Day 9 |
May 23, 2011

Stromness, Orkney, UK

By Victoria Salem, Historian

Co-ordinates: 58°58’N – 003°18’W
Weather: Steady rain & wind squalls in morning; occasional sun in afternoon
Air temperature: +13°C

When I woke up at 7.15am we were already docked in Stromness, Orkney. It had been quite a lively night and it was very pleasant to be able to get up and go to breakfast without lurching around! After stocking up well with a cooked breakfast (mindful of the rain and wind outside), I headed out towards Bus 2 on the pier. Having greeted 25 guests, I climbed aboard with relief and looked forward to sitting back and watching Orkney pass by. Our overall impression was of a peaceful, green, rolling, very fertile farming landscape, without trees, well drained and with frequent pools and sea-lochs. It is not difficult to believe that the best land here has been farmed for several thousand years.

Our guide, Sheena, was able to give us lots of information about what we were seeing, interspersed with anecdotes on local life. We saw our first (but not last) oyster-catchers of the day as we approached the lochs of Harray (fresh water) and Stenness (salt water). From here we were to go back in time nearly 5000 years…Just before heading out to the standing stones, we caught a glimpse of the impressive Neolithic chambered cairn of Maes Howe to our right. This grass-covered mound has a stone tomb at its core, consisting of a large central chamber, with side chambers leading off it. There are no bones in Maes Howe now, but we know it has sheltered many travellers (who may have disturbed it) over the last few thousand years; the most famous were Vikings returning from the crusades in the 12th century, who left graffiti carved into the walls - the gist of which is very similar to 21st century graffiti!

Our first stop and opportunity to venture outside to test out the challenging weather conditions came a few minutes later. Our bus halted at the four remaining standing stones of Stenness, thought to be the earlier of the two stone circles here and containing the tallest stone of all, measuring over five metres high. There is a stone hearth and remains of a dolmen associated with these stones, though the circle, probably erected around 3000 BCE, may never have been completed before work started on the neighbouring Ring of Brodgar.

About a mile further on, on the other side of the road (past the sinister “watchstone” guarding the causeway) we arrived at the more complete Ring of Brodgar, dating back to around 2500 BCE. 27 of a probable total of 60 stones (sandstone) are still standing in a circle 104 ft (32 m) in diameter. The whole site is surrounded by a massive ditch and each stone is set a precise 6˚ from its neighbour; there is much speculation as to the purpose and meaning of the Ring of Brodgar. Taken together with the many other Neolithic structures in the area – including a tomb, many individual standing stones, another stone circle and a village – Orkney must have been a place of some importance and sophistication in the third millennium BCE. Some archaeologists believe that the Ring of Brodgar may have been built as an astronomic computer, its surrounding ditch representing the sun’s photosphere...

After driving on for approximately five miles, our next step back in time was to 3100 BCE, when we entered the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. Walkways enable visitors to gaze down into these ancient houses, set into midden deposits and covered by sand until the mid-19th century. Since there were only a few scrubby trees in Orkney at that time (there are still only a few and they have been deliberately planted) the houses and most of their furnishings were built of stone, so have survived until today. Stone dressers for display and storage, stone beds and seats, fishbait boxes and even indoor toilets with drainage were laid out before the fascinated gaze of those of us brave enough to leave the bus. A fabulous, clean sandy beach with a peaceful lapping of the sea would have given the place a Caribbean feel, but for the extreme weather conditions and lack of palm trees. The wide, flat, sandy shore was backed by a boulder beach of flat boulders exactly like those used to build Skara Brae. Fortunately, our clear-headed guide Sheena had the sense to gather us together for our briefing inside the reconstructed house at Skara Brae, which most importantly, had been roofed!

Before we headed back to the ship for lunch and to relax after a busy morning, we just had time to look around nearby Skaill House, former home of the Laird of Skaill, discoverer of Skara Brae in 1850. Skaill House is one of the most complete 17th century mansion houses in Orkney and is surrounded by lawns and gardens. It has been lovingly restored and highlights include a typical Orcadian chair, Captain Cook’s dinner service and the bedroom of the last resident (as recent as the 1990s) with many of her clothes and personal possessions on display.

After being introduced to the island’s indigenous species of sheep and some grazing Shetland ponies, we were soon back at Silver Explorer, very ready for a hot bowl of soup before venturing outdoors again. The most intrepid of us were greeted by a hint of blue sky and intermittent sunshine (though still very windy) when we emerged again at 2.30pm. I joined one of three guided walking tours through historic Stromness. Although I’d been here several times before, I hadn’t realised how much history this small town has concealed behind its grey walls – indeed, revealed on the outside of many buildings by means of frequent blue explanatory plaques. As we wound our way along Stromness’ sinuous main street - often side-tracking up little alleys where we had to squeeze between the houses and constantly diverging down lanes to the sea – two names cropped up again and again: Alexander Graham and John Rae.

Alexander Graham was an Orkney hero from the 18th century, affecting the lives of all Stromness merchants; he led a fierce, long-lasting, but ultimately successful battle to free the businessmen of Stromness from taxation by the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall, in 1743. Dr John Rae was active more than 100 years later, in the mid-19th century. It was he who, during his time with the Hudson Bay Company, discovered the fate of the 1845 Franklin Expedition (including evidence of cannibalism) and therefore participated in forging the last link to navigate the Arctic’s North West Passage.

After a brief stop at Orkney’s wonderful little museum, we all headed back (via a bit of shopping and maybe an Orkney ice cream stop!) to Silver Explorer and were on board by 4.30pm. At 5.30pm we were summoned by Expedition Leader Conrad to Recap & Briefing, as he had important news for us…In true expedition style, we discovered that Captain Peter Stahlberg and Conrad had together made the decision NOT to sail for Aberdeen tonight. The weather chart presented a fearsome picture and the safe choice was to remain at the pier in Stromness until the worst of the system had passed, then sail slowly and safely for Leith, our final destination, tomorrow. This wise decision was applauded by the majority of guests, and we ended recap on a cheerful note, with myths and romantic tales from Victoria, fascinating underwater photos from around Orkney from Shoshanah and the true story of the Spanish Armada (a number of whose ships were wrecked off Orkney) from Gordon.

Every cloud has a silver lining. We were able to enjoy the Captain’s Farewell Cocktails and dinner in peace and quiet and even pop out into Stromness for a last Scottish beer, before getting a good night’s sleep.