The advent of a new scheduled flight between Dundee and the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, and the Boon Companion and I booked seats shortly after the flights began in April.
The route goes pretty much straight north from Dundee, and we had a nice day for it:
Those who know the Angus glens will recognize Glen Clova (coming in from left of frame) and Loch Muick (behind the propeller blade) with snowy Lochnagar beyond.
The Orkney Islands are old Norse territory—part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway and Sweden until an event that’s splendidly known as the Impignoration, in 1468. In that year, the impoverished Scandinavian King Christian I had to come up with a dowry for his daughter, Margaret, who was to marry King James III of Scotland. In the absence of hard cash, he effectively pawned the Orkneys—handing them over to Scotland, but with the option of redeeming them at a later date for the sum of 50,000 Rhenish florins. (A further 10,000 florins was due to be paid in cash, but after a year Christian had only been able to cough up 2,000, so the Shetland Islands went into pawn, too, for the remaining 8,000 florins.)
But the long Scandinavian residency has left its mark on the landscape, leaving a legacy of Norse placenames—there are gills and fells and dales and holms here. But I hadn’t previously encountered “quoy” (from Old Norse kví, “enclosed land”), which turns up in many Orcadian placenames.
The Orcadians are proud of their Norse heritage, and that pride is on display as soon as you land at Kirkwall Airport:
Yep, the airport sign is written in Nordic runes (the Younger Futhark, to be precise). It reads ᚴᚱᛁᛘᛋᛁᛏᛁᚱ, which we can transliterate as GRIMSITIR, and translate as “Grim’s homestead”. The modern placename is Grimsetter, and the airport evolved from a wartime airfield, RAF Grimsetter. (Because of the strategic importance of the anchorage at Scapa Flow, Orkney boasted no fewer than four airfields during the Second World War—the other three were at Skeabrae, Hatston, and the unfortunately named Twatt. The Air Force was spared the ignominy of operating out of RAF Twatt, however—the airfield was used by the Fleet Air Arm, who in naval fashion designated it a landlocked ship, and referred to it as HMS Tern. So that all worked out well.)
The drive into Kirkwall in our shiny new hired car was short, and we had time to kill before we could check into our accommodation, so we stopped for a wander around town. This proved to be utterly mobbed with middle-aged-to-elderly couples wearing identical red parkas—evidently, a cruise ship had come in. But we found a quiet location for a stroll, around the Peedie Sea*—a pleasant little lake full of swans and waterfowl. When we visited it was hosting a flotilla of very natty-looking long-tailed ducks. They’re passage migrants in the UK, and were presumably just stopping off for a rest and a feed on their way north to breed in Iceland.
Across the water, we had a view of the Kirkwall skyline, dominated by the twelfth-century bulk of St Magnus Cathedral.
Our accommodation, when we got there, gave us a nice view of Scapa Flow, one of the largest natural harbours in the world. Once, this would have been full of British warships; now it plays host to the occasional between-jobs oil-rig, as well as tankers arriving at the oil terminal on the island of Flotta.
On our first day we headed east and then south, threading our way down the series of causeways that connect the large island of Mainland to the small islands of Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm, and then the somewhat bigger islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay.
During the First World War, the gaps between these islands were partially blocked by deliberately sinking ships in the channels, thereby limiting the number of potential routes in and out of Scapa Flow, and reducing the number of coastal defence installations required to protect access to the anchorage. With the onset of the Second World War, more of these blockships were sunk, and plans were drawn up for the construction of the Churchill Barriers between the islands, completely sealing off these approaches. (The need for such a thorough blockade was demonstrated in 1939, when the German submarine U-47 managed to circumvent the existing blockship in Kirk Sound, between Mainland and Lamb Holm, and enter Scapa Flow undetected, where it torpedoed and sank HMS Royal Oak.)
The barriers were constructed during the course of the Second World War, with much of the work carried out by Italian prisoners of war. While the 1929 Geneva Convention on the treatment of PoWs prohibits their employment on purely military projects, the fact that a roadway was to be built along the top of the barriers magically transformed their construction into a civil engineering project, on which PoW labour could be used. One gets the feeling that the letter, but not the spirit, of the Convention was being adhered to.
As you drive across the Barriers today, you can look out and see the remains of the blockships in shallow water. Here’s the SS Reginald beside Barrier Number Three, looking back towards Glimps Holm, with the barrier itself at left of frame, marked by the big blue bus:
Over the decades, Barrier Number Four, between Burray and South Ronaldsay, has gathered an extensive beach along its eastern side, and the associated blockships have all been engulfed in sand. Back in 1990 the superstructure of one blockship could still be seen protruded from the beach:
The Italian PoWs left a lovely legacy on Lamb Holm, where they constructed a chapel from two Nissen huts.
The interior is gorgeously decorated with trompe-l’œil painting:
Farther south, we wandered through the narrow streets of the curiously named town of St Margaret’s Hope:
While I’m sure Saint Margaret of Scotland was a hopeful lady, this is another one of those Norse names— hóp meant “shallow bay”.
Some of the houses on the waterfront seemed to have their own private slipways, one of which had attracted a visitor:
West of St Margaret’s Hope lies Hoxa Head, overlooking the Sound of Hoxa, which is one of the main entrances to Scapa Flow. Unsurprisingly, it was well fortified during the First and Second World Wars, and most of the military buildings are still standing (some just barely), like this observation post:
The next day, we took a ferry to the island of Hoy, which has a completely different character from Mainland Orkney. Instead of flat farmland, Hoy is all rolling moorland:
We headed down to the Atlantic-facing beach at Rackwick, and then walked up the steep path that curves around the shoulder of Moor Fea. (More Norse—fea is an Orcadian version of Norse fjall, “hill”.) From a strategically placed bench, we were able to look back down on the bay:
It all looks very peaceful, until you consider that Rackwick is rek vík, “wreckage bay”.
We ended our Hoy trip where we started, at the Lyness ferry terminal. Lyness is now no more than a scatter of houses, making it difficult to imagine that it was once a massive naval base, housing 12,000 personnel during the Second World War. (The ferry uses one of the jetties constructed for that base.) The Scapa Flow Museum is just a short walk from the ferry terminal, and will fill up your brain with the military history of the area, if you’re that way inclined.
The propeller is from the wreck of HMS Hampshire, which didn’t sink in Scapa Flow. I’ll write more about that next time, when I deal with our various wanderings around Mainland, the main island of Orkney.
* Peedie is an Orcadian word, meaning “small”. Orcadians use it whenever a mainland Scot would say “wee”, and they like it enough to put it on souvenir T-shirts and mugs. Then again, they also decorate their souvenir T-shirts and mugs with reproductions of the road-signs directing drivers to Twatt. There’s no accounting for taste.