In my last post, W1610 – Nanortalik non-tour, I described our visit to the last port of call in Greenland, Nanortalik. Since then we have spent three days crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and today was sadly our last port of call on this fantastic cruise. The port in question was Kirkwall on Mainland, U.K., not to be confused with the mainland of the U.K! Strictly it’s the island called Mainland which is the largest of the Orkney Islands.
After a very early breakfast – and a large one as I knew I would be having a very late lunch – I went up on deck to watch us sail into Kirkwall. This was my first time to the Orkney Islands, so I was keen to catch my first impressions. The lovely weather bubble was continuing to follow us around and it was the usual bright clear morning as we sailed in:
On the quay there were banners, balloons and the local press waiting to greet us as we were the 1,500th cruise ship to visit the Orkney Islands, and one of us was the 750,000th cruise ship passenger!
As I had not visited the island before, I elected to do an island tour, which offered the chance to see a range of scenic sights around a good part of the island. As we set off, our guide told us that they had experienced very strong winds over recent days that had stopped cruise ships being able to dock, which shows how lucky we were today. The Orkney Islands receive a lot of wind, which helps to severely limit the number of trees on the islands, and those which do grow are usually quite short in height. This does make for an open landscape with wide reaching views, which soon became apparent as we drove around the coast to our first photo stop at Birsay Bay.
Here there is a causeway, only accessible at low tide, which provides access to Birsay Island. As always the time allocated to the photo stop was way too short, but I did find time to walk partway across the causeway and get some photographs of the beach, rock-pools and the surf crashing into the shore. It was a delightful spot and I would gladly spent much longer there exploring the area.
We then drove on to the second largest town on the island, Stromness. Here another all too short photo stop allowed just a few snapshots of the town:
Our next stop was at the Standing Stones of Steepness, five miles north-east of Stromness. This neolithic monument is thought to be the oldest henge in the British Isles. There are 4 large standing stones remaining of what it is thought was around 12 stones, arranged in a circle 32m in diameter. The circle originally stood on a levelled platform 44m in diameter, which in turn was surrounded by a ditch and then a bank.
There are several neolithic monuments in the area, including Skara Brae, Maeshowe, and the Ring of Brodgar – resulting in the area having UNESCO World Heritage Status. As we drove on, we caught a glimpse of the Ring of Brodgar from our moving coach:
The next short photo stop was at the 90m high cliffs at Marwick Head. Here there were dramatic views down to the waves crashing into the foot of the cliffs:
Finally we drove back to Kirkwall above Scapa Flow, a large body of water between several of the Orkney Islands. It’s sheltered water has been used by ships throughout history, particularly during both world wars when it was home to the British naval fleet. Our guide told us about much of the German naval fleet being deliberately scuttled there after the first world war, and about the tragic sinking of the British battleship HMS Royal Oak by a German U-boat at the start of the second world war, with a loss of some 833 crew.
When we got back to our ship at then end of the tour I had planned to take the shuttle bus into Kirkwall town centre to look around and take photographs, but time was going to be tight as we had to be back on board by 3:30 as the ship was sailing at 4pm. I was therefore delighted when the tour guide offered to drop off in the town centre anyone who wanted to do so, which save me time.
I first went to the cathedral, but seeing a sign to say that a service was in progress, I reordered my plans and went to see some historic ruins first. The Earl’s Palace was built by Patrick, Earl of Orkney, who is reputed to be one of the most tyrannical noblemen in Scottish history. It was built between 1601 and 1606, mostly with forced labour. Before it was completed Patrick was badly in debt, and a royal decree in 1607 required him to hand the palace over to the Bishop of Orkney, but he did not do so until 1610. It later became property of the Crown, and fell into ruin in the 18th century:
Just across the road was the Kirkwall Bishop’s Palace:
I then returned to the Cathedral and this time was able to look around it. St Magnus Cathedral dominates the town, and is the most northerly cathedral in Great Britain. Construction started in 1137, and continued over the next three hundred years. Today it is a parish church of the Church of Scotland – technically the Cathedral is not a cathedral!
Inside the Cathedral is the ship’s bell from HMS Royal Oak, and a memorial to the lost crew:
Before returning to the ship on an extremely packed shuttle bus, I called into the Orkney Museum in an attempt to complete my latest mysterious photographic mission – more about this in my next post!
As part of the celebrations for being the 1,500th cruise ship to visit the Orkney Islands, just before we sailed there were performances by local pipers and dancers on the quayside for us to enjoy:
Then on retiring to bed much later, I found a souvenir bag of local ‘goodies’ had been left on my bed:
I very much enjoyed my visit to Mainland, U.K., and would definitely like to return one day for a holiday so I can explore more of the Orkney Islands at a more leisurely pace. Throughout this cruise we have seen beautiful and amazing places in beautiful and amazing weather – definitely a cruise to remember and treasure.