April Squares: Wideford Hill

Ascending to the top of Wideford Hill was part of a wonderful holiday in Orkney in 2015. Both it and the nearby Cuween Hill have chambered tombs that you can clamber into. One of us did, one of us didn’t! Probably easy to guess, but the answer is here should you wish to know for sure: Wideford and Cuween Hills.

Linked to Becky’s #SquareTops challenge. Just two more days to go!

Marwick Head and Birsay

Marwick Bay
Marwick Bay

On a beautiful sunny morning, we set off on a circular walk from Marwick Bay up to the cliff tops of Marwick Head.

In the background of one of the pictures above you can see an island – that’s the Brough of Birsay, our afternoon destination. However, on this walk we were heading for the Kitchener Memorial. Minister of War Lord Kitchener died with more than 600 others when HMS Hampshire struck a mine and sank just off Marwick Head in 1916. (Click the image below to enlarge if you want to read more.)

Kitchener Memorial
Kitchener Memorial

The monument was under restoration and surrounded by scaffolding, so we didn’t see it at its best – but it’s good to know it’s being looked after. One of the guns from the ship sits, incongruously, at the bottom of the farm track on the way back to the carpark.

After lunch, we set off for Birsay. We stopped first at the Earl’s Palace, built by Earl Robert Stewart in the late 16th century. Now we’ve met Robert’s son, Patrick, before – he built Scalloway Castle and the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall.  He was a nasty piece of work, and obviously a chip off the old block. Both Earls used the islanders as forced labour to create their sumptuous dwellings.

As we looked round the castle in the brilliant sunshine, several coaches and mini-buses drew up to the church across the road and disgorged their passengers – men in kilts and women in bright dresses for a lovely summer wedding. We didn’t see the bride, but as we set off on our walk we surmised that she and her new husband would be using the palace as a backdrop to their photographs.

Remember the island in the first gallery? It’s tidal, and we had carefully timed our walk so that we could cross the causeway on foot. You can see the Brough of Birsay, its lighthouse, the causeway and a view back to Marwick Head (with the Kitchener Memorial just visible) in the pictures below.

However, it had started to rain just as we arrived – and it rained, and rained, and rained. We did our best to enjoy looking at the small Pictish settlement, and even walked all round the island, but in the end we gave up and went back to the car. This was the wettest (and coldest) we got all holiday and I just kept thinking of that poor wedding party! As we got back to the car, the coaches were pulling away, no doubt to find somewhere drier for the photos.

And that’s the end of my Orkney Saga – but not quite the end of the holiday. Once back on the mainland we spent a few days in the Highlands. More on that soon. In the meantime, Jo has very kindly included this post in her Monday Walks series – a visit to RestlessJo is highly recommended.

Yesnaby and Gurness

I had a very clear memory of the cliffs at Yesnaby and was keen to revisit. The force of the Atlantic has created many stacks and geos and the walk in either direction from the carpark is beautiful. One way, you reach the magnificent stack known as Yesnaby Castle.

The other way, you pass more stacks and geos to reach a ruined broch.

But what I really remembered was this:

Yesnaby 2015
Yesnaby 2015
An archway that I had walked on in 1996. I took one look in 2015 and backed off in the other direction. How could I have done that? But here’s the proof. My knees feel weird just thinking about it now.

Yesnaby 1996
Yesnaby 1996
The weather finally failed us in the afternoon after our walk at Yesnaby, so we headed off in the car to the Broch of Gurness. Even though the sea has eaten away part of the site, there’s still an impression of a bustling Iron Age village with  a cluster of dwellings around the central broch. The red-hooded figure in the background is me. It was dreich!

Only one more episode to go in my Orkney Saga. Stay tuned….

Wideford and Cuween Hills

Bay of Firth from Wideford Hill
Bay of Firth from Wideford Hill

We spent one morning finding holes for John to climb in and out of! The cairn half way up Wideford Hill is a communal tomb dating back to 3000 BC. There’s a box with a torch to help you down the ladder, but I didn’t like the idea of that trapdoor accidentally closing over me so stayed outside. Our intrepid explorer had no such worries:

It’s not a very pleasant climb from the tomb to the top of the hill – lots of stumbling over huge clumps of heather – but the views are rewarding. It’s interesting that the hill was part of an ancient communication system – the site of one of a chain of beacons which would be lit to warn of attacks – and serves a similar function today (well, communication not the attacks). The engineer took a great interest in the different antennae at the radio transmitting station. I continued to enjoy the views.

At the other side of Bay of Firth is Cuween Hill with another Neolithic chambered cairn. Again, I declined to enter – too low!

As we approached the hill, it had looked as though there were standing stones on the top. This seemed odd as we knew there weren’t any – it turned out to be a large number of modern cairns built behind the tomb. Who made them and why are they there? I have no idea – I can’t find an explanation online (though admittedly, I haven’t spent too long looking) or in any of the guidebooks.

In my next Orkney post I terrify myself with memories of 19 years ago.

Stromness and Orphir

Plaque in Stromness
Plaque in Stromness

Stromness is Orkney’s second largest town – its narrow main street hugs the shore with even narrower alleys running off it. It’s an important fishing port, and has been for centuries – though hopefully today’s sailors won’t need the ministrations of Mrs Humphrey as described in the plaque above!

We stayed in Stromness 19 years ago – on this visit, we just popped in a couple of times for lunch and a wander.

It’s a short drive inland back to Kirkwall – but it’s much prettier to follow the south coast and stop off at a few picturesque spots.

Earl's Bu, Orphir
Earl’s Bu, Orphir

Orphir is home to a small museum about the Orkneyinga Saga , a bloodthirsty Viking tale from around 1200 AD. Next to it, you can see the remains of the Earl’s Bu (drinking hall) and the round church which both feature in the stories.

From here, we did a circular walk along the coast and back through farmland, then stopped off at Waukmill Bay and RSPB Hobbister on or way home to Kirkwall. Plenty of opportunities for John to practice his bird-in-flight photography!

We’ve not seen John’s head popping out of a tomb for a while. I’ll rectify that next time.

Skara Brae and Skaill House

Skara Brae
Skara Brae with Skaill House in the background

Skara Brae is a Neolithic fishing and farming village from about 3000 BC. It was buried in sand for centuries, which is probably why it’s so well-preserved, until a huge storm demolished the dunes covering it in 1850. There’s a much swankier visitor centre than when we last visited in 1996, and a replica of one of the houses which I can’t remember seeing before so suspect is also new. You can go inside that, but the real houses can only be viewed from above by walking round the outer walls. Even so, you get a good impression of how people lived with their fireplaces and built-in furniture ingeniously made from stone.

Nearby is Skaill House, home of William Graham Watt (the 7th Laird of Breckness, who unearthed Skara Brae in 1850) and still the current Laird’s family home. The oldest parts of the house date to 1620, but there have been several additions over the years, and in 1996 it was undergoing more renovations. This time we were able to visit – in summer, it’s included in your Skara Brae ticket. Ideas of comfort have, thankfully, moved on since 3000 BC!

Coming next: Stromness and Orphir.

Ness of Brodgar and the standing stones

Ness of Brodgar
Ness of Brodgar excavations

Here’s something that wasn’t there on our last visit to Orkney! Well, it was, but it was buried under a farmer’s field. Ness of Brodgar is a thin finger of land between two lochs – to the south lie the Stones of Stenness and to the north the Ring of Brodgar (see below for more on both). The area is known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 (Skara Brae and Maes Howe are also nearby.) In 2003, a plough uncovered a large, worked stone and subsequent excavations revealed that the entire area of the Ness was covered with 5000 year old structures. We were lucky enough to visit the site on a day when an archaeologist was giving a tour and we spent 90 fascinating minutes having it explained to us and viewing some of the artefacts. The dig only takes place for a few weeks each year – if you are visiting Orkney in 2016, try to be there between 6th July and 24th August.

Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar is a 104m diameter circle with 27 of (possibly) 60 original stones still standing. It’s very dramatic.

Stones of Stenness

This is a smaller circle with four of its original 12 stones – the tallest is a slender 16 feet.

Nearby is Barnhouse, a Neolithic village which was occupied c 3200-2900 BC. What a beautiful place to live – I’d love that view, but only with 21st century living conditions!

Maes Howe

Maes Howe
Maes Howe

Maes Howe is one of Europe’s most impressive Neolithic burial chambers (3000 BC). There’s not much to see but a mound from the outside and photography is not allowed inside. You enter down a long, narrow passage which is aligned so that at the winter solstice the light of the setting sun shines straight down it and illuminates the back of the central chamber. Fortunately for my back, although it’s a small chamber, you can then stand upright. The tomb was discovered in 1861, but was more or less empty by then thanks to centuries of grave-robbing. Some intruders had left their marks – there’s a lot of Viking graffiti! Our guide said they used to call one section the postcard wall, but now she felt it was more like Twitter with its brief updates such as “Thor and I bedded Helga”.

Maes Howe operates on a timed-ticket system and you might have to book a couple of days in advance to get the slot you want, but it’s a must-see. It’s probably one of the two most famous sites on Orkney, the other being Skara Brae. I’ll tell you about it in my next post.

Italian Chapel and Tomb of the Eagles

Churchill Barrier from Italian Chapel
Churchill Barrier from Lamb Holm

The southeast corner of Mainland Orkney is connected to a string of smaller islands by four causeways: the Churchill Barriers. These were built in the Second World War to protect the huge natural harbour of Scapa Flow after a German U-Boat sunk HMS Royal Oak in October 1939. We crossed the Barriers to visit the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm and the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay.

Italian Chapel

Approaching the Italian Chapel head on, you would think it was a stone church. In fact, it was built by Italian prisoners of war out of two Nissen huts and assorted junk! Nothing is what it seems inside either – the brickwork and carvings are all painted plasterboard and the altar is moulded concrete, as is the statue outside of St George slaying the dragon. This is symbolic of the prisoners’ triumph over defeat and loneliness during their years of captivity – no wonder the chapel is also known as the Miracle of Camp 60.

Tomb of the Eagles

Farmer Ronald Simison discovered this neolithic tomb on his land in 1958 – the name refers to the talons and carcasses of sea-eagles which were found alongside human remains. When we visited 19 years ago, Mr Simison was still very much around and the museum was located in the conservatory of the farmhouse: you could even handle the objects, including skulls. Now there is a purpose-built museum with guides to show you the artefacts, but it’s strictly no touching. The tomb itself is a mile along a beautiful cliff walk, passing on the way a Bronze Age burnt mound (prehistoric rubbish dump, basically) and a memorial stone to Ronald and his wife Morgan.

The entrance to the tomb is only 33″ / 85 cm high. Knee pads are available if you wish to crawl, or you can pull yourself in by trolley and rope. 19 years ago, I didn’t have a second thought. This time, I took one look at the entrance and claustrophobia took over. This will be the first of several posts featuring John emerging from a hole in the ground that I was too nervous to go down!

Brough of Deerness and Mull Head

When we returned to the Mainland, we stopped for a walk on its easternmost peninsula, Deerness. We started at the Gloup, a collapsed sea cave with the tide flowing in and out through a natural arch. Next, the Brough of Deerness – a grassy promontory accessed by a precipitous path and steps (when you see a chain fixed to the rock, you know it’s trouble) with the remains of a Norse or Pictish monastic site in the centre. I coped with that, but when we continued on along the cliffs of Mull Head I didn’t enjoy it at all. The path was very close to the edge and there was a strong wind – though I’m here telling you about it, so rest assured I didn’t get blown away.

Coming next: standing stones and visiting an archeological dig.



Kirkwall from the Bishop's Palace
Kirkwall from the Bishop’s Palace
We spent our week in Orkney in its capital, Kirkwall. It’s not a large town, but it has a cathedral, two palaces and a couple of interesting museums.

St Magnus Cathedral

Right in the centre is the cathedral, founded in 1137. Magnus, Earl of Orkney, was murdered in 1117 on the orders of his cousin, Hakon. He died praying, and stories grew of miracles at his grave. When his nephew, Rognvald, came from Norway to claim the Earldom, he promised to build the cathedral in his uncle’s honour. Rognvald himself was murdered in 1158 and also became a saint – the bones of both men lie within the cathedral’s walls.

The Palaces

South of the Cathedral are the ruins of the Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces. The Earl in question was the notorious Patrick Stewart – we last met him in Scalloway Castle, another of his dwellings. He used forced labour to build the palace In Kirkwall between 1600 and 1607, but was only able to enjoy it for a short time before he was imprisoned and charged with treason in 1610. Foolishly, he encouraged his son, Robert, to organise an insurrection. It didn’t end well for them: Robert was hanged and his father beheaded in 1615. It’s not likely that the people of Orkney and Shetland shed many tears, as the Stewart Earls had a reputation for despotism and extortion. You have to admire Patrick’s taste though – his Palace is a beautiful example of Scottish Renaissance architecture.

The Bishop’s Palace is less well-preserved, much of what is left dating to the time of Bishop Robert Reid (1541-58). Climbing the tower allows a good view of Kirkwall (see top of post) and an additional perspective on the Cathedral.

Museums and Library

Orkney Museum is housed in the 16th century Tankerness House (look to the right of the lamp-post in the picture of Broad Street and the Mercat Cross below. It’s the house with the arched entrance: you can also see it in the top picture). It’s interesting, but feels rather old-fashioned after visiting Shetland’s splendid new museum in Lerwick. We had a go at writing our names in runes and strolled round the adjoining gardens.

The tiny Wireless Museum is packed to the roof with antique equipment. I found some of the displays of interest from a social history point of view, but the technical stuff was lost on me. As a quid pro quo, our next port of call was – you’ve guessed it – Orkney Library. This is a very special place – read more on my other blog, Adventures of a Retired Librarian.

Streets of Orkney

Wandering the streets from the Cathedral down to the harbour will while away a happy hour.

Orkney by night

The cathedral and the streets around it take on an attractive glow by night. We spent one happy evening in The Reel listening to traditional music from the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society (and enjoying some local beer at the same time).

Kirkwall was a good base for exploring Orkney’s Mainland and a wee bit beyond. Coming next: The Italian Chapel and Tomb of the Eagles.

Orkney and Shetland – 1996 and 2015

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Look at the map of Scotland on the left. See the two sets of islands at the top right corner? That’s where we spent our holidays this summer. The archipelago at the north-east tip of Scotland is Orkney and the one further north still is Shetland. They have only been part of Scotland since the 1460s when the impoverished Christian I of Norway mortgaged them in lieu of dowry for his daughter, Margaret, who married James III. The mortgage has never been redeemed, but there’s still a strong Nordic influence.

We last visited in 1996 and vowed to return – though it has obviously taken us a while. So what has changed and what has stayed the same over 19 years?

The journey

MV Hrossey
MV Hrossey

We followed exactly the same route as last time – overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland, a five-hour crossing from there to Orkney and a final short hop back to Scrabster on the mainland. However, the ships have improved somewhat. My memory of the overnight crossing 19 years ago is of bunk beds and a trek down the corridor to the facilities. This time, we had a rather nice en suite cabin to enjoy. Well, until someone visited the bathroom in the night and, because of the small space and the sea-swell, set the hairdryer going by knocking it off the wall. By the time he worked out how to put it back (for it was the follicly challenged one – he doesn’t need to know these things normally) the whole ship was probably awake.

The sights

Mareel, Lerwick, Shetland
Mareel, Lerwick, Shetland

Neolithic sites don’t change much, and there’ll be plenty about those in subsequent posts. The change we did notice was that many places we had visited 19 years ago now had new, or upgraded, visitor centres, museums and other cultural buildings. For example The Mareel, above, is a music, cinema and creative industries centre on one of Lerwick’s quaysides. Tourism felt more professional, but sometimes that meant the loss of a quirky charm.


Anabel 1996
Anabel 1996

Here I am on the ferry leaving Stromness (Orkney) in 1996. I’m now (obviously) older, heavier, greyer, and with poorer eyesight. Much the same is true of John. But some things haven’t changed! I bought that jacket for the 1996 trip – and it’s still my go-to hill-walking jacket. In fact, I took it with me this year but only wore it once because the weather was warmer. Not only that, but I was carrying the same small rucksack and John was wearing one of the same pairs of walking trousers. (Alas, they have now had their day. He sat on a rock and tore them on a jaggy bit when he stood up.) I don’t say this to make us sound parsimonious (maybe we are) but to say congratulations Paramo, Eagle Creek and Rohan – your products last!

Finally, we have less energy than 19 years ago. When I read my old diary and see the number of things we did each day I think we must have been up at the crack of dawn. I prefer a more leisurely start these days, but we still packed a fair amount in and John (mostly) took hundreds of photographs. Stay tuned for more, starting with Lerwick in Shetland tomorrow.