Outstanding Orkney’s

Monday morning, July 2nd, Pat and I drove north from Dingwall to the northern tip of Scotland.  We were headed to Gill’s Bay near John O’Groats to catch a catamaran Pentland Ferry to the Orkney Islands. dingwall to gills bay

We could see the islands on the horizon as we neared our destination luring us over for a visit.  IMG_1314

It was a gorgeous day and we had been looking forward to this adventure since last year when we had such glorious time exploring Applecross together.


As usual, we stopped along the 2 hour drive for refreshments and a bit of a leg stretch, and the tea room we stopped at had an alluring and tempting variety of treats available for sampling!

When we arrived at the ferry about an hour and a half too early for our scheduled sailing, we decided we had just enough time to visit a castle nearby, Castle Mey, a royal castle!  So off we went!  Fun!

IMG_1319Just a hop, skip and a jump away, we were soon turning up the drive and passing the gates.

Just around the corner there it stood in all its glory!  A nice, little, unpretentious castle just waiting to be explored!


Like most castles that are still occupied, but still allow visitors to tour when they are not in residence, one is not allowed to take pictures inside for obvious personal identity reasons.  You can however learn a bit more about this castle and its history at the following link:  Castle of Mey

For now, we’ll stroll around the outside of the castle and visit the gardens.


IMG_1339  IMG_1340

The self-guided tour inside was very nice.  I was a bit surprised that the interior decorations were not more fancy-wancy.  Mind you, very high quality, and the place was full of personal items of the Queen Mother, but not over-the-top with glitz.  It felt ‘lived-in’ and very unpretentious, down-to-earth, and real.  I liked that; not someone trying to out-do the next guy with all its glimmer and shine, just “quality,” human and loving, like a home.

The walled gardens were very extensive and flourishing with every kind of vegetable, fruit and flower.  A garden planted to supply a plethora of home-grown dishes for the table like this potato patch below for example which contained several different varieties, a different type planted in each row.


Broad beans and onions…  Greenhouses, cold frames and cabbages!

Flower and herb borders… more vegetables in intensive beds…

Look at the size of those beautiful and perfect artichokes!IMG_1348IMG_1350

Then there were the immense, wire-covered enclosures containing the delectable berries of all varieties nestled in nicely out of the reach of the birds!  That’s handy!

IMG_1354It was an absolutely huge garden with every inch of fertile space planted and yielding abundant crops! Wish I had a horn of plenty garden like that!  I’d spend the entire day, everyday out there dabbling and digging and smelling the roses!IMG_1355

Loved these little gems in a variety of colors below, although I do not recall ever seeing them before or knowing what they are.  Will have to investigate this winter when I’m not traveling.  If anyone knows, leave a comment, ok?

Really enjoyed visiting Castle Mey and its gorgeous gardens, but it was time to head back to Gill’s Bay to catch our ferry and begin our journey to the Orkney’s.


A very interesting, catamaran ferry which loaded the cars under the upper deck in a clockwise fashion and positioned the caravan campers and lorry (truck) containers in reverse in the center.  Never seen a ferry like this before.  Pretty cool and efficient to boot!


Before long we were leaving Gill’s Bay ferry landing and sailing away!

IMG_1369Nice comfortable seating below and above! It was a great sail; smooth, sun and wonderful vistas as we made our way past various small islands on our way to St. Margaret’s Hope.





Soon we were off the ferry and driving through St. Margaret’s Hope, a quaint little village with some very interesting little tidbits here and there like this van for instance.

Across from Cromarty Square (above) was this delightful Blacksmith Museum (below)


The tools and implements in the blacksmith were quite extensive and interesting to look at. In the reception area of the museum were these pictures of unusual activities that take place in St. Margaret’s Hope.  The town has an unique competition each year called “Boy’s Ploughing Match” to see who can plow the straightest lines in the sand and the girls get dressed up in Horse costumes! You won’t witness an event like that anywhere else, would you?

They also had some yummy treats available for sale like ‘tablet’ and ‘scotchbread cookies.’ Yum!

We continued to stroll about the village before heading out of town and working our way to Kirkwall.  IMG_1429

Along the way, we came across these very interesting features; barriers and blockships.

During WWII it was found necessary to build barriers between the islands to prevent German U-boat submarines from entering the eastern entrances to the channels and occupying the territory.  In order to do so they built causeways across the channels and sunk decommissioned ships in strategic positions.  Now the causeways also serve as a handy way to drive from island to island instead of having to take ferries each time.





One of our first stops was the Italian Chapel.  What a fascinating place!  Italian prisoners of war were kept detained here during the war.  As the following placards explain, the prisoners were quite skilled and handy with tools.  Being a long way from their homeland they felt they needed a place to worship in their camp so they got permission to convert one of their huts into an Italian Chapel.  Truly a work of art!












Let’s cross the threshold and take a look inside at what the Italian POW’s created…

Everything inside “looks” like it’s made out of bricks and mortar, but in reality, it’s all just painted to look like that.  Incredible and painstakingly realistic!  Wowsers!IMG_1450





We drove a bit further up the road toward Kirkwall when we noticed a tour van stopped alongside the road at a local farm.  At first I thought the tourists were looking at sheep in a pasture, but later realized it wasn’t sheep at all!  It was curly haired pigs!  Never seen anything like these before!  Have you?

They are called The Mangalica, a Hungarian breed of domestic pig. It was developed in the mid-19th century by crossbreeding Hungarian breeds from Szalonta and Bakony with European wild boar and the Serbian Šumadija breed. The Mangalica pig grows a thick, woolly coat similar to that of a sheep. Go figure!

Not long after we arrived at what we would call “home” for a couple of days, The Kirkwall Hotel, located just across the street from the harbor and conveniently located near wonderful shopping, museums and St. Magnus Cathedral!  Perfect!



Nice dining rooms, great room to sleep in, and the view outside the window – outstanding!


It even had this really cool, old-fashioned lift! Fun! Later in the evening I had a nice walk along this harbor and enjoyed the sunset views.



Being so far north however, the skies never actually got dark!  It was like twilight all night long.

The following day Pat and I began our adventures by walking around the quaint street of Kirkwall, visiting the magnificent St. Magnus Cathedral and shopping in the charity shops.  (I got quite a few nice tops to refresh my traveling wardrobe with!)

While we were shopping we ran into a friend of Pat’s, Alph Munro.  She was there with the Kiltearn Fiddlers, whom she teaches music to.  They are from the same area as Pat and just happened to be there to put on a concert that evening at the Reel.  How lucky are we?  We got to listen to a great concert put on by these highly talented young musicians!

After that wonderful encounter we went next door to St. Magnus Cathedral.  Wow!st magnus cathedral2

st magnus cathedral

While we toured the cathedral’s interior, this man serenaded us with organ music.


Then we went back outside and across the street to the Earl’s & Bishop Palaces.

Later that afternoon we got in the car and drove across the island to visit Skara Brae, a very interesting and intriguing neolithic sight – a must see when visiting the Orkney’s!

According to the Skara Brae website: “On the southern shore of the Bay o’ Skaill, in the West Mainland parish of Sandwick, is the Neolithic village of Skara Brae – one of Orkney’s most-visited ancient sites and regarded by many as one of the most remarkable prehistoric monuments in Europe.

In the winter of 1850, a great storm battered Orkney. There was nothing particularly unusual about that, but, on this occasion, the combination of wind and extremely high tides stripped the grass from a large mound, then known as “Skerrabra”.

This revealed the outline of a number of stone buildings – something that intrigued the local laird, William Watt, of Skaill, who embarked on an excavation of the site.”

After we visited the neolithic sight, we walked up to tour the house of the laird, William Watt.

skaill house6

Inside, we were allowed to take photos of the interior!  Here’s some of what we saw…

skaill house4

We had a great time visiting this place.  Afterward, we drove a bit further on down the road to the harbor town of Stromness before the sun set on a beautiful day!

We drove through town and went out on the western edge to visit the cemetery.

stromness cemetery

On the last day of our visit to the Orkney’s we took another ferry over to the island of Shapinshay for a few hours.  We visited a Broch, some gorgeous beaches, saw another castle, Balfour Castle (which didn’t offer any tours) and saw a lot of farmer’s harvesting while the sun shone!

shapinshay farming

This broch on Shapinshay, much like the ones I visited in Glenelg, were perched on the edge of the sea and were very interesting to walk into and explore.

We returned to Kirkwall and then started making our way back to St. Margaret’s Hope to catch the Pentland Ferry back to the mainland at Gill’s Bay.

Before we boarded the ferry we had just enough time to visit a fascinating gallery of a very talented artists who weave utterly beautiful and stunning tapestries at Hoxa Tapestry Gallery.

Mother and daughter, Leila and Jo Thomson, are both Edinburgh College of Art graduates who chose to return home to Orkney to work. Their work is inspired by the rhythm of life and landscape of Orkney.hoxatapestry




Isn’t their work just magnificent?  They truly capture the spirit of the Orkney’s in their tapestries and rugs.

A perfect ending to a perfect trip to the Orkney’s!



Author: Claudia Frew

Adventuresome, independent, and fun-loving 68-year young American great-grandmother who loves to travel; often going solo!

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