The Orkney Islands: Mainland and Shapinsay

It was with some relief that we awoke today to calm waters and blue skies. In Kirkwall, the local and national press highlighted the damage caused by the storm of the day before. Our morning tour took us to the spectacular archaeological sites for which this northerly island group is famous. The late Neolithic village of Skara Brae was first revealed to an astonished local landowner following another violent storm in 1850. On that morning after, he had become the bewildered owner of one of Europe's oldest preserved settlements, with stone wall homes replete with dressers, box beds, quern stones and cozy hearths. The Ring of Brodgar, our next point of call, is a remarkable megalithic stone circle, some sixty stones in all, that archaeologists believe was orientated to the lunar cycle. Our final visit on the tour was to the Maes Howe passage grave. This grave has solar alignment, and squeezing inside we could appreciate the remarkable social and architectural achievement that enables the setting sunlight of the winter solstice to stream along the passage onto the burial site.

Following lunch, we were provided with an opportunity to explore Kirkwall at our leisure. Its principal site is St Magnus Cathedral, the existence of which has conferred city status on little Kirkwall for the past eight hundred years. The relics of St Magnus, who has his own Norse saga, have a place of honor in the cathedral. We saw the cathedral preparing for its annual music festival under the distinguished direction of Peter Maxwell Davies.

In the late afternoon the Caledonian Star repositioned from Mainland to Shapinsay for a visit to Balfour castle, where Captain Zawadski, the present owner, greeted us. The castle (pictured) is still a family home, in which we were made most welcome, admiring the furnishings and library of a bygone age, and taking a delicious high tea also redolent of more gracious times. With the late evening sunshine flooding over this unique land and skyscape, it was the perfect close to a memorable day.