Fire in the sky at the Ring of BrodgarThe dawn sky lights up behind the Neolithic Ring of Brodgar, Mainland, Orkney
The Orkney Islands, an archipelago anchored just several kilometres off John O’Groats in the far north of Scotland, have a total population of about 20,000. In all, there are some 70 islands, only 21 of which are inhabited, covering 974 square kilometres. These shards of emerald scattered across a silver sea, are the very epitome of a palimpsest of history. From the thriving and enigmatic Neolithic era, through the Dark Age Pictish epoch, to the Viking period and the world wars of the twentieth century, the story of Orkney has been five millennia in the making.
Although Orkney lies quite far to the north - 58° of latitude to be precise – the same as the cities of St Petersburg and Oslo, its climate is actually quite mild due to the presence of the Gulf Stream. But Orkney gets some truly brutal weather, lying in the firing line of many of the most vicious Atlantic lows. For countless days of each year, eviscerating winds rip across ageless fields enclosed by drystone dykes, and howl over the outruns and moorland for days on end, causing the few trees that develop outside of a handful of sheltered valleys to grow sideways in a Gordian knot of elongated, gnarled branches.
Huge waves batter the rugged coastline lifting curtains of sea spray that blow far inland from tempestuous seas, oft-whipped to turquoise milk by the ocean currents and ever-present wind. In winter, enormous gaggles of greylag geese and deceits of lapwings dot the fields, and the haunting cries of gulls, curlew and sandpiper drift through the raw, salt-laden air. In Orkney the sky seems huge, and there is an incomparable sense of space and oneness with nature. Its dynamic weather, ever-changing light, moody seascapes, and rich cultural landscape make it a photographer’s paradise.
Ever since working on a couple of World Heritage Site bids to UNESCO, I have been itching to visit the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage Site. This embraces four locations on Mainland, Orkney's largest island: Skara Brae; the Ring of Brodgar; the Standing Stones of Stenness; and the chambered cairn of Maeshowe. So, following a successful Skye photo tour in late-February, we drove north to Scrabster in our Land Rover Defender camper, Olaf, to catch the mid-afternoon MV Hamnavoe ferry for the somewhat choppy 90-minute crossing to Stromness on Mainland so I could fulfil my ambition. And to do some photography of course!
Reaping the Wild Wind: Yesnaby
The first thing that struck us is how incredibly windy it was on Orkney. On arrival, we decided to check out Yesnaby which is situated on the west coast to the south of Skara Brae. It is renowned for its spectacular Old Red Sandstone coastal cliff scenery which includes sea stacks, blowholes and geos (a narrow sea inlet in the cliffs). We planned to camp there for the duration of our stay on Mainland. A narrow road brought us to a deserted parking area with a dreary abandoned concrete gun battery imparting a somewhat end-of-the-world atmosphere.
Atop the cliffs of dizzying height, huge clumps of cappuccino-coloured sea-foam were being blown upwards and sticking on our windscreen. Although it was sunny, alighting from our Land Rover was a rude awakening, for the door was almost wrenched from my hand, and the strength of the bitterly cold wind pummelling my body actually forced the breath from my lungs. The sound of crashing waves and keening seabirds filled the air. I was at once terrified and exhilarated. As it was almost impossible to catch our breath in the gusting wind, and foolhardy in the extreme to undertake any cliff walks or photography, we retreated inland to explore.
Olaf, our Land Rover DefenderOur camping spot at Yesnaby, Mainland, Orkney
The wind had mercifully dropped by nightfall, and we spent a peaceful enough night in the lee of the concrete building. By first light however, another weather system was beginning to cloud the western horizon, and an ominous booming sound could be heard as a hefty swell battered the nearby cliff base. After a quick breakfast, we set out south along a well-trodden pathway across the wiry maritime grassland, hoping to catch the warm tones of early morning sunlight on Yesnaby Castle, an impressive 35 metre-high two-legged sea stack.
As we passed below the Brough of Bigging, the wind began to gust ferociously, and facing into it as we traversed the cliffs near Qui Ayre meant it was hard to remain upright. Close to a ‘peedie burn’ (small stream), it was literally shrieking through a wire fence like a thousand banshees, and was so strong that where the burn cascaded over the cliff edge, its water was being blown metres high landwards, absolutely drenching us as we passed by. By now the rising sun had been completely swallowed by cloud, and huge leaden raindrops began to fall intermittently from an angry steel-grey sky. We knew that getting a decent shot of the sea stack was a pretty hopeless quest. But as we were almost there we battled on, our cheeks stinging in the raw, salt-laden air.
Suddenly it loomed into view, rising majestically from the seething sea. On hands and knees, with my wet hair lashing my face and virtually blinding me, we inched as close as we dared to the edge of the cliff to get an unimpeded view. But keeping a tripod steady was impossible, and a burst of buckshot hail and rain immediately put paid to any photography. We beat a hasty retreat back along the cliffs to the relative warmth and comfort of our Land Rover as the storm unleashed its full fury. Such is landscape photography!
The storm raged for all of that day and the next, before finally blowing itself out towards midnight. There was a weather window forecast for around daybreak, so we decided to give Yesnaby Castle another go. We set off along the cliff path as the first light began to colour the western horizon and a few watery stars shrank from view. After the meteorological drama of the previous days, it was hard to believe that this was the same place. All felt eerily still and quiet, apart from the incessant ‘peep-peep’ of oystercatchers and the cawing of gulls, and the wet wiry grass and muddy puddles beneath our boots gleamed luridly in the growing light.
The loamy smell of wet earth was incredibly pleasing and we savoured the dramatic views of the exposed sandstone cliffs, gnarled and eroded into fantastical flags and pillars, and stopped briefly to view a tall, rectangular sea arch not far from Yesnaby Castle. This and the surrounding cliffs are formed from aeolian sandstones with extensive cross-bedding, and it’s mind-blowing to think that these solid rocks were once a series of coastal sand dunes.
In the benign conditions, we were able to carefully clamber down onto a ledge of rock almost opposite the sea stack which gave an unimpeded view of it and the nearby cliffs. From a periwinkle-blue sky, the rays of the rising sun dazzled across the sea which was the most gorgeous shade of aquamarine, above which myriad gulls put on a spectacular show of aerial acrobatics. I sat in the warm morning sunshine in blissful contentment as my shutter clicked away, capturing the retreating tide washing through and round the base of the two-legged stack, the shape of which reminded me of an old-fashioned ‘sad’ iron.
Yesnaby CastleA long exposure shot of Mainland's iconic sea stack Although we were not treated to the colourful dawn sky we had hoped for, by way of compensation the bright sunlight striking the side of the stack and cliffs brought out the rich warm tones and detail in the various sandstone layers, and the still conditions meant that we were able to obtain some good long exposure shots. By the time we had returned to Olaf, the sky had almost completely clouded over, and we did not see the sun again for approaching 48 hours.
Rocking the Neolithic
Between the very worst spells of weather, we explored The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. On the evening of our arrival, we headed for the 4,000-year old Ring of Brodgar, hoping to get some sunset shots. Its name could have been lifted straight from a Tolkien novel, and it covers an area of 8,435 square metres, with a diameter of just over 103 metres. Older than the famous Stonehenge, it’s the third largest stone circle in the British Isles and is strategically sited at the centre of a massive natural cauldron encircled by the hills of the surrounding landscape. It originally comprised 60 megaliths, 36 of which survive.
With immense excitement we walked up the slight rise to the mystical stone pillars which are enclosed by a rock-cut ditch and two entrance causeways. It’s somewhat humbling to think that they have stood defiantly in this windswept location for millennia. However, I soon discovered that rising levels of tourism have cast an unwelcome shadow over this ancient place. The increasing footfall of visitors, many disgorged from enormous cruise ships, has stripped bare the vegetation, turning the peat beneath to black, sticky mud. The interior of the ring has thus been closed to protect it, and visitors must now walk along a designated pathway outside the ditch. This made photography somewhat tricky.
Fortunately it was early-March and Orkney was still far from the madding crowds, so we had the place entirely to ourselves as dusk began to fall. My senses heightened as I heard the wind blowing through the heather and the otherworldly cry of curlews out on the moorland. I watched in wonder as a watery rainbow shimmered momentarily above the stones as a fine, high velocity mist swept across the Loch of Harray. As the rain passed over, the warm light of the sinking sun inflamed the wispy sage-green lichen sprouting from the edges of the megaliths.
The Ring of BrodgarA rainbow shimers in the sky over the Ring of Brodgar, one of Britain's most important stone circles My imagination began to run riot. Suddenly the stones were transformed into sounding posts amplifying the ancient echoes that stretch out beyond this rocky archipelago across oceans of time, and deep into the cosmos. The Ring of BrodgarDusk falls over the 4,000 year old stone circle on Mainland, Orkney
The urge to return once more to this sacred site was immense. Before we left Orkney we did so, and were treated to an absolutely spectacular pre-dawn sky. The elevated view of the stones silhouetted against the heavens exploding with colour from what I assume to be a grassed-over cairn on the other side of the road, was simply splendid. But the old adage, 'red sky at morning, shepherd's warning', certainly rang true later that day!
Dawn at the Ring of BrodgarThe amazing pre-dawn sky at the Ring of Brodgar enhanced the mystical atmosphere at one of Britain's most important Neolithic monuments
Just across the Ness of Brodgar is the equally enigmatic and even older stone circle of Stenness. Here, four megaliths up to six metres in height stand in a circle that originally held 12 stones. The focus of the interior was a huge hearth, and the monument was encircled by a large ditch and bank which has been ploughed out over thousands of years. Like the stones at Brodgar, their position suggests a connection to solar and lunar phenomena. Careful positioning of the camera (virtually at ground level) allowed the capture of an alignment of three stones which we wanted to be a nod to Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey - albeit with three ‘monoliths’! Braving high winds and squally showers, we hunkered low over our tripod shielded by a large umbrella, and our persistence paid off as we managed to eventually take a moody and dramatic long exposure shot that wasn’t blurred by camera-shake in the wind. The Pentax K1's anti-shake mechanism was certainly put through its paces on Orkney!!
MegalithicA long exposure shot of three of the Stones of Stenness, in a nod to Arthur C. Clark!
Less than a couple of kilometres away lies Maeshowe, a grassy mound rising from a flat plain near the southeast end of the Loch of Harray. Its unassuming exterior conceals a magnificent chambered cairn which is without doubt the finest example of Stone Age craftsmanship in Orkney, and on a par with important monuments such as the passage tombs of Newgrange in Ireland and Gavrinis in Brittany. Visits are by guided tour only and can be booked at the visitor centre in Stenness village, the starting point of the tour. Unfortunately, photographing the inside of the tomb is not permitted.
Maeshowe, OrkneyThe Neolithic Maeshowe chambered cairn, Mainland Our guide ushered us through an entrance to a low passageway leading to a central chamber. The instant reprieve from the ever-present, howling wind was a relief and the silence was calming. As if on cue, we all started conversing in hushed tones, seemingly out of reverence to the place. The central chamber is constructed largely of flat slabs of stone, many of which traverse nearly the entire length of the walls. At a height of about 3 feet (0.91 m), the wall’s construction changes from the use of flat to overlapping slabs, creating a beehive-shaped vault. In each corner lie huge angled buttresses that rise to the vaulting, and three side cells are sited off the main chamber. The entrance portal to the tomb is aligned with the setting of the midwinter sun, so that the light illuminates the cairn’s interior, and the whole monument displays a remarkable degree of precision engineering. The site was excavated in 1861, and archaeologists discovered that they had been beaten to the chamber by Vikings who left their calling card in runic graffiti all over its walls.
Academics debate the original purpose of Maeshowe; was it used as a tomb, an observatory, a calendar, or for May Day ceremonies? If only those mute stones could speak, what stories they would tell! Despite the advances made by archaeologists, we still know relatively little about Neolithic culture, the function of the megalithic monuments, what language(s) were spoken, and of how society was structured.
Fortunately, the excavation of a truly remarkable site has allowed archaeologists to lift a corner of the curtain of mystery surrounding the everyday lives of the people inhabiting Orkney 50 centuries ago. A Neolithic ‘low road’ leads from Maeshowe, passing near the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar to the magnificently preserved remains of a village found beneath the dunes of the Bay of Skaill.
Partially uncovered by a mighty storm in 1850, Skara Brae is older than the Pyramids and is so well preserved that archaeologists discovered intact jewellery, tools and ritual objects, which are now on display in its dedicated visitor centre. Europe’s most complete Neolithic settlement was occupied between 3100BC and 2600BC, and consists of a ‘street’ connecting a cluster of nine houses, some subterranean, which still contain stone furniture – cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I entered a beautifully executed replica of one of the houses at the visitor centre. I could almost hear the whispering of our ancestors’ across the chasm of time, and could imagine them playing out their lives in what must have been very cosy and comfortable dwellings.
Replica House, Skara BraeWe greatly enjoyed visiting the replica of one of the Skara Brae houses, a Neolithic village found beneath the dunes of the Bay of Skaill in 1850 These would have provided a welcome refuge and sanctuary from Orkney’s ever-present wind, which chilled us to the very marrow as we left the warmth of the visitor centre to wander alone amid the ruins of the actual village in its brutally exposed position above the beach at the Bay of Skaill. Indeed, we were fortunate to visit Skara Brae when we did, as the ruins were closed due to dangerously high winds soon after we left.
The village of Skara BraeThe extant remains of the Neolithic Village of Skara Brae, Mainland, Orkney Although these islands seem to be bleak and pretty remote today, I came to understand that in the Stone Age, Orkney was anything but peripheral, but lay at the very heart of the European Neolithic world. It's little wonder that Orkney has been dubbed 'the Egypt of the North', for its Neolithic monuments were constructed almost a millennium before the sarsen stones of Stonehenge in England were erected, and it is now believed that Orkney was the starting place for much of the megalithic culture, including styles of architecture and pottery, that developed much later in the southern British Isles. The Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe, the Ness of Brodgar ruins (which are still being excavated, and which archaeologists believe to be a temple complex), plus other nearby sites, form an immense ritual landscape which is undoubtedly among the most important in Western Europe. And that’s just for starters. There are scores of other Stone Age sites to explore throughout the archipelago. Neolithic Orkney really did rock!
Carpe Diem: A Meeting with an Old Man
Among the must-see sites on the bucket-list of virtually every traveller to Orkney, is the Old Man of Hoy, a 137-metre sea stack on the west coast of the island of Hoy. Comprised of layers of soft, sandy and pebbly sandstone, and harder flagstones of Old Red Sandstone, the Old Man rises from a plinth of basalt rock and is separated from the mainland by a 60-metre chasm strewn with debris. It’s one of the tallest sea stacks in the United Kingdom.
Our interest in this iconic rock formation was piqued from the deck of the MV Hamnavoe en route to Stromness, as it looked like a great subject for photography. On one of the rare sunny spells we had during our stay on Mainland, we watched the sun’s short journey across the southern sky, shirting the tops of the plum-hued hills of Hoy, before it slid below the Atlantic horizon to be swallowed in a bank of cloud. The forecast for the following 24 hours was looking good for photography, meaning no wind or rain to speak of, so Hoy Ahoy! We seized the moment and booked a passage on the Houton to Lyness ferry for the following morning.
The only shop on Hoy is at Longhope, opposite the only hotel, so on arrival we drove there from Lyness to stock up on basic supplies. Fresh food was in short supply, and the remainder was an odd assortment of canned, frozen and dried food. But the alcohol section hidden away behind stands of curling postcards was surprisingly good, boasting several different bottles of Orcadian whiskies and gins. We treated ourselves to Kirkjuvagr’s Arkh-Angell Storm Strength Orkney Gin, which seemed somewhat fitting after the weather we’d endured since our arrival!!
To reach the much-coveted cliff top views of the Old Man of Hoy entails a 9km-round trip from the starting point at the car park above Rackwick Bay. Leaving Longhope, we headed straight there as we wanted to try and grab some photographs at sunset. As we didn’t know the area, we wanted to give ourselves sufficient time to scout around for the best photography spots.
The Old Man is not mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga (written c.1230), and on the Blaeu map of 1600, a headland exists at the point where it now stands. The McKenzie Map of Hoy dated 1750, similarly shows a headland but no stack. But by 1819, the Old Man had been separated from the mainland. A contemporaneous sketch by artist, William Daniell (1769-1837), depicts the sea stack as a wider column than today, with a smaller top section and an arch at the base, giving it a human-like form, hence its name. Sometime in the early-nineteenth century, a storm washed away one of the ‘legs’ leaving it much as it is today, although erosion continues. By 1992 a 40-metre crack had appeared in the top of the south face, leaving a large overhanging section. The Old Man is thus probably less than 250 years old, and will undoubtedly collapse in future.
The mid-afternoon light at Rackwick Bay was excellent, but with no time to take any photographs, we struck out over the steep terrain on the northwestern side of the bay along a road serving a handful of cottages. This becomes a well-defined and well-maintained stony track which ascends diagonally across open moorland towards Rora Head. The route passes into The Old Man of Hoy RSPB Nature Reserve which offers sweeping views over Rackwick Bay and the Pentland Firth.
From there it contours around the southern base of Moor Fea (304m), and the top of the Old Man eventually looms into view. We were amazed to sight numerous mountain hares resplendent in their white winter coats as we traversed the russet moorland below Moor Fea. There wasn’t a soul in sight, and the silence was broken only by the sound of water fowl on the Loch of Stourdale, a mere spoonful of gloomy water atop the cliffs, and the more distant cries of fulmars occupying hidden cliff face ledges.
The track led straight to a grandstand view of the Old Man of Hoy from a very narrow promontory of rock jutting precariously out of the vertiginous cliff face at the Tuaks of the Boy. It’s not a spot I’d recommended to anyone who suffers from vertigo, and I felt decidedly anxious as I gingerly made my way towards the V-shaped front of the promontory.
The Old Man of HoyMartin setting up his camera on a very exposed promontory Fortunately there was barely a breath of wind as we carefully set up our tripods and cameras to capture some images of the iconic sea stack as the sun sank low on the southwestern horizon. We were delighted with the performance of our suite of Breakthrough Photography filters which handled the extreme conditions in Orkney excpetionally well, giving great sharpness and low flare. The strong sidelight falling on the Old Red Sandstone walls of the sea stack caused them to blush marigold and amber in the warm, golden light. Jubilate Deo, a result!
The Old Man of HoyThe setting sun colours the Old Red Sandstone rock of Hoy's iconic sea stack
Almost as soon as we left the promontory, with our anal nerves just about intact, to walk towards a vantage point atop the cliffs near the Geo of the Light, the wind came roaring in from absolutely nowhere and cloud began to barrel in from the northwest. The sea, which had only moments before been calm and Aegean-blue, was now wind-streaked and slate-grey. It would have been impossible to stand on the promontory in such conditions. Hunkered down on the cliff top and facing into the wind, we determined to grab some blue hour shots of the sea stack, a task that proved difficult as the tripod was dancing about on the springy heather.
The Old Man of HoyA blue hour shot of the Old Man from the Geo of the Light With the light fading, we strode out across boot-sucking boggy moorland annoyingly interspersed with dwarf willow, to re-join the track back to the car park, all the while keeping a keen eye on the angry battleship-grey clouds steadily filling the sky. We knew we had some excellent shots of the Old Man at sunset, making the long trek out there worthwhile, and were elated to have ‘seized the moment’, playing the weather forecast to virtual perfection. Darkness fell quickly, but as we hurried onwards in the grappling wind, our smugness dissipated as it began to lash with rain only a couple of kilometres away from the car park!
Overnight camping is permitted there, and we were looking forward to firing up our camping stove for a hot meal, then snuggling up in our sleeping bags with an Orcadian single malt to watch a film. As the forecast indicated that it was likely to be clear at dawn, we were on the spot for an early photoshoot at the bay. But yet again the weather had other ideas! Outside it was truly wild, with gusting gale force wind causing Olaf’s joints to creak and grind, and his roof box to rattle ominously, while rain and hail crashed against his aluminium bodywork. I could feel the whole vehicle rocking with each gust. We would have been lucky to get any sleep in those conditions, so as soon as we had eaten our dinner, we beat a hasty retreat to a more sheltered spot in a roadside layby further up the valley.
The Hidden Valley of Light
It wasn’t until mid-morning of the following day that the wind dropped and it finally stopped teeming with rain. As we drove down the valley towards the handful of crofters’ cottages that make up the settlement of Rackwick Bay, the sun finally broke through the seemingly impenetrable flint-grey cloud, casting thin lances of light across the sodden landscape. We began to feel hopeful that we would be able to take some photographs there before we caught the late-afternoon ferry back to Mainland after all.
Rackwick means ‘wreckage bay’, in the Old Norse language of the early Viking settlers, the name reflecting the terrible fate suffered by countless ships as they attempted to cross the Pentland Firth. After the previous night’s storm, it wasn’t hard to imagine how easily ships could founder along this treacherous coastline. However, the Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown, put a rather different spin on this place, describing Rackwick as ‘Orkney’s last enchantment’, and ‘the hidden valley of light’. Indeed, the tonality of light is excellent there, an interaction of direct light and ever-changing reflected light, reminiscent of coastal areas in parts of Cornwall or Donegal, which are also surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, and blessed with clean air.
Our first port of call was the Burnmouth Bothy, an early-nineteenth century, single-storey, roughly rectangular-plan former crofthouse with a heather-thatched roof and adjoining lower three-bay former byre with a flagstone roof constructed off its northeast gable. It’s dramatically sited right above a beach, and dwarfed by the skyscraper-high cliffs of Craig Gate. Burnmouth was used by the BBC in 1970 for an adaptation one of McKay Brown’s stories, and was later renovated by the Hoy Trust to provide shelter and accommodation for campers and hill walkers.
Burnmouth Bothy, HoyThis old crofter's cottage, now a bothy for hill walkers and climbers, is dwarfed by the Cliffs of Craig Gate Facilities include sleeping platforms, table and chairs, a flush toilet, a hand basin with (non-potable) tap water, and a (rather dilapidated) wood burning stove. The place had a rather down-at-heel feel to it with its blackened roof, grimy interior, and cracked crockery. But imagine lying awake at night listening to the unforgettable sound of the North Atlantic rollers pounding the shore, which looked perilously close through one of its windows!
A window on the OceanAtlantic rollers crash ashore just outside this window in the Burnmouth Bothy, Hoy
Beyond the bothy the beach, gloriously deserted, was strewn with large ovoid Old Red Sandstone boulders which provide wonderful photographic subject matter. With the weather improving by the minute, we enjoyed looking for ones which had captivating concentric bands of different colours to provide an interesting foreground feature. We discovered one that we named ‘Jupiter rock’, as it was highly reminiscent of our solar system’s gas giant. Long exposure shots of the retreating tide swirling round these boulders made for quite moody images.
Jupiter Rock, Rastwick BaySome of the colourful Old Red Sandstone boulders at Rastwick Bay, Hoy
Rastwick Bay Beach BouldersThe retreating tide washing round some of the remarkable beach boulders, Rastwick Bay, Hoy Delicious ripples of contentment always lap over me when I’m on a beach listening to the sound of waves and seabirds, and inhaling the pungent smell of salt and seaweed deep into my lungs. Gazing out to sea I could see the sunlight glinting off the snow-crested peaks of mountains on the Scottish mainland, and we had to literally tear ourselves away from this wonderful spot to drive back to the ferry.
Another storm coming…
Back on Mainland, the weather forecast was looking dire, with yet another Atlantic low due to batter the islands with storm force winds and torrential rain in less than 48 hours. We were planning to explore some of the other islands once this storm had passed through, but an impending storm of a different kind galvanised our decision to return to the Scottish mainland, and from there to begin the long homeward journey to Donegal.
For weeks we’d been hearing about a new coronavirus that had ravaged the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, China. But it had now started to spread beyond China’s borders. When we arrived in Orkney, isolated cases had been confirmed in Singapore and France, then it struck Italy, Spain and Iran. We were hearing alarming rumours that there had been an outbreak in Shetland, and cases were popping up down south. With an important announcement to the nation due from our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, we knew it was time to leave, and consequently booked the ferry back to Scrabster for the following day.
On our final night in Orkney, we explored Stromness, the archipelago’s second largest settlement (after the capital, Kirkwall). A veritable warren of houses are crammed in between the storied granite ridge of Brinkie’s Brae and the shoreline of a bay where the Vikings built a harbour they named Hamnavoe - ‘haven bay’, reflecting the fact that it was a safe anchorage, sheltered from everything but a south-easterly gale.
Although it has always been an important base for fishermen, in the latter-sixteenth century, Stromness (Old Norse, ‘Headland in the Tidal Stream’) went from being a settlement with a few thatched cottages to a thriving port. This was the fag-end of the Age of Discovery, and explorers and merchants began sailing around the North of Scotland in order to cross the Atlantic to colonies in the Americas. From about 1670 until 1891, the Hudson Bay Company used Stromness for stores and fresh water, and maintained a company recruiting office. Merchants and traders occupied the elegant three-storied terraced houses topped with triangular gable ends of crow-step design that can still be seen. These abut narrow cobbled streets criss-crossed by alleys leading down to picturesque nousts, stone built quays and waterside jetties.
The majority of extant buildings date from the period of the Napoleonic Wars, as Stromness strengthened its position as an international trading and servicing port from a safe harbour to the Americas and mainland Europe, and as a port of call for Arctic whaling ships. Shops, distilleries and taverns boomed along its thriving streets, and the late-nineteenth century herring fishing bonanza ensured a brief period of prosperity before the depression and wartime upheavals of the twentieth century.
Stromness really oozes history, from the unusual names of its alleys –Khyber Pass, Hellihole Road, Puffer’s Close – to the blue plaques that dot the façade of buildings telling the story of their onetime famous inhabitants. We much preferred it to Kirkwall, and with its historic buildings, quaint narrow streets, cafés, art galleries, boutiques and antique shops, it reminded me of an Orcadian version of the fishing port of St Ives in Cornwall, or Tinganes in the Faroese capital, Tórshavn.
Parking is kept to an absolute minimum due to the narrow streets, and as it was raining, these were deserted. This enabled us, with the aid of a large umbrella, to capture an atmospheric blue hour image looking up an empty Dundas Street with our tilt lens. With the street lights casting a warm glow over the wet cobbles, and the smell of peat and wood fires scenting the evening air, we could easily have been transported back in time a couple of centuries.
Dundas Street, StromnessA blue hour shot of one of the principal cobbled streets of Stromness
Between squally showers heralding the imminent arrival of the forecast storm, we managed one last roll of the dice the following day before we caught the ferry. The tide was almost fully in as we walked along the cliff top near the Point of Snusan to gain a view of the Brough of Birsay. This island is linked at low tide by a causeway, and was formerly a seat of Pictish power. We wanted to capture it surrounded by the sea, but as usual the wind was howling a gale and waves were breaking hard on the shelves of rock below, sending spray high into the atmosphere which deposited a fine film of salt all over our filters. But the light was rather good, illuminating the island's wave-lashed cliffs and the lighthouse atop it, and after countless attempts we managed to obtain a usable moody long exposure shot.
Brough of BirsayA long exposure shot of the Brough of Birsay taken on a wild day atop the cliffs near the Point of Snusan As we stood on the windy deck of the MV Hamnavoe, passing right by the Old Man of Hoy, we could not have imagined the devastation to our nations and economies, and the sad loss of life, unleashed by Covid-19. A lockdown was something out of the realms of science fiction, and it seemed utterly unimaginable that we would have to cancel our forthcoming spring and summer phototours as countries closed their borders and we were restricted to our immediate neighbourhood.
If this has taught us anything, it is that international travel, for the purposes of photography, or indeed, for any kind of tourism, should not be taken for granted. I doubt we'll be jetting off anywhere we want to anytime soon, and our photography business will understandably not return to normal for the foreseeable future, but we look forward to an eventual return to Orkney, maybe leading a group of fellow landscape photographers. I sign off in these strange and trying times with a quote that seems quite fitting after our visit there: ‘the pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails...’
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