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Lines on the Landscape

Lines on the Landscape, Circles from the... Sky: Monuments of Neolithic Orkney

Orkney and Shetland

Scottish Islands: Orkney and Shetland...

Shetland Guide

Shetland (Pevensey Island Guides)


Orkney and Shetland

Although it's a popular enough misconception, Orkney is
not in fact only one island, but a collection of roughly a
hundred islands set between the Atlantic and the North Sea. These ‘green isles of the north’ can be divided into three distinct groups: the Mainland, which contains the two largest towns, Kirkwall and Stromness; the North Isles which include North Ronaldsay, Westray, Sanday and Stronsay; and the South Isles of South Ronaldsay and Hoy, one on each side of the wartime basin of Scapa Flow. The people of Orkney think of themselves as Orcadians rather than plain Scottish; and when they talk of ‘going to the mainland’, they mean their own Mainland and not across to Scotland which is generally referred to as going ‘sooth’ or south.

Like all islands, Orkney’s charm lies in part to its remote-
ness; yet it can be reached fairly quickly either by air or sea. There are scheduled daily air services to Kirkwall Airport from Edinburgh and Glasgow, taking about 2½ hours, and from Inverness or Aberdeen (with a short stop at Wick) when the journey takes about an hour. There are too inter-island air services to airstrips on some of the outlying isles. By sea, there is the choice of the two-hour journey on the daily mail steamer, a car ferry which takes about twenty cars from Scrabster; and the longer over-night sail from Leith and then Aberdeen, with passenger cabin accommodation sailing up the north-east coast of Scotland into the Moray Firth.

Orkney’s claim to be the richest area in Britain for archae-logical interest would be hard to dispute. There are monuments and relics surviving from the Stone Age up to what, in comparison, might seem fairly modem history (mere 12th century!) It’s been estimated that there is an average of three recorded places of antiquarian interest to every square mile. One of the most exciting must be Skara Brae, a prehistoric village dated around 2000 B.C. with several one- roomed houses. Its remarkable state of preservation is probably due to the fact that until fairly recently, mid-nineteenth century, it was completely buried under deep drifts of sand; and it was only partially uncovered by chance
after a particularly fierce gale. Excavations were finally completed in the 1930s and now the village can be clearly seen, with its narrow street, a paved open courtyard, and the houses with beds, cupboards and fireplaces.

There are Stone Age burial tombs at Maeshowe (described as the most magnificent chambered tomb in Western Europe); at Midhowe Cairn on the island of Rousay; and on the island of Hoy which has the only sandstone rock-cut tomb in Britain. The Bronze Age is
marked by the Standing Stones of Stenness, and the Iron
Age by brochs, massive round defensive towers, with narrow passages and galleries built within the thickness of the.walls. From 800 A.D. and for the next four hundred years was the Norse period in Orkney’s history, when the Norsemen invaded the islands and brought some of their own culture and customs to them. By the end of this Viking era, the wild forays, fierce battles and allegiance to the pagan gods were dying out; a system of law and order was established and the magnificent St. Magnus Cathedral was built in Kirkwall, where it still stands. A must for those interested in past days are the books of
two of Orkney’s most famous literary sons, George MacKay Brown and the late Dr. Eric Linklater: fascinating reading indeed.

But its history is only a small part of Orkney’s appeal.
Nature lovers know it for its unusual collection df flowers
and plants: the Scottish primrose, for instance, grows only in Orkney, Caithness and Sutherland, and never survives transplanting. Many alpine plants too which normally need to grow well up on a mountain side in other parts of Scotland, flourish happily at 500’ on the Hoy hills. Bird life too is prolific all the year round, and the sheer cliffs are ideal for breeding seabirds, with colonies of kittiwake and fulmars. Puffin too can be seen on many sites, but their main sites, or their main breeding ground is Sule Skerry, about 35 miles west of Birsay, where they can be seen in their thousands. Red-throated divers, eider duck and mergansers also make their homes on Orkney, and now and then rare specimens like the American robin, the snow goose, and the red-footed falcon can be spotted. Despite the fact that Orkney has no rivers, and thus no salmon fishing, it has tremendous facilities for trout fishing, with five excellent lochs on the mainland alone.

Like many of the other Scottish islands, Orkney has beaches which are still free from crowds even in the high summer season. Since the islands are on the whole low, flat and fertile, work is mainly agricultural. Lobster fishing is also popular, and there are two distilleries producing fine malt whiskies. An unusual causeway links the South Isles to the Mainland; great blocks of concrete, relics of the last war and named the Churchill Barriers, now form a roadway leading from the village of St. Mary’s to the island of Burray. Mid-way lies the small uninhabited island of Lamb Holm which housed Italian prisoners of war; while there, they built a small chapel out of spare bits and pieces, starting with the unlikely structure of an Army Nissen hut and culminating in a unique place of worship, with beautiful stained glass windows, altarpiece and
wrought iron screens.

Kirkwall itself is the county town and main port, and its
streets are stone-flagged, used by traffic and pedestrians alike in harmony. Stromness has stone houses along its narrow twisting main street, and the houses on the seaward side have their own small piers to give quick access to the ever-present sea.

Like Orkney, Shetland too is a collection of islands, over
a hundred of them, with seventeen of them inhabited; and like Orkney, Shetland has little in common with the islands off the west coast of Scotland. Gaelic is unknown in Shetland, the clan system has never been in operation, and culturally the people of Shetland are more closely bound to Scandinavia, not surprisingly, when they are geographically as near to Norway as they are to Aberdeen. Shetland is sometimes called ‘the land of the Simmer Dim’, for it is so far north that around midsummer the nights are very short and total darkness never falls.
Apart from Oil related industry, agriculture and fishing are still the mainstays of Shetland life, though whereas once crofter-fishermen worked on both the land and the sea, now the two are generally more separate. Peat. still used as fuel, and still dug with a ‘tushkar’, a kind of spade unique to Shetland. used to be a drawback in cultivating the land, but drainage and modern fertilisers have meant good pasture land has been reclaimed.

Shetland ponies, small and sturdy, have always been a part of the island life, a hardy breed well adapted to the sometimes sparse grazing and the winter weather conditions. Originally working ponies, carrying baskets of peat in nets called ‘meshies’ and often exported for use as pit ponies because of their low build, the ‘Shelties’ are much in demand now for children’s riding ponies both in Britain and abroad. One of the reminders of the Viking influence in Shetland is the number of place names derived from Norse words: ‘vik’ or bay appears in Lerwich and Sandwich, and ‘nes’ or headland is found in Sandness and Stenness. A link with the old Viking days is still continued with the Shetland Festival of Fire, or Up-Helly-Aa, when a full-sized model of a Viking ship is set on fire after a procession of colour and costume. The Festival is held in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January each year, when the days are short and when by 3 p.m. the dusk is already starting; so part of the significance is to look forward hopefully to the reappearance of the sun.

This emphatically not a show put on for tourists, and only
born Shetlanders can join in this deep-felt local tradition with preparations made for it months in advance. Everyone who takes part must be disguised in costume or mask, and are known as ‘guizers’; the leader is called the ‘Guizer Jarl’ and he controls the Festival, with his special squad of men dressed as Vikings, complete with armour and winged helmets. On a signal from the ‘Guizer Jarl’ the eight hundred torches are lit, the procession marches off to music and singing, and at the end the blazing torches are thrown on to the Viking ship to turn it into a funeral pyre. The only town in Shetland is Lerwick, a mixture of old and new buildings, the most interesting perhaps being the storehouses which were built on piles at the water’s edge and stand right out to sea. Originally piers, the lodberries had ships unloading at the doors on the seaward side and subterranean passages have been discovered hinting of the old smuggling trade. Its main street is also paved with stone flags, with no pavements, and because its harbour shelters ships from many different countries, there is a constant cosmopolitan atmosphere about the town with crews from Holland, Norway and Russia a commonplace sight.

Archaeological remains are also very prevalent in Shetland; the great broch of Mousa is best known, partially ruined but still standing over forty feet high. There are in fact 95 known Iron Age sites in Shetland, although only few have been fully excavated so far. Another remarkable site is at Jarlshof, near Sumburgh airport, where Bronze Age, Iron Age, Viking, and sixteenth-century buildings have all been found, so that
settlement seems to have been continuous for many centuries throughout different periods of history.

Music has always played an important part in the islands’
culture, and today the Forty Fiddlers of Shetland are keeping the tradition alive. Fiddle music is played at weddings (where in some small villages, the whole population is invited) with tunes like the Bride’s March, and there are reel tunes for dances, and ‘trowie’ tunes which are supposed to be fairy-originated. Shetland knitting is world famous; once the women knitted almost non-stop when they were otherwise ‘idle’ only out walking for provisions, or even coming back from the
hills with a load of peat on their backs!

Machine knitting has partly taken over to supply the quantity which industry needs, but the delicate lace and shawl knitting can never be copied on a machine and is still done by hand, mostly on the outer island of Unst.
There are several nature reserves on the islands, best known perhaps being Noss which became a national reserve in the 1950s to help preserve some of the less common seabirds. The most northerly is Herma Ness, which has enormous quantities of breeding seabirds including kittiwakes, gannets and guillemots; and Spiggie Loch harbours wintering wildfowl particularly whooper swans. On the other hand, rather strangely, there are no moles, snakes or toads on the islands, and one of the few native (as against imported) land mammals is the Shetland fieldmouse. There are still whales to be found,
in the seas around, with porpoises and dolphins, and both
the common seal and the rarer grey seal have breeding colonies at Muckle Flugga.

Return To The Highlands and Islands



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