Scotland Road Trip | Day 9, Orkney Isles

Guys, I’m so freaking tired. One of our family mottos is “Work hard. Play hard.” We didn’t choose that motto, like, “Hey, we value you hard work and fun so let’s live at the speed of light.” No, it’s more like we woke up one day and realized, “Wow. We work hard. And we play hard. Even our vacations are intense.”

But how else do you vacation in a country you may never visit again? On the go, morning ‘til night…I wouldn’t have it any other way. And you should see Jean and Steve in action. I hope I have as much energy, enthusiasm and fortitude as they do when I’m in my 70’s! Heck, I hope I have as much energy as they do now!

And I mean that ever so much more after our 16-hour tour to and from the Orkney Isles.

We left for the bus station at 5:50am to be there by 6:45am, to exchange our voucher for tickets. Because that’s what the instructions told us to do. But we arrived at the bus station at around 7:10 to find that the station office doesn’t open until 7:45. So we waited. And waited. And waited. Fighting off some very bold and big sea gulls in the meantime.

Jean after she chased away the bully sea gull
Jean after she chased away the bully sea gull

The coach bus eventually arrived around 7am. I think our tour guide – if you can call him that – has probably chosen the wrong profession. Socially awkward and having missed a shower or two, this guy only spoke to us when absolutely necessary and if he was speaking about sites along the way, he sounds as though he was reading from a script.

Imagine our relief when we found out that once we arrived at the Isles we would have a different tour guide!

After nearly three hours driving up the eastern coastline of northern Scotland, we stopped in the town of John O’Groats to grab food and catch the 10:25am ferry to Orkney. Christina gets motion sickness often and I get it occasionally. So we put on our sea bands and Christina took some anti-nausea meds as we sat near the window on what amounts to a fishing boat with some seats inside. Now keep in mind that the weather in the North Sea had been so bad in previous days that an oil rig washed ashore in Scotland and cruise ships were having trouble docking in Invergordon. So, yes, the waters were a little choppy. The crew seemed unfazed. I’m sure they’ve seen worse. But when the boat rocks so much that you’re looking down at the ocean one moment and up at the sky the next, and you’re not used to this sort of thing, you start to feel a little anxious.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when docking, but no one was happier than Christina. Doug ran ahead to the next coach bus to grab the front seats for his parents and a few minutes later we were off. Our driver and guide for the Isles was a man named Alan, known for wearing a large, floppy sun hat. Several tour buses travel around the Isles together, and the recognizable hat made locating our correct bus at every stop much easier.

Alan, a resident of Orkney, was an excellent guide, sharing stories ranging from major historical events such as the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow by a German U-boat, to little antecdotes like the time someone stole part of his RV and, after he recovered it directly from the thief, the police insisted they needed to investigate, took the part from Alan and didn’t return it for three years, at which point Alan had already sold the RV.

We also learned that Orkney currently produces more wind energy than they can use and even more than they can send back to Scotland because the cable on the sea floor can’t bear any more load! Sounds like it’s time to lay another cable. And something like 27,000 people live on the various islands of Orkney, which is a lot more than I thought would live there!

We stopped in the town of Kirkwall at around noon for a little shopping, hot cocoa and to visit and St. Magnus Cathedral.

Then we were on to Skara Brae. Discovered in 1850, this 5,000 year-old, seaside settlement is considered the best-preserved Neolithic settlements in Europe. There are actually two settlements at Skara Brae; the later one was actually built into the waste heap of the previous settlement.

Somewhere we read that they don’t know what happened to the people who lived there – did they pass away or leave, and why? Well, I’m willing to bet it had something to do with the weather. Because it’s flipping cold there. Did I mention the wind and rain and the rain and wind and the wind and rain. Mid-August in the Northern hemisphere and we were wearing fleece, rain coats, boots, hats, scarves and gloves. If they were smart, the people of Skara Brae moved south…or at least inland.

We also visited the Ring of Brodgar, a massive stone circle dating back to the 3rd millenium B.C. 36 stones still stand in the famous ring, which was originally comprised of 60 stones.

A panoramic - not great for detail but gives you a sense of the size
A panoramic – not great for detail but gives you a sense of the size

Researchers offer several theories about the purpose and meaning of the rings. However, the most popular theory today is that the stones, placed on a natural causeway between two bodies of water and in a valley surrounded by hills on nearly all sides, was built as a place for community meetings. Analysis of the stones revealed that they came from various parts of the island. That, along with the location of the ring, led scientists to conclude that the stone circle may have been a site where various tribes came together, each representing their communities with a standing stone, to conduct business, celebrate, govern etc.

The walk up to the rings was muddy, wet and cold, but sometimes rain makes for better adventures…

Lots of mud in Scotland
Lots of mud in Scotland

…and even in the gloom our visit felt a bit magical.

Our last stop at around 4:15pm was at this little Italian chapel.

After that, Alan drove us back to the ferry where we, thankfully, found calmer waters. After our bus ride to Inverness and a stop at the grocery store, we arrived back at our rental home around 10:00pm, exhausted but so glad for the opportunity to have visited the islands of Orkney!

Up Next
Isle of Skye

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