I remember the ferry ride. We read “Harry Potter” and my mother let me get a Cadbury bar from the vending machine all for myself. I remember how thick the curtains were on the windows of our hotel in Kirkwall. I remember them blocking all of the late summer sunshine, sunshine that made my brother and me reluctant to go to sleep. We were energized, excited by the prospect of more hours in which to enjoy our summer holidays. And I remember visiting the Tomb of the Eagles, but not the tomb itself. No, I remember the man leading my family to the ancient site he had discovered on his own land. He had a border collie and I cared of little else.
I was eight years old the first time I visited Orkney. My family spent our summer holiday doing a road trip through the Scottish Highlands and it was on the itinerary. This was in the days before it had become Scotland’s biggest cruise ship destination. Before enthusiastic tour groups embarked on ambitious day trips to the archipelago from Inverness. And though it’s become clear that I remember very little, Orkney, in particular, has kindled a fond sense of nostalgia in me ever since and I was always keen to recreate it.
Stromness was bathed in brilliant sunshine when the ferry pulled into port, making the short drive to our Airbnb in Kirkwall absolutely splendid. Gazing at the bucolic scenery through the window, I felt a waft of excitement come over me. This was the destination I had most been looking forward to on our Scottish adventure and as I made note of the street signs indicating the seemingly infinite neolithic sites all within a stone’s throw of each other, my eagerness to explore was undeniable.
There was something more, though. Before we ventured north, life in London had been beginning to grade on me, on both of us. There is something that becomes increasingly difficult about living a life that is settled in one place when all you really want to do is travel full time. I had found myself looking at this trip with an intense sense of anticipation and the desperate urge to hit the open road and travel and to experience a way of life that was different from my own was becoming overwhelming.
By the time we arrived in Orkney, we were well into our Scottish adventure and I had fully embraced the “travel mindset.” The constant ebb of anxiety that had persisted throughout the past few months in London had finally subsided and my mind was the absorbent sponge it has been known to become whenever I’ve travelled long-term.
We spent our first few hours in Orkney touring the Highland Park Distillery, an activity that was well met after a long day in the car and on the ferry. There is something about tasting the exquisite whisky directly where it is manufactured that makes it all the better. The sharp, peaty flavour tastes like Scotland itself — initially rough but refined in its own unique sense.
While the Highland Park Distillery has been in operation since the eighteenth century, it is positively juvenile compared to the rest of Orkney. A lot of the islands’ modern history can be traced back to the Vikings, who were believed to have first landed in Orkney sometime in the eighth century. And while it is not known if their initial exploits on the islands consisted of their typical “raid and pillage” tendencies, they most certainly weren’t the first people to have inhabited these northern isles. Not even in the slightest.
The sheer antiquity of Orkney is almost instantly palpable. Just a few miles in any direction from any settlement will find you at one ancient site or another — and they do not disappoint. On a breezy, grey morning, Michael and I found ourselves staring in awe at the massive Standing Stones of Stenness. Grazing sheep outnumbered people at these amazing stones, set against a shockingly green backdrop. While only four of the original twelve stones remain in this henge, it is believed to be the oldest in Britain. The sheer magnificence of them is baffling and causes the imagination to run wild. No one knows exactly why or how they were erected, but the three meters of hard stone has the ability to make oneself feel incredibly small, in the most delightful and humbling of ways.
Not too far from the Standing Stones of Stenness and the even larger Ring of Brodgar lies the Neolithic village Skara Brae. One of the best-preserved villages of its age, it is older than the Pyramids of Giza. And the story behind its modern discovery is amazing. After a particularly vociferous storm in 1850, a local farmer assessing the damage to his land came across Skara Brae, a village dating back to 3180 BCE that had been covered by thousands of years of soil, peat, and grass.
A similar story lies behind the discovery of the Tomb of the Eagles on the island of South Ronaldsay. The ancient spiritual burial site dating back at least 5,000 years was discovered by a farmer in the 1950’s. While this seems nothing short of amazing to me, a local put things into perspective at one point. She said Orkney is so incredibly old that every farmer on the islands could excavate his land and find even more significant archaeological relics, but this was unrealistic. Their livelihoods depend on agriculture, as the livelihoods of inhabitants dating back thousands upon thousands of years has. Orkney is a place where the ancient and the modern enmesh so seamlessly, it’s astonishing to me that so few people seem to visit.
On one of our last nights on the islands, Michael and I were enjoying a whisky while listening to a live jam session at The Reel in Kirkwall. The warmth of the camaraderie among the locals in attendance mixed with the keen peatiness of my dram of Lagavulin filled me with a contentedness I hadn’t felt in some time. Everything about this place — though, in reality, it’s not that far — was so radically different than London. And, at that moment, I never wanted to leave.
Orkney has a magic that has entranced me since my first visit as an eight-year-old child. I have been twice now, and I can see myself returning again and again to these ancient, majestic islands.
Have you been to Orkney? Are you planning to visit? Let us know in the comments!