Orkney College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, hosted two conferences and a workshop in the first week of April, giving me an excellent reason to visit Orkney for the first time in too many years. This illustrated essay is partly for the education of those of you who have never been to Orkney, and partly to remind me to go back again soon.
First, the weather. It can be indescribably foul when an Atlantic depression sweeps in with gales and horizontal sleet. And it’s even worse in winter. However, when the occasional sunny day breaks out, with blue skies, clear air and all that stuff, you can easily forgive the other 70% of the time.
Second, historic monuments. Orkney is stuffed to the gunwales with archaeological and historical sites, many of them in remarkably complete condition and often in spectacular locations. These are a few of my favourites.
The Italian Chapel is a must. Built out of a Nissen hut by Italian prisoners of war in 1943, it is an extraordinary piece of craftsmanship against the odds.
The coup l’oeil painting on the inside, giving the impression of plaster mouldings, is remarkable.
Visit at least one chambered cairn – doesn’t matter which one. Most of them are a bit of a walk from the nearest parking place, and most require an undignified crawl or wriggle to enter. Isbister, the Tomb of the Eagles, has an ingenious trolley on which visitors pull themselves in. All are impressive pieces of drystone construction.
Five thousand years on, their exact purpose is a matter for debate whilst sitting outside and enjoying the view while the muddy patches on your knees dry off.
They were tombs, certainly, but why collective, why so big, and why in those locations?
And Skara Brae, best known of the lot. Famous sites and monuments are sometimes a little disappointing in reality, but visit this little huddle of Neolithic ‘houses’ on a day when the wind is tearing in off the sea and beating the sea into a bit of a frenzy and it seldom fails to impress. Then find some shelter and ask the question that over 80 years of archaeological investigation of the site has failed to answer: why were so many beads found here?
Third, the wildlife. It hardly needs saying, but Orkney has more than a few seals and enough birds to keep all but the most fanatical twitcher reasonably happy.
This April’s visit included my first sighting of an Iceland gull, spotted from the café at Birsay whilst enjoying lunch. It’s the only way to birdwatch.
Fourth, Orcadians. I know, never generalise about people from any part of the world. It is the case, however, that my experience of Orkney people is that they are welcoming, sensible and just slightly eccentric.
So there’s an unsolicited testimonial and a few nice pictures. There is one more, quite pressing reason to encourage people to visit Orkney. Tourism is a major element of the local economy, and Orkney is a tough place to make a living by other means. Like many places, it has to find a balance between making the place habitable for the locals, accommodating plenty of visitors and not in the process compromising the things that make Orkney special and keep those visitors coming back.