Blog / Exploring Orkney: Day Two: A Historical Road Trip

Exploring Orkney: Day Two: A Historical Road Trip

Starting my day bright and early, I had to pack up everything from my Airbnb room. Because of Covid, I was responsible for cleaning and sanitizing everything before I headed out for the day. That night, I would be taking the ferry back to Aberdeen so I needed to be prepared for my departure. Today was going to be my last chance to take advantage of everything Orkney had to offer. I knew I wasnt going to see it all, but I was going to do my damndest.

Much like the morning before, I grabbed myself some breakfast and tea to go and hit the road. From Kirkwall, I was hoping to head over to Houton where I could take the car ferry across to Hoy. Unfortunately, I had needed to book this trip in advance and didn’t get to go. So, I quickly rearranged my plans. Instead of seeing Hoy, I was going to do a road trip across the mainland. I would simply stop at every single historical site I could find. They were all marked alongside the road, so each time I saw the purple thistle marking a Scottish historical landmark, I would pull over.

Earls Bu and Maeshowe

My first stop was in Orphir at the Earls Bu and Church. It was an extremely peaceful spot nestled into the local farmland. This site contained the remains of the Orphir Round Church built sometime in the early 12th century. The remains sit within a small cemetery that is very well kept. It was a foggy, drizzly morning and I was quickly on my way again. From there, I went to a neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave known as Maeshowe that is located near Stromness. What looks to be a simple grassy hill is actually a large tomb that holds a maze of passages and chambers built around 2800 BC. I wasn’t able to go inside, but I was happy enough to wander around and pet the ponies that were grazing nearby. I was far more interested in them than they were in me!

After that, I headed north passing by the Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae, simply enjoying the drive and the incredible terrain surround me. The next place I landed was Marwick Head Nature Reserve and the Kitchener Memorial. After parking, it took me about half an hour from Marwick Bay to walk to the Kitchener Memorial. The memorial which is also known as ‘the chess piece’ was built in memory of those who lost their lives on the HMS Hampshire in 1916.

Marwick Head and Kitchener Memorial

This walk was so neat because after I passed by the Kitchener Memorial, I came around to an area where you can look down along the Cliffs and see all of the sea birds soaring above the ocean waves and landing in the little holes that they’ve nestled in. The seabird colony there is the largest in all of Orkney and is the perfect safe haven for a vast number of birds. I took my time and enjoyed the view listening to the wave and the birds.

This place was particularly amazing to me because all along the entire length of the cliffside was a rabbit metropolis! There were so many bunnies jumping around bouncing from place to place! I was fascinated. This was one of my other more spiritual moments for me, and I was once again filled with that same sense of glee that I hadn’t had the day before. Although, I had started feeling a little bit more lonely and wishing that I had a friend or someone with me to share all of this with. Being in a place so beautiful and seeing so many amazing things, I was certainly grateful for it, but one day, I hope to share it.

I took photo after photo hoping to be able to share all of it with my loved ones but knew that the pictures would never do it justice. The magnificence, the marvel, the fluctuating shades of blue as they crossed the sky fading from one into the next with seamless perfection. I looked all around me, absorbing my surroundings, and longed for companionship. As I looked east, for a moment, I was reminded of my home back in Indiana because of the patchwork quilt of farmland with fluctuating patches of green and yellow grasses stitched together by hedges, fences, and rock walls. A spattering of cattle and sheep dotting the landscape. Quaint wee ‘hooses’ filled with men, women, and children. I wondered at the life of those living here, something that seemed both entirely different from my own upbringing and yet very similar.

From Marwick Head, I headed north once again and ended up in Birsay. There, I found a very small village with a convenience mart. Tea! I needed it. There was also the Birsay Earl’s Palace where two teachers were taking a small class of children on a field trip. I walked around watching them giggle together and play along the ruined brick walls. For the Earl’s Palace I headed just about a half mile down the road to the Bough of Birsay.

Bough of Birsay and Stone Stacking

The Brough of Birsay is a small island set close enough offshore that you can walk to it when the tide is low. It has an unmanned lighthouse and sheep grazing all around. They don’t want to come too close, but they like to watch you curiously. I watched them just as curious. There were remains of Pictish and Norse settlements there as well with Norse knotted carvings still sketched into slabs of stone. As I walked to the island, I skipped from rock to rock and crouched to watch the seaweed sway in the pools of water leftover from the tide. Everywhere I looked there was beauty. I couldn’t take it all in enough.

After circling the perimeter of the small island, I came around to a side where there was a huge cleft cut down from the edge. In it you could see that many people had been climbing down and building stone towers within the groove that had been cut out by the water. Of course, I had to climb down and examine the space. I made my way down into the cleft and landed on a stone-covered floor that worked its way into a more narrow and elongated stretch of smooth stone that had been worn away by the tide. It was almost like being in a cave and it was absolutely beautiful. The waves crashed loudly and echoed against the walls. I picked up one of the smaller pebbles and rubbed my thumb across it before stowing it away in my pocket. (I collect rocks for my aunt) You know I had to build a stone tower myself to leave my mark before I left.

After leaving Birsay, I drove awhile wrapping myself around the island and coming round to the village of Evie and the Broch of Gurness where I ended up find a bit of companionship in a stray cat. The Broch of Gurness holds the archaeological remains of an Iron Age village. Nestled alongside the Eynhallow Sound, from there you can see the Island of Rousay. I took a small walk along the pebbled shore, taking a few deep and cleansing breaths before once again- heading back out on the road. By this time, it was starting to get late and my rental car had to be returned before 6 pm.

Back to Kirkwall and Reflections

Back just in time to drop of the rental car, I found an open restaurant in town that was open for just long enough for me to get a meal. Afterward, I walked the streets of Kirkwall and meandered my way around Saint Magnus Cathedral and the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces. The rest of the night went pretty slow. I had to wait until later than night for the ferry which wasn’t exactly convenient, but it was all totally worth it for the experience I had.

I wrote as I waited:

Brain dump. Holy hell. Today. Was. Breath-taking. The sky, the sea, the cliffs, the lochs, the beach, the standing stones. Driving, I was at a loss for not being able to gawk with my nose pressed to the window. To see the multi-hued blue skies with grey and white drifting clouds, streaks of sunshine, mists and rainbows that swoop down and strike the earth below. Soaring birds, grasses, meadows, moors, sheep and cattle grazing. I live for this. Arriving at the beach my soul gasped and gulped and breathed the fresh air as if asphyxiated by the rest of my life.

They call the waves angry, and I believe it is because of how long they have had to work. Crashing, slamming, beating themselves up against the layered rock. Layer upon layer of history, slab upon slab. So, okay, what do I remember? What will I never forget? Red seaweed, green seaweed, Kelp. The colour teal, seafoam, the splash! The in and out, the fill and empty, the give and take, the relentless coming and going. Today, I drove to the sea on a narrow winding road. I’ll remember how, standing on those cliffs, I longed for love in a new way, with wild desire. And how could I not in a place like this? So filled with romance.

Thanks for reading!

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