Dreary waterscapes of firths, bays and rugged coastline appeared as our prop-jet descended through storm clouds and turbulence. Thankfully, the flight from Aberdeen was over and I was glad to deplane in Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands. A tour of Highland Park Distillery was the purpose of the trip; I had arrived early to explore the noteworthy history of the area.
My extraordinary accommodations were at Balfour Castle, a short ferry crossing from Kirkwall, on Shapinsay Island. Present-day Balfour was constructed in 1847, around an earlier structure dating to the 1700s. My second-floor room (in the turret to the right of the automobile in the photo) featured several chandeliers, a bathtub nearly as large as a small pool, and a magnificent canopy bed, befitting a castle. See the narrow window in the turret? It’s in a closet that now encloses what was once an archer’s vantage point for shooting arrows.
Scapa Flow, just south of Kirkwall, was the site in 1939 of a German U-boat’s torpedo attack on the battleship HMS Royal Oak, sinking it within minutes with a loss of life over 800. The stealthy sub left the area as undetected as it had arrived. Within a year, Winston Churchill approved the building of a causeway, linking Mainland Orkney to islands to the south, sealing Scapa Flow from future submarine intrusions. Many Italian prisoners of war were enlisted to construct the “Churchill Barrier”. The workers requested a proper place of worship and were allowed to construct a chapel, utilizing two Quonset-like huts. In addition to conventional painting and woodwork, the art form known as tromp-l’oeil (“fool the eye”) was used to paint cement floors and wooden pillars so they looked as if they were made of fine marble. Faux stained glass windows were created in the same manner, and food ration cans were transformed into beautiful hanging lamps, and on and on. Today, the Italian Chapel is the most visited site on the Orkney Islands.
On the western coast of Mainland Orkney I visited several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, dating to the Neolithic Era, roughly 2500 years before Christ. The Ring of Brodgar is a henge and stone circle similar to the more familiar Stonehenge, and Maes Howe is a Neolithic chambered cairn, estimated to be about 5000 years old. An opening in the side of the cairn enables people to enter it and experience the main chamber. My favorite archeological site was Skara Brae situated on the shore of the Bay of Skaill. In 1850 a severe storm stripped the earth from a knoll that had covered the ancient site, exposing a number of small houses.
If I was not staying at Balfour Castle, my second choice would have been The Boat House B&B in Finstown, overlooking the Bay of Firth. Its roof is built in the traditional Orkney design of an inverted ship’s hull. The water view is breath-taking.
Delving into history, both ancient and modern, was a distinct privilege on the Orkney Islands, with an in-depth tour of Highland Park Distillery yet to come.