INCREDIBLE INGENUITY: The Italian chapel built by prisoners-of-war in the Second World War.
INCREDIBLE INGENUITY: The Italian chapel built by prisoners-of-war in the Second World War. Yvonne Gardiner

Village sites older than pyramids, Stonehenge

Do some armchair touring and visit the Orkney Islands with intrepid travelling duo, and happy retirees, Yvonne and John Gardiner

THE incredibly beautiful and isolated Orkney Islands would have changed little since the Picts, Celts and Vikings stepped on their fertile ground.

Blessed with stunning views and outstanding landscapes, the remarkable islands northeast of the Scottish coast safeguard extraordinary architectural treasures of historical global significance, some older than Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids.

One of the best-known village sites, Skara Brae, rests on a beach and is Europe's most complete Neolithic village. Thought to be more than 5000 years old, the eight turf-covered cottages give a fabulous glimpse into Neolithic life, including the beds they slept in.

Nearby and also open to the public is Skaill House, owned by local laird William Watt when he discovered Skara Brae in 1850.

The Orkneys, a group of more than 70 islands and islets, can be bitterly cold and windy. In chillier seasons it's essential to pack thermals and warm coats. Not to be deterred, however, humans have been on the islands for about 8800 years.

 

John and Yvonne Gardiner. Photo: Claudia Baxter / The Queensland Times
John and Yvonne Gardiner. Photo: Claudia Baxter / The Queensland Times Claudia Baxter

We visited at the end of October and stayed in a hotel beside the harbour at Kirkwall, the islands' capital. The first day we could hardly turn a corner without being blown backwards. A slight breeze and warm sun greeted us the following day while we explored the incomparable Standing Stones of Stenness, of Neolithic origin and thought to be the oldest "henge" site in the British Isles.

Nearby is the prehistoric stone circle the Ring of Brodgar, built between 2000BC and 2500BC. Photos cannot fully capture the mystical wonders of these two heritage sites.

While the popular Stonehenge in the United Kingdom is now fenced off to the public, visitors can enter the ring of standing stones at the older Ring of Brodgar and experience their awesome majesty at close quarters.

Twenty-seven stones remain in the circle, surrounded by a ditch. They sit in peaceful countryside with beautiful views taking in the sea, lochs, deep-pile green grass, massive skies, cows, sheep and little stone cottages. The place is magical.

 

This 5000-year-old village, Skara Brae, was uncovered by a winter storm in 1850.
This 5000-year-old village, Skara Brae, was uncovered by a winter storm in 1850. Yvonne Gardiner

In Kirkwall, chief among the attractions is StMagnus Cathedral, a massive red sandstone place of worship built by the Viking Earl Rognvald in 1137.

I joined the "upper floors" guided tour to the bell tower, roof chambers and the parapet below the spire, which offered glorious views of the harbourside town.

Opposite the cathedral, a well-stocked museum gives an insight into Viking, Neolithic and medieval history.

As if we hadn't soaked up enough of the Orkneys' heritage, the Iron Age village Broch of Gurness and the tidal island Brough of Birsay yielded their Viking and Pictish settlement remains.

A great surprise was to see Viking graffiti from the 12th century at Maeshowe, the biggest Neolithic tomb of about 90 in the Orkney Islands. Sheltering in the tomb for days during bad weather, the Vikings had made their mark by carving words into the stone.

Looking from the outside like a big mound of earth covered in grass, Maeshowe tomb is accessed down a low, 10m-long passageway. It's an incredible stone structure with one central chamber plus smaller chambers. At Winter Solstice, the sun's rays line up with one of the chambers.

 

The Viking Harald Fairhair annexed Orkney to Norway.
The Viking Harald Fairhair annexed Orkney to Norway. Yvonne Gardiner

Wildlife is another main reason for visiting these remote islands to the north of Scotland.

We were lucky enough to see newborn seal pups at Windwick Bay, although missed out on otters, orcas and puffins which are common at certain times of the year.

The Orkneys' modern history is as fascinating as its ancient past.

We visited Scapa Flow where the Germans scuttled their fleet after the Armistice in 1918.

During World War II in 1939, HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a German U-boat in the same waterway.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered a block wall (the Churchill barriers) to be built by Italian prisoners-of-war right across the harbour channels.

 

Seals  laze on the beach at Windwick Bay.
Seals laze on the beach at Windwick Bay. Yvonne Gardiner

Those same prisoners also crafted an exquisite Italian chapel out of Nissen huts, which is lovingly cared for to this day and hosts weddings and christenings.

So much to see in the Orkneys, and all those adventures made us hungry.

Black pudding and haggis were on the menu, but in the three days we were there I chose more traditional dishes like slow-cooked lamb and vegetables, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and delicious wild-caught salmon.

Followed by the best apple crumble I've ever tasted.

I wonder if the Vikings and Picts ate this well!


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