The North Atlantic Arc Home
October In Orkney IntroDay 1Day 2 • Day 3 • Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7Day 8


We rise early to catch our scheduled 6:45 ferry. This route was operated for years by P&O, but the contract has just recently been awarded to a new company called Northlink. I booked our passage online long before our trip. What no one has bothered to tell us is that the brand-new Northlink ferry is much too large for the pier at Scrabster, and the new government-built pier is months behind schedule. A smaller ship has been leased from Caledonian MacBrayne (a partner in Northlink), and the schedule has been adjusted. Our 6:45 crossing departed at 5:30. The next crossing is at 2:00pm, much too late for us to make our planned connection to one of the outlying islands.

We are doubly fortunate. There is another service departing from Gill’s Bay, 15 miles to the east, at 9:45. (I’d planned to use this ferry on our return trip.) And it’s October, and we don’t have to worry about it being booked up. We sit in the parking lot at Gill’s Bay; Win pops a DVD into his laptop. We plug the audio into the rental car’s cassette player and pass an incongruous hour listening to Jethro Tull.

The crossing of the Pentland Firth is uneventful, if a bit rough; the ferry has to make two attempts at docking. We disembark in St. Margaret’s Hope on the southeastern island of South Ronaldsay. It’s the third largest town in Orkney, tiny as it is, but we have no time to check it out, as we are well behind schedule. We are booked on a ferry to the northern isle of Sanday in the afternoon. South Ronaldsay is connected to the main island of Orkney, called Mainland, by a series of causeways called the Churchill Barriers, built during World War II to discourage the passage of German warships. Scapa Flow, the rectangular body of water bounded by Mainland and the southern isles, is the final resting place of a scuttled WWI German fleet, and is very popular with divers.

We drive toward Kirkwall, the capital and largest town in Orkney. To the west of town stands Wideford Hill, and a short hike up the side of the hill brings us to Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn.

Orkney is positively lousy with archeological sites. That’s why we’re here. A number of factors make this a prehistorian’s paradise. One is that there are few trees here, and ancient communities built everything with the flat slabs of stone that are so readily available in Orkney. Another is that the climate changed at some point several thousand years ago, turning fine agricultural land into peat bog, and driving away rich schools of fish. Whole villages were abandoned and covered by storm-driven sands, only to be uncovered again by storms many centuries later. Such sites are still being discovered today. Most of Orkney’s ancient sites are between 2,500 and 5,000 years old.

One of the hallmarks of the early communities of the northern Scottish Highlands is the chambered tomb or chambered cairn. Wideford Hill is a splendid example. No one knows exactly how these tombs were used, but they are certainly burial sites of some kind. Typically, they have a low, narrow passageway into a central chamber, which is usually high enough to stand up in. There are several side chambers, in which usually have been found human remains and a variety of artifacts. The whole is built of stone, with a corbelled roof in the main chamber. At Wideford Hill, access is through the roof, rather than the very tight passageway; the capstone that normally tops the main chamber is missing, and has been replaced by a sliding hatch and a ladder. If you don’t mind crawling in the dampness, you can see the fine capstones atop the side chambers. Historic Scotland provides a flashlight at many of these tombs, but it doesn’t hurt to bring your own.

We drive back into Kirkwall and board the afternoon ferry for Sanday (pronounced “Sandy”—“ay” is the Orkney variant of the Old Norse word for island, seen elsewhere as “ey” or “oy”). We land an hour and a half later and check in at the Kettletoft Hotel. It’s late in the day, and we rush off to see the spectacular Quoyness Chambered Tomb, much like Wideford Hill, but much larger, and situated on flat ground near the beach. Nearby are the overgrown ruins of a dozen other cairns. As darkness falls, we return to the Kettletoft. Our accommodations are a bit spartan, but dinner in the pub is decent. There is a cask ale at the bar, but it needs to settle another day. We make do with one of the draught beers, which are not so bad. Behind the bar, sitting in a small dish, is a potato, with facial features made from various vegetables, and sprouts representing hair. “Who’s that?” I ask the lively barmaid. “Oh, that's Mr Tattie Heid,” she bubbles (pronouncing the latter word “heed”). Win will call me by that name ever after. I have called him “Blindhæd” since our visit to Iceland a few years ago, after the road sign there denoting a blind summit.


Kirkwall From Wideford Hill

Wideford Hill Chambered Tomb

Quoyness Chambered Tomb


The North Atlantic Arc Home

Mr Tattie Heid's Mileage

Results may vary