It is always a unique pleasure to have two weeks holiday in one go. I rarely manage it – the last time in 2015 – and it is even rarer for me to stay in one place for the whole fortnight; I can’t recall the last time I did so – unless you count Peru in 2010, of which the first few days were a conference, and the next 10 a tour around the country. This holiday, Colin and I have taken one cottage for the whole two weeks (albeit that we spent two nights away from it, last week, on Westray and Papay) and this is a wonderful, relaxing, and rare treat.
Hoy, South Walls and Flotta
Our first excursion in this second week, was to the south western islands of the Orkney archipelago. We couldn’t visit them all, but it was fairly easy, in a day trip, to take the ferry across from Houton on the southern coast of the main island across to Lyness on Hoy, drive across the causeway from there to South Walls, and get off the ferry on its way back from Hoy on the island of Flotta, catching it again an hour and a half later to get back to Houton.
The single really rewarding and indeed awe-inspiring sight on this trip was the famous Dwarfie Stane on Hoy. This incomparable marvel of the ancient world, contemporary with the other Neolithic archaeology of the Orkneys, is a single huge stone – a glacial erratic dropped millennia before in a stunning glacial gorge through the mountainous territory of Hoy – that has been painstakingly hollowed out, to provide a small chambered tomb. The amount of work required – with bone and stone tools – and the simply stunning location, are surely signs that this must have been a very special burial, indeed. The plug-stone, that sealed the tomb, now lies outside it, where it was pushed by grave-robbers who broke into the chambers from above (the roof now repaired by conservators). I have never seen anything like it, and indeed I believe there is nothing else like it anywhere in the UK, at least. Simply magnificent – though, as Colin said, it was perhaps disappointing not to see any dwarves.
The rest of Hoy, South Walls, and Flotta, I’m sorry to say, that we saw, are rather drab. The whole area is littered with World War I and II remains, rotting, rusting and crumbling away, sad shells of what were once hastily put-together barracks, munitions buildings, ‘batteries’, and gun emplacements. Oh, and, of course, the 1970s North Sea oil terminal on Flotta. The general feel of these islands, then, away from the ancient grandeur of the glacial interior and its megalithic jewel, is one of decay, waste, and the worst of 20th century industry and refuse.
By the end of the day, then, although happy to be able to tick off three more islands from our spreadsheet – including one of the ‘Top 20’ largest scottish islands (Hoy) – we were glad to return to Unigar cottages.
The contrast, on our next excursion, could not have been greater. Taking the (very) early morning flight from Kirkwall – 15 minutes in the same plane that took us from Westray to Papa Westray – we flew to the furthest north of the Orkney Islands: North Ronaldsay. This island is even smaller than Papay, and has only one archaeological jewel: the ‘Stan Stane’ (disappointingly merely Scottish dialect for ‘Standing Stone’). This stone is, however, at over 13ft high, one of the tallest standing stones in the Orkneys (the tallest being on the island of Eday – which we’re saving for our next trip to the northern isles). The Stan Stane is said to have been the site of annual dancing among the locals, on the New Year.
It sports, moreover, uniquely, a small hole in the middle, although there seems not to be any record of marriage or birthing rituals similar to those at the holed stone at Stenness.
North Ronaldsay also boasts a unique breed of sheep. DNA tests on bones found in Scara Brae suggest that the North Ronaldsay breed are in fact likely the survivors of the sheep first brought to the northern isles at the start of the Neolithic here, c4000BC. A small, hardy breed, some grey, some black, some white, and a few brown or ‘tanny’ in colour, they were kept, when the rest of the island was given over to cattle, by the building of a wall or dyke all around the island, demarcating the beach area for sheep, and the inland pasture for cows. North Ronaldsay sheep, as a result, eat seaweed, and can develop copper poisoning if allowed to eat too much pasture. Their mutton is said to have a distinctive flavour, as a result, and is much prized at specialist restaurants. The lady in the Post Office claimed to have sold some of her sheep to The Star Inn, Harome – one of my favourite restaurants, where Colin and I had our 2nd Anniversary. (After Honeymooning on the Isle of Arran, our first anniversary was in Lerwick, Shetland, our third on the Isle of Coll.)
We had a fascinating tour of the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse – though I elected not to climb to the top, after our four mile walk from the airport to the Stan Stane to the lighthouse, and with another two and half miles yet to walk back! But after a lovely lunch in the little cafe, (though there was no mutton on sale!) I could not resist a ‘tanny’ North Ronaldsay sheepskin from the little Lighthouse shop, and we walked back to the airport via Linklet bay, watched all the way by the seals.
The full gallery of photographs is, as ever, on Flickr