Autumn has arrived in Orkney already. So it’s a good time to re-visit some of the events of this past summer.
First, I’ll tell you about our trip to the nearby island of Rousay, known as ‘The Egypt of the North’ for its wealth of archaeological sites. Rousay is only a short 20-minute ferry ride away across the mysterious Eynhallow Sound, a stretch of water known for its spectacular tidal race called the Burgar Rõst, or Roost. Rousay’s name means Rolf’s Isle in Old Norse where many of Orkney’s names come from.
The owners of the pretty one-bedroom self-catering barn conversion we stayed in were away in Canada, but had told me over the phone to just come in and get settled. Someone would be overseeing work on the farm in their absence so would be able to help if we needed anything.
Essentially Rousay has one main road encircling the island. The interior of the island is high, rough moorland, with terracing on the hillsides that looks man-made but was etched by glaciers.
We missed the turn to the farm the first time, gave up and went back to the newly-opened Craft Hub near the pier to ask for directions. There was much consultation between the three people in there and it was agreed that we needed to look for where the road began its curve around the island to the left, and take the turn just before the post box on the bend.
We got to the curve and nearly missed the post box because we were distracted by some spectacular home-made sculptures decorating a front garden. There was a highland ‘coo’ made out of rope, a huge, plunging whale’s tail disappearing into the ground, a dolphin leaping out of the grass and too many other things to take in as we passed. Directly opposite this was our turn.
We had Roscoe with us and he had a wonderful time playing Explorer Dog, Neolithic Dog, Bronze Age Dog and Forest Dog. He did have a painful run-in with the farmer’s electric fence (curiously mounted on the outside of a field wall), but other than that enjoyed himself thoroughly.
One of the highlights of our stay was the incredible Westness Walk, a path down a sloping hill and then along the coastline through so many time periods it was dizzying. We began at the Midhowe Broch, a well-preserved Iron Age fort. There were two nearly-grown hooded crow chicks sat on a nest in the wall of the Broch, watching the tourists wandering in and out.
Just a few metres away is the Midhowe Cairn, enclosed in a barn-like structure to protect it from the Orkney weather. It was dazzling inside – a huge stalled cairn, around 5,000 years old. The remains of 25 people were found in it when it was excavated. Similar to other stalled tombs in Orkney, it is the longest. I couldn’t help wondering what the Bronze Age people living next door in their broch must have made of it.
We then passed Brough Farm, dating from probably the 18th century, along to The Wirk, the remains of a grand ceremonial hall from the 13th or 14th century. There isn’t much to see there now, just a ‘ruckle of stanes’ as they’d say here, but it must have been impressive in its day.
We didn’t do the complete walk – my ankle isn’t up to such things – but we got as far as St Mary’s Church, which was abandoned in 1820. Although there was an earlier Medieval church on the site, the remains here are thought to date from the 16th or 17th century.
Struggling to get my head around the vast span of time we’d just traversed in less than half a mile, we made the long slow climb back up to our waiting car.
The next day we explored the other chambered tombs that are open to the public. First was Taversoe Tuick, an unusual tomb in that it has two entrances, one ‘upstairs’ facing the hill, and the other ‘downstairs’ facing out to sea. You can now only enter by the upper entrance, but Graham was brave and climbed down the rickety-looking ladder to explore the lower level from the inside.
We were walking around the outside, Roscoe in his ‘Neolithic Dog’ guise on his long-lead, when he promptly disappeared from view over the side of the cairn. We rushed over to see that he’d managed to fall into the lower entrance! He bounced back up and carried on exploring, undaunted by his rather graceless tumble.
Next we went to the fabulously named Blackhammer tomb. This required stepping down a few steps on a vertical ladder to get into. I was determined to do it and, after a bit of hesitation, managed to get inside the tomb.
I’m always struck in these tombs in Orkney that they never seem unpleasant, or gruesome or scary. They don’t really seem to feel of anything. This one, however, did have just a little bit of a darker air about it. Might just have been the name. I got my pictures, climbed up the ladder – and promptly got stuck.
With my problem ankle, my balance is very bad. So I couldn’t step up out of the tomb onto my bad foot, in case I unbalanced and it wouldn’t support me, and I couldn’t stay on my bad foot and step up with my good foot for exactly the same reason. I was convinced if I moved, I’d fall straight over backwards into the tomb, whacking my head on the stone lintel as I went. After a few minutes’ panic and much encouragement from Graham I was finally able to make myself take the step, and emerged perfectly easily.
Our last day was wet and unpromising. We chose to go to Trumland House Gardens, risking getting soaked because I didn’t want to miss it. Once up the long curving drive and past the house, which must have been very grand in its day, we entered the walled gardens and I was very excited to see lots of plants that I can’t possibly grow in the exposed location where we live.
But even better was when we got into the forest, along the stream. It didn’t feel like being in Orkney at all! It felt like a dark, damp forest in the South of England, full of huge trees, lush ferns and plants, rhododendrons and all sorts of amazing things. I was so delighted to find this place – it’s so good to know that if I need a forest fix (and I sometimes do) I can just nip over to Rousay without going very far at all!
Lastly we did a lovely long walk up over the moorland towards the interior of the island to a large loch called Muckle Water. It was a nice steady path, with magnificent views back over to Mainland Orkney. We saw several groups of breeding bonxies (great skua) and the highlight, a common sandpiper – something I assumed you only found on beaches. I was also pleased to find a clump of the carnivorous sundew plant, something which I’ve always wanted to see in the wild.
Each night we had dinner at the excellent Taversoe Hotel. I would definitely recommend the Taversoe – excellent food, lovely staff and very reasonably priced. On the second night we had dinner with a friend of mine, who lives in Rousay, and her husband, who is the engineer on the ferry. She’d sent a text that they might be delayed as the ferry was late getting in. This puzzled me as it’s not the kind of ferry that usually suffers from delay. It turned out that a pod of orca whales had been travelling through Eynhallow Sound and the boat followed them so the passengers could have a look. My friend’s husband had marvellous pictures on his phone of the whales just feet away from the side of the ferry. It’s things like this that really make me love living in Orkney – that a ferry can be late because it’s showing people wild orca in the sea. Brilliant.
It was a lovely long weekend and there were still many things we didn’t get to. But it’s nice to know Rousay is so close by and we’ll be back to visit.