Travel Report: Orkney, Scotland.
In late 2000 I found myself in the oh so familiar state of between jobs in the isolated Scottish outpost of Fort William. I was cold, fed up and bored. Consequently, it was something of a relief when my old friend David got in touch to say he was coming to visit. After he arrived, it didn’t take us long to get the hell out of Dodge!
We literally threw a tent and a couple of backpacks into the boot of his car and off we sped off on a road trip through The Scottish Highlands. I can barely remember the few stops we made along the way. Indeed there is no photographic evidence to enlighten me as to what we might have seen. However, at some point we hatched a plan and suddenly our destination became Orkney, a group of islands located sixteen kilometres north of the mainland’s northernmost tip. Our ferry left from the dismal ghost town of Thurso. It was a rough ride, with high winds, choppy waters and vomiting in the toilet.
It was on the ferry itself that David and I came up with the idea of hiking across Orkney’s largest island, Mainland. Our starting point was the 18th century, grey-stone town of Stromness, where we jumped off the ferry. I wish we’d taken the time to explore the town a little, but we were too excited to kick off our adventure. In fact, we only stopped in Stromness long enough to fill a bag with snacks and drinks at a bakery on the high street. And then we set off on a fourteen mile hike to Kirkwall, Orkney’s largest settlement.
The weather was really on our side for that trip! I’d had visions of us getting rained on for fourteen miles. But in the end the skies stayed clear and we enjoyed a smooth passage. It’s so weird to think that these were the days before smart phones and Google Maps. As such, we simply stayed near the main roads and followed the signs. This was one of several farms we passed along the way, the flat landscape a handsome stretch of green-brown as far as the eye could see.
It took us about five hours to hike to Kirkwall and the main stop along the way was the mystical Ring of Brodgar. Dating back to around 2500 BC, this is one of the oldest henge sites in The British Isles. Furthermore, it stands as something of an oddity due to the fact that it’s one of only a few henges to form a stone circle.
The Ring of Brodgar is a beautiful spot, especially when you’ve got it all to yourself like we did that day. With gorgeous views across the lochs of Stenness and Harray, we were happy to hang for a bit until the fading light urged us back onto the hiking trail.
When we got to Kirkwall, David and I headed straight to a pub near the harbour for a couple of beers. I cannot for the life of me remember where we went. It was late afternoon and darkness was rapidly descending as we made our way down the town’s shadowy, paved streets.
Before heading to a campsite on the edge of town, we popped our heads into Kirkwall’s main attraction, St. Magnus Cathedral. It was founded in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald. He named the building in honour of his uncle St Magnus, who was martyred in Orkney. As Britain’s most northerly cathedral it also goes by the nickname Light in the North.
The warden was in the process of closing the cathedral up for the day when we arrived. Hence David and I only caught a glimpse of its towering sandstone pillars before getting back on our way.
October 2000. We had a decent night’s sleep in that tent, if I remember well. Having treated ourselves to coffee and pastries the following morning, we began the long trek back to Stromness. This time however, tired and impatient, we attempted to hitchhike our way back.
It didn’t work.
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