I couldn’t have been more thrilled or grateful – we had our very first visitor from the States. Stephanie, one of my closest friends from uni, had a planned a spur of the moment trip where she spent two weeks hiking in Ireland before making her way up to Aberdeen. Her only (slightly strange) request was to visit ‘the islands.’ I had to clarify multiple times what islands she was talking about until finally I realized she wanted to head to Orkney, the islands just north of Scotland. Eagerly I jumped at the opportunity; pretty sure none of my other visitors will have requests to visit such a remote place.
Ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, Orkney
Steph and I took the Northlink Ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall (£60 roundtrip). Having just purchased Angus weeks earlier, Dalton and my 2003 VW Polo, I was hoping to bring him along, but to ferry a vehicle was going to cost £90… one way!
In preparation for the six-hour boat ride, we brought along delicious kebabs, Strongbow cider and red wine. An hour in we heard live music playing in the bar and finally peeked our heads in to see twenty or so children sitting on the ground playing Scottish folk music (ceilidh music) on fiddles, accordions, cellos and drums. Unable to believe my eyes I quickly grabbed a seat where I could enjoy listening to them play – which they did for the remaining four hours of the boat ride!
We arrived into Kirkwall at 11 pm where Ryan, our Couchsurfing host, thankfully picked us up and gave us a quick tour of the town before heading back to his apartment. Groggy and still a bit seasick (Steph), we couldn’t have been happier when our heads hit the pillow.
St. Magnus Cathedral
The next morning we walked into town and admired the incredible St. Magnus Cathedral – one of my new all-time favorite churches. The beautiful building is made from red sandstone and lacks the overwhelming elaborate, ornate gold that overtake so many cathedrals. It was stunning, but only due to the bare, beauty of the stone it was made of and the breathtaking architecture. We were lucky enough to see it dressed in poppies, a celebration for the start Orkney’s participation in the Battle of Jutland 100 years ago. Located in the middle of town, we later were informed that it was originally built right next to the water and all the land that now exists between it and the harbor had been reclaimed.
We grabbed a quick coffee and snack at the Judith Glue Café before catching the bus to our only planned adventure while on the islands – snorkeling! Thanks to the Nature Festival, Scapa Scuba was offering snorkeling, so we dove at the chance!
Snorkeling the Churchill Barriers
We snorkeled on the southeast side of the island off the Churchill Barriers. Interestingly they are manmade barriers that connect three small islands in between Orkney and Saint Margarets Hope. Originally the barriers were created by the British navy sinking their own ships in order to protect passage into the Northern part of Scotland during the First World War. However the sunken ships were bypassed during World War II by a German sub, resulting in a tragic evening where many lost their lives. Churchill then ordered the building of permanent barriers to connect the islands, insuring that history would not be repeated.
Our snorkel site was on the third barrier, on top of one of the ships that had been sunk as part of the original barrier during World War I. Steph and I had our own personal snorkel leader, a friendly German woman who helped us wrestle into our dry suits and put on our fins and gloves. I was warm and cozy in the suit until I finally braved sticking my head in the water. Oh my goodness, it was freezing. Thankfully the wet suit cap started doing its job and my face numbed up making it a fairly comfortable experience. With water so cold, I hadn’t expected to see so many beautiful colors and plants. Our guide led us inside the wreck (which now was it’s own personal ecosystem) where we wriggled in between walls and over the top barriers. To our excitement we discovered that one of the other groups had spotted a seal! Our small group immediately united upon a sole purpose – we were going to find that seal! For the rest of our time in the water we frantically searched and swam until finally we were rewarded with getting to see him, twice. So beautiful, fast and cute with big round eyes that curiously stared at us. Steph and I were both screaming into our masks with excitement, so joyous that we had braved the North Sea!
The Italian Chapel
On the way back to Kirkwall we made a pit stop at the Italian Chapel – a small chapel built by Italian POWs out of two connected Nissen huts. These men had been enlisted to work on the installation of the Churchill Barriers during WWII and had requested a place to worship. The British government gave them free reign of the huts, which they turned into a beautiful piece of artwork using only materials they could salvage – definitely the most unique chapel I have ever visited.
Orkney Wine Shop & Highland Park Distillery
After a quick ‘wine’ tasting at the Orkney Wine shop next door (and purchasing a couple bottles of Elderberry Borealis) we stuck out our thumbs and hitched ride to our next stop, Highland Park Distillery. The most northern distillery in Scotland, it was a beautiful facility. Unfortunately the tours were completely booked, but for a reduced price they let us try a dram, keep the glass and watch a short film about the distillery. Not a bad deal!
We finished the afternoon by doing a final tour of Kirkwall (visiting the Peedie Sea, Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces and downtown) before heading back to Ryan’s. After a hot shower, tea and tasty dinner we settled down on the couch exhausted from our eventful day. To Ryan’s disappointment we were not up to playing Octapush (underwater hockey – yes, this exists), but we enjoyed the evening relaxing, watching Game of Thrones and eventually snacking on some delicious bruschetta. It was a perfect, peaceful night before starting our venture the next day to the prehistoric, rugged cliffs on the west side of Orkney.