Kirkwall: Kirkwall, the largest town on Orkney, is fronted by the old harbor. Behind the harbor are streets of older buildings extending back to the Cathedral and the Earl’s and Bishop’s palaces. The shop to the left in the photo featured in a documentary about the impact of cruise liner tourism.
Stromness: Stromness is a port on the west coast and the second largest town in Orkney. The old town is clustered around a winding main street. The Pier Arts Centre is on this street.
Stones of Stenness: This ancient stone circle lies east of Stromness. Work on the monument started about 3100BC. The site was surrounded by a ditch, originally 2 meters deep, of which traces remain. At the centre of the circle is a great stone hearth. Foundations were dug for 12 standing stones, but it appears that at least one was never erected.
Barnhouse Village: Barnhouse, situated next to the Stones of Stenness, is a Neolithic village. occupied between 3200 and 2900 BC. Footings of stone walls survive, along with stone hearths, stone beds and dressers. The largest structure appears to have had a different function.
Ring of Brodgar: This monument consists of a huge circle of standing stones surrounded by a ditch. It is positioned on the side of a hill rather than around its top. The rock-cut ditch, 104 metres in diameter, was originally 3 m deep. Twenty-seven stones out of a supposed 60 remain. The whole area has various stone monuments within sight of each other.
Maeshowe Chambered Tomb: The tomb, built of large stone slabs, is under a large grassy mound. It is thought to have been in use as a tomb around 2700BC, but is now empty. The stone roof is not original, as the tomb was breached via the roof in Norse times and again in modern times. The entrance is via a long, low passage, consisting of a few long slabs each weighing several tons. By contrast, the chamber is 3.8m high. It contains two recesses which may originally have been sealed by large stones. The walls consist of large stone slabs laid horizontally, with a stone upright in each corner. Many of the stones bear Norse graffiti.
Access to the site is controlled, and visitors are taken by bus from the visitor centre in a nearby village to a drop-off point several hundred yards from the tomb.
Skara Brae: The famous Skara Brae lies on a bay in the west coast of Orkney, some miles north of Stromness. The site was first discovered in 1850 when a great storm blew away the sand that had covered it. There are about eight houses, mostly linked by a winding passage roofed over with stone slabs. The thick walls are double-skinned with midden (decomposed rubbish) packed into the cavity. Midden also piled up around the outsides of the walls. Each house comprised a single room about 6m x6m. At the centre lay the hearth. On the wall opposite the door stood a stone dresser, and on the walls to either side were stone beds and other furnishings. There is no clear evidence of how the houses were roofed. Various artefacts (now in museums or the visitor centre) were found in the houses.
Visitors have to view the houses from a walkway running around the periphery of the village. One house is roofed to protect its contents, but a full-sized replica of this house (with extra height) stands next to the visitor centre, and should be visited before proceeding to the site.
Skaill House: This mansion stands inland from Skara Brae and shares the same visitor centre. The oldest parts were built around 1620 and other wings have been added at various dates since. It has been owned and occupied by the same family throughout. One of thr lairds discovered and excavated Skara Brae. The house has had many illustrious guests, including Lady Franklin, widow of the famous North-West Passage explorer. The principal rooms upstairs and downstairs can be visited.
Wireless Museum, Kirkwall: A one-room museum near the waterfront in Kirkwall. As the name suggests, it contains a vast number of vintage wireless sets from various eras, both vintage and military, the latter mostly from the WWII period. It also houses a significant collection of photographs of the wartime era, which may be viewed in photograph albums. See:http://www.orkneywirelessmuseum.org.uk/
Earl’s Palace, Kirkwall: The palace was built by the notorious Earl Patrick Stewart starting in 1601. It faces the cathedral and was an ornate building with corner turrets, massive projecting oriel windows, and high-pitched slate roofs. The great hall on the first floor was south-facing and heated by two large fireplaces. When complete it was luxuriously furnished, but is now unroofed and partly ruinous. Most parts of the structure can be accessed by visitors. There is a small exhibition in the basement. It has been described as ‘the most mature and accomplished piece of Renaissance architecture left in Scotland.’
Bishop’s Palace, Kirkwall: The Bishop’s Palace adjoins the Earl’s Palace and can be accessed on the same ticket. The lower storey probably dates from Norse times. The 12th century palace was a rectangular hall-house with storage and workshops on the ground floor, and a main hall and dwelling quarters above. It is thought to have been built for Bishop William, but fell into disrepair within a century. The palace was not restored until the mid-16th century, when Bishop Reid rebuilt it as an elegant residence, adding a round tower.
St Magnus Cathedral: The Cathedral stands in the middle of Kirkwall and the exterior has striking patterns of yellow and red sandstone. Construction started in 1137, and continued irregularly for over three centuries. The west end of the nave was added till the late 15th or early 16th century. The stages of construction can be traced by slight changes in the design of pillars and arches. The early history of the cathedral is recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga. St Magnus and his patron Earl Rognavald are both buried in the cathedral. Both met violent deaths. The interior has interesting stone carving and monuments.
Churchill Barriers: The defence of the various channels leading into Scapa Flow was long recognized as a problem. In 14 October 1939, the German submarine U-47 slipped past blockships to torpedo the old battleship Royal Oak, which sank with the loss of over 800 lives. Work began in May 1940 to build a series of solid barriers across the eastern channels. The work was undertaken by Balfour Beatty using local, British and Irish workers, and from 1942, Italian prisoners of war. In a massive undertaking, rubble encased in wire cages were dropped from aerial cableways, followed by concrete blocks to resist the force of the waves. Miles of narrow-gauge railway was laid to transport materials, over 900,000 tons in all. Little trace of the temporary infrastructure remains today. The causeways now carry the A961 road.
Italian Chapel: The Italian Chapel was constructed by Italian prisoners of war during WWII, in two Nissen huts provided by the military. Almost nothing else remains of the prisoner of war camp, which was housing prisoners working on the Churchill Barrier. The Chapel was fitted out by several of the prisoners led by painter Domenico Chioccetti, using salvaged materials and concrete. Internally it is painted with remarkable realism to resemble stonework, with a religious mural by Chiochetti at the altar end. The Chapel was spared demolition when the camp was cleared, and was restored in the 1960’s.
Smithy Museum, St Margaret’s Hope: The Smithy Museum is situated in the otherwise unremarkable village of St Margaret’s Hope, in the buildings of a former smithy. It contains much of the original equipment, plus a collection of smith’s tools and related objects, ploughs etc. It’s worth a visit if you are in the area and interested in the subject matter. Admission is free.