a moving projected animation covering the theme of World War One. The film, featuring many aspects of the war and how it impacted on Orkney life, was created by the PlayDead company and attracted sizeable crowds as it was shown over a number of nights. You can see a report and more details about this event here:
Like much of Europe, Orkney enjoyed a particularly good summer this year. We didn’t have the sweltering temperatures that were suffered in London, but we had many calm fine days. The summer days in Orkney are very long, with the sun barely dipping below the horizon at the end of June. Facing North West and in an elevated position, Highland Park House is ideally placed to enjoy these drawn out, spectacular sunsets.
One of our guests, Eric Bertrand from France, was kind enough to send some photographs that he took from his room window and the grounds of Highland Park House. These pictures were taken at the end of July. As well as the dramatic light, the nearby world famous Highland Park Distillery is clearly visible with its distinctive pagoda chimneys.
We’ve turned the corner again. Midsummer has passed and theoretically the nights will start to get longer.
That is quite a big deal here in Orkney, as in late June it never gets properly dark. For many years this period has been marked by the St, Magnus Festival – an internationally famous arts festival. Locally the midnight sun is known as the Simmer Dim – the light dims but does not disappear.
Although the days will start to shorten, we still have three months of the busy tourist season ahead of us and along the way, we will be treated to many spectacular, long sunsets. Highland Park House faces west and being on a hill overlooking Kirkwall, we are in a grandstand position to enjoy the view.
The strong ties between Orkney and Norway are celebrated every year with a parade and a service in the cathedral.
At one time, Orkney actually belonged to Norway and many of the place names and the old Orkney language are from Old Norse. There is a Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall and Norway always sends a tree to the city at Christmas.
Many Norwegians visit Orkney to help mark Norway’s Constitution Day. As in previous years, we are hosting a number of them at Highland Park House.
This morning, they started the day in style with a champagne breakfast.
Much excitement in Orkney this week. A pod of at least three killer whales has been in Scapa Flow for a few days. At one point they were photographed close into the shore with the Scapa Whisky distillery behind them. This is less than two miles from the front door of Highland Park House. In fact, it is visible from the top of our tower.
Seals and dolphins are a regular sight in these waters, with occasional visits from a variety of whale species. Orcas normally pass through the area several times a year.
Last weekend, I took the ferry over to Hoy. Hoy is a large, southerly Island about 20 minutes drive and then 30 minutes by ferry from where we are at Highland Park House . The north end of Hoy is dominated by dramatic and sharply rising hills that are visible from much of Orkney. Our excellent guide Steve from Island Tours Hoy took us from WW2 remains, through stunning wilderness and past ancient monuments to secluded and picturesque bays and beaches. We even saw nesting sea eagles along the way! Because our tour was only a few hours long, we did not have time to visit the famous rock stack known as the Old Man of Hoy (this requires a couple of hours walking) and there were many places we could have spent more time exploring. However, the purpose of this tour was to get a flavour of the place and we certainly did that. I would heartily recommend Hoy as a place to visit and I would suggest that Steve’s tours are an excellent way for a visitor who has limited time (or no car) to explore the island. I nearly wore out my camera, so here is a small selection of the pictures that I took just to give you a sense of what to expect if you visit this spectacular place.
B and B accommodation in Orkney. This Kirkwall mansion also offers a stylish, period venue for small and medium events. B&B or BnB? Either way, you won't be disappointed.