Strange Things In Orkney
An Idyllic, Serene Twilight Visit Near The Sea in Northern Scotland
Until The Girls Burst In, Beseeching All To (What!) Buy Their Knickers
Written by Scott Johnston. Last updated Wednesday December 28th, 2005
By SCOTT JOHNSTON
We got back to Edinburgh in the evening, George and John and I. We’d been 10 hours on the road and at sea since leaving the north end of the Orkney mainland under a cloudless September sky and sunshine that would have graced high summer.
The Orkney island group lies off Scotland’s northern coast. You would never plan a trip there for the reasons that might take you to Florida. But somewhat against the odds, we’d sunned ourselves in four days of uninterrupted gorgeous weather. Green isles around the horizon, and away to the south the mountains of northern Scotland’s mainland like ships riding a distant sea.
Wind is the norm in Orkney, and storms are commonplace. The seas constantly assault the cliffs, exploiting every weakness in the islands’ geology to leave sea stacks and fissures and splendidly contorted island coastlines. Even on the calmest day the attack continues, for Orkney is one of Europe’s outposts against the immense and constant energies of the North Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans. But still, never in these northern waters had I seen the sea so blue. Had Hollywood screened it, you would have said their technicolour people had gone well over the top this time.
In few places in Europe is the past so perfectly preserved. Orkney is thick with Neolithic villages up to 5000 years old, places left in a hurry for reasons quite unknown, and with all the artefacts of daily life lying for millennia under wind blown sand. Vast burial chambers complete with skeletons carbon dated to 3000BC - or thereabouts. There are numerous Pictish brochs (round castle towers, unique to Scotland). These are perhaps two thousand years old. What happened to the Picts? Nobody knows for sure.
Ethnic cleansing by the Vikings perhaps? Entirely possible. The Vikings arrive on the scene around 800 AD and their DNA imprint is still strong in Orkney’s population today.
The Vikings were not much known for espousing liberal causes. Looting was a way of life. The fabulous Maeshowe
burial mound, which you can still enter, was broken into by Vikings a mere thousand years ago, perhaps 2500 years after the place was built, by peoples of whom we now have no knowledge at all. The Vikings took whatever had been in the three chambers leading off the domed interior, and left graffiti there still for all to see, hacked into the stone with axes. This tells us that some of those who broke in had earlier been to Jerusalem. Some of it just commented on the attractions of a girl. Quite rude, in a way.
That was pretty well how the Vikings, by their own account, seemed to have carried on. Written about 1200, the Norse Okneyinga Saga is a sort of quasi heroic history of battles, murders, sorcery, political intrigue and dirty dealings - all events occurring at places that have changed little over the centuries and remain familiar to Orcadians today. The heroes had names like Harald Bluetooth, and Ragnar Hairybreeks, but still seemed able to take themselves seriously. As well they might, for these were men of the North Atlantic, of the stamp that in open boats, and sailing north about, beat Columbus to America by centuries.
Only as late as 1472 did Orkney come under the Scottish crown. A hundred years later a visitor describes how the inhabitants..."take great quantitie of fishe which they drie in the wind and the sunne. They dresse their meat verie filthily and eate it without salt. Their apparell is after the rudest sort of Scotland." The King of Scotland visited the place in 1535. He must have put the word about, for no other monarch went there till the Queen of Britain pitched up in 1960.
By then things had significantly improved.
In 1919, after Germany’s surrender, its entire High Seas Fleet was ordered to the huge natural anchorage of Scapa Flow. There the Germans scuttled every ship of their own battle fleet. The sunken metal is still salvaged for use in scientific instruments, for it is unaffected by the huge increase in radiation that has taken place in the intervening decades. In 1939, a few weeks into World War II, a German U-boat penetrated the defences of Scapa Flow, then a major British naval base of immense strategic importance in guarding the northern passage from Germany out into the Atlantic between the British Isles and Iceland. The U-boat claimed the first sinking of a British capital ship in that war, the Royal Oak, as it lay at anchor. Its oil slick still reaches the surface and is visible today
So, apart from being a modern and vigorous community, farmed with enormous skill, with one of Scotland’s finest distilleries (Highland Park, for the cognoscenti) and a major terminal for North Sea oil, Orkney is four thousand years of history on show. Most of it is in the care of Historic Scotland who present their sites with intelligence, imagination and with wit in interpretative centres that are splendidly modern, but unobtrusive in a haunting landscape dotted about with stone circles, older than Stonehenge. Historic Scotland is an agency of government directly responsible for safeguarding the nation’s built heritage, and promoting its understanding and enjoyment.
Orkney is big, not like Texas is big, but extensive enough to have an air service linking the many still inhabited islands, as well as car ferries that run punctual almost to the second. We took the car across for a day trip to the island of Rousay. More fully intact buildings are here, from 5000 to 2000 years old. The Neolithic to the Iron Age. And one pub, early 21st century. It was warm enough to sit outside to have a pint.
We stayed four nights on Orkney. An excellent hotel (for £25 a night) by a fresh water loch at the north end of the main Orkney island. Splendidly hospitable and friendly. Just the three of us and one other man there as guests as the season draws to a close.
Friday evening, 9 o’clock. We’re sitting contemplating an early night - four guests - me, George, John, an ornithologist guy from Birmingham, and the Orcadian owner, quietly buying each other beers and drinking them slowly in the lounge cum dining room cum bar. The last glow of the sun is now just below the horizon, out beyond the shore of the of the Atlantic that we can see, less than a mile away, and beyond it another very small island complete as usual with a broch and a later Viking settlement.
A lighthouse flashes from above the broch - three times in three seconds, then the light is dimmed till the next sequence, nine seconds later. Birds whose names I do not know flap lazily, low over the waters of the fresh water loch a hundred yards in front of us. The water stretches away to some low hills in the east, not far from the gaunt standing stones known as the Ring of Brodgar. Next to the hotel some prime cattle settle down for the night.
We are at the rim of Europe, in a quiet rural backwater full of gentle friendly people, and night is drawing its mantle over this idyllic world.
But not for long.
With neither ceremony nor warning the door crashes open. Led by a girl with a toy pistol, an extremely short skirt, and little else, about 20 young women erupt yelling into the room. One is wearing a skimpy bridal outfit with an "L" plate such as learner drivers are required to carry in Britain. Others wear combat outfits. Many have painted faces. Some concentrate on giving an observer the idea that their only item of wear is a pair of long black stockings. They sing and cavort. Four of them demand that we buy their knickers. We humour them, but demur. They say fair enough, but you should see first what we’re offering, and proceed to demonstrate. It is all very jolly. They say - "Well, buy them, then we’ll buy them back from you". Again we demur, politely. They will not be satisfied until we deliver up John to them, to be photographed "dancing with a man we’ve never met before". And a noisy hour or so later, they pour back out into the night with a variety of voluptuous and vaguely erotic gestures.
Our host seems not in the least surprised. But he hadn’t been expecting it either. And it added significantly to his takings at the bar.
The following day we are in Kirkwall, the small but busy and prosperous seeming capital of the islands. This time we are looking at early mediaeval stuff, and at the cathedral, founded in the 12th century. Suddenly a flat back truck comes speeding up the busy main street, continuously blowing its horn. In the back, again about twenty young women - different ones this time - many quite provocatively dressed in the warm midday sunshine, painted faces, shouting and, waving arms and legs and balloons and things.
They went round the town doing this for a couple of hours. Again no one seemed particularly surprised. The curator of the wee wireless museum that we visited said this kind of thing happens pretty well every weekend.
It kind of changes your notion of social life in the Northern Isles.
And teaches us not to have too many preconceptions.