Motorhome travel: Feast on Orkney
Words: Robin McKelvie Photos: Alamy Stock Photos
‘The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light,’ wrote George Mackay Brown.
There can be few better ways to start a holiday than cruising over to Orkney – this wildly beautiful archipelago of 80 isles – on a NorthLink ferry. A land of mysterious standing stones, sweeping beaches and postcard-perfect villages awaits (not to mention two of Scotland’s finest distilleries) in a trip I’m hoping will fire the imaginations of all my family.
We’ve actually chosen to hire a motorhome on Orkney, although it’s now cheaper to get here than ever before thanks to the RET (Road Equivalent Tariff) fares.
Waiting for us as we disembark is Kerry Croy, the lady behind Motorhome Hire Orkney. We soon settle into our new home and our first night stop at the Orkney Caravan Park on the outskirts of the Orcadian capital of Kirkwall. Here we enjoy the warm welcome, like that of old friends returning; it’s a welcome we encounter at every site – a warmth we find is very much part of Orkney culture.
Kirkwall and the Orkney culture
Some visitors to Orkney skip Kirkwall and head for more remote spots. Don’t! We discover that the arrival of many more cruise ship passengers has really kickstarted the town. Its sturdy stone buildings are now home to a new wave of cafés, bars and shops that offer a choice that was unimaginable a few years ago.
I head into one of the pioneers, Judith Glue Real Food Café and Restaurant. This canny business has a restaurant stuffed full of Orcadian produce, from Orkney Gold beef to scallops freshly plucked from Kirkwall Bay. It also has a well-stocked arts and craft shop where Orcadian handicrafts grace the shelves rather than tourist tat – think Orcadian chunky knits that are up there with the famous jumpers of nearby Fair Isle.
I’m fortunate that my wee girls, Tara and Emma, love their history almost as much as me. Kirkwall is alive with the ghosts of the past. We explore the voluminous expanse of St Magnus Cathedral, which surges right back to Orkney’s Viking roots.
The Norsemen held sway over Orkney for centuries and the isles were only surrendered to Scotland as a dowry back in 1472. A ramble around the ruins of the mighty Earl’s and Bishop’s palaces, which stand next to each other, brings alive the power games of yore on isles that have always been hotly contested.
After two nights wrapped in Kirkwall’s charms we are reluctant to leave, especially my wife, Jenny, who already has her favourite coffee shop and is steadily hoovering up handicrafts.
I pick up a bottle of malt from Highland Park after a tour of Scotland’s most northerly whisky distillery and also nip into less-heralded Scapa just a few miles down the road to pick up a distillery-only bottle.
We also snare Orkney Gin from the glitzy new gin emporium, Orkney Distillery, which opened in summer 2018. Scottish gin is booming and this local gin is superb.
Strommess and Neolithic relics
We finally leave in search of the island’s other main settlement of Stromness. En route we spot standing stones and mysterious Neolithic relics. The isles are gloriously green, too, and make for ideal touring country with every view pleasing on the eye and soul as we cruise along under huge skies.
My girls instantly declare Stromness, “the prettiest village on Orkney,” and I cannot disagree. Its narrow stone streets offer sweeping views out over Scapa Flow, which played such a pivotal role for the British Navy in both world wars.
Indeed, our campsite gazes over the cobalt blue waters across to the rugged hills of the Orcadian island of Hoy. One note of caution: Kerry had advised us not to take the coastal road to the campsite, a sage choice as we later find one motorhome practically wedged there!
Orkney’s big skies and special light have long proved a magnet for artists, writers and dreamers. There is inspiration in the salty sea air and, during our trip, I’m working through Orcadian George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, an evocative novel clearly set in Stromness (despite the title), which perfectly evokes the timeless beauty of the place. The years turn back, too, at the Ferry Inn, a cosy old pub/restaurant where we feast on local steak, salmon and lobster.
It’s time to get serious now about Orkney history, which is easy to do on an isle with a greater swathe of prehistory that anywhere I have ever seen in such a compact space. A whole area of the Orkney Mainland is protected as part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage site.
The ancient village of Skara Brae
*picture courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo Skara Brae is first up, just to the north. There is nowhere quite like it. As you ease away from the visitor centre, signs point out various historical sites, such as Stonehenge and the building of the Egyptian pyramids. All are relative newcomers compared to Skara Brae, which dates back 5,000 years.
The ancient village of Skara Brae had been lost until 1850 when it was uncovered during a violent storm. Now you can peer right inside the dwellings. My girls were stunned to find things they recognised – beds, dressers and a fire. It put us all in direct touch with our ancestors in a way few places can.
Pushing further north our site at Birsay is wilder and more remote, putting us in touch with an Orkney alive with flora and fauna. I hike down to the Earl’s Palace in Birsay, looking out for sea eagles as they are now back in Orkney (the first chicks for decades were born in summer 2018). I catch sight of the fin of an orca. Killer whales are regularly spotted off Orkney along with myriad other porpoise, dolphin and whale species.
A brilliant Northern Isles’ sunrise then heralds the most rewarding day of history yet. First up is the Broch of Gurness.
Brochs are unique to Scotland. These ancient towers are thought to have been built both as coastal defensive towers and as status symbols for important families. You can see both uses here as there is enough of the broch left to feel its strength and the sense of awe it created, and you can also see the settlement that lies sprinkled all around.
Pushing south we come to the very fulcrum of Neolithic Orkney. The Ness of Brodgar is truly sublime and it’s easy to see why TV programmes like Time Team just keep coming back here.
The first time I came to this mystical site betwixt two lochs and a volley of low hills in 1999 it hadn’t been unearthed yet.
Now archaeologists from all over the world come to dig through the Neolithic and even Mesolithic remnants. I take a multi-generational tour where everyone from seven (Emma) to 70 is enthralled by talk of even greater treasures to come from a sprawling society that, unbelievably, is now reckoned to have housed up to 20,000 souls, a similar population to modern-day Orkney.
We then take in two adjacent sites – the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar. The former are hulking standing stones that vault for the heavens. I stretch up their height to show the girls their sheer scale, before we ease over to the Ring of Brodgar. This sweeping stone circle for me is even more rewarding than Stonehenge as it is surrounded by a brace of lochs and here you can get right up and actually touch the stones. Orkney offers the chance to feel, breathe and touch history.
The highlight for today, though, is Maeshowe. Here I follow the guide down a narrow tunnel into the heart of a burial mound that dates back as far 2,800BC.
My guide puts on mock disgust when she shines her light on the swathe of ‘graffiti’ left by interlopers who more recently broke in. She smiles, “They were Vikings and all they left were the most remarkable runes in Scotland.” She also tells us that on the Winter Solstice a shaft of light fires right through the tunnel to light up the chamber. I have another of those ‘must come back’ moments that Orkney keeps thrilling me with.
A motorhome is the ideal way of discovering Orkney’s historic sights. There is decent parking at the sites and you don’t need to worry about getting anywhere else for lunch and dinner. It’s also handy that, if a tourist bus rocks up in the rain, we just wait until they and the showers have gone.
Exploring the isle of Sanday
You could spend all your time driving around the Orkney Mainland and only scratch the surface, but we are also intent on taking a ferry out to explore another isle: Sanday. The deeply scenic ferry trip offers up views of the isles and tempting snatches of beaches. We are not disappointed when we arrive on Sanday.
As the name suggests, Sanday is renowned for its beaches and our hosts at the Ayres Rock site, Paul and Julie, are only too happy to share their favourite spots. The locals joke of slipping into ‘Sanday Time’ and we do. Over two relaxed days we wander the beaches and fish for trout.
The weather for once is not playing ball on Sanday, but it just makes the strolls all the more bracing and dramatic and we find the islanders a welcoming lot. There are only around 500 of them, but they are a busy bunch and I find artist, Bill McArthur, in his studio, check out Orkney Angora’s craft shop and also come upon an island ranger called Emma, who offers tours of Sanday’s wildlife.
What strikes me most is everyone wants us to stay and tell our friends about Sanday. Seriously – Sanday is recruiting and is keen to grow its population!
When we are back on the Orkney Mainland we have time to nip south on the causeways that connect the Orkney Mainland to the southern isles. Our target is the Italian Chapel, which I’ve long wanted to take my girls to. It’s a glorious testament to the power of the human spirit.
It was created by Italian prisoners of war during the WWII. They beautifully constructed it in an old Nissen hut with any scraps they could find to craft an altar and ceiling frescos. I think it is one of the most beautiful churches in the world.
Our last dinner is a spectacular and fitting goodbye to Orkney. At The Foveran, we feast on local seafood and enjoy the sort of warm Orcadian hospitality we’ve become used to. Then we reluctantly sail out on NorthLink with bags full of memories of ancient stone circles, big skies, a village that time forgot, glorious fresh food, the hint of whisky in the air and beaches that will linger long in the memory.
Every issue of MMM features articles from our team of motorhome and campervan travel writers. To buy a digital issue of MMM magazine, go here.