Our Visit to the Orkney Islands Mainland

by | May 22, 2018 | History, Travel

We visited Scotland’s Orkney Mainland in search of Neolithic tombs, prehistoric monuments, Viking graffiti, Highland coos, Holy Relics, Scotch and maybe a sheep or two. We were not disappointed. 


Some vacations are just vacations. Every so often, a vacation defies you to label it as a vacation. It changes you. It shifts your perspective. It demands that you disconnect from the daily grind of life. Our 2018 Scotland Trip was one of those vacations. It played out like a serialized story with different chapters holding the details of our amazing odyssey in the country once ruled by Scottish Highlanders and Norsemen. This particular chapter starts in Scrabster on the Queen Elizabeth Pier while waiting in Popeye’s Pub for the ferry to the Orkney Island’s Mainland. 

Ferry Ride 

Anxiety over missing the ferry had us up early. It is not surprising, we were the second car in the queue for the Northlink Ferry. At 9 am, we had plenty of time to kill. So, we went to Popeye’s, the local pub. Some of us had coffee and some of us had a dram. 

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It was in the pub we learned from a local the reason for the parade of police vehicles on the A9 as we approached the city of Thurso. After the first dozen or so police vehicles, we lost count. Since they were the only other vehicles on the road, it was quite noticeable. We speculated about the reason but none of our wild ideas came close. Our new friend at the pub said, “His son overheard someone say to someone else at the next table in the cafe, they were escorting nuclear waste from the airport so it could be shipped to the United States.” OMG! Hand me that bottle of Scotch. 

After that, our 90-minute ferry ride to Orkney was dull by comparison. Just outside of Stromness, we passed the Old Man of Hoy on the island of Hoy. 

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Chuck’s beard always gets the last word. 

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Tomb of the Eagles 

One of the primary reasons for visiting the Orkney Islands was the Tomb of the Eagles. While planning our trip to Scotland, we watched a BBC documentary about it. Chuck became obsessed. 

At the visitor center, the guide gives a short talk about the site. They passed around objects, not the skulls, and provided theories about there use.  For the skulls, they suggested how the person may have died or their age. They even complimented their dental hygiene. 

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After the talk, you leave the visitor center and walk about a mile across a field before you hike a short distance along the edge of the North Sea to the Tomb, which is literally on the edge of a cliff. I’m told you can sometimes see Orcas. We didn’t see any but Angie spotted a fin in the Scapa Flow as we were driving to the Tomb of the Eagles. 

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To access the tomb you lay on an oversized skateboard and pull yourself into the tomb. It looks scary but it was quite exciting. 

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Let us pause for a second and remind ourselves when the tomb was built, late 4th millennium BC. That is the Bronze Age kids, which is when writing was invented! About 1,000 years after that, the sea eagle bones were deposited in the chamber. It blows your mind, doesn’t it? You have to wonder why the eagles were important enough to add to the tomb so many years later.

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Not far from the Tomb of the Eagle is another site called Bronze Age site. In the middle of it is a watertight trough. (You’ll see these again at Skara Brae.) The guide at the visitor center shared two possible theories about this site: it could have been a sauna or a place to cook food. They know rocks were heated in a fire pit before putting them into the water trough. Both theories were tested and worked. Did you know that once a rock is used to boil water it can’t be used again? Well, it could be used again, it just wouldn’t work as well for heating water. Since there were no artifacts (such as animal bones or cooking tools) left at the site to support that it  had been used as a kitchen, our guide strongly supports the sauna theory. 

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Chuck testing the sauna theory. 

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Highland Coos

Can you visit Scotland and not have a picture of a hairy cow? We spotted these juveniles on our way to Kirkwall. A few fun facts about them:

  1. Highland Cows are the oldest registered breed of cattle in the world. 
  2. They come in different colors: red, yellow, brindle, dun, silver, white and also black.
  3. They are very friendly and often demand attention. 

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Maeshowe Chambered Cairn

Sitting in the middle of a sheep pasture, the Maeshowe Chambered Cairn looks like a speed bump. You amble along a narrow footpath, escorted by a guide to one of Orkney Islands’ most mysterious monuments. Like the Tomb of the Eagles, we had to enter the main chamber through an entrance passage. This passage was bigger, 7-meter long and a meter high. It doesn’t require a skateboard or crawling but you can’t stand straight up. Our guide suggested that the height of the passage was a way to impart the reverence of this place as you have to bow to enter. Pictures are not allowed inside the chamber. However, we can tell you that the inside is striking with Viking graffiti carved in runes all over the chamber’s walls and the amazing Maeshowe Dragon.

The Tomb of the Eagles made us pause and consider the history of the world but Maeshowe is awe-inspiring. I’m sure much of the awe is attributed to the guide. He was funny, smart, and a bit of showman. He provided interpretations of the runes. He could have been making shit up but I believed every word. Now I can’t remember what he said but it was funny as hell. He provided history and context. All in all, a great experience. 

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Standing Stones of Stenness

Feeling empowered, we attempted time travel. Finding no answers to the purpose of the standing stone or a time travel portal, we consulted the Monuments of Orkney Visitors Guide

We can never be certain of the intentions of the builders, but this may be a good example of a Neolithic community locating and designin a monument to relate to the wider landscape.

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Ring of Brodgar 

Still looking for answers, we visited the Ring of Brodgar. Chuck tried to order a large burrito and a Pepsi; another theory we can cross off the list, it is not a prehistoric Taco Bell. 

This is a classic henge site, with a ditch surroundin its platform. Twenty-seven of the 60 possible standing stones survive, set around the circumference. 

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Skara Brae

We spent many hours researching things to see and do during our Scotland trip and the Visit Orkney site came up over and over again during our Sunday afternoon trip planning marathons. They definitely sold us on the Skara Brae! 

This stunning archaeological site on the shores of the bay of Skaill is reputed to be the best preserved Stone Age village in Europe. It is one of Orkney’s most popular attractions. Prepare to be amazed!

Chuck found the signposts along the way to the site intriguing as they drive home how old it is. As you walk, the signs provide a timeline starting with the present and work backward in time to the building of Skara Brae. Long before you reach Skara Brae, you pass the Great Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge. We usually think of the pyramids as ancient, yet Skara Brae is older!

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One sign said, “Skara Brae was inhabited for several centuries. Archaeologists think that the settlement did not grow larger than eight structures housing 50 to 100 people.” The handy Monuments of Orkney Visitors Guide provides the following detail: 

Each house comprised a single room, about 6m by 6m, divided into separte zones. At the centre lay the hearth. On the wall opposite the door stood a stone dresser. To either side there were stone beds and other furnishings. Beside the dresser there were small, watertight troughs that may have been used to keep food or bait fresh. 

Skaill House

Skaill House wasn’t on our itinerary. Since it was included on the Skara Brae ticket, we said, “Why not?” It was a quirky diversion and haunted. 

Thank goodness we didn’t encounter any ghosts. 

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Because some of us have a 10-year old’s sense of humor. We drove to Twatt but all the signs were missing. Clearly, Chuck wasn’t the only person who found the sign funny. 

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Not far from the house we rented was a trifecta of history: the Saint Magnus Cathedral, the Earl’s Palace and the Bishop’s Palace.  

Saint Magnus Cathedral

Construction of the Saint Magnus Cathedral started in 1137 and continued over the next three hundred years. The story of the founding of St Magnus Cathedral is documented within the pages of the Orkneyinga saga. If you are in search of Holy Relics, you can find both Saint Magnus’ and Saint Ronvald’s holy remains in one of the church’s many columns. 

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The Earl’s Palace

Patrick, Earl of Orkney had a bit of a bad boy reputation. Wikipedia has the best narrative and I had to share.  

The palace was built after Patrick, Earl of Orkney, decided that the accommodation provided by the Bishop’s Palace was inadequate for his needs. Earl Patrick is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most tyrannical noblemen in Scotland’s history. He decided to extend the complex by building a new palace on the adjoining land. This was complicated by the fact he did not actually own this property. He quickly acquired it by fabricating charges of theft against the unfortunate owner, trying him and having him executed. 

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The Bishop’s Palace

There is a great view from of the St. Magnus Cathedral from the Bishop’s Palace. 

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Scapa Distillery

At the very last minute, we booked a tour of the Scapa Distillery. No pictures were allowed inside the facility, but we snapped a few “legal” shots. They make some tasty beverages that we all enjoyed.

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Broch of Gurness

It is hard to appreciate the history of the Broch of Gurness. We walked through the same doorways used by someone in  500 and 200 BC. That is some solid craftsmanship! 

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The Woolshed

Angie found the Woolshed in the Craft Trail Guild and as we were buzzing down the road, she said, “Turn here!” So we did and had the most amazing experience yet. At the end of a farm lane is the “Woolshed”. It is in an “Old stone built Orkney steading overlooking the spectacular Eyehallow Sound.” Our reason for stopping, to get Chuck a handmade sweater from Scotland. Denise, the owner of the Woolshed, greeted us and shared the stories of the artists who crafted the sweaters and the sheep who provided the wool, Chuck was in deep. I’m pretty sure he would have bought the shed if she’d asked. 

Chuck bought a sweater and purse for me made from the wool of seaweed-eating sheep. According to Denise, who is an authority on sheep, seaweed-eating sheep are strong-willed and when corralled they can leave a hoof mark on your shoulder. I had the sense this has happened to her on more than one occasion. 

Denise produces the wool for the yarn and sends it to the “Mad Knitters” on the islands. They knit the sweaters, bags, and cozies she sells. Chuck was happy to purchase a sweater and Angie is crossing off her bucket list, holding a baby lamb. 

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Stop by the gallery for more photos from our visit to Orkney.

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