Aug 30, 2017 - National Geographic Orion

A morning of sunshine and showers saw us driving westwards from Kirkwall through the green pasture land and barley fields of the Mainland of Orkney, heading for the prehistoric World Heritage Site for which these islands are famous. On the bleak open moorland on a narrow isthmus between two lochs stands the Ring of Brodgar, a henge of huge standing stones surrounded by a deep ditch. This is one of a complex of structures in this area predating Stonehenge and where new excavations are re-writing our understanding of the development of stone circle culture and putting Orkney at the centre of Neolithic Britain. We continued on to the Bay of Skail and the Stone Age village of Skara Brae. Discovered emerging from the coastal sand dunes is a community of circular and interlinked stone-built dwellings, complete with Flintstones-esque furniture of beds, hearths, and dressers with which, in their ordinariness and familiarity, we could empathize.

Our return route took us past the 120 square mile natural harbour of Scapa Flow with views across to the village of Stromness, birthplace of Arctic explorer John Rae, discoverer of the fabled Northwest Passage. The British naval fleet was based here during two world wars and Scapa Flow is famous (and infamous) for the scuttling of 74 captured ships of the German High Fleet in 1919, following the end of the First World War and for the sinking of the battleship HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed by a German U-boat in October 1939, early in the Second World War, with the loss of 834 men and boys.

Returning to the ship for lunch, we later ventured out on a range of excursions which took us birdwatching, where we saw hen harriers, or hiking on the easternmost coast of Mainland at Mull Head, or exploring the Southern Isles of the Orkney Archipelago, where we visited the remarkable Italian Chapel built by prisoners-of-war in a military Nissan hut.

As we cast off from the pier at Kirkwall, the haunting melodies of a lone piper bade us farewell to these far-flung islands off the north coast of Scotland.

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About the Author

Tom Sharpe


Tom’s interest in geology began at just 10 years old when he found fossils near his home in Glasgow, Scotland. He went on to graduate from the University of Glasgow and the University of Leicester before embarking on a career as a geology curator at the National Museum of Wales. He also taught geology at Bristol University and Cardiff University. 

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