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Sunday, 24 August 2008

Going South

Orcadians refer to travelling to mainland Britain as ‘Going South,’ and that’s where we’re heading next. A couple of years ago, we stayed at Craobh Haven on the Argyll coast. Our cottage looked out to sea; we had a fantastic view of the smoky blue hills of the Isle of Jura and other nearby islands. Argyll abounds with heritage and wildlife, but if the latter is shy you can see rescued seal pups and inquisitive otters at the Scottish Sealife Sanctuary near Oban.

I was very excited about this holiday as I hoped to follow in the footsteps of some of my all-time literary heroes – Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.

Images: Sunset at Craobh Haven.
A friendly otter at the Sealife Sanctuary.
Photos © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Ancient and Modern

One of the great things about Orkney is the sheer breadth of history for you to explore, from prehistory right up to modern times. Vikings such as the legendary Kolbein Hruga left their mark on the islands. His stronghold on the peaceful island of Wyre passed into Orkney folklore as the castle of the mythical Orkney giant, ‘Cubbie Roo.’ As you stroll round the islands on a misty evening, it’s easy to imagine a Viking longboat bursting suddenly through the sea fret. Kolbein and his exploits on Wyre, a green jewel of an island, were recalled round the firesides of the ancient Norse saga-tellers in the Orkneyinga Saga.

Moving through the centuries, you can find out how ordinary Orcadians lived and worked at the Kirbuster Farm Museum. But some of the most poignant relics on the islands date from the World Wars. The tragedy of HMS Royal Oak is remembered, along with artefacts recovered from the scuttled German High Seas Fleet, at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre on Hoy. One of the most inspiring reminders of the war years is the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. This masterpiece was created by Italian POWs from scrap and whatever materials they could salvage. The interior is wonderfully decorated by Domenico Chiochetti. The sheer beauty and peace inside the chapel never fail to bring a lump to my throat.
Images © Sue and Nigel Wilkes: Cubbie Roo's castle, Wyre.
Italian Chapel and interior, Lamb Holm.


Saturday, 9 August 2008

Descent into the Past

One of the eeriest places on Orkney is Mine Howe at Tankerness, Orkney, which I visited a few years ago. It was first excavated in 1946, and thought to be an Iron Age Broch (which abound in Orkney.) It was covered over and forgotten until local farmer Douglas Paterson re-opened the mound in 1999. The discovery of 29 mysterious steps leading down into a unique three-chambered structure caused a sensation. Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ excavated the site in the summer of 2000.
As you get ready to descend into the mysterious shaft entrance, there’s a smell of damp earth. The shaft leads right into the ancient heart of the Iron Age mound. I edged closer to the tunnel entrance, held tightly to my hard hat, and carefully climbed down the stone steps…
The steps are steep, and it’s a tight squeeze. Each step takes you further into the gloom, and further back in time.
As the daylight grows fainter, the only light comes from rope lighting fastened along the handrail. The tunnel shrinks, then turns sharply; I had to take care not to stumble on the awkwardly-shaped steps. But it really doesn’t take very long to reach the underground chamber at the bottom.
Then comes the surprise; above your head is a kind of vaulted ceiling, like the inside of a huge stone thimble. The air holds an unearthly chill. There’s only room for two or three people at the base of the chamber; it felt uncomfortably crowded. The atmosphere was hushed; were we in an Iron Age cathedral? The way back up to the modern world was signposted by the cheery glow of the rope lighting, snaking up the handrail like Christmas tree lights.
Down at the bottom of the Howe, it’s impossible to escape the conviction there are more discoveries waiting to be made behind the intricate stonework. Who built this unique structure? Why was it constructed in this unusual fashion? There are no answers, no written records; all we can do is guess and wonder. I was glad to climb up to the sunlight, and breathe fresh air again.

It helps to be reasonably agile to enter some of these unique monuments, such as the Tomb of the Eagles , another ‘must-see’ on mainland Orkney. Entrance to this tomb is lying down on a trolley! Another tight squeeze is the nine metre crawl through the narrow entrance of the Quoyness Chambered Cairn on Sanday. But it’s really worth the effort for an unforgettable experience.
Image: Quoyness Chambered Cairn, Sanday. © Nigel Wilkes.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Magical, mysterious Orkney

Orkney has a magic all of its own. The moment you leave the ferry, it feels as if you’re entering a different world, slipping back into a long-lost age. The ancient landscape still holds many undiscovered secrets. The mysterious monuments at Stenness, Brodgar and Maes Howe are among my favourites. The stone houses of Skara Brae even have ‘mod cons’ such as stone cupboards.
The islands teem with wildlife, and we never know what we’re going to see each day, whether it’s a hedgehog trundling across the grass, hares dancing in the fields, or a short-eared owl sitting on a fencepost. The people are wonderfully friendly, too.
Visiting some of the smaller islands is a ‘must’ if you have time and the budget allows it. So far we’ve been lucky enough to visit Hoy, Sanday, Rousay, Westray and Papay (Papa Westray), Wyre, and South Ronaldsay, (not all on the same holiday!) and one day we hope to see the seaweed-eating sheep on North Ronaldsay.
There’s much more information on Orkney heritage and history at Sigurd Towrie’s brilliant website.

Images © Sue and Nigel Wilkes:
Stones of Stenness, Orkney.
Knap of Howar, Papay.