Co-ordinates: 58° 57’ N – 3° 17’ W
Air temperature: 18° C
Wind: 16 knots
After a windy night with turbulent seas, we made a welcome landfall in the Orkney Islands. Awaking to pale blue skies and scudding clouds, the beautiful former whaling town of Stromness, located at the west end of Scapa Flow, looked enchanting. 18th-century stone wharves and fishing buildings gable-on to the coast provided a backdrop to the morning’s excursion. After breakfast we headed to the west mainland of Orkney to see a number of the major Neolithic sites from the area designated by UNESCO as “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney”. The 5,000 year old village of Skara Brae embraces the crescentic bay of Skaill and marks the settlement of some of the first permanent settlers in Orkney who farmed the rich undulating Old Red Sandstone slopes and fished the rich seas around the islands. The buildings are standing in some cases almost to full height, perhaps nearly 3 metres or so, and the internal fittings are evocative of an agricultural life spent amidst the gently rolling landscape. The reconstruction of one of the main houses enables a good insight and understanding to be gained of the internal space and the inevitable dominance of the large central fireplace – the focus of all activities, and source of heat and light. A brief visit to nearby Skaill House, built in 1620 and the home of the landowner of Skara Brae who initially found the site following storms in the 1800s, shed light on the time capsule of the period.
Elsewhere, a foray to the magnificent ring of standing stones known as the Ring of Brodgar provided an insight into the ritual aspects of Prehistory within the World Heritage complex.
Free time to explore the Stromness’ stone streets and narrow alleys in the afternoon also allowed a chance to visit the renowned Pier Arts Centre and its famous collection of Barbara Hepworth sculptures and St Ives School artworks complemented by the wealth of Orcadian works. The spectacular quality of the light on the naked hillsides of Orkney has acted as a magnet for several artists from around the UK who work in ceramics, photography and other artistic media.
Our departure was delayed by the swift onset of severe localized squalls that pinned the vessel to the pier. This presaged what turned out to be a somewhat uncomfortable night on board as we headed westwards along the Pentland Firth towards our next destination on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.