May 17 - 21
We got an early start and were on the road by 7:30am so that we could get to the ferry port and buy our ticket to the Orkney Islands. We didn’t expect any difficulty in getting a ticket as we are still out of high tourist season. So we received a big surprise when the ticket office opened and we were told that there was only one more space on the ferry! It seemed that because the boat was to carry a fuel tanker on board, regulations only allowed them to carry 20 other vehicles. Not that we could understand the logic to this – if the tanker blew and caused the ship to sink, it was OK for 20 vehicles to perish but not any more? Who comes up with these rules anyway?
During our four days in the Orkneys, we drove about one hundred miles, well off our average of 50 miles a day, but how can you drive much when the main island is only about 35 x 20 miles across.
We drove across 3 islands which are now connected by what are called ‘The Churchill Barriers". These barriers are causeways that were built during WWII in an attempt to secure the large natural harbor called Scapa Flow. We drove over three of these barriers and could still see the remnants of the earlier barricades used in attempts to seal the harbor, there are still parts of the "block ships" which were sunk to block the channels as well as stone filled containers still visible next to the causeways.
Much of the attraction which drew us here is two fold, birds and a 5,000 year history of occupation on the islands.
First, the birds. Much of the islands’ shoreline are cliffs, and cliffs make excellent nesting areas for birds. Although we have seen these birds in other places on this expedition and on previous expeditions, we have come to enjoy watching and identifying the different species. For those of you interested in birds, we saw some 7 different types of gulls, 2 types of skuas, fulmars (which are related to the albatross), guillimots, razorbills, puffins, shags and cormorants, gannets, curlews, 2 types of terns, and more. We hoped to see whales, dolphins, porpoises or orcas but none showed themselves during our visit.
Now for the history. There are the prehistoric villages discovered buried in sand dunes for the last 5000 years, there are the burial cairns, standing stone circles, Iron Age forts called brochs, Viking or Norse settlements, the Scottish castles of the 15th and 16th centuries and remnants left over from WWII.
|What was really nice, was that at the end of the day, we could find really great free camping places everywhere we went, and when you travel on an island we found that every one of our camps was looking out over the ocean. During our exploring, we had the best weather yet on this expedition as the sun shone and we only had a small amount of drizzle and wind. The sunsets were beautiful – considering that the sun didn’t set until nearly 10 pm.|
|We took a photo of a light house that is solar powered just so that you could see what the angle of the sun is to us this far north. The angle is so steep, it is amazing that we are getting any charge from our solar panels – but they are still doing a great job at keep our batteries fully charged.|
Around 3000 BC, the stone-aged, or Neolithic, civilization that existed here appeared to reach its pinnacle. The people built huge cairns, some for burial and some for unknown ritual use. So before the pyramids were constructed in Egypt, the people here built chambered cairns moving stones that weighed up to 30 tons from quarries 7 miles away. They erected stone circles, the largest once held 60 multi-ton standing stones also quarried miles away.
Graffiti on the stones!
Then there is the prehistoric village of Skara Brae, considered among the best preserved village of its type in Europe. Not only were the stone houses preserved, but so were interiors of the houses – including stone beds and stone furniture. Picture the Flintstones and you get something of an idea, even if it is an absurd comparison.
We visited an Iron Age fort on a tidal island that was accessible only at low tide.
Reminders of WWII are everywhere. As we mentioned, there are the barriers which now connect three of the islands together and there are derelict military buildings throughout the islands. One of the most poignant of the reminders is what is called the Italian Chapel.
Italian prisoners of war were brought to the Orkneys to provide the manpower required to build the barriers. The POWs were tradesmen from all walks of life. They wanted to have a place of their own for prayer. Out of the simplest of things, they built chapel. The military provided them with two Nissen huts (similar to the US Quonset huts), they used concrete to fashion statutes, scavenged metal and wood to make light fixtures and railings, and painted the walls and ceilings to mimic three-dimensional carvings. It was stunning.
It was a wonderful four days, and we were even able to find free wifi at cafes and at the main library.
Returning back to the Scottish mainland, we began our journey southbound along the eastern coastline. We hiked to some sea stacks – free standing pillars of rock, along the cliffs and drove around Sinclair Bay with its ruined castles dotting the shoreline.
Reaching another headland with a lighthouse, bird lined cliffs and the ruins of Castle Sinclair Girniqoe, we parked and walked through the fields to check out the castle that is literally built on a rock nearly surrounded by the sea. The castle is in ruins but the family is trying to stabilize what is left to preserve the heritage.
In the field we met two men working, and talked with them about the castle and the nearby birding cliffs. It turned out that the men were of the Sinclair Clan, and that one of them was the Laird himself – the head of the clan. We asked for permission to park nearby overnight, and we were invited to park in the family compound at the top of the cliffs which contained the clan library and a lighthouse. From our window we looked out over the North Sea and straight down the cliffs where the birds were nesting. How great!
|It was another misty day, so we decided to spend it driving. We stopped to explore an area containing about 200 standing rocks aligned in what they think was a fan shape/pattern. Based on the placement of the stones, archaeologists have calculated that originally there must have been 600 rocks covering the hillside. We arrived back at the beach looking for another camp and found a quiet spot in the town of Dornoch where we decided to dine out on a great seafood platter.|
|Another driving day as it was on and off rain. We completed those nasty domestic chores like shopping and filling up with fuel. One stop was at a 15th century ruined cathedral another victim of the reformation where we nearly got caught out in a rain storm, but we were able to wait it out in the cathedral gift shop where we go recommendations from the workers as to what route to take and where to stop along the way. Heading back to the beach again, we camped for the night Lossiemouth where Richard Branson of Virgin fame is attempting to build a space port for tourism. The location is on a military base and we couldn’t get in or see anything of it.|
Slow morning start. At high tide this morning we were awakened by screaming sea gulls and when we looked out to see what the ruckus was all about, saw that one two had been fighting as the loser was obvious with blood on his face. Life in the wild.
We retraced our route back to Elgin where we considered doing laundry, but the launderette in town was totally unreasonable, something like $10us per load! We decided that for that money, we would just find a campsite as their charges are considerably less.
We did stop off at the library to avail ourselves of their free internet access. They didn’t have wifi this time, but we were still able to do quite a bit of work on line.
|Our lunch stop was at The Glenlivet Distillery. The region that we are traveling through is known as the Whiskey route, as there are tons of distilleries in the area. We choose to visit The Glenlivet and enjoyed their tour and their free tasting. This distillery is more current, so although they still have the stills, vats and other typical equipment, their exterior design did not incorporate the unique tower found in so many other places. Our guide explained that the reason for this is that they no longer malt their own hops. Apparently this process created a lot of smoke during the drying process, so that was the idea behind the design. In fact, the distilleries that still have the drying building do so only for nostalgia as they all buy their malt from third parties and don’t do it themselves anymore. Throughout the area we passed by bright yellow fields of flowers that we think are the hops being grown for the distilleries.|
We ended up at a campground in the Cairghorn NP area. The mountains were really beautiful, and there was still some snow on top. Our camp had free wifi and cheap laundry facilities, just what we were looking for.