Monday, April 10, 2006

A Little Bit More on Orkney

Somewhere on the Scapa Flow.

Minor note on the date of this post. I wrote it on the ferry back to Scotland from Orkney. I know that I'm publishing it a bit later, but I figured I would still date it when it was written.

One of the beautiful things about Orkney is that it feels so remote. The windswept, treeless islands, the farms and their sheep, and the Orcadiams, with their fierce independent nature reinforces this feeling.

It is intensely relaxing.

The winds are incredible, causing remarkable rapid changes in the weather. I spent Sunday walking up Wideford Hill, just outside of Kirkwall, to get some panoramic views of the island. I started out just after noon under partly cloudy skies. As I made my way up the hill, I could see out into the bay where a wall of Storm was rolling in quite rapidly. By now, being a seasoned Orkney tourist, I figured that it wouldn't last. I kept on walking.

All the sheep seemed to lay down in unison. I think they're a bit more clever than I am.

It hit hard. Driving sleet and snow made the side of my face raw. Visibility dropped off to about fifty meters. I ducked behind a stone field wall to wait it out. Ten minutes later, there were clear, blue skies.

After that, it was a pleasant, although steep, softy climb to the top of the hill. It was worth the trip: the views were stunning. Those high winds threatened to blow me off the top, however - I almost lost my footing several times. Snapped a few photos, and headed back down.

On the way down I passed a footpath over to a Neolithic tomb. Orkney has the highest density of prehistoric sites in all of Europe. Just walking past a path to some tomb is not so surprising.

The path itself was exceedingly muddy and on the windy side of the hill. In fact, I had to try it twice, heading back once to avoid another snow storm that was strangely only on one side of the hill. Unfortunately, the cairn was locked up, so I couldn't actually get inside. Still, it was interesting to be the only person on the side of that hill.

It wasn't a terrible disappointment. I had gone on a tour[1] the day before of various Neolithic and Stone-aged sites. I had seen the inside of Maeshowe, the largest and oldest chambered tomb on the Mainland. More impressive of these sites was the Ring of Brodger. It is a huge circle of standing stone. In either site the fact that these stones were moved at all is impressive. Some weigh up to twenty tons, and were moved up to nine miles.

The hostel in which I stayed in Kirkwall was far from the town center (over a mile), institutional (it was like staying in an elementary school), and had few backpackers. So far, it's my favorite hostel in Scotland. The sole staff member, while a bit eccentric, was very friendly, and was enjoyable to talk with. He was very helpful with tips on where to go, and even offered to loan me his bike. The few backpackers were all early season travelers, so they were more laid back.

Overall, Orkney is a great stop on a s Scottish tour. It's a nice cultural change of pace and a beautiful place, as well.

[1] A note on tours: I usually don't go on anything remotely like a tour. I like to be self-guided. I'm starting to find out that this is not a good idea for two reasons.

First, I don't learn nearly enough about the place if I just look at it. The only exception to this, of course, is museums. They already have an explanation at each installation.

Secondly, often times things are spread out to the point that I can't walk to any of the interesting bits. This was definitely the case with the Orkney sites.

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