The Orkneys were Norwegian until 1472. Margaret, daughter of the cash-starved King of Denmark and Norway, married James III, King of Scots, only after her father agreed to a huge dowry. The islands of Orkney were pledged as security until the dowry was paid. Poor Margaret. James was unpopular, inept, and rodent-faced. She was, according to Wikipedia, “beautiful, gentle, sensible.” The Orkneys became Scottish, but Norse culture remained. That’s why Stromness, a town of 2,500 strung along Hamnavoe Bay, could stand in for a village in Norway.
Close to Stromness are 2 of the Orkney”s more significant attractions–Skara Brae and the Ring of Broadgar. In 1850 a storm revealed a dune-covered village, but not just any village. This was a 5,000 year old Neolithic condominium complete with furniture. Today visitors to Skara Brae move slowly through a too small, crowded museum containing found artefacts like jewelry made from bone, whale teeth, and walrus tusk. Then they head for a replica that’s like a Neolithic model house illustrating a surprisingly high standard of Stone Age living with beds, a dresser, etc. Then they’re outside to walk along and above a lovely beach to the actual village that the storm uncovered, a group of 8 well-preserved structures that housed 50 or more people who farmed, kept dogs, etc.
From there a path takes those interested to Skaill House, the home of the man who discovered Skara Brae–the 7th Laird of Breckness. From April until October in a place with 7-month windy winters, a joint ticket gives access to both Skara Brae and this sophisticated bishop-built mansion dating from the 1620s that’s the kind of place now available for 21st century weddings.
Between two lochs, Harray and Stenness, on the same island as Skara Brae is the Ring of Brodgar. A circle of standing stones erected on a hill 4,000+ years ago, the Ring still contains 21 of its original 60 mysterious monoliths. While there are theories about their erection and use, much remains unexplained. There are other examples of standing stones, ancient villages, and archeological digs in the Orkneys, which have become among the world’s best places revealing how early humans lived.
Orkney’s capital city, Kirkwall, is 3 times larger than Stromness and somewhat more 21st century, but it still has no traffic lights and a Nordic look. The not-to-be-missed Kirkwall attraction is the 5 Compass St. Magnus Cathedral founded in 1137 but not looking a day over 500. Across the street is the 3 Compass Orkney Museum. Fifteen minutes before it’s posted closing time, a man emerged from the rooms Ruth and I had not yet seen. Turning off the lights as he approached, he told us unceremoniously to leave. No great loss.
One of the more curious historical objects in St. Magnus is the HMS Royal Oak’s ship bell. Great Britain’s equivalent to Pearl Harbor occurred in what’s known as the Scapa Flow in 1939. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.