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Unfor­tu­nately I couldn’t cope very well with the lack of light in the beautiful church of St Magnus, the “Cathedral”, in Kirkwall. Tall and narrow with small windows, it success­fully hides how small it really is and though it looks almost like a victorian church from Manchester, once inside the 12th century Romanesque norman/norse archi­tecture is actually warm, archaic and earthy, like a little red sandstone Durham. Magnus himself is interred half way up the rough stone pier on the right.

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Even flash-flattened, these carved stones from the 17th century, with their crude vanitas icono­graphy and naive carving, are still fascin­ating and utterly charming.

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The Stones of Stenness

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The giant iconic Stones of Stenness, towering blades of rock arranged like house posts around a huge hearth … a home for the gods.

stenness 1
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Having missed the great burial chamber of Maeshowe for the day we crawled into a smaller chambered tomb down the road at the Bridge of Waithe. Looking up at the twilight from inside the Knowe of Onston.

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Not getting on very well, am I? We’re still on day one on Orkney.

The Ring of Brogdar

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On the Ness of Brogdar between the lochs of Harray and Stenness, there’s an immod­erate string of stone circles, burial mounds and more or less mysterious ancient sites … it’s a bit ridiculous really.

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The raking evening light was beautiful but it was a lot colder than it looks.

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The colossal stones made anything in Cornwall feel very small indeed.

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I suppose we really could’ve done with a spooky misty twilight … but we weren’t complaining.
The atmosphere was as mystical and magical as you could hope for with the wind in the grass and the lonely burbling of curlews.

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The Brough of Birsay

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Looking east along the north coast of Mainland from the ruins of the Viking church, and first resting place of Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney, that’s St Magnus to you and me, on the Brough of Birsay.

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And south towards Marwick Head.

Wild and desolate but home success­ively to Picts, Celtic Monks, Viking Earls and an 11th century Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace.

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When you see the exposed strata on Brough Sounds you realise how easy it would be to extract the huge slabs the ancients erected all over the island.
Now, how they moved the bloody things is another matter. Wet seaweed is a great lubricant appar­ently and perhaps time didn’t mean quite the same thing then.
Ah, them were the days.

Back to Orkney

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Getting back to our road trip — we really needed a bank on our first morning on Orkney. So we braved rush hour in downtown Stromness only to find that the bank was open just two mornings a week and not on a Tuesday … fair enough.

skaill beach
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The beautiful Bay of Skaill where the settlement of Skara Brae was built 5000 years ago.

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An incredible warren built in to the dunes above the beach, which was an enclosed lagoon at the time.

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We’d never thought we’d ever get to see it. And you know how some things can’t possibly live up to expect­a­tions? It did.

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The incredible thing is that there are similar settle­ments all over the place here, minus the famous dressers, but they are so much more modest and 3000 years younger … perhaps a bit slow to catch on, the Cornish.

First Contact

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Later on on that first Monday, we finally glimpsed our goal.

john o' groats
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Even when we got to the other end of the country, all the way from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, we only had eyes for the next step … there’s no satis­fying some folks.

dunnet head
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Orkney from Dunnet Head light­house, the most northerly point on the British mainland.