To Orkney and Back
With only a short drive to the aforementioned 'glamping' pods in John O'Groats from Thurso, we decided to take a day off from driving and booked ourselves into a day long coach tour to the nearby Orkney islands north of John O'Groats. This seemed like a good idea in theory, but hilariously so much worse in practice.
We woke up early to wet and windy weather, and things stayed that way for most of the day. Orkney is an archipelago of islands of a similar size to Shetland and the Faroes. Interestingly it also has a history of Norwegian rule, so there's another bit of overlap between Scotland and Scandinavia. The archipelago is separated from the mainland only by the narrow 10km Pentland Firth. Though the trip there only took about 45 minutes, it was one of the wildest and most sickening boat trips I've ever taken. The sea raged, churned and pounded relentlessly on our cork-like ferry which seemed to be moving at an inefficiently glacial pace. I only just managed to keep my breakfast down, but the entire time I was clutching on for dear life and praying for the sweet release of death. It bums me out that something I love so much can be such a merciless take-no-prisoners bastard when it wants to be.
Arriving at port I still felt sick but relieved to at least be back on dry land. We quickly jumped on our coach and hopped a few islands to get to the capital and largest town of Kirkwall. The main islands are connected via the Churchill Barriers - huge concrete causeways built in the 40s by Italian POWs to protect the huge naval base stationed in the bay of Scapa Flow during WW2.
Orkney is mostly flat (trees are a rarity), and the wind supposedly never dies down, so we were blown about and rained on whenever we got off the bus. We explored the town, and sadly probably spent more time hiding in souvenir shops as the rain kept up its relentless bucketing. Lunch was next in the town of Stromness, which was a postcard-ready fishing village with a surprisingly decent art gallery by the harbour. I love that Scotland appears to have such a decent funding system for the arts - it definitely makes a difference and there looks to be lots of opportunities for Scottish artists popping up in unexpected places.
Following Stromness our tour took us to the site of Skara Brae - the excavated remains of a prehistoric settlement. We were a bit miffed to have to pay yet another entry fee, but the ruins were intriguing in just how OLD they were. There are so many gaps in the understanding of these people, such as their language and why they abruptly fled the site. Not knowing the answers seems to make the span of time between us and them that much more apparent.
More ancient inexplicable archaeology followed at the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. Both formations are similar to the more well known Stonehenge, with the Ring of Brodgar being larger than Stonehenge (though more sparse with only 27 stones left from an initial ring of 60). Coming from a culture without any written language, there's no definitive answer to what the function of these monuments were, but the bus driver seemed to be keen on the idea that Brodgar at least was a site for rituals of sacrifice and other sorcerous shenanigans.
Our last stop before the dreaded return trip was the Italian Chapel. Though a fairly benign name, the chapel was built by the Italian POWs who were already building the barriers. Although technically prisoners, the Italians had good relations with the Orkadians and after a while requested a place for worship. They got the green light to build a church out of two leftover Nissen huts. Those Italians must have been either bored or incredibly devoted because they turned the place into a ridiculously ornate and beautiful little church using only the limited supplies that they could scrounge. The statues were carved from leftover concrete; ironwork came from melted down nails and wire; the candle holders were old corned beef tins; and the plaster-boarded walls were completely painted in a trompe l'oeil style to appear like ornate masonry. Something bizarre and surprising compared to all the other churches I've come across.
Afterwards, it was finally time to board that godforsaken ferry again. Thankfully the wind had died down a bit and the sun managed to make an appearance so the ride back wasn't as bad as it could have been, though still nauseating all the same. My dinner + beer that evening never tasted so welcoming and deserved.
(PS. damn sorry for the essay)