Friday, August 13, 2010

Aug. 10, 2010 Orkney

I woke up at about 5AM and walked to the bus station to catch the 7:15 AM bus to the John O'Groats ferry. The bus was quite full and the ride was about 3 hours. We drove along the coast over many bridges and small isles. The scenery was beautiful, lots of water and green. We saw many castles of the rich and famous: Madonna, Princess Margaret (with her lawn of rare white Chinese deer), Andrew Carnegie, and many others. It is not surprising that these people choose the highlands to keep homes and castles. The area is beautiful and serene. We saw a lot of fat healthy sheep and fat healthy cattle. We could also see, off in the distant sea - giant wind turbines which are being used in experiments for alternative wind energy. Ironically, these are located right next to the many oil drilling platforms. It is hard not to project the horrendous possiblity of an accident in this pristene environment - especially in light of what we have gone through in the gulf this summer.
This is a startling change from Africa. The roads are smooth, the houses beautiful, the scenery green and manicured. I am also happy about the nice sea-level altitude.
Upon arriving at the John O'Groats ferry dock, I bought a sandwich and visited the gift shop while waiting for the ferry to arrive. The water near the shore and docks was clear enough to see the bottom.
We all loaded onto the ferry for about a 40 minute ride to Orkney. Again, beautiful views as we sailed past the small islands through silky waters. The weatherman had predicted hard rain for Orkney today, but it was bright and sunny with a few lingering puffy clouds.
Upon arriving in Orkney we boarded the tour bus and began our journey across the island. The driver told us about Orkney's involvement in the two world wars as evidenced by garrets and sunken ships around the island.
We stopped in Kirkwall for about 40 minutes to view the famous Magus cathedral and to sample Orkney's famous ice cream. Then we drove toward Skara Brae, stopping occassionally for photos.
The entire tour was very rushed and when we finally arrived at Skara Brae, we only had about an hour and a half. Behind the visitor's center is a re-creation of one of the Skara Brae houses that you can walk through. Continue walking down the path and you come upon the actual ruins of this neolithic village. It is located right next to the sea. The tide was out and everything was green, blue, and gorgeous.
The site was revealed in 1850 by a changing tide and has been somewhat "restored" to its present condition. The site consists of one central room which was a tool making center and several stone dwellings around it. These are all built with stone slabs which can be found in rocking outcroppings along the shore. The same construction is used throughout northern Scotland in creating fences. The stones are stacked flatly against each other - no mortar is used.
The site really reminded me of the Viking landing site at L'ans aux Meadow. The scenery is very similar. But Skara Brae is over 5000 years old.
Next to Skara Brae is the Skail House - built in the 1700's. I only had about 10 minutes in the house before I had to return to the bus. There is a set of dishes set on one of the dining tables that came from Captain Cook's voyages.
Our next stop was to the Stones of Brodeger. This is a large stone circle and burial mound - very similar to Stonehenge. We had even less time here and I was the last to return to the bus and was chastized by the driver.
The stone circle is beautifully located on somewhat of a hill. Excavations continue here and the ides of the circle's purpose and size are varied and changing.
We drove by the Standing Stones of Stennis but only observed them from the road. There are three large stone circles on Orkney as well as burial mounds and other later stone village ruins. All I could think of was that I needed to come back to spend more time. I bought some books in the gift store which attempt to explain the various sites.
One interesting fact - the stones for these circles were quarried about 8 miles away from where they were placed. How did they get to where they are? Some are over two tons. There are no trees on the island due to the great winds, so they could not have been rolled along on logs. If they were dragged it seems to me like there would be some geologic evidence of it - earth scarring etc. An interesting mystery.
Our last stop was the Italian Chapel which was built by Italian prisoners of war. During World War II they were brought to the island to help in the building of the island's concrete causeways. The church is made of two army huts and adorned with the artistic talents of some of the Italian prisoners. There is beautiful wrought iron, frescos and tile work.
We met the return ferry and loaded into our bus on the other side. I slept a good deal of the route home and then walked back to the hotel.
Tomorrow - a general tour of the highlands and Loch Ness.

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