By yon bonnie bank and by yon bonnie streams… (part 4)

Flag of Orkney

Orcadian Flag. Apparently it’s quite new.

As I drove along the top of Scotland, the very top of Britain, indeed John O’Groats was on the sign posts, the distant Islands became gradually clearer.  I called briefly into Thurso (to post the very necessary post cards) and then drove the three miles to the port of Scrabster.  A small fishing port, it was the terminal for the North Link ferry I was to ride out to the mainland of the archipelago.

Hoy from the sea, the stack of the Old Man of Hoy

From the sea the Old Man of Hoy looks big, the Old Red Sandstone pillar sits on a lava base which protects it from erosion by the wild sea.

The first landmark I was anxious not to miss was the famous Old Man of Hoy.  A 439 feet (137 mtr) high free standing stack of Old Red Sandstone, famed among climbers.  It stands isolated from the main land-mass of Hoy after the land bridge which connected them collapsed sometime in the nineteenth century.  It was impressive but no more so than the whole coast line of massively high cliffs that run along the  western seaboard of the island of Hoy, which is the first to be reached.

Shortly after passing the headland of Brae Broch the ferry enters the swirling waters at the mouth of Scapa Flow.  Already I was entering a place I had never expected to see, the great naval anchorage – the British Pearl Harbour – which saw the mighty battleships of Beatty’s First World War fleet readying to meet the German fleet at Jutland.  Which saw that same German defeated fleet humiliated by being forced to surrender there in that British waterway, the waters of which  swirled and gurgled about those same mighty German ships as they sank slowly to the bottom of the Flow, having been scuttled by the skeleton crews left aboard.  Then in the dead of an October night in 1939 (14th) a U boat slipped into the dark waters and sent a torpedo into the aircraft carrier Royal Oak sending her and around 800 of her crew to the bottom of the Flow where she remains to this day, a protected war grave.  It was a very strange feeling to enter that waterway, that huge and foreboding sea which has borne witness to many events that have shaped not only those Islands but British history too.

Ancient Scapa Flow with a Tall Ship

A timeless view of Scapa Flow, a place of shipping history where the ships of the Hudson Bay Company departed and where battleships rested and rest.

The ferry slipped through the narrow western channel and turned to port (that’s left to you landlubbers !) making her approach to the harbour at Stromness.

The town is the second largest on the Orkney mainland (Kirkwall being the larger) and is one of the strangest little towns I have ever visited.  For one thing, it has only one street, a long narrow flag-stone paved oddity which has eccentric architecture and obscure names.  The houses on the harbour side, called Quoys, all stand end on to the water and have their own little landing slipways.  On the landward side the houses tend to be larger but equally chaotic in design and site.  I was reminded of the Lanes of Brighton or the Left Bank in Paris, it is that bizarre !


A quirky street indeed, the high street in Stromness.

I spent a long while wandering along that mile of clustered houses with secretive views of the water between the tightly packed quoys. At the one end there were shops and a few public houses or hotels, at the other was the well which supplied fresh water to the many ships that ventured forth into the grey waters of the north Atlantic seeking out passages and fortunes along the ice packed Arctic coast of Canada and New Foundland.

The first weekend was the very popular and widely acclaimed Orkney Folk Festival, the ferry arrived full of guitar and fiddle playing youngsters and oldsters.  The town bars rocked to the crazy ceilidh music as did the villages which had musicians bussed out to them each night.  It’s no secret that I’m a fan of live music of all sorts but I particularly like folk played with verve and style and that was certainly what we found.  I say ‘we’ because of course now I had joined up with sis’ and partner who had flown up the previous weekend and were already well acquainted with the local hostelries.

Student band at the Stromness Folk Festival

The students just jammed, and the place was rocking with some amazing fiddle playing.

In one sense it’s difficult to know where to begin with telling the story of the ten days I spent on the main island.  It needs to be taken somewhat out of sequence to make sense, to be broken down into themes, at least that way readers can skip the parts they are not interested in!

There is so much about the place whatever one’s interests, most unexpectedly was the weather, whilst my dear home was experiencing deluge after deluge and ultimately serious floods, the northern isles were bathed in sunshine and blue skies, albeit the temperatures were autumnal !

So, where to start !  Scenery is clearly important, the coast-line is quite simply stunning.  The wildlife, birds of the sea and the inland, the Orkney Vole and the Hares, are all worthy of mention. The remnants of past farming, the crofters and their way of life certainly was a major element of my sight seeing.  Lastly, and massively, comes the archaeology, the World Heritage Site, the myriad of jaw dropping millenia-old stone tombs and settlements, the Brochs and the Nordic influences in language, culture and folklore. Unfortunately my contact with the locals was limited, mainly to the guides and heritage officers, all of whom were extremely knowledgeable and willing (to entertain my endless questions and comments), in particular the staff of the two farm museums were altogether charming,  local (which made it difficult for me to understand them !) and real enthusiasts.


Dawn over Stromness harbour

Dawn over the calm water of Stromness harbour, the only problem was that it came so early, just after 4 am !!

The harbours and coastal bays, the great mass of Scapa Flow and the rocky high cliffs are just so altogether stunning that I began to suffer from ‘trigger finger’ (from depressing the camera shutter button!).  I won’t flood this blog with them, I’m sure one or two will suffice (or maybe three or four…) , I will however upload more to my flikr site very soon (stootpics).

Brough of Birsay

Bird watching on these cliffs, the Brough of Birsay at the north western tip of the main island, is both rewarding and a little hairy !

The main island, split into west and east, has more than enough scenic spots to occupy a whole month of sightseeing.  Whilst being interested in wildlife, sea birds in particular, is a definite bonus in terms of what you get to see, merely looking is guaranteed to please.

I’m sure everyone has the same response to seeing cliffs, crashing waves and sandy coves.  I have no idea why that is, it is locked into our psyche, we are programmed perhaps ?  I and those with me are certainly afflicted; cliff and beach, the wilder the better, were a daily draw.

Orkney coastal view

Just another cliff and sea and sky shot, but can you make out the lighthouse in the distance !?

The inland scenery is equally stunning, albeit it is almost impossible to find a picturesque spot that some pre-historic gang haven’t iconised before !

The relic buildings and the townscape of Stromness could be thought of as scenery although I think the two are quite distinct aspects of the island.  There is no doubt however, that even without an historic interest in old crofts or homestead, or an architectural eye for town buildings, the scenic aspect of them is attractive to all.

Cottages on the harbour at Stromness

Many of the old ‘quoys’ are getting a make-over courtesy of grant aiding, they certainly deserve to be preserved don’t you think ?

What was so nice about the narrow high street of Stromness was how vehicles had not been allowed to become the dominant force.  There were no kerbside yellow lines, there were few parking bays or time limit signs, no contra-flow systems or one-way streets, even though the whole high street was narrower than any one-way street I’ve ever come across.  No traffic lights or Pelican crossings, no mini or maxi roundabouts, save one out of town where the main routes into the town converge. Best of all there were no ‘traffic calming’ measures, no bloody great bumps in the road or central islands with gaudy bollards. Despite all the absence of normal traffic control systems I never saw a blockage, a queue or heard a horn blasted in anger or frustration.  Admittedly traffic level is slight but even so, the chances of travelling the mile long high street without meeting an oncoming vehicle was also slight, in that event everyone either pulls in, waits at a suitably wide spot (i.e. wide enough to just squeeze past) or reverses.  Pedestrians walked in the road and cyclists pedalled past, everyone was calmly accommodated.  A thing called ‘common sense’ prevailed, a thing called courtesy – even from mainland and overseas visitors, many of whom had to traverse the length of the town, often in large camper vans or towing caravans, in order to reach the (only) camping site out on the promontory – it demonstrated how well folk can sort themselves out and adopt a free-for-all system that gets everyone to where they are going with little fuss or ‘big brother’ control.

Stromness high street

Folk and traffic just learned to adapt, admittedly rush hour was not overwhelming ! Another section of the High street. Oh that all seaside towns were this busy.

Simplicity with street names

I liked too the simplicity of street naming…

Twatt Church on Orkney

Some names, it has to be said, were unfortunate…

Stromness house designs

Another view of Stromness, this time the side roads leading off the High street where many of the buildings had that strange outward curve. On old farm buildings that was a simple expedient to allow carts to turn withoug catching the building, but here ? Was it a means of making the upstairs slightly bigger, perhaps to do with keeping the ground floor area as small as possible for some tax reason ? Whatever it was it certainly gave a quaintness and eccentricity to the townscape.

Derelict croft on Orkney

There were just so many of these sad old buildings, these crofts that housed generations of Orcadians but witnessed such hardship and suffering.


The shere number of abandoned and derelict crofts on the mainland was quite a surprise to me.  It clearly showed how dense a population there was in previous centuries.  Today many of these properties lie close to a brand new bungalow there being a general planning acceptance that it is not possible to reclaim the old houses.  I looked into an estate agents in Kirkwall and was amazed at just how many there were for sale, all with approval to build a new house.  On the Scottish mainland, apparently, such an activity is contiguous with demoliton of the old house.  Even though these deserted skeletal remains of past lives also represent hard times and struggle, there is nevertheless something idyllic and romantic about them as landscape icons.  Looking into many of them, as I did, the sense of those past lives pervades the whole dwelling and looking out over the bleak open heath or hills, or in some instances, modern improved pasture, the isolation of those homesteads is manifest.

Seaside croft in ruinous state on Orkney mainland.

Idyllic on a bright sunny day, harsh when the gales blow in off the sea.

Orcadian farmstead in ruins

Just another… so many all over the islands, a lost heritage indeed.

Another aspect of the historical legacy is of course the occupation of the island by the military during the two World Wars.  Apart from Scapa Flow and its naval connection there were two large airfields on the main island, one of them a Fleet Air Arm field.  There are relics of these and of defensive ‘pill-boxes’ as an invasion by German airborne forces was, at one time, deemed possible.

Old concrete nissan hut on edge of Scapa Flow

An old 2nd WW concrete nissan hut on the edge of Scap Flow; I’m not altogether sure it isn’t a holiday home today ! Certainly it is in good condition and clearly in use for some purpose.

Pillbox from the "nd World War on mainland Orkney

This concrete pill box defends one of the open areas on which an airfield stood.

Air field on Orkney

It is what it says !

The dispersed nature of the buildings relating to the two airfields meant that they were strangely appearing as I drove around, in open fields, on roadsides, apparently in the middle of nowhere.  Many were just standing disused, others the farmers had utilised, others the animals had utilised !

Cattle sheltering in sn old wartime building

Guard Duty seventy years on, this old building on Twatt airfield continues to give shelter…

I cannot indulge myself too much here, after all the number of photographs I took is into 4 figures !  I have to try to give you a quick feel for the place, for the experience.  Of course I have yet to talk about the archaeology, the old machinery, the museums, the wildlife !

Oh my, I will try to get it all on the next post, but for now I’ll give you just a couple more of my favourite ruins !!

Isolated croft on Orkney

Maybe my favourite, maybe…

Ruined farmstead on Orkney

Probably my favourite, probably…

Old abadnoed croft on Orkney

Definitely, this one I want to buy !

Looking through the doorways of an old croft

Through the doorways of the old long house.

Box bed in ruin

In the foreground is the remnants of the box bed which also acts as a room divide.

Modern fireplace in old croft

This fireplace was a modern invention of the mid 1800s, posh in its day !

I’m going to end this post with one of the most remarkable relics of World War 2 to be found on the island.  Italian prisoners of war were brought to the island to help build barriers across some of the narrow channels between the smaller islands around the northern shores of Scapa Flow.  They wanted a church and they were allowed to convert two nissan huts into a place of worhsip.  It is maintained to this day as a Catholic church and the art work inside, in the ‘tromp l’oeil’ style, on the walls is quite something.  After the war the artist, one Domenico Chiocchetti who came from Moena, was asked to return to restore his work.

Famous Italian Church built by prisoners of war on Orkney

Behind the facade of the front are the rounded shape of two old nissan huts. The Italian church stands serene on the shores of Scapa Flow.

Art work in the tromp l'oeil' style inside the Italian church on Orkney

My picture does not do justice to the quality of this artwork, it is exquisite and the tromp l’oeil effect, a 3d vision, is amazing.

For now I’ll take a breather – you wouldn’t believe how long it takes to upload photographs and do all the captions etc !  More soon from Welshwaller’s journeys of discovery on Orkney.

Sun shining on the waters of Scapa Flow on Orkney

Sunset on Scapa – I never tired of seeing the effects of the sun on the water whatever the time of day (or night up there !)


3 Responses to “By yon bonnie bank and by yon bonnie streams… (part 4)”

  1. Sugel Says:

    Winston Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty when the Royal Oak was sunk. He ordered that causeways be constructed between islands to completely block most of the eastern approaches from the North Sea to Scapa Flow. The causeways came to be known as the Churchill Barriers. Now they provide road links, joining several islands by the A961 highway. The barriers total 2.3 kilometers in length.

    • welshwaller Says:

      He did indeed and not only did it work (for the U boats) but it enables us to go visit those very lovely southern isles and helps make them more conducive to living on today, after all, even Island dwellers need the weekly trip to Tesco !! (Was shocked to find one in Kirkwall !) Thanks for taking the trouble to comment JD !

  2. Andrew G Says:

    Stunning, I was captivated by the Scottish Stuff.
    See you at Blandford next year ?!
    Good luck, Drew
    PS- I spent a summer at Lake Llangorse in ’82

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