The Orkney Islands

Overview

Introduction

The isolated archipelago of Orkney's 70 islands (of which 20 are inhabited) lies off the northeast coast near the tip of Scotland. These nearly treeless islands were of great strategic importance in both World Wars; the dozens of World War I shipwrecks are a great attraction for divers. Most visitors will stay in either Stromness or Kirkwall on Mainland, the major island.

Mainland is a "museum" of prehistory. The heart of neolithic Orkney was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 and includes Maes Howe, the Ring of Brodgar (a 3,500-year-old circle of giant stones), the Standing Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae. Skara Brae is a remarkably well-preserved neolithic village that dates to 3200 BC, before the Egyptian pyramids were built. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/514.

In Kirkwall, see Earl Patrick's Palace (http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/earls.htm) and the nondenominational Cathedral of St. Magnus (http://www.stmagnus.org). Patrick was a whisky distiller and smuggler who used to store his contraband in the church. A more recent marvel is the Italian Chapel, built from a couple of Nissen huts by Italian prisoners of war during World War II. The walls of the huts were lined with plaster, and on these, artist Domenico Chiocchetti (1910 -99) painted his masterpieces. The chapel has been preserved and is one of Scotland's must-see sites. Chiocchetti returned twice after the war, and he restored his artwork in 1960. http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/italianchapel.

Many of the more remote islands are of interest for those who have plenty of time and like nature and isolation. A thriving artists' and writers' colony has developed on the islands, centered on the town of Stromness. Orkney is also a bird-lover's paradise, offering thousands upon thousands of puffins, eider ducks, whooper swans, arctic terns and many other species that nest there in the summer months.

The Island of Hoy is more than worth a day trip. Start by visiting the Scapa Flow Visitors Centre near where the ferry docks (http://www.scapaflow.co.uk/sfvc.htm), and learn about the scuttling of the German Fleet there in 1919. The wrecks now provide visiting scuba divers with unparalleled opportunities. The Old Man of Hoy is a spectacular, sandstone sea stack some 449 ft/137 m high. It can be visited, but only after a lengthy walk. (It is, however, one of the landmarks passed by the ferry going to Orkney from the mainland.) Easier to visit is the lonely grave of Betty Corrigle, which is not far from the road at the boundary between the parishes of Walls and Hoy. http://www.hoyorkney.com/VisitHoy/betty_corrigall.html.

In the southern area of the Island, in a tiny cemetery, is the memorial to the crew of the Longhope lifeboat. It is a bronze statue of a lifeboatman looking out toward the sea, surrounded by the graves of the eight crew members who lost their lives in 1969. (http://www.scapaflow.co/index.php/the_scheme/the_48_projects/the_longhope_lifeboat_disaster). Two songs, Betty Corrigle and Brave Souls, written and recorded by Orkadian songwriter and musician Ivan Drever, tell the story very well.

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