In Orkney, there are seals at the bottom of the garden
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
We can’t wait to go back.
See also: the lure of the liminal