We took an early morning bus from Thurso to catch the morning ferry to the Orkney Islands across the North Sea. The ferry launches from a barren, rocky spit of land with the quirky name of John O’Groats. When we arrived, brisk winds were forming white caps and blowing sand and dirt around the desolate outpost.
John O’ Groats
It appears no one lives at John O’Groats. Each building seems to exist only to send people on their way and take a little money out of their pockets while they wait. Waiting for our ferry, I went into a weathered wooden building with a hand painted sign nailed to the door that said, ‘John O’ Groats Museum.’
The ‘museum’ was the size and shape of a railroad box car, with just as much charm. I wandered in. No attendant. No admission. Wooden floors creaked as gazed at faded photos of numerous tankers, steamers, fishing vessels, warships, and ferries that had sunk over the last hundred years off John O’ Groats.
While ships foundered on the high seas drifting toward the rocky shoreline, volunteer lifeboat crews rowed out to rescue desperate sailors. A memorial listed the names of lifeboat crews who died rescuing shipwrecked crew.
At the museum, I saw my first photos of the German World War I fleet that sank at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands in 1919. One photo had been taken from a plane overhead, showed long lines of German warships surrounded by British warships (more on Scapa Flow later). It was a stunning photo, depicting an event I knew nothing about.
Vacation condos at John O’ Groats ?
I wandered to a cliff where the abandoned three-story John O’ Groats Hotel was enclosed by a tall fence. A sign nailed to the hotel was promoting it as a future vacation condo development.
I studied the hotel’s faded and worn facade, looked out over a choppy North Sea, felt the chilly wind, and kicked sand and dirt beneath my feet. Who would pay to vacation on a windy coastal cliff with no inhabitants except a few wind-blown seagulls?
The tottering building looked like it had already had the life sucked out of it by hurricanes, constant winds, and gale like storms. I understand the attraction of extreme sports, but extreme vacationing? Sounds a bit, well, extreme.
No opening date for the future condo project was noted on the sign. Maybe they’re waiting for the first deposit.
Sailing on the North Sea
We held our hats and wrapped coats around us as we walked a plank to our ferry rocking in a choppy sea after sailing from Orkney. The forty-five minute ferry ride was rough, plowing into six-foot swells and dipping into trough. A cold rain was slashing sideways.
A few of us held to railings on the exposed upper deck to experience the voyage. Sensible types retreated below to an enclosed cabin to ride out the choppy voyage. But even below, it was rocky. Passengers held on to chairs nailed to the floor or railings as the ferry rose and plunged between waves. Cabin windows were misted from sea spray and cold rain.
A ferry crew member told me we were plowing through a meeting of the north Atlantic and North sea currents which happens twice a day. When we approached the dock, we reached slightly calmer waters and the crew positioned the gang-plank for passengers eager to plant their feet on terra firma. We landed, and took our first wobbly steps down the plank, holding to railings. One can only imagine what it would be like sailing on the North Sea for a longer voyage.
Our tour bus was at the dock on South Ronaldsay Island, the driver smiling, commenting that he had watched our crossing through binoculars. “A bit choppy, eh?” he said to passengers eager to get on the bus and sit in warm, dry, and stable vehicle.
He was a pleasant, garrulous chap who began a lively and informative dialogue as we drove across ‘The Orkney’, which is what residents call their islands home. The Orkney is a gently rolling barren landscape of bogs and marshes, wind-blown pastures, and stone farmhouses. The weather is too harsh for much agriculture or livestock, except for small hay fields and garden patches. A few sheep and cattle grazed in isolated fields, nibbling tufts of grass.
Driving toward the capital of Kirkwall, we crossed concrete bridges supported by concrete pilings called Churchill barriers. The bridges and pilings were constructed during World War II to prevent Nazi submarines from sneaking into the Scapa Flow deep harbor, the home port of the British Royal Navy.
But the Churchill barriers were too late to avoid one tragedy early in the war. On October 14, 1939, a Nazi submarine torpedoed the HMS Royal Oak battleship anchored in the Scapa Flow sending 831 sailors and young Naval cadets to a watery grave. The incident shocked Britain into realizing that the ‘phony war’ that began September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, was really a hot war. A buoy over the HMS Royal Oak marks where the ship rests.
Twenty thousand people live on the Orkney, five thousand in the capital Kirkwall (church wall), at a narrow neck between the Orkney east and west mainlands. The town appeared to be a bit dreary, like much of the landscape; a few streets of sterile stone buildings, warehouses, a church, and modest homes with small yards and gardens.
Life is difficult on the Orkney, all goods have to be shipped from the mainland — milk, bread, toilet paper, clothes, pens, cars, and fuel. Retail windows showed basic items. No designer handbags, lingerie, or sports cars. After a quick lunch, we boarded our bus, eager to get into the countryside to learn more about the history of the islands.
Ring O’ Brodgar
Orkney is a treasure of active archeological research. Our tour guide pointed out Neolithic burial mounds, cairns, stone monoliths, and unusual formations in vacant fields and farm yards. One site we visited was the Ring O’ Brodgar, a circle of stone megaliths. The Ring is on a wind-swept, 8,000 sq. meter open field by a loch near another Neolithic site, the Standing Stones of Stenness.
The area around the Ring o’ Brodgar has many Neolithic archeological sites that have yet to be fully studied or classified. In the one hundred meter diameter Ring, there were once sixty erect monoliths, but only twenty-seven remain standing. Circling the Ring outside the stones is a man-made shallow trench of uncertain significance.
We walked around the circle, studying the lichen and moss splotched megaliths that stand 7 – 15 meters high. Over the centuries some had fallen and been half buried.
The Ring dates from about 2500 BC, one of the oldest Neolithic sites in Europe. It had an undetermined religious or celestial theme. During summer and winter solstice, crowds assemble at the Ring to observe the sun setting and rising across the megaliths.
Visiting the Ring was a bit eerie, seeing how an ancient civilization tried to make sense of their world and the mysteries of the heavens. Stone artifacts and mounds can reveal only so much; how much richer would they be if there were writings to explain their beliefs.
Our tour guide told us entertaining stories about life on the Orkney. My favorite was how after World War II, the Orkney economy suffered when the British Navy reduced its presence on the islands. Farmers did their part to bolster the economy by importing and raising chickens to send broilers and eggs to the British Isles. The Orkney poultry business became quite profitable and the island had about a quarter of a million of the cluckers.
But in 1956, a hurricane swept over the Orkney. A quarter million hens, roosters, and chicks were swept up thousands of feet in the air, eventually dropping into the North Sea. For weeks, carcasses of dead chickens, wet feathers, and egg shells floated onto Scotland’s beaches. Sharks probably snared a few chicken snacks as well.
As he was relating the story, I had a vision of a feathery cloud of squawking chickens swirling in the dark skies over the North Sea in a cacophony of cackling, chicken feathers, and eggs. The story would make a hilarious cartoon, but the SPCA might have objections.
One of the most impressive archeological sites on the Orkney is Skara Brae, the remains of a late Neolithic age that dates from more than 5,000 years ago, older than the Egyptian Pyramids or Stonehenge. Skara Brae is on a wind-swept bay on west Orkney mainland, once known as Skerrabra. In warmer climes, a white, sandy Skerrabra beach would be a popular place to swim, surf, and sun bathe. But not a soul was on the beach the day we visited, due to the strong winds and chilly temperatures.
A hurricane in the 1850’s blew away centuries old sand dunes and mounds at Skerrabra. The storm uncovered the tops of stone dwellings that possibly dated from the Stone Age. Little was done to research the site or date the artifacts until the 1920’s when a University of Scotland archeologist lead researchers to study the site. Their findings were heralded as a major discovery of a late Neolithic village that survived for some 600 years between 3200 BC and 2200 BC. It is one of the most ancient and well-preserved Neolithic sites ever discovered.
The site has eight stone dwellings with similar features, central living quarters, a hearth, stone beds and dressers, and passage ways between the homes with a locking system. The similarity in lay out of the dwellings led archeologists to surmise that the village social structure had no hierarchy. Everyone at Skara Brae was at the same social status and families possibly shared work and child rearing.
An interpretative center sponsored by the caretaker, Historic Scotland, includes a replica of a dwelling. A video portrays what the site looked like while inhabited, and later when it was eventually covered by sand and high tides. Those twin forces created the conditions that allowed Skara Brae to be preserved for centuries without damage or exposure to the elements.
The villages are at the end of a half mile walk over wind-blown bluff of tall, flowering weeds, reeds, and scrub brush. Along the path, stone markers were placed with dates of events in world history in reverse chronological order. The first marker is dated 1969, the year the first American astronauts walked on the moon. Later markers date the American revolution, Columbus landing in North America, the Middle Ages, the Crusades, the time of Christ, the building of the Pyramids. The last stone marker is inscribed 3000 BC when Skara Brea was inhabited. An impressive depiction.
Orkney’s location made it a strategic position in World War I and II. It became the headquarters for the British Naval fleet and the scene of a dramatic post World War I event.
After the Kaiser surrendered in November 1918, the German fleet was escorted by British warships to the Orkney to wait final terms of the Versailles Treaty. Seventy-four German warships, cruisers, battleships, mine sweepers, and submarines were anchored in Scapa Flow, one of the largest natural harbors in the world.
As peace talks dragged on, an important deadline approached. Fearing the German fleet would be taken over by the British Navy, the German officer in charge at Scapa Flow, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter secretly ordered his ships to be scuttled. For weeks, crews welded bulkhead doors open, set explosives in key locations, and dropped valves and keys overboard. When the order was given, German crews opened sea cocks letting in sea water and detonated explosives.
As startled British naval officers watched, German war ships began listing and sinking. Several ships were boarded by British forces, but it was too late. Fifty two German ships sank to the bottom. Twenty ships were boarded by British sailors and beached on sandbars. The last German casualties of World War I were nine crewmen shot by British sailors attempting to salvage one of the sinking warships.
John O’ Groats To Inverness
We spent our last evening in Scotland riding a bus from John O’ Groat’s to Inverness where we would board a London bound train the next morning. The two-hour ride turned out to be an unexpected treat as skies cleared and we could see across the flat North Sea to the horizon.
Our bus hugged a ‘single carriage’ road on cliffs so closely that we could gaze down at the rocky beach a hundred feet below. The road wound through cedar and pines forests, dipped into ravines with rushing streams flowing to the sea, then rose into bright sunlight passing small farms, stone fences, grazing sheep, and fields of grain crops.
We sped through villages so small there wasn’t a stop sign or light to slow down our driver. After a blustery, rainy day on the Orkney, it was like we had arrived on another planet; blue skies, billowing white clouds, a placid North Sea, and pastoral villages. Spectacular only captures part of the wonder.
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Next destination: Graz, Austria
In addition to writing this travel blog, I write fiction — thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
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