On the map, the Orkney Islands north-east of Scotland appear mere breadcrumbs, but you take a chance, because wild places that are unquestionably safe and pristine excite you, and just looking at that map tells you at the very least there will be plenty of ocean views and you’ll be sharing your cliffside walks with a crazy number of Arctic birds that make the northern isles their home in summer. And now a few taps on your keyboard reveal daily flights and ferries from Scotland, a handful of endearing places to stay, and a guide who can show you the lay of the land and give you some local colour. You’re on!
There are seventy islands in this ensemble (home to twenty thousand souls) and you land in Mainland, the largest of them all. Gordon Dean from Go Orkney picks you up in his van and whisks you off on a magical mystery tour of a treeless, green and gold land of grass and barley patches devoted to cows, beef and cheese and people whose culture straddles Scottish affiliation and Norse ancestry. You may think you’ve read this book before, but there are surprises everywhere, and here they come fast and furious.
The Orkney islands are a hub for green energy. Windmills are at work in the water, powered by the gusts, and giant turbines harvest energy from the strong currents underneath the waves. Microsoft has been experimenting with keeping data centres in barrels on the cool sea floor, and it’s turned out to be a viable, low-maintenance alternative. These isles are now a university-led destination to study alternative clean energy sourcing.
Now you’re circling the tall henge-stones from 5000 years ago at the Ring of Brodgar, wondering whether they told time, were an ancient theatre or marked historic moments. They’re incredibly photogenic, right by the ocean and ringed by jewel-toned heather and wild flowers.
A short drive away lies Scara Brae, where a storm in 1850 laid bare a cluster of Neolithic homes from 3100 BC. This and several others are some of Europe’s best preserved prehistoric sites. Walking on the grassy mounds surrounding the single-room dwellings, you’ll look into the central hearth, beds and a dresser along the circular walls, all made of stone.
Dozens of artefacts found here, now housed in the museum in Kirkwell, the main town, tell the story of these hunter-gatherer fishermen who were also barley farmers.
The birds are here after all, in enormous numbers, and on the isles of Westray and Papa Westray, and most others, you’ll thrill to diving, hunting, swirling squawking arctic terns, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, ducks and geese.
And hopping on a ferry to the hilly isle of Hoy, you can leave all of mankind behind to walk in the sombre brooding, yet hauntingly beautiful moors, past an ancient stone wall cottage or two, accompanied by the sounds of crashing waves, birds and the wind.