Tag Archives: Orkney

A rushed Tuesday on Orkney

By Tuesday we were due at Kirkwall on the Orkney ‘mainland’ (ie, the largest island).  Overnight, though, the problems with the ship had really started to show themselves.  We were due to leave Hoy at midnight, but after much clanking, grinding and banging the engines were switched off and we stayed put.  The same thing happened at two am, and we didn’t finally get moving until four am.  We later heard that a tug had had to be called out from somewhere to drag us off the quayside at Hoy.  According to the official version, this was due to ‘high winds’ but, er, it wasn’t particularly windy.  Another mechanical fault on board, methinks.

All this meant we were late arriving at Kirkwall.  We’d booked on our only tour of the cruise, to the famous archaeological sites at Skara Brae (stone age village), Brodgar (henge monument) and Stenness (standing stones).  Luckily, the tours were still running, but the late arrival meant we were short on time and had to cut the duration at each stop, particularly the Stones of Stenness where we literally hopped off the coach, took a photo and hopped back on again.

The tour itself was fantastic.  We had a friendly and knowledgeable local guide called Frederick who was originally from Sweden but had settled on Orkney years ago and knew pretty much everything about everything.  He nattered on, not just about the archaeology, but about the history, mythology, geography, climate, and general way of life on Orkney, all of which was fascinating.

And Skara Brae was amazing.  I studied the site at some length at university, many years ago, but had never visited before.  Even looking at plans and photographs, it’s hard to get a proper ‘feel’ for a place, and it was lovely to be able to put the site into context in terms of its size, proximity to the sea, and the size and surprising level of comfort of the houses.  Best of all, perhaps, was the reconstructed house which showed what the place would have looked like when people were actually living there.  It was a revelation – I’ve seen nineteenth century cottages that were less cosy and less well equipped!  So much for Stone Age man being thick, saying ‘ugg’ a lot and living in a cave.

We’d have liked time to look round Kirkwall itself but by the time we got back to the ship, there simply wasn’t time.  Shame, as on a brief drive through on route to the tour sites, it looked lovely.  We’ll definitely be back for a closer look.

I took loads of photos at both Skara Brae and Brodgar, but the weather was pretty awful and I got water in the camera-lens-opening-thingy, which jammed, so not all of them came out.  A shame, as both were wonderful, wild spots.  Here’s a selection of the best.

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If it’s Monday, it must be Hoy

P1020684After our undignified departure from Leith, we chugged steadily northwards overnight and arrived on Monday at the Orkney island of Hoy.  More specifically, the quay at the village of Lyness on the island’s east coast.

We knew a little of the area’s history: the fact that the British Navy was based here during both World Wars, and the story of the scuttling of the German fleet in nearby Scapa Flow just after the First World War.  What we didn’t know was that during both wars there was a massive military encampment at Lyness, which must have roughly quadrupled the size of the village.  Barracks, stores, workshops, warehouses, pumping stations, even a series of massive oil tanks and (later) an entire reservoir of oil under the neighbouring hillside – this camp was vast.

Now, of course, there are no military personnel left, except for those buried, movingly, in the military cemetery at Lyness.  The buildings, however, survive, some ruined, some still intact, and all providing an extraordinary and poignant backdrop to some stunningly beautiful scenery.

Most of the official tours were heading off north-west-wards to see the famous Old Man of Hoy sea stack, but we’d chosen to explore locally on foot by ourselves and were really glad we had.  We discovered the cemetery, a memorial to British and Russian sailors killed during the Great War, a fascinating museum of the history of Lyness and Scapa Flow, and a walk up the hill of Wee Fea past masses of industrial archaeology, often just lying at our feet.  Chuck in loads of wild flowers, a good selection of birds, and tea and cake at the museum’s tea room, and you have the makings of a really fantastic afternoon stroll.

Here’s a small selection of the photos I took, showing the cemetery, the village still dominated by ruined military buildings, and an old army oil pumping station near the top of Wee Fea.

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Cruising Orkney, Shetland & St Kilda

We set off last Sunday on a week’s cruise courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) around the islands of northern Scotland: Orkney, Shetland and St Kilda.  This was a bit of a dream for both of us since we’d never been to Orkney or Shetland before and were really looking forward to it.  Sadly, although all the places we visited were amazing, the ship was a major letdown in all sorts of ways.

Obviously, the NTS don’t run a fleet of cruise liners themselves, so when they want to organise their once- or twice-yearly cruises they charter a ship from somebody else.  Four years ago we did another trip with them, to the Western Isles, and they borrowed a boat from Saga for the week.  This worked really well.  The ship was small enough to be intimate (and to get into some otherwise unreachable ports), and the Scottish captain and crew knew the waters like their own high streets and were able to improvise when necessary.

This time, we were on a ship called the MV Berlin, owned by a German outfit called FTI Cruises and staffed by a motley crew from a dizzying array of countries.  We’d never heard of them before, but bolstered by previous NTS experience, were perfectly happy to give it a go.  Bad move!  The first inkling that everything might not be perfect came when we saw our cabin – small, drab, and so lacking in storage that I lived out of a holdall all week.  Then the food at dinner was unappetising.  Of course, those are only niggles (although, at the price we’d paid for the holiday, expensive niggles), but worse was to come when the ship had to be lugged out of Leith harbour backwards by not one but two tugs – one yanking, the other shoving.  This didn’t bode well for the state of the ship’s thrusters, and other equally important bits of equipment proved not to be working later on, as you will see!

It got worse.  The crew seemed to be either inexperienced or poorly trained and didn’t function well as a team, whilst the captain made some decisions that could only be described as bizarre, like taking the ship through the Pentland Firth (a notorious strip of water between Orkney and the northern tip of Scotland) in a force eight gale without working stabilisers, and allowing passengers ashore on St Kilda without checking the local tide timetables first.  Both of those had Serious Consequences; more details in the next few days…

In the end we’ve seen some wonderful places that we wouldn’t otherwise have managed to get to, so from that point of view the trip was a success.  Hoy and Skara Brae in Orkney; Fetlar and Lerwick in Shetland; and the fishing port of Peterhead on the Scottish mainland were all fascinating in very different ways, with archaeology, museums, shops, scenery, and coastal walks that we absolutely loved.  We took hundreds of photos, and have made a mental note to go back to both Kirkwall and Lerwick again in the not-to-distant future, perhaps even with the NTS.

We won’t, however, be setting foot on the MV Berlin again!

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