Monday, December 2, 2013

Day 28: Orkney

An early start saw us eating breakfast at 7:30am before we zipped down to Gills Bay. We managed to grab the last parking spot and lined up dutifully, concerned about the light sprinkling of rain. Would our Orkney day tour be a washout?

We had been given cardboard tickets which were snapped up again while we waited for the cars and trucks to unload from the ferry. We walked on via the ramp and took up three seats each. Car and truck owners crammed their vehicles onto the lower deck then joined us. In about 20 minutes, we were ready and left the terminal.

We heard alarms which was a bit concerning - until I went onto the upper deck to take photos with the telescopic lens and discovered the cause. The rocking of the ferry kept setting off car alarms! I was pitched about the deck and had to lean heavily on the railing to get back down. Once inside, I had a biscuit and regretted it because I felt seasickness slam into me with each jar of the ferry.

It didn’t help that greasy food tainted the air and my view of the outside was obscured by fogged up glass (which was made in Australia, by the way). I lay back, rang Mum and then napped my queasiness away. Cazy also snoozed.

We arrived at St. Margaret’s Hope just before 10am and were greeted by our guide who was holding a sign. He welcomed us and we set off in his grey squarish people-mover with me in the front and Cazy behind us. Our guide offered a commentary as we drove and I watched Orkney whiz by outside my window. He made a comment about me hugging my camera and I honestly replied that I find looking at the scenery through a viewfinder a bit restrictive. 

We passed the Italian chapel and various stone monuments as well as driving over concrete blocks ordered to be placed by Churchill to stop enemy submarines (these blocks now form bridges connecting the islands). Block ships (wrecks) had been used before the barriers and are still there today.

We first knew our guide was a bit strange when he referred to the Ring of Brodgar as his spiritual base and he told us that as a child in Birmingham he had never felt like he fit in there and he bonded more with the other cultures in the British Isles. Hence the move to Orkney three decades prior. This kind of man makes me believe in reincarnation.

Our first port of call was Skara Brae, a Neolithic village that has been battered into all but a few homes by the encroaching sea. After chatting to the people behind the counter at the visitor centre, our guide took us into a replica house and pointed out the beds, dresser and toilet made of stone (I of course recognised these things because of Neil Oliver!).

We then walked back in time, thanks to stones lining the path to the village. Each stone listed humanity’s great achievements (eg. man on the moon, the Inca civilsation and the pyramids). We arrived at the beach wall which the Neolithic homes clung to. The structures were open and set into the ground below the gravel track.

Our guide told us some history, informed us that a grass roof had been installed to protect the stones on one of the houses and then assisted me in locating the best angles for my photos. The community was not this close to the sea millennia ago but it’s a great waterfront property now!

A surprisingly familiar sight, complete with beds and "dressing table".

We gave patronage to the gift shop and the cafe. Then it was back into the car for the Ring of Brodgar. On the way, our guide told us how he met his second (much younger) wife - she went on one of this tours - and said, “Within an hour I knew I would marry her.” 

He did - twelve months later. His daughter from his previous marriage has moved to Perth, a city he finds intolerable compared to Malaysia. Our guide also informed us that Orcadians generally do not consider themselves Scottish and thus care little about next year's referendum.

We arrived at the Ring of Brodgar beneath clouds but we escaped rain and sight-reducing fog. The guide took us around the stones, pointing out various burial mounds surrounding the area (eg. the plum cake mound which has lost its namesake shape - I asked if it had been excavated and it had, confirming my suspicions that it had been tampered with). The stones themselves were impressive, though much narrower and thinner than what was used at Stonehenge, having been pulled as is from the water.

I was drawn to a stone and its energy, unable to keep myself from touching it - then our guide explained that it was the mother stone, the one to which he goes to for his spirituality. I came away from that stone with a strange sense of self. 

He showed us to “my Indian chief” which was a stone that bore an uncanny resemblance to a photo of a standing Indian chief he later showed us. He also pointed out a stone struck by lightning in 1980 - it was fractured with a piece of it lying on the ground. The stones are loaded with iron which has led many to believe that lightning strikes may explain the other broken stones.

As we walked away, I glanced back at the stones, wondering about their energy. Then we were rumbling along to the Standing Stones of Stennes - very few stones remained and even one part had been modified to match the events in a famous fictional tale. This was near Odin’s Cottage, named for the Odinstone which had a hole in it but has since broken and been lost.

The Standing Stones of Stennes

Our guide then conveyed us to St Magnus, a Nordic church, for a hasty visit while he lurked in a bus stop. It was a nice cathedral (gave Kirkwall its borough status) but I couldn’t help but long for Stirling’s Church of the Holy Rude. 

We turned back to our car, hastily snapping pics of the opposing ruins. A longer drive took us back to the Italian chapel, made from corrugated iron but painted and prepared beautifully by Italian prisoners of war during WWII.

"Size matters not."

Apparently Catholics from all sorts of countries worshipped there - it still functions as a church. The painting job is so brilliant that inside it feels roomy and you could honestly believe that stonework surrounds you. 

One of the most beautiful interiors I've ever seen.

The gates inside close against a raised heart on the floor - the story goes that an Italian POW left his heart in Orkney upon returning home to his wife.

I've left my heart in worse places!

Our guide stopped at a shop nearby where we sampled ice cream and Cazy bought an Orcadian beer. Then we drove slowly past the blocks, pausing long enough to hop out and view them. Our guide parked near one filled in with sand. Apparently the sand has even covered some WWII block ships completely! 

One of the many blocks that protected Orkney during WWII.

“Lovely,” I muttered upon spotting a dead seal on the beach.

When we checked in at the ferry we still had ages to wait so our guide drove us to a viewpoint of the oil terminal. We returned to the ferry, bade him farewell and waited.

The ride back still made me queasy but I fixed this with fresh air, a book about Skara Brae and a nap.

Returned to Gill’s Bay about 6pm. An easy evening back at the hotel.

And that’s that.

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