Places I Like: The Orkneys

Go to the very northernmost tip of Scotland, to the town of John O’Groats. Get onto the ferry going north. Head across the North Sea. (Prepare for a rough crossing. On our trip, the rails and bathrooms were filled beyond capacity with sickened travelers.)

After losing sight of the Scottish mainland, you’ll soon be surrounded by water, the churning, freezing, foamy waters of the North Sea. Bobbing seabirds. Small, rocky, impossibly carved rock islands. This (below) is called The Old Man of Hoy; he wasn’t bathed in warm sunshine when we saw him, I can assure you.

After several hours, the ferry will turn, and sail on the protected side of a land mass. The wind will mellow and the ship will slip into a movie-set harbor of waterside pubs and little houses clinging to the land’s end. Looks just as charming in real life as this photo would suggest.

And then, you’re home.

The Orkneys, a string of islands that’s a part of Scotland, is home to a 12th century cathedral, ruins of a stone age village, Scotland’s Stonehenge, an Italian-built chapel and at least one great distillery.

St. Magnus Cathedral, begun in the year 1137, dominates the town center of Kirkwall. It shows the influence of both Celts and Scandinavians, both of whom lived in the islands over the course of their history.

It is breathtakingly beautiful but there is a deliberate feeling of darkness and death. Tombs are prominent…

…as are other reminders of visitors’ mortality. This plaque (below) says “Memento Mori,” remember that you are mortal. As if one could forget it for a moment in this setting.

The natural setting of the islands is extraordinary. You can easily get vertigo by imagining you’re at the end of the earth (which isn’t too far from the truth), at least I could.

Skara brae, a Stone Age settlement, was unearthed by storms, the first in 1850, then in 1924.

The Ring of Brodgar, constructed about 4000 years ago, has been little studied and even less well understood. The individual stones are huge, by the way.

During the Second World War, Italian prisoners of war who were kept on the islands used a quonset hut and built a Roman Catholic chapel that still draws visitors for its incongruous exterior and interior painting.

And then, there’s the whiskey. Did I mention the whiskey?

My advice? Buy several bottles, to gird your loins for the ferry trip back.

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