Orkney’s Hidden Worlds: Glimpsing The Deep Past Off Scotland’s Coast

It’s shortly after 11am on the 21st June 1919, in the islands of Orkney northeast of Scotland – and the scene is set for one of the most extraordinary events of the Great War.

Technically speaking, that war is over – but today, at noon, the Treaty of Versailles will be signed, marking the official surrender of the German armed forces, including its colossal navy.

Almost the entire German fleet has been brought here to Scapa Flow, a vast sheltered bay of seawater formed by a circle of islands, now a British naval base. Once the treaty is finalised and signed, the entire fleet will be divided up between Britain, France and Italy – and German Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter knows this would be a terrible blow to his country’s already demoralized spirits.

A wind turbine and farmhouses on Scotland's Orkney Islands
A wind turbine and farmhouses on Scotland’s Orkney Islands

If you’d been standing on a hill overlooking Scapa, it would have been an incredible thing to watch. First you would have seen flags raised on all 74 German ships, a flurry of activity – and then around noon, one by one, they’d have started to disappear beneath the waves.

On every ship, seacocks, flood valves and water pipes were smashed open, portholes unlocked, bulkheads jammed wide, anything and everything that would let the water in quicker. The Read-Admiral’s order was to scuttle, and every man would do his duty before tumbling into lifeboats and seeking the mercy of the undoubtedly infuriated Allies.

Within six hours of the order being given, 52 ships of the German fleet had sunk beneath the waves of Scapa Flow – and while salvage operations a decade later recovered most of the precious metal, a few of those ships are still resting on the sea floor today, popular sites for recreational wreck diving.

The story of Scapa Flow is a nice metaphor for Orkney, because if there’s one word that sums the place up, it’s “hidden”. Of the 15 million or so visitors to Scotland every year, less than 200,000 make their way to the north coast and board the John O’Groats ferry to take the 16km trip to Mainland Orkney (and regarding that name, it’s “Orkney” or “the Orkney islands”, never “the Orkneys”.)

Those wise enough to visit have a tendency to return – and to go home with tales of a magical place of softly sweeping hillsides entirely bare of trees, edged by dramatic cliffs, ancient barrows and stone circles under the widest sky imaginable, including a lost village emerging from the sand (we’ll get to that), and some of the friendliest people in the Northern hemisphere. That’s why Orkney is worth your time, they’ll say, and they’d be right.

St. Magnus Cathedral rises above the town of Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands
St. Magnus Cathedral rises above the town of Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands

And there’s no time like your first time in Orkney.

It’s 1995, and I’m wobbling my way down a concrete jetty on South Ronaldsay, the most southerly of Orkney’s islands. Behind me I can hear my Scottish uncle laughing.

He’s a veteran of the hour’s ferry-ride across the Pentland Firth, the waterway separating Orkney from Scotland. Every day, the Atlantic and the North Sea take turns to overpower each other and race along this coastline, making this short stretch of water one of the fastest – and sometimes choppiest – in Europe.

In a big ship, you hardly notice it. In a wee passenger ferry, you’re like a cork in a public fountain. You need sea legs, like my uncle, and completely unlike a firly-avowed landlubber like me. Through some personal miracle I have retained the contents of my stomach during the rough crossing, but now I seem to have lost the ability to walk.

I’m helped onto the waiting minibus, and off we go. As the road dips and we lose sight of the surrounding sea, it feels like we’re crossing moorland. Not a tree can be seen: the few that exist across the whole of Orkney are mainly around the largest town, Kirkwall, and many of those look like they’re crawling across the ground.

The reason is the wind, which never lets up. It’s shockingly sunny in summer and just as fierce as you’d imagine in the winter – but the one year-round constant is the stiff breeze.

Noltland Castle on Westray in the Orkney Islands of Scotland
Noltland Castle on Westray in the Orkney Islands of Scotland

We cross a causeway to the next island – and pass the rusting remains of a wrecked ship, poking just above the waterline. It’s not a German scuttle or the remnants of some past battle, just part of a defensive structure called the Churchill Barriers, laid down in the early 1940s after a U-boat breaking the perimeter of Scapa and sunk the battleship HMS Royal Oak.

On we go, across the tiny island of Burray, onto another causeway with a sweeping view of Scapa to our left, up onto land once more – and shortly after, down onto the largest island (appropriately called Mainland) and into Kirkwall.

In the almost 35 years since then, it’s a trip I’ve taken many times – as a curious visitor, as an archaeologist working on the northern Orkney island of Westray for multiple summers, and finally as a writer on retreat. And every time, it fills me with a sense of intense excitement and wonder.

From Kirkwall, the roads around Orkney are many. If you’re here for a whirlwind tour, you’ll be plunged into the deep past with visits to Maeshowe (a Neolithic chambered cairn with a passageway you have to crawl through), the Stones of Stenness, a henge monument on the northern Mainland, and more of the dozens of famous archaeological monuments scattered across the archipelago.

However, if time is short, you’ll just be taken to Skara Brae – because if anywhere on Orkney is going to make the breath whoosh right out of you, it’s that place.

In the winter of 1850, a huge storm tore through the island chain, and when Orcadians living near the Bay of Skaill in northern Mainland went to survey the damage, they found the outline of a stone-walled village, previously buried under the earth.  Today it’s known as the “Scottish Pompeii”, because of how incredibly well it was preserved – and it dates back at least 5,000 years.

Stepping through the passageways of Skara Brae is an awe-inspiring and eerie experience. The dry stone walls almost look freshly laid (partly due to the magnificent job that Historic Scotland has done in preserving it). Some of the rooms contain stone furniture, including shelving, designed to hold the possessions of people living 150 generations ago.

And then you emerge into the light again, the wind hits your face once more, and Orkney spreads out before you, excitingly huge and unfathomably deep.

The UNESCO World Heritage site Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands
The UNESCO World Heritage site Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands

If history isn’t your thing, you could take a trip to see the Old Man of Hoy, a 450-foot sea stack (column of rock) off the coast of the island of Hoy that looks like it won’t last the next storm, yet has stood proud for at least two centuries.

You could head to a pub to try a stew made from North Ronaldsay lamb, its famously sweet, gamey flavour coming from sheep that subsist almost entirely on seaweed. Or you could board a ferry to Westray (yes, it’s to the west, but also far northwards) and visit the ancient Viking fishing station and farmstead that I helped excavate for four very enjoyable summers…

Or you could go find an Orkney that nobody has ever seen before. That’s certainly possible. You never know what’s hidden up there.

Join Wheel & Anchor for a wee cruise along the coast of Scotland in May 2020, which includes visits to a number of Scotland’s isles, including the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands, not to mention a few stops at some of her finest whisky distilleries. More information here!

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