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In Orkney, there are seals at the bottom of the garden

July 16, 2010

After missing two weeks of tree posts, please allow me to make amends by offering you….no trees. Shifting cloudscapes, sandy beaches, towering cliffs, magical rings of standing stones, seals, puffins, arctic terns, hares, loons, lapwings, coral, salt spray and the finest whisky in the world…but no trees. Well, not so as you’d notice (with apologies to my Orcadian friends!) For we have just spent a week in the islands of Orkney, off the northern tip of Scotland at the same latitude as Hudson’s Bay and Siberia, and I have fallen in love. Not with a burly bearded fisherman in orange oilskins, though we met plenty of those cheerful souls. Predictably, I have fallen in love with Orkney itself.

Lacking both the time and the eloquence to do justice to Orkney in words, I can do no better than to share some pictures with you from our magical week. Perhaps they will give a taste of the allure of the islands.


Stromness is where the ferry from the northern-most edge of the Scottish mainland makes harbour, after crossing the unpredictable waters of the Pentland Firth. The lifeboat is not here for decoration.

We had a beach at the bottom of our garden. The day we arrived, the Atlantic Ocean looked as mild as milk.

a paradise for little boys

cloudscape off Marwick Head

We experienced every kind of weather – sometimes all at once! This ominous grey cloud brought just a spatter of rain, but gales followed over the next couple of days.

The Ring of Brodgar

Orkney is famous for its extraordinary wealth of Neolithic remains – the boys had great fun chasing each other around this five thousand year-old stone circle – although I was just as struck by its birdlife and wonderful wild flowers.

wild flowers in South Ronaldsay, looking out towards the Pentland Skerries

marsh orchid, I believe

Inevitably, I failed to get any decent shots of the birds here, which is a shame as they are one of the most striking features of the islands. Being on the migration route to Iceland and the Arctic, Orkney plays host to an impressive variety of birds. Next time I come, I will bring binoculars and a decent book to enlighten my avian ignorance.

Of all the beautiful spots we saw, perhaps the most enchanting was the little island of Graemsay. We went there to meet Sian, whose own delightful blog, Life on a Small Island, is probably largely responsible for my wanting to visit Orkney in the first place! We had a wonderful relaxing day there thanks to her.

By a charming quirk, one beach on Graemsay is made up of shells and cold water coral,

while the beach on the other side of the jetty is fine white sand.

I indulged in a little daydream of doing up this perfect wee cottage by the beach: Sian’s hens might not take kindly to being evicted, however!

As well as a high number of abandoned stone crofts, crying out for love and attention, Orkney has some truly exceptional buildings. For example, St.Magnus Cathedral in the capital, Kirkwall, founded in the twelfth century to house the remains of Earl Magnus:

St.Magnus Cathedral, west end

a weathered side door in the west front of the cathedral

the moving Italian Chapel on Lambsholm, constructed from Nissen huts by Italian prisoners of war during World War Two and dedicated to Our Lady of Peace:

and of course, the world famous Skara Brae, a five thousand year-old township which is only one of many Stone Age settlements on Orkney.

Great views, but perhaps the roof needs a little work

For whisky lovers, the most important building on the island has to be Highland Park Distillery, home of arguably the finest spirit on Earth (and I’m not the only person who thinks so). We made a pilgrimage to it at the end of our week and were pleased to discover that the distillery is almost as beguiling as its end product.

the Water of Life, maturing slowly in a distillery warehouse

But it was the beaches that drew us back again and again, in every weather. One stormy evening I did indeed see seals at the bottom of the garden: a common seal and two greys further out, bobbing in the high tide amongst the torn seaweed, watching me as I watched them.

no seals in this photo, but plenty of white horses

the garden gate with the sea beyond

We can’t wait to go back.

See also: the lure of the liminal

20 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2010 8:23 pm

    Helloooooooooooo! What beautiful, atmospheric photos. We have been considering a holiday in Orkney for a while but this lovely post has made us realise we will DEFINITELY go to Orkney – thank you!

  2. July 16, 2010 8:54 pm

    I’m so glad you too fell in love with Orkney! Do come back – you must visit some of the other “isles” too, they are all quite different. I love your photos – they really capture the atmosphere of the landscape. It was so lovely meeting you and your family – I hope you return soon!

  3. July 17, 2010 12:43 am

    Your photo essay on the Orkney Islands is beautiful! By coincidence I had just found Sheila of Skalpay Linens and read her blog from start to most recent post. Life on this other side of the Atlantic is strikingly similar to life in the northwest of Scotland, and yet very different too.

  4. July 17, 2010 7:23 am

    Thank you for a gorgeous post. I love Sian’s blog too. I’ve always been fascinated by Orkney’s history & I would love to visit one day. Until then, I can dream & read your post again.

  5. July 17, 2010 4:01 pm

    A few years ago, I visited Skye and was totally enthralled with the vastness and emptiness of it. Sian’s blog has me yearning to visit her island next time. I am just a wee bit jealous you got to meet her.

  6. Irene permalink
    July 17, 2010 4:17 pm

    What beautiful pictures of our delighful wee island. I cinsider myself very fortunate to live here and after 25 years, still wonder at the beauty of it—in all weathers!

    It was lovely to meet you all—haste ye back!

  7. July 17, 2010 7:46 pm

    Thanks for the lovely photo memories of our trip to the Orkneys several years ago. Unfortunately that was before we got to “know” Sian through her blog. We’ll be near Oxford in about 10 days, but maybe we’ll get up to Scotland again before too much longer. We surely would love to meet you lovely ladies in person.

  8. July 18, 2010 5:18 pm

    Such exquisite photographs of Orkney.
    Thank you for them.

  9. dancingbeastie permalink
    July 18, 2010 7:44 pm

    It’s a pleasure to share pictures of such a beautiful place; I am glad that you have enjoyed them. Everything was so photogenic that it’s hard to know what to leave out! Sian and Irene, thank you again for a very special day and for sharing Graemsay with us!

  10. Liz permalink
    July 22, 2010 6:38 pm

    We had our best family holidays (five in a row) in Orkney, and each year plan to go back and then something intervenes. Thanks for reminding me why we must make the effort!

  11. July 23, 2010 11:13 pm

    Wow, what beautiful photos. I’ve only had time for a quick zoom through but will bea back to browse at leisure soon (it’s past my bed time, I’ve been promising myself an “early” night for days…)

  12. August 8, 2010 8:04 pm

    A rather late comment, I’m afraid (am just catching up with favourite blogs). Have just finished Andrew Greig’s excellent ‘In Another Light’, which is set, predominantly, on Orkney so your wonderful post and photos are very timely. And now I want to go there too . . .

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      August 8, 2010 9:17 pm

      If you should want further Orcadian inspiration, I must beg you to have a read of anything by the native Orcadian, George Mackay Brown. His works just sing, and his inspiration is all Orkney. He really was somebody who could see the world in a grain of sand.

  13. August 15, 2010 8:34 pm

    How wonderful to view your pictures of Orkney. One of my favourite places on earth. All on the basis of having spent a week in St. Margaret’s Hope in 2007.
    Janet in Dublin

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      August 15, 2010 10:57 pm

      I’m with you there – we would love to go back and explore further. St.M’s Hope looked very pretty we thought, as we zoomed past!


  1. Kirkwall calligraphy « Dancing Beastie
  2. Skye « Dancing Beastie
  3. dreaming of a colder country « Dancing Beastie
  4. On an almost-island: impressions of Brittany « Dancing Beastie
  5. A steadfast rock in the currents of history: first impressions of Malta « Dancing Beastie

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