The Orkney Islands, Scotland

By Rosanne Matheson
In 1850 a gale tore away some of the sand dunes along the Bay of Skaill exposing an astonishingly well preserved Stone Age village. Archaeologists date the village of Skara Brae to around 3000 BC.

I had read an article in a recent National Geographic (Aug 2014) which asked how this ‘scatter of islands of the northern tip of Scotland came to be such a technological, cultural and spiritual powerhouse’. In fact Orkney was an important maritime hub and with rich soils and a mild climate thanks to the Gulf Stream, a desirable place to live.

Orkney’s connections to the past span thousands of years and are home to some of the oldest and best preserved Neolithic sites in Europe. We visited the Ring of Brodgar and the standing stones of Stenness, older than Stonehenge. At Skara Brae, we saw Europe’s most complete Neolithic village with stone hearths, beds and cupboards. Maeshowe is an enormous chambered tomb with an entry passage which is perfectly aligned to receive the rays of the setting sun on the eve of the winter solstice.

Roger, our guide was not an Orcadian but nevertheless had a prodigious knowledge of the prehistory and history of the islands and had an engaging way of telling vivid stories of the past, not only the pre-history but also of Viking settlements and the legacy of the wars. We visited the beautifully decorated Italian chapel which was created by Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War. They had been brought to the area to build the Churchill barricades which blocked the harbour at Scapa Flow where the Royal Navy was anchored and the German High Seas fleet was scuttled at the end of WWI. Inside what was two Nissen huts joined end to end, they created a chapel with walls painted to depict brick walls, carved stone, vaulted ceilings and buttresses. Frescos of angelic figures, stained glass windows and an altarpiece depicting the Madonna and Child. All the materials for the decoration were scavenged from wherever possible.

We thoroughly enjoyed staying at Kirkwall considered to be one of the best preserved examples of an ancient Norse town and visited St Magnus Cathedral built by the Vikings and now one of the only Presbyterian Cathedrals in Scotland.. A leisurely stroll through the shops in the morning gave the group time to purchase exquisite silver jewelry made by Sheila Fleet.  We left feeling with the feeling that there was much more to explore in these ancient islands.