A distinguished friend of mine once described Stokesay Castle, in deepest Shropshire, as ‘the Tutankhamun’s tomb of English architecture’. If you were to broaden the scope to the British Isles, I would submit that the title should go to Orkney, that wonderful collection of some seventy islands separated from the mainland of Britain by six miles of turbulent and troubled waters, the Pentland Firth.
So it was no surprise when my group, Men of the Stones, based between the East Midlands and East Anglia, leapt at a suggestion idly dropped into one of our meetings that we should take a week and travel to Orkney. The train buffs put up a strong case for travel by rail, others wanted to fly, but in the event the entire group of 30 went by coach with our usual provider, A C Williams Coaches from Ancaster, Lincolnshire. We were so pleased we did.
Inverness, the Loch Ness monster’s urban address (though never knowingly sighted there) is, frankly, not all that compelling, but our hotel overlooked the River Ness and Inverness Castle and the food was tasty and plentiful, so no real complaints. The following day we travelled north up the east coastal route, with the great expanse of the Flow Country, one of the largest peat bogs in the world, to our left.
A stop at Helmsdale included the town’s museum where, among some pretty heartstopping exhibits, we noted the jaws of sheep with gold-plated teeth, leading to comments about NHS excesses north of the border. It was then realised that gold had been mined in the nearby hills and streams, and 19th century sheep taking a drink from the burn benefited from the pannings.
We travelled next to the Castle of Mey, bought by the Queen Mother in 1952, said by some to provide herself with a refuge after the death of her husband, George VI. Lovingly conserved, more recently with input from Prince Charles, the castle is now open to the public, has a visitor centre which should be compulsory viewing for other stately home owners treading the same path, and is gorgeous in its simplicity and location of wide seascapes.
Stories of the Queen Mother from those who knew and cared for her were told with affection and clarity, none of the nasty innuendo that sometimes accompanies tales about ‘the owners’. Without doubt a highlight of the week; only the thoughts of what lay beyond, as well as the ferry times, finally dragged us away.
Passing the high cliffs off Hoy we edged round a corner of the Sound in the late evening to the Kirkwall Hotel, in a commanding position at the top of the harbour. We were looked after well here. When a massive cruise ship of Mediterranean origins put in for a day, we were able to sit in our room with our evening drams and watch the passengers all queuing for the boats to return on board, with hardly a smile among them, poor souls. This despite the local shops reducing the price of a bottle of the fine local malt to £20 for the day!
Orkney is a strange but attractive mix of farming, military bits and pieces, low islands, stunning atmospheres and above all, and what we had really come to see, the outstanding archaeological remains, a very living presence dating from the Neolithic, via the Bronze Age to the Vikings and onwards. These days it is hard to believe that until 1956 it was a major naval base, but every so often poignant reminders raised memories.
One of these was the exquisite Italian Chapel, made from two joined Nissen huts on Lamb Holm by the Italian POW labour force. Said to be the most visited attraction in the islands now, it still retains utter tranquillity and was gifted to the people of Orkney in 1960 by the Italian who had masterminded its construction.
Another was Skara Brae, 5,000 years old, covered for much of the time by erosion and so in remarkable condition. Between the settlements of Rackwick and Quoys on the island of Hoy, in a glacial valley more akin to the Highlands, stands the Dwarfie Stane, a truly massive chunk of rock, a Neolithic chambered tomb cut into its bulk, said to be 3,000 years old. Looking down from its smooth top to our coach on the valley floor made an impressive comparison.
A call upon Britain’s most northerly working whisky distillery, Highland Park, summoned up a male intern, who gave initial signs of having been the last person to duck below the parapet when the call for guides came, but turned out to be superb in his knowledge and wit as he took us round this very sacred home to the production of the nectar. A Martello tower on the island of South Walls gave well-preserved evidence of earlier bellicose activities.
As we criss-crossed the islands on ferries and narrow connecting links, we came to realise how much history surrounded us, both early and more recent. So much to see, so little time. We kept the best for our final day, returning from further travels to a final supper in a restaurant on the outskirts of Kirkwall, a time for jollity, reflection, recall, and good honest cheer. Phase Two was to reboard the coach and head for the Ring of Brodgar, a great assembly of standing stones that makes Stonehenge look rather compact. Originally comprising 60 stones it now comprises only 27, but the location not far from the Loch of Harray and the surrounding archaeology makes it outstanding.
It was a gloomy and windswept night, with lots of atmosphere as the stones loomed above us, and made an ideal point of detachment as we headed for the terminal to catch the Aberdeen ferry back to the mainland. We enjoyed a comfortable journey before breakfast on board and disembarkation for the long journey back to Lincolnshire. We had travelled back in time and were well content.