Orkney Scotland Neolithic & Historic Orkneyjar

Mainland Orkney

Orkney Scotland. Known to some as the Orkney Isles, the Orkneys, Orkney Islands or Orkneyjar. Made up of about 70 small remote islands, only of which 20 are inhabited. The string of islands that make up Orkney Scotland are quite unlike the rest of the British Isles. The treeless landscape, local dialect, weather and even local traditions are more like a culture of its very own.

Standing Stones Orkney Scotland
Standing Stone Circle Stromness Orkney Scotland Prehistoric standing stones known as the Ring of Brodgar 2017

An archipelago at latitude 59 degrees north, Orkney Scotland is only 50 miles south of Greenland. Made up of mostly flat lands and some slightly rolling hills, the dramatic sandstone peaks on Hoy, the Mainland and Rousay, as well as a few rugged western coast cliffs stand out in stark contrast to the mostly low lying terrain.

Maeshow neolithic tomb
Ancient tomb, Maeshowe Stromness. Orkney Scotland photo by Elizabeth Whitener

 

Temperate yet atmospheric. Winds are often tumultuous, seas often rough, rain often imminent and then the sun comes out. The surly weather and remoteness of this island chain has allowed it to maintain a treasure trove of prehistoric and neolithic archaeological sites in near pristine order.

Orkney Scotland heralds a history unique to that of mainland Scotland. Due to geographical isolation, wildlife, foliage as well as its unique historical ancestry is somewhat anomalous to the rest of Scotland. Although Scotland’s history as well as its people have been mixing with the Norse for uncountable centuries, the genetic qualities of natives of Orkney Scotland tend to be a higher percentage of Scandinavian and they continue to show a strong indication of their Nordic ancestry today.

Kirkwall
Entering Kirkwall in Orkney Scotland

 

The largest island of Orkney Scotland is referred to as “the Mainland”, having evolved from the Old Norse word “Meginlan”. The Norse or “Northmen” aka Vikings, maintained a stronghold of these Orkney Scotland islands on and off for centuries. Orkneyinga Saga a Nordic text written in the early 13th century, is a perfect example of how interwoven these cultures once were and remain. Relics and ancient sites heralding back to Nordic rule are rampant and much of the dialect, customs and traditions continue in Orkney Scotland to this day.

The Mainland of Orkney Scotland is separated into 13 parishes divided by West and East. The two (2) most populated towns are Kirkwall and Stromness. For the most part the major architectural and archaeological sites on the “the Mainland”, are found in Kirkwall, Stromness Birsay and Stenness. In my next post I will go into more description about visiting these places.

St Magnus Kirkwall
St Magnus Cathedral from the grounds of the Earls Palace Kirkwall 2017 Photo by Elizabeth Whitener

Kirkwall: One could say the most visited town on the island, Kirkwall maintains wonderful ancient buildings to visit, some intact and some in ruins. It has a couple of hotels, BnB’s, AirBnB’s and restaurants and an amazingly cutting edge hospital is being constructed nearby.

  • The Earls Palace: The Earls Palace Built in 1607 by Patrick, Earl of Orkney, one of the most tyrannical noblemen in Scotland’s history. Upon his imprisonment, bastard son Robert rebelled in his name and seized the previously “taken” palace, St Magnus’s Cathedral and Kirkwall Castle. It all went awry, the Earl of Caithness destroyed the palace. Earl Patrick and his son were later executed for treason. (not to be confused with the “Earls Palace” in Birsay)
  • The Bishops Palace: The Bishops Place Built in the 12th century across from St Magnus Cathedral, in the centre of KirkwallOrkneyScotland. Home to William the Old, of the Norwegian Catholic church. The ruined structure now looks like a small castle and is part of the Earls Palace grounds in Kirkwall.
  • St. Magnus Cathedral: St. Magnus Cathedral Built in 1137, by Viking, Earl Rognvald ( Rögnvald Kolsson), in honour of his uncle St Magnus and known as the ‘Light in the North.’ Today the cathedral is owned by the township of Kirkwall and not by the church. (not to be confused with St Magnus Church in St Birsay)

Other interesting sites to see

Tor Ness

Cuween Chambered Hill 

Wideford Hill

Rennibister Earth House

 

Skara Brae
Skara Brae in Orkney Scotland one of the oldest, most complete settlements in the area

 

 

 

Stromness: Wonderful historic town commanded by the sea. Winding roads lead to quaint shops, historic buildings and farms surrounded by neolithic wonders. A surprisingly bustling town at times (at least by Orkney standards) that just celebrated 200 years as a Burgh of Barony. Keep up to date with the latest in the events section of this website.

  • Skara Brae: Skara Brae is Europe’s most complete neolithic settlement. Older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids. Near Stromness on the Bay of Skaill, these eight stone houses, nestled together, were occupied around 3180 BC to about 2500 BC. Skara Brae is an UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Skaill House: Skaill House  was built in 1620 by Bishop George Graham and has remained within the family to this very day. An intact historic manor house overlooking Skara Brae and the magnificent Bay of Skaill in Sandwick.
  • Maeshowe: Maeshowe is a Neolithic tomb is considered to be architectural genius. Designed for the light of the setting sun at the winter solstice creeps along the narrow passageway, illuminating the chamber inside. There is also graffitti inside or the most hysterical ilk, created by a group of Vikings that utilized the tomb for shelter during a winter storm well over 1000 years ago
  • Barnhouse Settlement: Barnhouse Settlement is a neolithic site by the shore of Loch of Harray, Orkney Mainland, Scotland, not far from the Standing Stones of Stenness, about 5 miles north-east of Stromness. It was discovered in 1984 by Colin Richards. Wikipedia
Other interesting sites to see
Stromness Church

Stenness: A village and on the Orkney Mainland in Orkney ScotlandIt contains several notable prehistoric monuments including the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. (from wikipedia)

  • Ring of Brodgar: The Ring of Brodgar is the 3rd largest, northernmost such circle (in Britain), and only known Neolithic stone circle henge to be truly circular. Ranking with Avebury  and Stonehenge . Yet due to its resistance to carbon dating, the age remains uncertain. Thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, making it the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Standing Stones of Stenness: Standing Stones of Stenness is possibly the oldest henge site in the British Isles, the few remaining enormous stones are about 19 feet (6M) tall. Found five miles northeast of Stromness. Stane-is in Orcadian dialect, comes from Old Norse meaning stone headland.

Birsay: An amazing little town little affected by the tenants of time. Already rich in neolithic history when the Vikings came to power. Today archeological digs are constant and the people of this tiny village are welcoming and eager to chat about their unique history. St Magnus Church (originally St Magnus Cathedral until the much larger St Magnus Cathedral was built in Kirkwall) with where St Magnus is buried. There is so much to see in this tiny swath of rugged, windy and striking terrain.

  • Brough of Birsay: The Brough of Birsay is an uninhabited tidal island about 13 miles north of Stromness.  At low tide you may cross by walking the ocean floor and visit the excavated Norse settlement then known as “Byrgisey” . In the 7th and 8th centuries it was a significant Pictish fortress, taken over by Norsemen by the 9th century.
  • The Earls Palace: The Earl’s Palace Birsay, Orkney, Scotland, is a ruined 16th-century castle built by Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney, illegitimate son of King James V and his mistress Euphemia Elphinstone. Managed by Historic Scotland. Not to be confused with the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall. 
  • St Magnus Church: St. Magnus Church stands partly on the site of a Christchurch built by Earl Thorfinn in 1064 has been in continuous use as a church for almost a thousand years. After Earl Magnus was killed on Egilsay he was buried here and canonized in 1135.

Other interesting sites to see
Broch of Gurness

Dwarfie Stane

 

 

 

 

 

The Highlands, the Scottish Coast & an Angsty Nomad Behind the Wheel

 

Scotland in and of itself is a remarkable place. Driving Scotland, well, that’s pretty new to me. I have visited Scotland before, but on September 26 I will be making my way from Frodsham to Edinburgh to begin a unique adventure.

I found myself in the Scottish Highlands in the 1980s, purely by accident. It is a long and interesting story (at least I think so), that perhaps I will share here one day soon… but these next few posts will be about my upcoming trip, the planning involved, my rather ambitious aspirations involving all that I wish to see and do during this Scottish adventure, as well as driving some of the most treacherous roads of the UK, while driving a manual transmission on the wrong side of the road. (stone cold sober too)

Route Planner Scotland East Coast
Route Planner Scotland East Coast

The first half of my Scottish journey via the AA route planner

To know the story of how I ended up on this journey, check out my about page.

It has taken me an entire month, but utilizing this amazing app (and no I am not connected to them in any way) Travefy, I have finally booked the bulk of it. Mostly staying at AirBnB , with a castle and an Inn thrown in for good measure.

The NC500 is a more popular coastal route and I have gotten quite a lot of shit from people, including Scots, questioning me as to why I wish to drive the grey, dreary, rocky and rather desolate East Coast of Scotland, and well… that IS exactly why.

Soon… the tourists seeking out their very own Craigh na Dun will join the nature seekers and explorers drawn originally by the Northern Lights, over to the less popular but equally starlit skies of Sctoland’s East Coast.

scotland-1564096_640 NOrthern Lights McBeaner
Northern Lights, Scotland

Northern Lights, Scotland

The Millennial adventure travellers, digital nomads and rough travellers, blogging their way through life will inspire the jet setters and eventually your 1/9th part Scottish grandmother, to visit its bleak beauty. The tours will quadruple, the exclusive resorts dig in. Buses will begin clogging the treacherous roads, while yachts fill the quaint fishing piers, in the same manner as they now do Scotland’s Northern Coast. From Edinburgh to all of Aberdeenshire, from Fraserburgh to Inverness and up to the Orkney’s, I wish to see it in all of its Scottishness. (and early Fall is the perfect time of year to experience it that way as well) without too much taint of the visitors soon to come.

Aberdeenshire is rich with ancient history, as well as the castles and ruins of castles to allow one to get lost in the past. From Dunnottar Castle to the beauty of the Fraserburg fishing village, and all of the bits in between.

dunnottar-1537764_640
Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire Scotland
inverness-1621661_640
Inverness, Scotland

From Culloden to the extremely strong ties to the American Revolution of which (amazingly to me) so many are unaware, that a great deal of the soldiers that fought for the right to be free, were disposed Scots, sent to the colonies as punishment for their rebellion, Inverness then the seed and ever the gateway to the Highlands, has its own unique grace and varied history or triumph and strife.

The craggy cliffs of Scotland have been here practically since the beginning of time. They look unreal, precarious and dank. They are survivors, standing strong and tall against the wind, and sun and rain. Standing tall and proud, as they weather the elements much like the history of the Scots that were born there.

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Planning My Road Trip Scotlands North Coast East Coast & more…

When I originally planned my UK road trip, as an American driving my way through England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (basically the U.K. plus 1), and including the entire Scottish coast, I figured the hardest part of it would be driving on the other side of the road and travel blogging my way along, without killing myself (or someone else for that matter). I had no idea that driving ‘Scotlands North Coast’ was not only a “thing”, but a popular “thing”. I also did not realize the sheer extent of planning such a trip.

Highland Cow
Highland Cow

Two years ago I spent 3 weeks driving three of Italy’s coasts. Planning and booking the trip including only AirBnB for stays, was pretty straight forward and in the end, I only came short on one date and only had to move one reservation.

In Italy I drove for an easy 6 1/2 hours at one point, from the Amalfi Coast to Ravenna, and I managed it like champ. I was driving between lanes on the white lines of the highways, speeding around cliff hung, death curves at fearless speeds, and flipping people off like a true Italian driver, happily, in no time and enjoying it!

But… because I had a deadline for landing in Ravenna, I missed a great deal of the ‘spur of the moment’ site seeing, I so very much like to do.

For me road trips, be they European road trips, across the US, or anywhere for that matter, are all about being able to see something interesting, turn off and seek it out.

Although I knew this trip was to be much larger, I did not realise the sheer immensity of the endeavour, and the vast amount of things to see and do.

Even for someone who has travelled the U.K. more than once in the past, it is quite remarkable to realise the vast scope of what is crammed into 4 countries, whose landmass could all fit into the state of Texas.

Bluebells in Austin Texas
Bluebells in Austin Texas 2015 (this park is likely the size of London)

I could live in the Scottish Highlands for a full year, spending each waking moment exploring, and I’d still feel swindled at the end of the year. Add England, Ireland and Wales into the mix and holy sh*t.

If you’re from Australia, parts of Asia or from the US, the land mass of these four (4) countries is diminutive at best. But the immense depth of history, variation of cultures and landscape, architecture, museums, pubs, wilderness, historic sites, people, food, pubs, beaches, cities, farmland, did I say pubs?… it’s just astounding to say the least.

Because of my experience of feeling as if perhaps I missed out on too much on the Italian trip, even if I saw and experienced far more than most do on one such trip, I planned this trip with many more stops, hoping to broaden my chances for more exploration. I’m just not exactly sure how this rigid timeline, in one of my favorite places on the planet, the Scottish Highlands, is going to pan out.

I’ve crammed a Hell of a lot of places to see and things to do, along the rugged trail of the NC 500, no matter how short the actual drive might be. So much, that I am unsure if it is even remotely reasonable, let alone doable, in the sort of stress free and freewheeling style, in which I like to travel.

I realize now, (only one month prior to the trip) it’s quite a stringent timetable for such a tempestuous traveler as myself, so keep your fingers crossed and as usual, I’ll just play it by ear.