Thursday, September 22, 2022

A few leftovers

Here are a few leftover shots of Stromness and some accompanying comments.  These weren't included in the previous "carpe diem" post, but may be of interest to those considering their own sojourn to Orkney's second city.  

We took a number of photos while ambling around Stromness, including this blue door and lion knocker.  

In Scotland, owners of homes and businesses are not exactly reserved when it comes to putting up bold color schemes.  That is equally true for Scotland's wooden fishing fleet.

In Stromness, buildings are mostly faced in sandstone.  Without the splash of color, the view-shed would be one of industrial drab, an ordinary Henry Ford Puritanical color scheme of sameness.   Given the oft gray weather in these climes, bold colors may be a kind of therapy of sorts.  Much like using lights to "extend" the winter day hours in Nordic countries near the Arctic.

This riotous seaside of bold colors, often primary colors, was certainly apparent in Tobermory on Mull when we visited in 2018.  Anyhow, viva the splash of color.

March 28, 2018  Tobermory on Isle of Mull 

During our 2022 Easter Tour, many sites in Orkney were under renovation.  In particular, Maes Howe on Mainland Orkney (even though, surprise surprise its gift shop alone was open).  The medieval church ruins on the isles of Wyre and Egilsay were also barricaded.  It seems Orkney made use of its Covid shutdown "respite" to improve or preserve its stock of historical buildings.  This was true for many places in Scotland, including Inverness Castle--no entrance.

April 9, 2022  Inverness Castle under remodeling

In Stromness, remodeling was also being done on the steeple tower of their "free church" wrapped in green construction cladding.  Here, the term "free church" originally referred to a Christian denomination that is separate from the government, and thus not making public law.  The Free Church has undergone a number of unions, schisms, legal actions and divorces, so to speak.  The term litigious comes to mind.

In Scotland, Free Kirk refers to a distinct Presbyterian Church that remained outside the Union of Presbyterian Churches which occurred in 1900.  The Free Kirk has somewhat dismissively been called "The Wee Fees" because its congregation is substantially smaller than that of the United Free Kirk.  The finer distinctions are lost on me.  I am aware, in terms of unnecessary divisiveness in a church, that were the body is there buzzards unfortunately gather.  That is not said with malice.  It's merely an observation of divisiveness over minutia.         

The photo shows a curious "cut away" at the foot of the alley's steps.  It seems that earlier builders sought to maintain the width of the alley for trade carts perhaps.  Apparently that could not be done without "whittling" (or "knapping") off the corner of the building on the main street.  In any case, it's an oddity not often seen.

As to our bench in Stromness square, I'm sitting on it.  It can be seen behind the cattle-footed planter against the Lifeboats Hall.  Though it may not look like it, the planter is in the middle of a street at a T-intersection.  This was an active traffic square.  So much so, we anticipated several times that we'd be witness to a fender bender. 

Some drivers, clearly non-locals, followed the dockside road around the corner and ended up in this square at this planter.  Many seemed unsure of what to do.  Left?  Right?  Back up? The worst of the bunch were those with what might be called camper vans.  They tied up everything, mostly because of their inability to back up, or their doubt about their ability to make the turn at the T-intersection and what was around the corner. 

In a kind of quirky type thing, rocks with some word hand painted on it sort of show up in random places around Orkney.  Some of these are marketed as folk art in a few stores.  Not exactly sure why one would do so, but art is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps.

This rock was left at a Royal Post mailbox in Stromness.  It has a coating probably polyurethane on it to protect it, and a vine design of some sort with the hand painted word "Adventure".  

It was left upside down at the top of the mailbox. To read these, they need to be turned over.  Another oddity, but okay.  Some people collect garden gnomes.  Others leave craft-painted word rocks here and there.  I guess it is an adventure after all.




Sunday, September 18, 2022

And from the deck chair...

April 20, 2022  early morning, Galtness Battery on Shapinsay, Orkney

The ignored WWII sites on our 2022 Orkney sojourn should be mentioned, at least in general.  These are everywhere around the Scapa Flow anchorage.  And as we discovered, on the approaches to Wide Firth and Kirkwall.  

Had we had the time, we certainly would have visited the South Isles of Hoy and Flotta and the installations on Mainland Orkney, like the Ness just south of Stromness.  Orkney's war museums, abandoned airfields and shore emplacements are interesting in their own right.  In particular, we wanted to view the original wooden camp buildings (1938) and the landscape mural painted at Ness Battery by AR Woods.  But we did not have that luxury. 

April 21, 2022 Mural at Invergordon Train Station

Tradeoffs to outer islands (north or south) had to be calculated in terms of whole day trips, given travel between islands is by ferries that ply on thin daily schedules.  In lieu of the South Isles WWII sites, we opted for a day trip to Eday, plus an overnight stay on Sanday.  Both have large Neolithic cairns that were fairly high on the A list.   

As it turned out, we would be treated to murals associated with the World War at Invergordon Train Station on Scotrail heading back to Glasgow and our flight home.  So our tradeoff ended up being the right one.  We have no regrets even though this exchange surrendered exploration of World War sites.

These landmarks are still quite prevalent throughout Orkney.  Point in case, Galtness Battery on the north of Shapinsay island (population 307) was visible from the deck of the MV Varagen on our day trip to Eday.  

Military installations have a uniformity to them, and Galtness Battery is little different than a number of these military landmarks. The MV Varagen hugged Shapinsay's west coast on its scheduled Thursday morning run to Whitehall on Stronsay before landing at Backaland on Eday, our destination that morning.  

Most notable from a distance off shore, is the observation tower at Galtness.  Its upper floor had a flat projecting roof, apparently concrete, that must have provided cover for the watch.  The tower would have been used to spot and direct battery fire.  Below its upper level was an open front room toward the sea.  This apparently held the battery's searchlights.  Adjacent buildings were also visible, one of which is said to have been the engine room (for providing electricity) and possibly some barracks. 

The tower overlooks Wide Firth channel at the approach to Kirkwall between Shapinsay and Gairsay (a small islet of 590 acres, population 3).  [For historical perspective, Gairsay's population in 1838 was 69.]  Directly west of Galtness Battery is Grass Holm (perhaps as much as 90 acres in extent and now uninhabited) and Taing Skerry (essentially rocks that are just above sea level).  The ferry channel to Backaland runs between these two geologic features.

Galtness Battery was initially armed in May 1940 with a 12 pounder (76 mm shell--rate of fire 15 rounds per minute). These guns were old, from WWI, but still in use for coastal defense in WWII.  They were mounted to combat the menace of German U-Boats and fast attack surface E-Boats.  The 12 pounder is manually traversed and elevated.  It had an inadequate rate of fire against fast moving surface attack vessels.  So, the old gun at Galtness was replaced by a new quick firing twin 6 pounder (57 mm--rate of fire 72 rounds per minute) in March 1941.

Some reorganization of the Orkney batteries was done.  Galtness was designated 148 Battery and was manned by some 250 soldiers from the 535th (Orkney) Coast Regiment.  By 1943, the threat of German attacks on Orkney had lessened.  Coastal units were drawn down given a great need for trained gunners on other battle fronts.  Then in April 1944 in preparation for the Normandy invasion, the Orkney coastal regiment was further reduced.  Batteries would become manned by Home Guards.  

At the end of the War, many in the Orkney Regiment were reassigned to infantry, and sent as occupation forces to Europe.  The 535th Regiment was officially disbanded on 1 January 1947, and the guns at Galtness were dismounted.  The battery installation was left to the elements and time.    


Carpe diem from a bench

The Orkney archipelago is comprised of 70 islands and skerries.  Of these, 20 are inhabited.  The islands are further divided into the North and South Isles.  Mainland Orkney is in the center.  

April 20, 2022 Departing Stromness, Orkney Mainland

April 16, 2022--Eynhallow island from Rousay
With so extensive an archipelago, and a vacation of two weeks total, choices must be made regarding what to see.  It is not realistic to visit all inhabited islands of Orkney in that time frame.  And this says nothing of visiting unoccupied isles such as Eynhallow--which can be reached by chartered boat if you set aside time.

Orkney has such a rich and varied set of sites that span many interests.  Nature reserves for wildlife (sea birds or seals), sand beaches, viewpoints, paths on the rims of sea cliffs...and historical sites (our bailiwick).  Even for those not venturing afield, there are urban interests like distilleries and shops.  Again, only so much can be taken in on one trip.  

During the winter (2021-2022), we began to fill in our "must see" itinerary.  Organizationally, this preliminary list is important.  It helps frame transportation and lodging that are linked to it...what is possible and what is not.  Our "A list" mostly comprised of Orkney prehistoric sites from the Neolithic (c. 3500 BC to 2000 BC in Orkney) and Bronze Age (c. 2000 to 800 BC), and two important Iron Age brochs (c. 800 BC to 400 AD) we definitely wanted to explore.

On previous Easter sojourns, some of our longer and honestly most glorious day hikes were our visits to Iron Age sites--like Dun Nosebridge on Islay, the remote An Sean Dun on Mull and Dun Skieg on Kintyre.  As a class, Scotland's Iron Age sites are inspiring, easily worth the footwork to reach them.  

March 2017  View of Islay from the top of Dun Nosebridge
March 28, 2018  An Sean Dun, Island of Mull

April 17, 2019  Dun Skieg on Kintyre
Orkney's brochs (Gurness and Midhowe) definitely did not disappoint.  These broch ruins proved to be every bit as magnificent as hoped, and will be the subject of future posts.  

Our prehistoric "A list" formed the core of our travel and walk itinerary on Orkney.  But we do not operate on an inflexible schedule.  One can't in many respects.  We leave space for casual discovery, for those "carpe diem" tourist pursuits we might happen across while in route.

One genre of sites we did not visit while in Orkney were the World War sites.  But not for trying.  On Wednesday, April 20, we alighted in Stromness on the noon bus from Kirkwall and on foot.  

April 20, 2022  Sanday pier

We already had a busy morning, departing Sanday on the morning ferry back to Mainland Orkney, and then returning our car hire in Kirkwall.  That was a pay the piper routine--we had to return it full of fuel.  

In Kirkwall, we took the rental to a fuel station, and had a typical conversation with a local who was also at the pump.  The price of gas is sort of like comments about the weather.  Yikes!  It was definitely up there.  By rough calculation we burned just over 9.6 gallons in our exploring.  That works out to about £6.42 per gallon...or $8.66 in dollars.  And little did we know, fuel was set to skyrocket worldwide.  Price vertigo to be sure. 

April 20, 2022 Gas prices
From Orkney Car Hire, we walked the block or so to Kirkwall's bus "stands" and took the noon bus to Stromness where our North Link ferry (MV Hamnavoe) was moored.  That evening it would return us to mainland Scotland and the Thurso rail head homeward bound.

We had time on our hands in Stromness; on the order of three or four hours.  It was enough time to walk to Ness Battery below Stromness and back.  But the hike proved to be a fleeting consideration only.  

In Stromness under pack
We were under pack at this point.  This always weighs, pardon the pun, upon walking decisions.  More to the point, we were somewhat spent.

Even with a car hire on the 2022 trip, we had already trekked some 30 to 40 miles of Orkney, across six islands.  Not only were we nearly out of time in Orkney, we were running a touch low on "oomph".

As we ambled southward through the streets of Stomness toward the Battery, we hopped into several shops along the way.  In one, we purchased a locally crafted woolen blanket.  To avoid schlepping it around, we paid the Royal Mail parcel postage to have it delivered to Idaho once we got back.  We did the same in 2017 with woolens from Islay Woolen Mill.

The shop keeper was more than kind to take care of it.  But the shop hop in Stromness proved to be enough, thank you. 

In Stromness under pack

The wool blanket buy was somewhat a foreign exchange conversion near the end of our sojourn.  We have done this sort of thing too a few times, though admittedly usually in the Duty Free whisky shop at Glasgow airport before boarding our flight home.  In any case, we "dumped" the bulk of our remaining cash Stirling on the woolen.  

We kept enough cash back for taxi fare from Scrabster harbor to our hotel in Thurso that evening, and for incidentals the next day on the long distance train to Glasgow.  (We could have spared that forethought, however, since Covid had foreclosed catering carts onboard Scotrail.)  And we kept enough cash for breakfast and the express bus to Glasgow International.  

Bottom line, we did not extend our walk beyond the outskirts of Stromness to the battery.  We returned to the center of Stromness to take lunch on a bench in the town square.  Curiously, this proper elderly pastime was actually enjoyable.  

We spent the better part of two hours on that bench, watching with some fascination the movement of Stromness, its commerce and people.  One activity we watched was a trawler which had just landed its catch of the day.  

Literally, it was selling seafood directly from its nets.  The catch was palletized into what seemed to be "Gaylord" containers moved about by fork lift.  Some was being stuffed into a waiting refrigerated "lorry".  And some went into what seemed to be a fish market warehouse on the wharf.  

April 20, 2022  Coal, propane and wood delivery
The lorry was likely bound for Mainland Scotland on the same ferry we were.  The catch we watched getting sold would probably make its way over road to larger markets in Scotland.  In any case, we enjoyed our bench view of Stromness, Orkney's second largest city. 

A couple things stood out as different.  First, while it may have looked like a pedestrian way, actually the paved and cobbled street carried traffic both ways, as well as bicycles.  In places, it was tight.  Not exactly a harmonious affair for those on foot.  Staying alert is key. 

One can imagine stepping out a front door only to be hugged by a neighbor's vehicle.  Parking is anybody's guess.  A small lot existed for maybe 5 small cars, nowhere near big enough for all.

Second, entrances to most homes and apartments were in alleyways.  These were like wind tunnels.  The prevailing wind was off the sea, perpendicular to the main street and right down the alleys.  Some alleys were creatively kept with potted plants.  Others, not so much.

Stromness wind tunnel
Third, some of the names used for streets or geographical features are more than curious, as the photo taken by Darla suggests.  "Hell Hole" has municipal offices on it.  One can only guess at the story. The photo also shows Orkney's flag in the background.

More or less at Hell Hole, we backtracked to the town square and did our leisurely lunch.  Near 6 p.m., we boarded the Hamnavoe on our return trip to Idaho.  

April 20, 2022  "Hell Hole" Stromness

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Old, old story

Boot worn and mudded after six thrilling days of Orkney exploration, we forwent Easter morning services at St. Magnus Cathedral.  The decision hinged more upon humility, being unfit for decent company, beggared and tired.  

We did visit the open cathedral later that afternoon, however.  A remarkable edifice.  Its timeline is difficult to wrap one's head around; after all, St. Magnus has been home of Kirkwall's faithful for some 900 years.  It gave Kirkwall its name.  

Further, being constructed by Vikings in penance of a murder it is said, St. Magnus Cathedral does not neatly "fit" stereotypes of the war like Norse...their long-ships (lang skip), raiding and bloodletting, death to monks and all manner of hurt.  

As ancient cathedrals go, St. Magnus is something.  Perhaps, when compared to Italian Renaissance cathedrals on the Continent, the hewn sandstone of St. Magnus may seem rough, rustic.  But we are unqualified to make such a critical distinction.       

St. Magnus' hewn sandstone is said to have been quarried on the Isle of Eday.  An aside, we attempted to find this quarry while we were on Eday, but were not successful.  The main reason was that the single track near where the quarry is apparently located, had no obvious parking anywhere along it. 

We mentioned this to a local lady who was out walking on south Eday.  She sought out conversation, curious as to our nationality.  She mentioned that it would have been okay to just park "anywhere".  But we were reticent to block the roadway since a few homesteads were served by the track, to say nothing of traipsing through fenced ground around those houses.    

Built of hewn sandstone or no, as the most northerly cathedral in the British Isles (and thus on the edge of the world in its day), St. Magnus has its share of ornateness, of finery.  Rest assured.

Its stained glass is certainly the equal of continental houses of worship.  

From the ethereal stained glass above to the ornate inlaid floors below, St. Magnus Cathedral does what it was doubtlessly intended to do by the Viking Lords who built it so many centuries ago--it conveys majesty and projects might.

It also yields a pensiveness, quiet reflection.  The cathedral's congregants (and simply visitors as we were) doubtless wonder at the lives long past, and yet still monumentalized in the commemorative burial stones in its walls.  

In an island realm that is literally filled with Neolithic cairns, St. Magnus lends perspective on resurrection, a poignant reminder of mortality and yet eternal life as well.  From Matthew 13:17, "For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see."...Matthew referred to the ancient ones, those of the Neolithic, who longed to see eternal life.  

And similarly those in our own present modern day who equally long to see. 

As the old Gospel hymn (published 1879; lyrics by Katherine Hankey and put to music by William Doane) goes: 

"Tell me the old, old story,
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love

Unseen things.  Magnus himself was also interred in the walls of the cathedral. For centuries long forgotten, an ancient and truly humble pine box was uncovered during cathedral preservation work in the 1930s.

The box, found within one of the hewn sandstone columns, was the reliquary of St. Magnus.  Far from ornate, the ancient reliquary is truly humble.  His bones were re-interred in the cathedral.

St. Magnus' simple reliquary box is presently preserved and exhibited in the Kirkwall Museum in the shadow of the cathedral.        


Monday, August 1, 2022

Vinquoy Hill--spectacular weather

Standing Stone of Setter--April 14, 2022

Assuming one gets off main tourist trodden ways in Orkney and actually ventures a little further afield in these remarkable islands, one would be hard pressed afterwards to declare what the "best" walk was.

Rousay, known as the Egypt of the North, is of course chock full of historical sites at Midhowe, running from Neolithic to Viking to Medieval.  It's certainly a candidate.  So too the Neolithic Ring of Brodgar on Mainland Orkney.  Nothing short of stunning.  And there's Sanday, with its miles of white sand beaches. 

Still, if we (and perhaps I should say I, since the missus is partial to white sands) had to cast a ballot for the most awesome hiking experience during our 2022 Easter sojourn to Orkney, then hands down that must go to Vinquoy Hill on the Isle of Eday.  Its vistas and seascapes are not to be excelled anywhere in Orkney.

Gray Head, Calf of Eday--April 14, 2022


Better, the Vinquoy hike also touches a large number of Neolithic cairns (most ruined by heavy handed "antiquarians" during the Victorian and Edwardian eras).  The Vinqouy hike includes a Bronze Age "Fold of Setter" as well.  Its purpose is not exactly understood.  Locals have long assumed it to have been a ancient pen for sheep...or at least that's what Eday's much later pastoralists used it for.  

And then there's the viewscape of Carrick House on Calf Bay, with its lore from the age of pirates (late 1600s - early 1700s).  Arrrgh! 

Carrick House was the target of John Gow, the infamous pirate.  Gow was pirating British waters, before trying to hide out in Orkney.  Many pirates, being English, had issues with hitting up English shipping.  Not Gow.  Apparently becoming short of money, Gow began raiding coastal estates in Orkney where he was also trying to hide out...not exactly a wise move.  He sailed from Stromness, Mainland Orkney (where he was pretending to be a gentleman since the authorities were hot on his trail) to raid Carrick House, the home of one of Gow’s early school day chums.  Loyalty was not a strong suit with Gow.


Carrick estate on Calf Bay, Eday--April 14, 2022

The current between Eday (Red Head to left) and Calf of Eday (Gray Head to right) is quick and difficult without a pilot.  Gow’s ship (the Revenge) grounded in Calf Bay opposite Carrick House, which led to his arrest February 17, 1725.  He refused to plead.  And the court ordered him to torture until he did plea. To avoid torture, Gow pled not guilty, and was found guilty in a fast trial.  He was hung in London with seven of his crew on June 11, 1725. 

Actually, Gow was hung twice.  He asked for a speedy dispatch.  To comply with Gow’s request, the hangman grabbed and pulled down on Gow’s legs and...the rope broke.  Gow, semi-conscious was said to have been able to climb the gallow stairs (more like was pushed back up).  And the King hung the gentleman again...successfully this second time.

Gow's history lived on.  Sir Walter Scott, the consummate Scottish writer, visited Orkney and took the Gow story into the novel, The Pirate, in 1814.  Another interesting note is that the author Daniel Defoe was the reporter at Gow's trial in 1725.  Defoe, of course, penned Robinson Crusoe in part from that experience.   

Calm morning at Kirkwall--April 14, 2022
Better still (and not to be overlooked in the 2022 balloting of "best walk" because it may be the key determinant) was the absolutely glorious April weather.  It came together on Eday.  

Weather wise, it mirrored our tour of the Holy Isle of Iona at Easter 2018, a day which the park ranger at Iona declared had to be among the year's top 8 most spectacular days in Scotland.  

What a treat of blue skies and blue ocean.  Even the ferry from Kirkwall out to Eday was itself a delight.   We boarded MV Vagagen (a roll through ferry) early morning with our intrepid little Hyundai rental.  

Thursday's morning sailing, incidentally, was the only ferry timetable that provided sufficient time on the island...i.e. more than two hours.  Unless one is "island bagging," and their principal interest is simply to check been-there boxes--two hours is barely time enough to take in a complex site like Vinquoy Hill, much less rush back to catch the ferry.


A Thursday day trip out of Kirkwall was about the only realistic choice for Eday.  Travellers should take note that Eday has few if any accommodations.  Generally speaking there are no travel services on Eday, including a pub or restaurant.  Or rather, no services that are actually open for business. 

Square wake leaving Kirkwall--April 14, 2022
One B&B and a small youth hostel are said to operate.  We did not find it so.  The youth hostel may not even be operational.  Presumably, it is volunteer staffed through the Eday Heritage Museum which is located in a repurposed old Baptist church.  We looked forward to visiting the museum to gather more information about the island.  It was closed when we stopped by. 

Bottom line, if one wants to see the whole of Eday more or less dependably...or at least the prime parts of the isle...a car rental is necessary.  It's almost an insurance in a way.

The north isles of Orkney are exposed, basically heath land and/or peat where it is not farmed for grass.  Had the weather been rough, our day trip could have been less than optimal without having the car's protection against the weather.  

MV Varagen at Eday--April 14, 2022

Like several Orkney isles, Eday is deceptive in size, especially if one is entirely afoot.  North-south Eday is some 8 1/2 miles; it's ten square miles in area, much of it rough heath.  So, if going over on foot, and without dependable services, that will require packing it.

 Presumably, one can take a bicycle rental, but that assumes one can be found for rent in Kirkwall in a business that is open and doing trade.  A big if.

 In any case, the weather we enjoyed on Eday was spectacular.  More on the Vinquoy cairns next post.