Saturday, July 07, 2007

Inverness to the Orkney Isles

Jaime writes today's entry:

As we motored through the greyness and shallow waters of Inverness Firth it became apparent that the French and Norwegian yachts that were in the lock with us did not have charts of the area. The French boat was following the Norwegians as they motored round in circles and turned abuptly at each sandbank. In true Franco style the French boat swapped sides and followed us instead. That was about the most exciting thing that happened in the North sea, as it is a very dull place. We motored and sailed through the night until we reached Duncansby head (John O'Groats). We had to be there at 5.30am in order to get slack water to pass across the notorius Pentland Firth. Now, you may have been impressed by the description of the Corryvecken, well the racing turbulent waters of Pentland Firth are equally if not more violent as it is here where the Atlantic meets the North Sea. It is a narrow strip of water about 6 miles across scattered with islands and skerries surrounded by vicious eddies and strong tidal races. The tides run faster than almost anywhere in the UK (up to 15mph). Saying that if you cross at the correct time in good weather, there isn't a lot to worry about, and this is exactly what we did.
First view of the Orkney Isles

We arrived in St Margarets Hope, a village on one of the more Southerly of the Orkney Isles called South Ronaldsay. We rested during the day and headed in to the pub later on as it was Saturday night. It was full of young people, fantastic, and there was a pool table. I had a game against one of the local girls who promptly wiped the table with me. Very embarassing. Consequently the next couple of nights were spent in a different pub practising. At eight O'clock the barman offered everyone plastic glasses and we all piled out and on to a waiting bus with our drinks hidden under our coats. This was a local bus taking us to Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Isles. At this time of year it is the St Magnus' Festival and there are lots of cultural events taking place. We ended up in the Spiegeltent to watch some jazz (ed: 'Songs for Unsung Heroes' sung by Liz Fletcher with the Alan Barnes Quintet) and later on in a hotel to watch a couple of local lads play some enchanting folk music. The bus to take us home came at 2am. We embarked with a very drunk bunch of locals and got home as the sun that sat just over the horizon dimly lit the sky.

Gale force winds were forecast for the next day, so we had to move to find some more shelter. We moved up to Burray next to one of the Churchill Barriers and tied up in the lee of a very sturdy looking diving boat. With the boat safe we went to see what was going on in the village. An RNLI fete was taking place. Two lifeboats from Longhope and Stromness were there which you could have a look around. They are impressive beasts; full of high tech electronics and two 1000 hp engines.

We spent a couple of days in Burray visiting touristic sites on bikes kindly lent to us by a friendly local. I didn't realise this, but the Orkney archipelago is a treasure trove of neolithic sites. People actully have real standing stones in their gardens and it is not unusal for a farmer while ploughing to discover a new tomb . They have so many sites, that they don't have enough resources to investigate them all and much remains to be discovered. On the south coast of South Ronaldsay is the Tomb of the Eagles, so called because of the sea eagle talons that were found in the tomb along with the jumble of 16,000 human bones. The tomb is known as a stall cairn as the internal structure resembles cattle stalls. It is a staggering 5000 years old - built before the pyramids. The people back then disposed of their bodies by a method termed "excarnation": The body was left outside on bench type stucture on the cliffs for the birds to feed off. Once the bones were picked clean, those that remained were interned in the tomb. I was suprised that you go to the tomb unattended and we had the place to ourselves, and you can touch what ever you like. To enter the tomb you lie down on what is essentially a large skateboard (called affectionatly the granny skateboard!) and haul yourself through the one metre high tunnel to the main cavern.

St Margarets Hope

Tomb of the Eagles - entrance

Inside the Tomb

The occupants

Excarnation place

South Ronaldsay to Scapa Flow

Further tourist activities took us north crossing the Churchill Barriers. These causeways were constructed under the orders of Winston Churchill following the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 833 men by a German U-boat in 1939. The U-boat had snuck in to Scapa Flow, a natural harbour through the narrow gaps between the eastern islands. The barriers were built with great difficulty as the tide and vicious weather frequently washed structures away. Italian prisoners of war had to be drafted in to build them. The British allowed them two nissen huts for religious activities and they skilfully converted them in to what is now known as the Italian Chapel, with beautiful frescos, peace being the main theme. The connection with the Italians is still strong and the grandson of the original painter will come and work in the local pub this summer.

The weather finally settled down and we had a beautiful day's sailing through Scapa Flow to Scapa Bay, on the south side of Kirkwall. We hitched in to town and stocked up on food. Scapa Flow has some incredible naval history. It was here that the whole surrendered german fleet of 200 vessels were scuttled in 1919. When the ships sank they were fully dressed with flags and the crew in full dress uniform. This action has done much for the diving industry up here.
From Scapa Bay a day's sail took us through the western side of Scapa Flow in to the Sound of Hoy, up to Stromness.


Churchill Barriers and Blockships

Stromness street


Hoy Sound

We were both really impressed with the town. It is small but there seemed to be lots going on by way of art and culture. We arrived in time for the folk night. The musicans passed out song words and the whole pub joined in gaily singing "Cockles and Mussels.....Sweet Molly Malone." I'm all for more singing in pubs. Our neolithic tourist misson continued; we cycled up to Skara Brae, next to the white sandy beach of Skaill Bay. It is really something special. This is the best preserved neolithic village in Northern Europe, incredibly it was alive 5000 years ago for more than 600 years. There are little "houses" connected by a series of tunnels. Each unit has beds, a hearth, a dresser and my favorite; fish and lobster tanks! All fashioned from the local sand flagstone. Its very tasteful and well designed and not so different from the stylish minimalist type furniture of today. Strangly it was built in the stone age equivalent of a landfill site, as such material was supposedly good for insulation. There are laws against such practices these days! As this is a heavily visited site you couldn't go into any of the houses, however we went to a less visited village called Barnhouse. Here you could wander around and go into the buildings.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae

Skara Brae

Skara Brae
The Orcadians seem to have a really nice attitude to their heritage. The vast majority of the sites are unmanned and you can just wander around them at your leisure be it night or day. It's not cornered off as some distant monument, you are encouraged to get involved. Anyway, we then explored the coastline. Most of the sandstone was laid down about 400 million years ago when Orkney was a desert and sometimes a lake near the equator. The photos should give a good idea of the striking layers that were laid down over millenia. You can even see distinct layers of sand ripples. Over recent time the sea has carved the cliffs in to dramatic shapes including precarious looking arches, fragile stacks and inviting cave networks. After a long day of cycling this day ended with a portion of delicious fish and chips overlooking the Hoy hills as the sun went down behind us.

Cliffs at Yesnaby

Cliffs at Yesnaby

Rock Stack at Yesnaby


Well now we had explored the houses and tombs of the neolithic people. What about their religion? Well it's a lot of guess work really, but they obviously had some time on their hands as evident from the stone henge at Brodgar which was originally made up of 60 massive towering stones. The setting is superb. It is in the middle of two lochs on a natural causeway, the whole horizon is framed by gentle sloping hills and in the centre of the ring grows heather which is just hinting at flowering. There were no trees when it was developed so it would not have looked that different 3000 years ago. Now only 27 of the original stones remain. Once again the site is open, the tourguide encourages people to come and dance around naked at night! She did also say that the stones were in fact dancing giants that were turned into stone by the first rays of the sun and that trolls lived in a nearby hillock and who are we to argue. In a field close by was another set of even taller standing stones - the Stones Of Stenness - some 20ft high, also nearby is the largest chambered cairn in Britain called Maes Howe thought to be contemporary to the rings of stones. Once again we crawled through the narrow passage about 20ft long lined with a single slab of stone to get in to the centre of the main chamber. The inside was quite airy with a high ceiling and three smaller side chambers. The tomb was raided by the vikings who also left runic graffiti inscriptions most of them translated in to nothing more interesting than what you might find on a bus shelter today, however there was some lurid desciption of some elicit act that occured between two viking ladies called Helgi and Ingigerd, but the guide wouldn't elaborate. Well enough of lesbian runic graffiti, there are only 365 more scheduled neolithic monuments to visit and we don't have much time. (just between you and me I think Craig is getting fed up with neolithic structures)

The Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar stones

While we were in Stromness we got some practical housekeeping things out the way and we also dried the boat out. We took the boat over to the drying wall at high water, having checked out the bottom at the previous low water (at 4am grhhh). We then secured the boat to the wall and took a rope from the top of the mast to lean it over slightly into the wall and waited for the tide to drop. As it dropped, the keel of the boat settled on the bottom nicely and eventually stopped moving. I got in the dingy and started scrubbing the bottom of the boat, which is a horrible job as the antifoul goes everywhere. But it was made easier by the fact that most of the growth on the bottom had actually died off as we went through the cold fresh water of the Caledonian Canal. Craig took over and finished the job off. We also got the chance to inspect the prop and the anodes which looked fine. By 11 o' clock that night the tide had risen enough to float the boat again and we glided back to the pier with a nice clean shiny bottom.We are still in Stromness, and hope to leave as soon as the weather sorts itself out but it's taking its time, hence the length of this blog entry.

'Today I shall be mostly scrubbing the hull!'

Lady Ayesha drying out

As a new feature there is a competition for this blog entry. Can anyone identify this fish? It was given to us by a fisherman who had a conger eel in a carrybag on his way to feed his cat....?? The prize is a bottle of whisky or a soft toy puffin if you are under 18.