Have you ever heard of the Orkney Islands? Sounds a bit intimidating at first once those ugly and frightening mythical creatures “Orcs” come to one´s mind that have sprung from the “Lord of the Rings” blockbuster saga. But luckily, this Scottish archipelago has nothing to do with murderous creatures. It rather is a well-kept secret in natural beauty and seclusion. A “Garden of Eden” at the Northern end of the British main isle.
The entire archipelago consists of roundabout 70 isles including the main island “Mainland” with its capital Kirkwall.
Only 20 of the Orkney isles are populated. Most of the 21,000 inhabitants live in Kirkwall and Stromness, both located on the Mainland, while the rest splits up onto the other islands.
You can only imagine how much space this means for every single resident! And by far, when you get close to Kirkwall and cruise through the inlets, it is quite easy to count the houses on the shore without using both of your hands.
So quiet and peaceful. You would think that time had stood still here for the last 8,500 years.
If you are not passing by on a cruise ship, it actually is quite an act to get there. From Aberdeen, NorthLink ferries offers a 3 x weekly service (winter schedule)/4 x weekly (summer schedule) connection which continues from Kirkwall towards the Shetland Islands.
The passage takes around six hours and can be quite rough, depending on the season. But there also is a local airline called Loganair, which even offers direct flights from Aberdeen, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Manchester to Kirkwall nonstop.
The area is simply beautiful. Since this was my first time to Scotland altogether, I took the chance to explore Kirkwall on a little stroll with no agenda.
If I have had more time, I surely would have taken an excursion to see some of the areas most popular landmarks such as Skara Brae, Ring of Brodgar or the Old Man of Hoy, just to name a few.
But on a sunny day with just a few clouds like this one, it was nice to simply follow the main road along the bay to the sleepy little town that spread around it.
Here and there a grazing sheep or horse that curiously raised his head as soon as I passed, shaking it, just as if it waved hello to me. Or if it wanted to say: “Get the hell out of here, stranger.” Just kidding.
My first stop was the little harbor. Most people here live from fishing, agriculture or tourism, a hint to a hard-working, down-to-earth lifestyle and atmosphere that have been long-established.
I like places like this. They always seem so basic and honest in comparison to our modern elbow society. Where people speak frankly with each other without being afraid of being political incorrect and receiving a hashtag shit storm afterwards.
At least I like thinking this.
The city itself is rather small and clear, just as you would imagine a typical British town on the countryside. Most shops and cafés group around Albert Street and the atmosphere is extremely relaxed and laid-back.
In a small town like this, people obviously know each other. And you may like it or not, but I think it is quite neat to actually see people chatting and talking to each other on the streets and not hiding their faces in their mobile phones.
Like I do it sometimes, too. It made me realize once again though, that if it is not happening around you, it might not be something that you are necessarily missing out on.
Time was running at a different speed here. Nobody was stressed out because steaming the milk for a beautiful coffee latte just takes the time it needs to be perfect. Instead, neighbors quickly exchange the latest gossip. And there we go, coffee is ready.
I took a moment and sat on one of the benches of the beautiful old St. Magnus cathedral. Some of the graves here lasted over centuries, this could be the perfect film set for creepy horror movie.
The oldest parts of the church date back to the 12th century. From here I continued towards the ruins of the Bishop & Earls Palace.
The beautiful palace was once the seat of the quite unpopular sovereign of the Orkneys, Patrick Stewart, who was son to the foregoing Earl of Orkney, Robert Stewart I.
Today, only the stone walls remain and ugly legends about the tyrannic ruler.
From here, I continued to walk a bit up hill, not really knowing where the road would lead me. I ended up in a picturesque neighborhood with lots of beautifully arranged front yards.
I am not sure what this gardening style is correctly referred to, but we name it English style in German. It is a very natural looking way to arrange flowers, bushes and trees, but everything that has been planted has been carefully selected in advance.
The Northern part of our famous Englischer Garten in Munich was designed in this style. It was absolutely wonderful to see how much love and work each household had put into their individual interpretations and whenever I passed a yard someone was working in, he or she friendly waived hello as I walked by.
Other than that, there were not that many people on the streets. So I began walking down the hill again, going zig zag back towards the city center.
I do not know why a visit to a Whiskey distillery did not cross my mind at all ( I mean, hello, this is Scotland), but at that time I actually did not have such a thing for whisky at all. I know it would be different today :). Highland Park and Scapa are two popular local brands which both are produced on the Orkneys.
After another spree through some of the shops downtown, I slowly headed back to the ship again. I needed a bit of energy left for a little workout that evening and I was hoping for a few more snapshots while sailing away through the archipelago.
Thank goodness, the weather remained stable. Up here, you always have to prepare for sudden changes in weather conditions, but today, I was lucky.
Even during summer season, Kirkwall does not have cruise ships or ferries on a daily basis on visit. And maybe this is even a good thing.
So things around here stay the way they have always been. Without too much of outside influences. Authentic, natural and simply straight from the heart.
And while the Scotsman played his bagpipes once the ship was ready for departure, the ongoing unhurriedness was only disrupted by one single moment: One of the port employees had forgotten to completely unwind one of the ropes from the pier.
So while the ship was already drifting further and further off into the harbor, the rope was still hanging partly over one of the bollards. Seriously everyone on deck was halting his breath!
But the band played on, the rope was loosened and the pulse went back to normal. “Mar sin leat, Kirkwall”. That means bye-bye in English. What an enchanting afternoon this was.
I stood on deck for quite some time to watch the fisher boats go by and to soak up the last magic green of the Scottish meadows that I could catch. Knowing that I had not even seen a fraction of this beautiful and extraordinary piece of land, there was only one way to pay tribute to the day: So I got myself a glass of delicious Scottish whisky, sighed to the horizon and cheered to Scotland.
In the hope to come back here sometimes soon… By the way, VisitScotland has some very helpful information for planning a visit to the Orkney Islands! So check it out.