The distance from Scalloway on Shetland’s west coast to Kirkwall on Orkney’s Mainland Island is almost 90nm. Our plan was to sail overnight and arrive at Kirkwall the following morning. Although we would have liked to have stopped a night at Fair Isle, located between Shetland and Orkney, the forecast conditions didn’t work in our favour. Nonetheless, sailing conditions were good and with a south-east breeze 10-15kn we made good time. The seas were lumpy, particularly as we crossed the strong current flowing east towards Sumburgh on the south point of Shetland. From there we had around 50nm to reach the northern Orkney Islands.
As we navigated through North Sound the current of up to 2kn was against us, but once through the narrow Lashy Sound between the islands of Sanday (east) and Eday (west), we were lucky to have arrived at the right tide and spurted along the strait at over 12 knots. We had thought of anchoring at the Bay of Carrick in Calf Sound and grabbing a few winks before continuing in the morning, but as we’d entered on an ideal tide we decided to make the most of the speed and continue on. Despite entering the sound at midnight, there was just enough light to see the islands.
With a flood tide still in our favour and running east, we crossed the firth and skirted the eastern coast of the isle of Shapinsay. From here we rounded the south coast and headed west through Shapinsay Sound in time for the flood to ease, with less than 2kn against us. Crossing ‘the String’ we arrived at Elwick Bay at Balfour on the south of Shapinsay and anchored at 2am. Balfour Castle was just visible on the hilltop overlooking the quiet harbour. It was light enough to see what we were doing and gradually becoming lighter. The two moorings at Balfour were occupied so we dropped the pick a little farther inside the bay. Conditions were calm and peaceful and I was happy to get some sleep, at least for a few hours. The bay was calm the following morning and after reviewing the tidal information, we decided to leave around 8am for the short 3nm trip to Kirkwall.
Upon entering Kirkwall Harbour we could see our good friend Brian of “Coruisk” waving us in. We hadn’t seen Brian for over a year and it was good to see a familiar face. Not long after arriving we were approached by a Senior Reporter from the local newspaper “The Orcadian”. He had already done his research on Blue Heeler from our blog after spotting us on AIS, and thought a visiting Aussie crew would have a story or two to tell. Blue Heeler and Coruisk first met in Sri Lanka in 2014 so it was serendipitous that we should both appear in the same article.
Kirkwall is a pleasant town to stroll around. At least two cruise ships arrived each day increasing the town population by 150%. Orkney Fudge, Orkney Ice-cream, hot pies, tasty meats and treats and souvenirs can be found along Broad Street. Highland Park whisky is distilled on the island so we bought a bottle to try a few drams. There are enough pubs around town to grab an ale and steak pie or perhaps just an ale; a small Seafarers Centre providing help for international seamen supported by an op shop; and standing high above the main street is the impressive St Magnus Cathedral built between 1100 to 1400AD. The Kirkwall Museum is free to enter and has informative displays of neolithic times to the 20th century.
Stromness, at the opposite end of Mainland, is a bus-ride away and can be reached via Skara Brae or directly. The small village is situated along the length of a long coastal road bordered by historic homes, museums, local shops, harbour cottages, and various eateries. A feed of fish and chips and it’s back to Kirkwall.
The Orkney islands are known for their remarkable neolithic ruins – Skara Brae, Maeshowe, Ring of Brodgar, Ness of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness to name a few on Mainland. The ancient Standing Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar have stood for thousands of years dating to roughly 3,000BC to 2,000BC.
The Ring of Brodgar has the third largest diameter stone circle in the British Isles and is classified as a ‘henge’. We couldn’t access the Ness of Brodgar as excavation is currently underway and it won’t be open to the public until early July.
In the same locale are the Standing Stones of Stenness. The stones within this ring are taller than those at the Ring of Brodgar, standing up to six metres high.
Within walking distance from the Standing Stones is the Maeshowe Visitor Centre where you can join a guided tour of the Maeshowe Tomb. It’s not possible to visit the tomb on your own so best to book for the tour online.
This tomb is fascinating – built circa 2,500BC, the mound rises over seven metres from the surrounding field. The entrance to the chamber is low so you have to bend right over to walk in for ten metres or so. Photos aren’t allowed within the tomb, and with the group limited to 20 people, the tour guide had our full attention without people taking distracting selfies. Around the rock walls of the chamber is Norse graffiti which the tour guide translated. Many of the Viking inscriptions were written around 1200AD and the guide’s translation was quite humorous.
Taking the bus out to Skara Brae is around an hour from Kirkwall. Skara Brae is located on the west coast of Mainland. Even if you’re not into neolithic archaeology, the completeness of the remains are significant given they are 5,000 years old – older than Stone Henge and pyramids of Egypt. The stone buildings are close to the water’s edge and I wonder where the beach was when they were built. A storm in 1850 uncovered the stones and since that time the site has been preserved and is recognised as a remarkable example of how our ancestors lived.
Jump forward a few thousand years. Orkney was a major strategic location for British military during the two World Wars. To the south of the Orkneys is Scapa Flow – a large body of water with access for trading and war vessels over the years.
On June 21st 1919 after the armistice of the Great war, the Scuttling of the German Fleet took place. This is yet another fascinating wartime story. Of the 50 ships scuttled that day by the Germans, eight ships remain on the bottom of the flow. We arrived the day before the 100th anniversary and Kirkwall and Stromness held a number of commemorative events including the Kirkwall Pipe Band performance down Broad Street.
Later at the start of WWII in October 1939, the HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a German U-boat at the eastern end of Scapa Flow. After the sinking of the Royal Oak, four causeways were built with the intention of protecting the anchorages of Scapa Flow. These causeways, built by Italian prisoners of war, now cater for tourists buses and local traffic.
After crossing one of the causeways to the small island of Lambs Holm, is an ornate Italian Chapel. Built from two Nissen huts, Italian prisoners used limited materials to create a extraordinary chapel in the wilds of Orkney. Above the alter, prisoner and artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, recreated an exquisite depiction of Madonna and Child. The walls and ceilings of the chapel are painted to look like tiles. Really amazing!
During our stay strong westerly winds pinned Blue Heeler on the dock with our fenders about ready to burst. Other days were sunny and some a little drizzly; either way the temperature is steady at between 12-15degC – somewhat cooler than the heatwave happening in Europe.
So after a pleasant week exploring Kirkwall and surrounds, the forecast showed one day of favourable winds so we took the opportunity to depart before the westerly wind resumed. It wouldn’t be long before the westerlies returned.