Orkney: windswept, ancient archipelago laid bare to the great clear skies of the northern seas. Inhabited for over 5,000 years, with evidence of Neolithic settlers, Bronze Age farmers, Viking Norsemen, Highland chiefs and every other civilisation in between pitting its undulating hills, white shores and rugged cliff tops. Sea, sand, sun (yes, we were surprised about that too) and standing stones. What a bloody brilliant place to go on holiday.
After a breathtakingly lovely drive up to the very tip of Scotland, we caught the Pentland ferry from Gill's Bay to St Margeret's Hope (below), on Orkney's southernmost island, South Ronaldsay, which is joined to the mainland via Burray, Glimps Holm, Lamb Holm and a series of rocky causeways, built during the Second World War by Italian prisoners of war. We stayed at the Creel, which not only has lovely rooms, but also boasts one of the best restaurants in Scotland (and one of the chocolatey-est puddings ever, so it gets my vote).
Situated right at the tip of South Ronaldsay, perilously close to a cliff edge, Tomb of the Eagles is one of the most fascinating sites on the island: a neolithic tomb discovered by a farmer on his land and named after the many white-tailed eagle skulls discovered there.
The Tomb of the Eagles rather spoiled us by offering us a trolley to wheel our way in - no crawling and shuffling through damp rocks here!
Near the tomb is the remains of a Bronze Age settlement (above), which was excavated before the tomb.
The cliffs on which the tomb is perched.
On tiny, windy Lamb Holm is the charming Italian Chapel, built by the Italian POWs exiled here during the Second World War to construct the Churchill Barriers. Made from two converted Nissen huts, it's beautifully decorated with trompe l'oeil artwork to resemble a marbled, frescoed capella. It's utterly moving to think of those southern souls so far from home, bringing a little Italian amore di vita to these chilly northern climes.
Believe it or not, this fine statue of St George is made from poured concrete.
Scapa Flow, the sheltered waters between the Orkney mainland, southern islands and Hoy, have been sailed by Vikings, kings, explorers, Jacobites and pirates (according to the leaflet I have here anyway). More recently, the harbour played host to the British and German Fleets, the latter famously scuppered here at the end of the First World War. Hardy souls can dive the remains of the ships, and there are plenty of interesting salvaged finds in the Stromness Museum too. I don't think these wrecks are old German ships, but they're still pretty cool.
The wind has whipped up an absolute hooley as we venture into the heart of Neolithic Orkney to visit the beautiful Stones of Stenness, awe inspiring Ring of Brogar and the fascinating, mysterious Maeshowe chambered tomb.
The imposing Stones of Stenness are the remains of a ceremonial place of worship constructed painstakingly over 5,000 ago. Rumours of human sacrifice are, however, bunkum.
The Ring of Brogar (or Brodgar) is a huge stone circle just a few hundred yards up from the Stones of Stenness. Thirty-six of the original 60 stones survive to this day, some splintered and cracked by lightning or simply worn away with age. In the words of the Scottish geologist Hugh Miller, 'They look like an assemblage of ancient druids, mysteriously stern and invincible silent and shaggy.' I like that. Compared to the controlled military operation that is visiting Stonehenge, the Ring of Brogar experience is free and easy, and equally moving.
We didn't take any photos of Maeshowe, but it's an unmissable site: a huge, beautifully constructed chambered tomb, aligned to channel the light of the sun at the winter solstice and scribbled with Viking graffiti: Olaf 4 Helga 4ever...
Sober, grey Kirkwall, with its sprinkling of gifty shops and old lady boutiques, makes Macclesfield look positively metropolitan (and the only supermarket we could find was Lidl). But there are plenty of interesting things to see and do here, the first being the red sandstone Viking cathedral of St Magnus, built by Earl Rognvald during the 13th century and dedicated to his martyred uncle, Earl Magnus.
There are lots of cool tombs like this lining the walls of the cathedral, dating from the 17th century onwards.
Across the road from the cathedral are the Earl's and Bishop's Palaces. The ruined Earl's Palace was once the home of Patrick Stewart, the Evil Earl who terrorised the people of Orkney until he was finally executed in 1615. Historic Scotland doesn't mince its words when describing the black heart of the Earl, who used forced labour to build the palace and was so godless that his execution had to be delayed to give him time to learn the words to the Lord's Prayer. We liked to think of his ghost roaming the halls of the ruined palace, irritably crossing out 'evil' on the information boards and scratching 'misunderstood' in its place...
I'm sure they could make a great film about Earl Patrick Stewart: Patrick Stewart is Earl Patrick Stewart in Evil Earl Patrick Stewart...
Just outside Kirkwall are two fascinating chambered tombs, Cuween (also known as the Tomb of the Beagles - hoho - after the discovery of many dogs skulls there) and Wideford Cairn.
In his marvellous guide to pre-Roman Britain, The Modern Antiquarian, Julian Cope (yes, the Julian Cope) had a spooky experience at Cuween (or 'Fairy') Hill, and I must say I found it a wee bit spooky. I was on my own, and not so much afraid of 'amber apparitions' or other Neolithic ghosties as some creepy weirdo hiding out in the dark recesses of the tomb. On Orkney, no-one can hear you scream... I really should stop watching so many horror movies.
These cairns are sited just above the tomb. I don't think they're very old, but they make a nice photo.
The view from Cuween Hill.
Wideford Cairn is tierd like a wedding cake, and you enter it from above, by climbing down a ladder. You drive up an extremely steep farm road to the parking area, and then walk along a narrow path to reach the cairn, but it's worth the effort.
The Neolithic village of Skara Brae is the oldest site I've ever visited. Built over 5,000 years ago, it predates Stonehenge and the Pyramids by a few thousand years, and is amazingly well preserved. While lacking the mystery and majesty of Maeshowe and the standing stones (the site looks a bit like a mini-golf pitch and put as you approach it) it's nevertheless fascinating, with an excellent display centre putting it all in context.
The Bay of Skaill, where Skara Brae is sited, is beautiful.
At the north-west tip of the Orkney mainland lies the history-packed village of Birsay. Vikings, Evil Earls and 19th century technology - you'll find it all here.
If you want to view this sweet little church, St Magnus Kirk, you can pick up the key from the local shop.
Earl Patrick Stewart raises his evil face again in Birsay. This ruin was once another magnificent palace, built with the blood, sweat, tears and slave labour of the Orcadian people.
Just a few hundred yards away from the village is the Brough of Birsay (above), which can only be accessed via a narrow causeway, cut off at high tide. Here you'll find the remains of a Viking settlement and a lighthouse, designed by Robert Louis Stevenson's grandfather (I think). We spent quite a bit of time here as it's just breathtakingly beautiful - the sun was shining, the wind had dropped and the snack van was serving Orkney ice cream. Bliss!
The ruined Viking chapel on the Brough of Birsay.
Looking across to the mainland from the Brough of Birsay.
This stone is a replica of a carved Pictish stone found on the Brough, now in the Kirkwall Museum (which, incidentally, is well worth a visit if you want to get a good picture of the islands' history in a couple of hours).
Birsay Henge, where the demons dwell. Actual size.
Further along the north coast of the mainland, on a spit of land looking out across the restless waters of the Eynhallow Sound towards Rousay and the small monastic island of Eynhallow, is the Broch of Gurness, a settlement dating from around 500BC.
The imposing entrance to the Broch.
We interupt this broadcast to bring you a public service message. If you go to Orkney, do set aside a couple of nights to stay in lovely Woodwick House, on the north coast just east of Evie. It's a decision you won't regret, as a warm, homely welcome, beautiful grounds, charming rooms and excellent cuisine await you.
Situated on the shore, the house is surrounded by a picture perfect bluebell wood, with a stream running through it. The resident cat, a huge white stately beast called Thorfinn, will accompany you on an evening stroll through the grounds.
The next day saw us take the short ferry trip across to the island of Rousay. With a car full of waterproofs and wellies, we weren't at all prepared for the blisteringly gorgeous sunshine we had that day, and ended up somewhat red and shiny, but it was well worth it to see the sites of this fascinating, quiet little island.
On the ferry to Rousay. Note the gloriously blue sky.
The view from Rousay to the Orkney mainland.
Taversoe Tuick (above) is the first of four cairns you can visit on the southern coast of Rousay. There's only really one road on Rousay, circling the island like a ribbon, so it's pretty much impossible to get lost. Taversoe Tuick is the only two-storeyed chambered tomb to be found - like a stone bunkbed for dead people. Further along the road are Blackhammer Cairn and Knowe of Yarso Cairn, both of which are interesting and boast gorgeous views across to the mainland.
Down by the shore are the Midhowe Broch and Cairn.
The Iron Age Broch (above) is a lonesome but peaceful sort of place, built on a promontory facing out towards the Broch of Gurness.
Next to the Broch, the Stone Age Cairn (above) is the largest tomb of its kind, and is super impressive. Protected by a huge engine shed that's been constructed around it, you view it from a series of walkways running over it. Divided into stalls by huge stone slabs, there's room for a lot of dead people here.
Returning back to the road, we saw some as stone on the beach curve up into the unmistakeable banana shape of a seal, so we spent the next hour lying on the cliff edge, watching the hardy little souls heave themselves along the rocky shores, slipping into the water to become elegant underwater acrobats.
We went for a lovely walk along the cliffs at Deerness, on the Eastern Mainland. The narrow, precipitous path to the ruined chapel on the Brough of Deerness looked a little to perilous, however, so we stayed safely on terra firma.
The Tomb of Unstan (below), just south of the standing stones on the road to Stromness, combines the slabbed divisions of a stalled tomb with a chambered cubby hole for storing bones. Lots of distinctive, decorated pottery was found here, dubbed Unstanware.
There's graffiti in the tomb dating back to the 19th century.
Ian emerges from the Tomb of Unstan.
From the top of the cairn, you get a wonderful view across the loch to the Ring of Brogar (below).
The steep cliffs at Yesnaby are a great place to spot puffins, but unfortunately it's rather too early in the season. Boo! Still, the views from here are utterly spectacular, even if the wind is threatening to blow us into the sea...
The last stop on our tour is the harbour town of Stromness. A little frayed around the edges, this little grey town still has a fair bit of charm, and a delightfully interesting and old fashioned museum.
From Stromness, we catch the rather swanky Pentland ferry back to Scrabster. Sadly our view of the famous seastack the Old Man of Hoy is completely obscured by a thick blanket of mist, but I guess you can't have everything. This was a lovely holiday, certainly helped by unexpectedly fine weather, but even in the wind and rain, with its rich, colourful history, beautiful landscape and friendly locals, Orkney is a truly special place to visit. I can't wait to go back...