Orkney has been fantastic. I cannot describe it in any other way and that’s either from the fever limiting my vocabulary or the fact that it is just utterly fan-fucking-tastic. Go to Orkney. Seriously.
After meeting some great new friends in the hostel in Thurso it transpired that I would have approximately and hour and twenty minutes to cycle the 14 miles across from Stromness to the Tingwall ferry terminal, otherwise I’d have to wait for a ferry at 6pm that evening. It was a sprint, and I was exhausted from the last week of desperately trying to make it in time for the solstice, but I somehow managed it with time to spare.
After three days on Egilsay of solstice, beach, wood-fired hot tub and incredible company it was time to head off. I’d ordered my tent poles to a hostel in kirkwall and was pretty keen to get hold of them (and also sleep in a bed again, and wash). On my way to the ferry I somehow managed to fall into a bog.
One of my best looks
This was actually a lot worse than the photo suggests – I was up to my waist in the mud and luckily had new friends to pull me out before I succumbed to actual panic. It was a genuinely scary situation. Padded shorts & bog water also seem to have great affinity for one another. The life lessons continue.
Anyway, this led to taking a shower on the nearby island of Rousay (big thumbs up for public toilet/shower combos from me) and then cycling around it to see the tombs, ruins and stunning views the island had to offer. That evening I finally headed back to mainland Orkney.
Near to Tingwall pier is a beautiful reading room a group of friends created in memory of a lady called Betty, who from the information inside sounded like an absolutely lovely lady.
Then I spent two nights in a youth hostel in Kirkwall waiting for tent poles. Obviously I didn’t spend every waking second sat by the letterbox, but i spent a good amount of time resting and doing laundry (everything I own now smelled a bit lot the sea & quite grim).
Skara Brae - 5000 years old & still tidier than my room
On one of the days I decided to cycle around the west mainland, which actually ended up being a 100km loop. However, it was punctuated by THE HEART OF NEOLITHIC ORKNEY (there was an educational video at one of the sites where this was said by a very dramatic scottish bloke and now it’s stuck in my head). Maes Howe, the ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae and many other less well known sites gave me plenty of opportunities to stop and get a bit of a rest along the way. One thing I did miss was the Ness of Brodgar, an ongoing dig which was being opened up again the week after I left Orkney. The reasons to return continue to pile up.
Broch of Gurness
On my way back towards Kirkwall the road was closed. Anywhere like Birmingham or London this would be fine – just turn around and off to the next road. This is not an option on Orkney. I dismounted my bike and was pushing it past the man and his single traffic cone that held back the growing line of cars and almost fell over when about 30 bagpipers suddenly started playing and marching towards me. Behind them were lots of young children, teens and their parents dressed up as cartoons and a menagerie of other things, and behind that the tractors began. There were at least five of them, pulling floats of various themes. Of these, two or more were about the queen’s 90th birthday.
A reference to the recent front page news - Orkney egg thief
I was extremely confused, and once it had passed asked the traffic cone man what was happening (I seemed to be the only non-local there, you could tell by my startled look). Finstown, the town just before Kirkwall, has an annual gala/parade and I’ve since been told it’s a ‘bloody good night out’. I would have stayed to join the fun but you know, 100km and starving and needed to sort my life out.
MY TENT POLE ARRIVED AND IT WAS THE RIGHT SIZE AND EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED. Praise the internet. I set off down around Scapa Flow (famed for war-time barriers, Italian POW camps and also the ruins of ships of various ages) headed for the Tomb of the Eagles.
Some purposely sunk wartime boats & a churchill barrier
This tomb was discovered by a farmer on his land when he was looking for flat slab-like stones for building. He waited 16 YEARS for experts to come and excavate it, and what they found is of a similar time to Skara Brae. It is named for the large numbers of eagle talons found within it, and they taught me all about sky burials and the theories behind different aspects of the tomb. The museum is full of samples of what they found (most have been moved to big, ‘proper’ museums) – tools, jewellery, pottery fragments, eagle talons, human skulls and more. They even let me hold things, stone tools, eagle talons and some of the pottery, decorated 5000 years ago by people poking their nails into the clay while it was still soft. The girl showed me the three skills they retain there, one showing the prevalent genetic problem of that community of fused skull plates, suggesting inbreeding. I could go on and on about this tomb, it was great (also you had to either crawl or pull yourself through the entrance on a little trolley so it felt a bit like being Indiana Jones).
Some of the slightly irritating tour group I shared the tomb with
I had planned, after a trip back into Kirkwall to pick up some clothes I left in the hostel (lol me) and the purchase of an incredibly beautiful jumper to go out to see Hoy. However, I began to feel increasingly ill and so just pitched up at the Kirkwall campsite at 2pm. They let me stick around way past the ‘please vacate by Noon’ signs, and I lay around in the common room until 9.30pm until I could go and lie in the ferry waiting room.
And there I sat, waiting for the 11pm ferry to Shetland (way past my bedtime) feeling feverish and hoping with all my might that I would wake up fine.