A land of winds without willows

On Scotland's Orkney Islands, getting where you want to go is part of the adventure.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In Scotland's Orkney Islands, there's a method for hanging clothes on the line. "Storm pegs" are used to batten down the washing. Sheets are folded so they fill with air and billow like sails to keep hems from flapping and fraying.

This tiny facet of everyday life is telling in the largely treeless archipelago of close to 70 islands and islets where the dull roar of the wind is constant, and gale-force winds blow 200 days of the year. Sandstone walls surround gardens. Hauled-out skiffs are anchored to the ground, and just about everything else outdoors has to be lashed down.

While the weather can be formidable, Orkney can also be a gentle, pastoral landscape. In the summer, the fields and pastures dotted with sheep and cattle turn a lush green. Temperatures rarely rise above 75 degrees F., making the cluster of islands ideal for biking and hiking. A constant breeze keeps the bugs at bay. In the evening, panoramic sunsets unfold over the rolling hills. Daylight lasts well past 9 p.m.

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Besides its unique landscape, Orkney boasts the richest concentration of prehistoric ruins in Britain. The islands are also a haven for bird watchers. Puffins, kittiwakes, Leach's petrel, Arctic terns, and skuas are among the many species that breed here.

Because of its remoteness, Orkney is less known to tourists than Scotland's western isles, the Hebrides. But it makes a great destination for travelers who like to island-hop and for whom part of the adventure is getting there.

Six miles from John O'Groats - Scotland's Land's End - Orkney is separated from the mainland by a wild stretch of sea.

British Airways offers daily flights from Glasgow, Inverness, and Aberdeen to Orkney's largest island, Mainland. But I prefer the long way - by train and boat. It builds suspense, taking you back to a time when travel wasn't so easy, and trips involved multiple connections by land and sea.

My favorite route is one I took as a teenager. Arriving in London, I booked a berth to Inverness on an overnight sleeper.

I remember the porter rapping on my door in the early morning. Still in my berth, I was presented with a cup of hot tea and buttery fingers of Scottish shortbread.

There's no nicer way to arrive in Scotland.

Picturesque and easy to walk around, Inverness makes a good stopover either at the start or return from Orkney. It's a place to load up on kilts, Harris tweeds, Fair Isle sweaters, shortbread, and marmalade.

From Inverness, a train skims along Scotland's eastern coast before heading inland and across the moors to the northwestern coastal town of Thurso. Orkney-bound travelers catch a bus - about a 15-minute ride - to the port of Scrabster where P&O Scottish Ferries' St. Ola sails daily to the islands. Warning: On the balmiest day, there are bound to be sea swells rolling in from the North Atlantic.

Bathed in afternoon light, the red sandstone cliffs of Hoy - Orkney's highest island - come into view. The Old Man of Hoy, a soaring pinnacle of rocks that resembles the profile of an old man's face, stands like an ancient sentry. The 450-foot sandstone formation signals the approach to the port of Stromness on Orkney's island of Mainland.

Island-hopping

Because Orkney is prone to sudden rain showers, it's best to rent a car rather than get stuck at some remote place in a downpour. It's possible to bring a car on the St. Ola ferry or rent one on Mainland.

Centrally located, a half-hour drive from Stromness, Orkney's capital of Kirkwall makes a good base for island-hopping. Orkney Ferries Ltd. offers car service to Eday, Sanday, Papa Westray, North Ronaldsay, and the other sparsely inhabited northern isles.

To plan an outing, arrange the trip through the Orkney Tourist Board in downtown Kirkwall. A short walk from the waterfront, the center has extensive information about the different isles. Its staff knows the ferry schedules and can book lodging ahead.

Bound by towering cliffs and steep heathery hills, Rackwick faces the open Atlantic. Crofts - many deserted and in ruin - are scattered about the remote valley separated from the sea by a surf-pounded beach.

More than a century ago, islanders eked out a living there, catching groundfish, lobster, and crabs in open boats. Today, only five families remain year-round. There is a youth hostel, open in the summer, and a bed and breakfast.

One raw, blustery April day, my husband and I caught the mail boat, Scapa Ranger, from Stromness to Hoy. Alighting at Moaness Pier, we walked six miles across the island to Rackwick. The paved road took us past Ward Hill and Berriedale Wood - the northernmost woods in Britain. Dwarf aspen, hazel, rowan, and willow trees grow among the barren hills.

At Rackwick, we explored the deserted crofts and beachcombed around the bay. There's a marked footpath, very steep in spots, leading to the Old Man of Hoy. Allow at least an hour and a half to get there.

Returning to Mainland, the boat ride felt like being inside a submarine as the Scapa Ranger plunged through the waves and fought its way back across Hoy Sound. We and half dozen other passengers sat snugly inside the boat's watertight cabin, warmed by a kerosene stove.

Tea at Balfour Castle

From Kirkwall, consider making a day trip to Shapinsay. A 25-minute boat ride from Kirkwall, the small island's main attraction is a Victorian castle and its walled gardens. Have the Kirkwall Tourist Office book you a guided tour and afternoon tea.

Crossing the String, the deep water entrance to Kirkwall Bay, the M.V. Shapinsay passes a tiny isle, Thieves Holm, where thieves and "witches" were once kept.

At the stone pier piled high with barnacle-speckled lobster traps, Patricia Zawadzki welcomes castle-bound passengers. A member of the family that bought Balfour Castle in 1961, she leads the way up a lane past oat fields and fragrant pink rosa rugosas, pointing out the village's Victorian communal lavatory along the way.

With its turrets and rambling roofline, Balfour Castle was the inspired setting for Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure book "Kidnapped."

Afternoon light streams into the sitting room. Needlepoint sofas are arranged around the fireplace. Just outside the bay window, cattle graze, swishing their tails, in pastures flowing down to the sea.

The highpoint of a trip to Shapinsay is the lavish tea served in the castle's servants hall. It includes homemade scones topped with butter and strawberry jam. Afterward, visitors are taken through Old John's Garden. Espalied fruit trees line south-facing brick walls. Globe artichokes are among the diverse vegetables grown in the Victorian-style garden.

Seeing Mainland

Orkney and the Shetland Islands farther north were first inhabited by the Picts around the birth of Christ. The islands were later raided and claimed by Norwegian King Harold Haarfagr in 875. Viking influence still abounds. Most places derive their names from the ancient Norse language. Norse festivals have also survived.

Kirkwall means "church place" in Norse. St. Magnus Cathedral stands in the heart of the town. It was named after a Norse earl, St. Magnus, who was murdered and later canonized. His skeleton lies in a chest inside one of the church's red and yellow sandstone pillars.

To help finance the massive church's upkeep, British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies started the St. Magnus Festival 20 years ago. A summer resident of Hoy, he usually composes a special piece performed by local schoolchildren. Held every June, the music festival has featured Vladimir Ashkenazy, Julian Bream, Andr Previn, and other famous musicians from around the world.

On Mainland, a tour of the archaeological sights takes at least a day. Pack a picnic lunch and head west to the prehistoric tomb of Maes Howe. Built inside a hill, the immense burial mound was looted by the Vikings, who left a cryptic message hinting the treasure had been stolen and buried somewhere to the northwest.

Farther west, a circle of stones stands out starkly on a lush green finger of land between lochs Stenness and Harray. Called the Ring of Brodgar, the prehistoric site is made up of some 27 standing stones. Burial mounds and lone standing stones are scattered around it. As with England's Stonehenge, one wonders what rituals revolved around the mysterious circle.

Orkney's oldest prehistoric site lies beside the crescent-shaped Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland. Skara Brae is the best-preserved Neolithic village in all of Europe. The tiny, gray-stoned houses - each with its own hearth, beds, fish larders, and other primitive furniture fashioned from local flagstone - conjure up island life thousands of years ago.

Another day trip is to drive or bike around the eastern part of Mainland. You'll see Scapa Flow, which served as the naval base for the British Grand Fleet during World Wars I and II. The bay is considered the best skin-diving site in the Northern Hemisphere.

During World War I, boom-ships were sunk to prevent enemy submarines from penetrating Scapa Flow. However, the blockade proved inadequate. In 1939, a German U-boat slipped past the sunken ships, torpedoing and sinking the British battleship HMS Royal Oak, resulting in the loss of more than 800 lives. A green buoy marks the watery grave.

To prevent further incursions, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the construction of the Churchill barriers. Lined with concrete blocks, the four causeways link Mainland with the islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay.

My husband and I always like to spend a day in Stromness. A century ago, Arctic whaling ships and the Hudson's Bay Co. fleet called at the western port every year to provision and sign on Orcadian men known for their ruggedness and knowledge of the sea. The town's Natural History Museum chronicles that era.

A trip to Orkney would not be complete without dinner at the Creel. In the town of St. Margaret's Hope, on South Ronaldsay, the award-winning restaurant is a 20-minute drive from Kirkwall across the Churchill barriers. When we dined there last, the menu featured appetizers like cockles and mussels cooked in cider with leeks, garlic and tomatoes.

Perched on an old stone pier, the Creel overlooks St. Margaret's Hope Bay. Diners can watch the sunset unfold over the hills of Hoy and savor the wild scenery of Orkney one last time before making the long journey home.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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