Otter Lodge Blog:

Orkney Adventure


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The Neolithic village of Skara Brae has the best preserved prehistoric houses in Europe.


How time flies – it’s already a few weeks since we packed our car full of spare socks and headed north for a week of sun. Orkney isn’t the first place you think of for a winter break but, we have to admit, it is drier than Skye at this time year. Just a bit cooler. With this in mind, we made sure we booked a holiday let with under floor heating. We’ve been to Orkney before, when Vanessa had a small pregnancy bump. She found a great cure for morning sickness was camping, cycling into a strong head wind and regular Orkney icecream. This time around we had two small boys in tow.


The first thing you notice as you arrive on the ferry is how green the islands are. And there are, indeed, a lot of them. Plenty of pasture and plenty of cows make for a good supply of icecream; there’s some pretty good cheese and beef, too. All those green fields attract masses of Greylag geese, to the extent that that wild goose has now been added to the local menu (under strict license). And to drink with your gooseburger: what about a nice glass of the famous Orkney beer? You might be starting to get an inkling of why we were attracted to Orkney for our holiday.

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‘Ewan the Terrible’ plays hide and seek in the viking village at Brough of Birsay.

Moving on from the cuisine, there is one particular thing that Orkney is world famous for: Prehistoric monuments. There’s nothing that builds up a visitor’s appetite like a spot of monumenteering and island are famous for being one huge archaeological dig. The best thing for a family is that you can crawl inside or run around quite a lot of these places and feel like a real-life Indiana Jones. The most famous sites are on Mainland Orkney: the cute little Neolithic stone houses of Skara Brae, the underground stone temple of Maes Howe and the massive stone circle known as the Ring of Brodgar. You get a sense of how much ancient history is here by the fact that even the graffiti carved in the rocks are the carefully preserved runes of Viking raiders; example: ‘These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean’. Not well-known for modesty those Vikings but at least they could write.


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Time for a relaxing break…the explorer John Rae having a very long snooze in St Magnus’ Cathedral.


Orkney is part of Scotland, but very definitely feels ‘other’ from it. Local people speak a dialect that has its roots in the Norse languages. Coming from a region of Scotland where Gaelic is widely encountered, we found the place-names a delightful combination of the exotic and familiar: fancy going to Gutterpool, The Gloup, or Tongue of Gangsta?

If you’re interested in more recent history there are many locations that have been marked in some way by the two World Wars. The southern islands form a huge natural harbour, Scapa Flow, which has been used extensively by the navy since the nineteen century. This attracted attention from German boats during both wars and consequently all kinds of steps were taken to secure the area, ranging from scuppering captured vessels to building barriers between islands. Tragically, many boats were also sunk during conflict with loss of life on both sides. If you’re into diving, there are a good number boats from the scuppered fleet you can explore (Martin enjoyed a dive on our last visit). On dry land, the remains of gun batteries at places like Hoxa Head give you a strong sense of how important this area was during the wars.

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A WWII searchlight emplacement at Hoxa Head.

The two main towns on Mainland Orkney are Kirkwall and Stromness. Stromness is quainter, but Kirkwall has more shops and a Cathedral. There are loads of local goodies to tempt you; it’s the kind of place where if you look carefully enough in a hardware store, you’ll find a great deal on Highland Park whisky. Ewan, our youngest, now wants to move to Orkney; although he’s not sure whether to live in a stone-age hut, a viking longhouse or a cottage with underfloor heating. Having felt those northern winds, I know which I would choose.

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