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Magical Scotland: the Orkneys

The light in the Orkneys is so clear, so bright, so lucid, it feels like you are on top of the world looking though thin clouds into heaven.

It doesn’t even feel part of the UK: when you sail off the edge of Scotland by the Scrabster to Stromness ferry, you feel you are departing the real world to land in a magical realm.

Nowhere else on earth can you go to a place and see eight thousand years of continuous history in such a tiny space.

Skara Brae is what remains of a neolithic village, older than Stonehenge and the pyramids, kept secret underground until uncovered by a severe storm in 1850. You can walk in and sit down, look around at the stone walls, stone beds, stone cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Recognizably human people lived here, seeing this same landscape and coast, feeling the same wind on their faces that you do, their eyes resting on the doors, hearths and toilets (one in each dwelling).

This is ‘stone age’ but talking about such ages is a misnomer in the Orkneys where they had no appreciable bronze age nor iron age so proceeded from the non-use of one metal to the non-use of another in what is now the best preserved neolithic site in Europe.

Skara Brae by Russel Wills. CC BY SA 2.0 via Geograph.

The Orkneys have been so fascinating for so long that even the vandalism needs to be preserved. In Maeshowe burial mound you can see where Viking tourists who came to the monument, already ancient by their time, wrote graffiti about their girlfriends on the walls. They wrote in Norse runes.

The Orkney islands were the headquarters of the Viking invasion fleets, and to this day the Orkneys are the only place in the world besides Norway where the Norwegian national day is celebrated.

The islands are filled with Tolkeinesque place names like the Ring of Brodgar, the Brough of Birsay, the Standing Stones of Stenness. Sagas were born here, like that of the peaceable 12th century Earl of Orkney, treacherously assassinated and now known as St Magnus, after whom the cathedral is named.

Sagas were created here in living memory. This is where the British home fleet was at anchor and the German fleet still lies. The battle fleet of the German Imperial Navy transferred in its entirety to Scapa Flow in 1919 to await a decision on its future. The German sailors could not bring themselves to give up their ships; they opened the seacocks and scuttled them all. At low tide you can still see the rusting hulks of Wilhelmine ambitions to dominate Europe.

If the Orkneys sound bleak and rocky, that would be the wrong impression to leave. They have rich and fertile farming land with green plains rolling on under a pearl sky. People tell folk tales around the peat fires, drinking ginger-flavoured whiskey; an orange cat pads around the grain heaps in the Highland Park distillery, and the islands shimmer under the ‘simmer dim’ of nightless summer days. I should be there now.

Headline image credit: Stromness, Orkney Islands by Geoff Wong. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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