– By Brittany Seki, Senior Editor –
The idea of a long distance drive can turn anyone sour, especially with bumper-to-bumper traffic. But when it comes to road tripping in the northern part of Scotland, it’s anything but stressful (especially with only two or three vehicles on the road at one time). My fellow traveller and I left Aberlour early in the morning to catch the ferry in Scrabster. We were leaving the mainland to visit the Northern Isles of Scotland: Orkney. With few trees and a vast expanse of cliff sides and farmland, the cluster of about 70 islands is peaceful and picturesque with a rich Pictish and Norse heritage.
We took the 2.5-hour Northlink ferry to the small town of Stromness on the mainland. Orkney is known for its plentiful marine wildlife, including seals, puffins and whales. We kept a look out for swimming pods but unfortunately there was no sight of any fins or blowholes peaking out of the water. However, the islands themselves were spectacular, jutting out of the ocean with jagged peaks and interesting rock formations carved out over thousands of years. We were blessed with yet another sunny, although windy day when we docked in Stromness. Just outside of town, there were herds of sheep and cattle covering what seemed to be the entire expanse of the island. This was the definition of living a quiet life.
Naturally, the first thing to do on Orkney is explore the ruins scattered about the islands. The first on the list was to visit the Standing Stones of Stenness. Picture Stonehenge, but way older and with way less stones. This monument comes from the Stone Age (about 10,000 BC), and is considered one of the oldest henges. The stones were associated with rituals and traditions followed by the early Norse settlers. There are only a few surviving stones, and it’s located on farmland surrounded by sheep (they were huddling in a corner away from the tourists). Not too far away from these stones was the Ring of Brodgar. This was a more impressive henge, also from the Neolithic period. Surrounding the stones were large, grass-covered burial mounds which contained the bones of Norse settlers and animals, along with treasured possessions. All the stones were carved out of sandstone, which also makes up the base of the islands. The monument’s precise age has not been determined, but it could have been built between 2500 and 2000 BC. The Ring of Brodgar is literally the heart of Neolithic Orkney.
After wondering through the henges, we ventured northwest to the prehistoric village of Skara Brae. The ruins of the Norse settlement date back to 3100 BC and were discovered by a local girl in 1850. A storm had blown away the sand, exposing parts of the settlement, and the little girl used it as her playhouse. Skara Brae is located beside the Bay of Skaill, on the Skaill Home Farm property (now open to the public). The stone settlements were built below ground, and excavations revealed the separate rooms and small spaces the settlers lived in. This was to shelter them from the harsh winds and weather coming off the water. The small stone compartments, with grass roofs (if there was a roof) and dirt floors made me feel like I was visiting an old Hobbit village. After we explored to our heart’s content, we made our way back to Kirkwall to stay at The Ayre Hotel. I wasn’t too impressed with the large, impersonal hotel and our rooms were above the bar so the loud voices and music forced me to sleep (or try to) with earplugs. However, I did manage to get in a taste of a refreshing local IPA barelywine hybrid, Orkney Blast. Yum!
As whisky nerds, we had to make a stop at the Highland Park Distillery. So the next morning we had whisky for breakfast! The beautiful distillery dates back to 1798 and was founded by the butcher, beadle and smuggler Magnus Eunson. We were given an inside look into the barley malting process and even treated to a special taste of a 1968 single malt straight from the cask. Our lovely yet strict tour guide was adamant us ladies learned to drink whisky the proper way, and we walked away with an important lesson: “A lady must never raise her pinky or smack her tongue. Sip the whisky with one hand and let it melt over your taste buds.” Women tend to be quick to poo poo whisky, but if they give it a chance it could even be better than … dare I say … chocolate! So ladies, please give it a try!
After sobering up, we went off to explore more ruins. Broch of Gurness is on the northeast side of the mainland, and is a larger and younger version of Skara Brae. Dating back to the Middle Iron Age, this broch has been completely excavated and paints a better picture of what life was like hundreds of years ago. It was discovered by a painter who sat on top of the grass mound to paint one day, and his foot went through the roof of one of the rooms. The settlement could have belonged to a chief’s family, and it was also strategically placed on the shoreline to watch for any incoming enemies. The settlement was breathtaking and peaceful. I took a moment to watch a mother bird feed her babies, who were nestled in the rocks of the chief’s house. It was big enough for me to climb on (even though I wasn’t supposed to, I found out afterwards).
We decided to give the ruins a break and explore the lovely marine life of Orkney. We drove to the Brough of Birsay, which is a small tidal island off the north coast and is only accessible when the tide was out. We crossed a seaweed and barnacle-covered causeway to the little island. Of course the first thing we saw were the ruins of Pictish and Norse settlements, but that wasn’t the best part. Once we made the ascent to the other side of the island, we witnessed the shear drop at the edge – it was bone tingling. The jagged cliffs touched the ocean, with whitecaps hitting the base of the rocks. Seabirds of all kinds flew in all directions, nesting and feeding and just chilling in the water. We also saw rabbits and many rabbit holes – I couldn’t help but wonder if there were natural predators lurking in the air or if they lived care free. What we really wanted to see were puffins however, so we left to visit a nearby cliff side on the main island, just south of Birsay. There, we literally hung off the top of the cliff to see a couple puffins for the first time, feeding and hanging out on the edge. It was worth it!
Exhausted from our daytime Orkney adventures, we headed to the old Eastbank House Hostel to turn in. I love staying in hostels for the chance to meet other interesting travellers! The owner was a chipper Scotsman who was friendly and musical (he had two guitars, a banjo and a ukulele) – but it was best to stay away if he had too much wine to drink. He also allows animals in the hostel, so I had the privilege of meeting a gorgeous malamute husky (I really want one!). We cooked a delicious meal and shared a drink with our housemates, including an Icelandic woman who owns her own distillery in Iceland. We headed to our private room, which also included three beds and a private bathroom and shower (bonus!). My sleep that night was incredible, even though the sun never seemed to fully set since we were so far north.
We started bright and early again the next morning and visited a 5000-year old tomb called Maeshowe Chambered Cairn. Spaces are limited, so in order to view this tomb you need to book a tour. Maeshowe is famous for runic graffiti left on the inside walls of the tomb by raiding Norsemen in the mid-1100s. Did you ever carve your name on a tree or stone, “Jane was here”? Well, that’s what these Vikings did. The tomb was impressive, appearing as a large grassy mound on the outside and a large stone chamber on the inside. We had to duck our heads through a long passage to enter, which is also where the sun enters the chamber around winter solstice. The tour guide entertained us with stories from the past, but we weren’t allowed to take photos.
We had planned take a ferry to the Island of Rousay at our hostel owner’s suggestion to try to find some seals. However, after visiting the chambered tomb we got to the ferry too late. The last ferry back to the mainland from Rousay was at 5pm, and we didn’t arrive until 2pm so we wouldn’t have had enough time to walk the distance to the seals. But all was not lost! We drove down to South Ronaldsay on the mainland to experience another ruin, this one privately owned. The Tomb of Eagles housed the ruins of old Norse bones, and of course Eagle talons. The site is from the Bronze Age, and can only be entered through a small tunnel-like opening. Although the setting was breathtaking, the tomb itself was a bit anti-climatic. The owners had put fake skeletons and props in the tomb, which I felt took away from its authenticity. However, we were able to see authentic Norse skulls and artifacts at the visitor’s center. After seeing the tomb (which took only about 10 minutes), we walked along the cliff’s edge to see if we could find any seals, to no avail. But at least we got to see puffins!
That brought us to the end of our road trip in Scotland. The next morning we woke up at sunrise to catch the ferry and drive all the way down to London, England (yes, I said drive!). I can honestly say I had seen more of Scotland in those three weeks than most Scottish locals! The breathtaking landscape, incredible heritage and decadent whisky make Scotland one of my favorite places to visit. Every local I encountered was extremely hospital and friendly, and I learned to take a different perspective on life: it’s quite okay to take it easy and enjoy a dram or two once in a while. Cheers!