Explore Operationd Manager Megan Freese recetly travelled on our Discover Orkney tour and share her highlights with us - including the reason she knows she'll be heading back.
When I think of my week in Orkney I picture big open skies, brooding clouds and waves crashing on cliffs. Everything is dominated by the elements up there and you experience it when exploring the different islands. Whether you are walking through valleys, looking for puffins along cliff edges, crossing fields of cows or exploring Neolithic buildings that have emerged from sand dunes, you are always aware of the wild and remote nature of the landscape.
I had expected the dramatic scenery and great walks exploring the islands but it is the islands’ rich, proud history and culture that really took me by surprise. We were there during the summer solstice and St Magnus’s music festival so there was a real buzz about the place and in the end the historical parts were as memorable as the beautiful landscapes.
Our visit to Maes Howe consisted of 30 of us wedged in a very dark and fairly small Neolithic tomb with Jerry the guide telling us tales of marauding Vikings and translating the rude rune graffiti. We had a picnic next to the oldest stone structure on the islands, the Knap of Howar dated around 3000BC and I had a magic moment at the Ring of Brodgar (standing stones); it was getting late and big, grey clouds were gathering, the rest of the group had started walking down towards the bus stop, I wanted a last photo of the stones and suddenly everyone else who had been there disappeared and I got to walk around these old, mystifying standing stones all by myself at that moment I couldn’t see or hear another person, that is a memory that really stays with me.
I caught up with the group and found our tour leader, Malcolm randomly teaching the group how to make fire! Malcolm is not originally from Orkney, he is what the islanders call an ‘incomer’ but he is so passionate and knowledgeable about the place and he really loves to share that with people, you can’t help but get caught up with his enthusiasm. We talked about the issues that the island communities face; youth unemployment, loss of industry, movement of people to the mainland etc. However all the islands we visited (4 in all) are vibrant and consciously addressing problems they face and developing their sustainability.
We were really lucky that during our week on the islands we got a couple of days of bright sunshine, which completely transforms the islands; what was rough and wild becomes bright, colourful and welcoming. It was during one of these days that we visted the island of Papa Westray. We met the local RSPB man Chris (‘birdie man’ as he is known on the island) and he walked with us, pointing out birds and flowers along the way. He then led us down to a beach where the water was almost turquoise, within a few minutes over 40 seals appeared, we obviously all scrambled for our cameras. We carried on down the beach, and all the seals followed us bobbing along, watching us as reached the head before turning inland. I still wish I had my swimmers with me that day!
Another of my highlights was the people; especially on the smaller islands every passing car will wave at you and every passing person will have a chat. I stayed with a local family for a couple of nights and I asked if I could have a key, they smiled and told me the only time they locked their doors was when they went away for over a week. It is strange and intriguing that part of my own country can feel so different and in some ways foreign and I think this is another part of what drew me in and would send me back to Orkney.