Our arrival in Orkney on the penultimate leg of our voyage saw Kirkwall bathed in crisp sunshine. The little town is dominated by the impressive old red sandstone cathedral dedicated to St Magnus. Begun about 1137 at a period when the Norse earldom of Orkney was still part of the kingdom of Norway, the cathedral has remained remarkably intact, with the architectural style evolving from the rounded Romanesque of the western end to a more Gothic pointed style at the east.
Our visit to the prehistoric village of Skara Brae offered a comprehensive picture of the day-to-day life in Orkney around 2800 BC. The internal arrangements of the houses are unusually complete, with a central hearth, beds on either side, and a dresser, or shelf unit on which ceramic pots would doubtless have been set. A reconstructed house gives the fullest impression of daily life with skins and even the odd lobster. The roof of timber and turf allows us to imagine how the houses must have looked.
The circles of the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar with their surrounding rock-cut ditches demonstrate the great engineering skills of Orcadian communities almost five thousand years ago. The ditches were dug out and the tall standing stones erected without metal tools, yet a great degree of precision was achieved in the final plans
The great burial mound of Maes Howe is broadly contemporary and is equally an achievement in drystone architecture and orientation, with the mid-winter sunset penetrating the central chamber for a period around the winter solstice. We were amazed by the series of inscriptions in the runic letters of the Vikings with enigmatic messages. But here were the Norse earls of Orkney setting off on Crusade to the Holy Land in the 1150s.
St. Magnus Cathedral is the most important building of Orkney's Norse past, but on our excursion our guide pointed out the many place names of Norse origin that we passed. Orkney was at the center of the kingdom of Norway, which was maintained by naval power. We also saw the great enclosed bay of Scapa Flow and heard about Orkney's strategic position in recent conflicts.