When a friend asked me to join her on a one week trip to Orkney and Shetland two years ago, I didn't know what to expect. She had been there before so she «knew» the places we visited. To me they were a great suprise. Wild, wind blown, but beautiful islands with a history that goes back to the Stone Age and with Scandinavian traces thanks to the Vikings who once settled here.
The Orkney Islands consists of a group of almost 200 small islands, situated just north of Scotland. The largest is called The Mainland (but it is an island). The West Mainland is home to «the heart of neolithic Orkney». These archeological sites and monuments are exceptionally well preserved and among the main attractions on the island. The Vikings settled here about 1000 years ago and left an impact on many aspects of life and culture. They ruled the islands for about 600 years, until Norway sold the Orkneys to Scotland.
Orkney, together with Shetland has a rich archeological heritage. There are so many interesting places to visits, that I realized three days each place were not enough. In many ways I felt the presense of the Vikings. They certainly left a mark on the culture, people and language. Many of the names found on the islands derives from the Old Norse language which is similar to Norweagian. Old Norse is the language that was spoken in Scandinavia up to the 14th century and from which modern Scandinavian languages are derived from. The language spoken on Iceland and the Faroe islands today are very similar to this old language.
The main town is small and it's easy to walk around. The first day was spent in Kirkwall. I suppose you won't exactly call this the capital, but it is the main administrative center and was a Norwegian port long before Orkney joined Scotland. It was the place where the Earl Rogwald Brusison settled about 1035 and he was also the one who built the church, dedicated to King Olav of Norway. Many of the fine old houses with end-on gables date from the 16th - 18th century. Most of them in different shades of grey, but even it's not a colorful town, it is very pleasant. There are many cosy places to take a coffee, souvirshops and excellent eating places.
St. Magnus Cathedral is located right in the center of town. It was build in red sandstone in the 12th century and was financed largely by local farmers. For more than 800 years this building has been dominated Kirkwall and remains a symbol the Norse rulers. When walking along the walls on the inside, there are so many small signs and notes that can tell about the connection to Norway.
An impressive building in size when you see it from outside. But the interior is just as impressive. Almost 69 m. long. When you come inside you get the feeling of space, which makes it feel much larger when standing inside. The colors of the stones add a warm feeling as well.
The Earl's Palace
Next to the Cathedral the ruins after two palaces – Bishop's and Earl's Palace . They are both open to the public for an entrance fee which includes both of them. The Bishop's Palace was built about the same time at the cathedral.
Earl's Palace was built later when Patrick, Earl of Orkney decided that the Bishop's Palace was no longer adequate for his needs. He wanted to built the new palace on the property next to the excisting palace. The thing was that he didn't own the land he wanted to built on. But in order to do so, he fabricated charges of theft against the owner, so that he could have the owner executed. In that way he got to build Earl's palace.
Information signs give a brief introduction to the history, but we also got a booklet along with the ticket, which gives just enough information to be able to get an idea of who once lived here and how they lived.
The Bishop's Palace
One does not know exactly about this palace, but because of the large rectangular hall and store rooms, it is believed it was build like a Royal Norwegian palace. In 1263 King Haakon IV of Norway died here.
After several hours with history it was time for a whisky. We followed the signs to Highland Park distillery to check out the famous whisky. It's also the most northernly distillery in Scotland, founded in 1798 by Magnus Eunson who is said to be a direct descendant of the earliest Viking settlers. Magnus was a smugler who sold his illegally made whisky from a hut at the same place as where Highland Park is located. There is a visitor center, shop, guided tours and tastings. Well organized and a pleasant place to get a taste of whisky.
When we started to walk back to town we could enjoy the view of Kirkwall. A taste of whisky was a good way of ending the day. Next day our plan was to take the local bus to visit the archeological monuments from the Stone Age.
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