Orkney: An Archaeological Dreamscape

There’s a little of that breakaway republic feel to Orkney, the alluring archipelago in the north of Scotland. Orcadians have their own dialect, their own flag, their own history, and their own identity. About what Isle of Man is to England, Orkney is to Scotland, proudly preserving a distinct culture.

What you see here now is an evolving blend of Viking and Scottish heritages, both presided over firmly by the eerie ghosts of neolithic past. Sentinel standing stones mark your path as you traverse Orkney’s namesake island, tellingly called The Mainland. It’s not any more a mainland than Oahu is, but a fair moniker to reaffirm Orkney’s independence from that other mainland from where your ferry came.

These stoic markers are a primary tourist draw and a point of potentially endless contemplation on the origins of human civilization and the mystery of standing stones.

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However, you could easily fill your time in Orkney doing anything but taking photos of rubble. Take the Orkney Brewery, for instance, which is housed in a century-old schoolhouse. They offer guided tours as well as a large tasting room for thirsty travelers. Orkney Brewery is located conveniently close to the UNESCO preserved neolithic site Scara Brae, making these two a no-brainer coupling for the day. Scara Brae is unique in that the well-preserved community of circular houses remains relatively intact down to the built-in furniture.

Far larger in scope than the brewery is the Highland Park distillery and its uplifting, magical elixirs. The most elite expressions of Highland Park’s single malts are its Viking-themed brands like Thor, Loki, and Freya. Given the popularity and profitability of Scottish single malts in Scandinavia,  it is no wonder Highland Park capitalizes on Orkney’s Viking history.

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We allotted one week’s time to absorb Orkney. It could be done in less, or more time. I would err on the side of more, given the unstable weather conditions that can turn your August into December. There is also a lot more to Orkney than the Mainland, and the inter-island Orkney Ferry system can deliver you to and from 13 other islands in the archipelago. Each island offers at the very least striking scenery and hiking, and usually archaeology too.

During our stay, we ventured off the Mainland once, to visit Westray Island. This small Orcadian island is famous for its seasonal nesting grounds for puffins, those colorful webfoot creatures that are faster, and smaller, than they look in pictures. There is a short but pleasant cliff walk that traverses prime puffin territory, and a longer, more spectacular hike that, though it is puffin-free, was a highlight of the entire week. We were there in August, a little too late in the season to get major puffin action, but we were thankful enough to have spotted a few from a distance as well as other seabirds.

For our week on the Mainland, we rented a humble stone cottage on a spectacular cliffside overlooking the sea. It was situated roughly halfway between Kirkwall and Stromness, making it extremely convenient. Kirkwall is by far the most well-equipped town on the Mainland. There, we found a delightful seafood smokery, and a few worthwhile pubs like Helgi’s, which carry the local beers as well as the local characters.

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Photographers will delight in the contrasts of light and shadow that high latitude conditions provide in Orkney, but the same can be said for Scotland. When you return there, to Scotland, you will certainly have felt like you left the country, and need to readjust. You might even have culture shock, coupled with a wistful longing to go back to Orkney.

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