An early start took us to John O'Groats and the Orkney ferry. We crossed the Pentland Firth in fine fresh weather to be met by our private coach and tour guide. Making our way northwards we had many interesting views and items pointed out with stories told by our guide. We skirted Scapa Flow crossed the Churchill Barriers saw the remnants of the wartime blockade ships and the Italian Chapel constructed by Italian prisoners during the Second World War. We passed on to the town of Kirkwall, here at the harbour we boarded our small boat which was to transport us between the islands and our visit sites. The first crossing was to Shapinsay and the Scots Baronial Mansion of BALFOUR HOUSE. We enjoyed a guided walk around the enclosed gardens and the house tour. The original house furnishings and varied collections of artefacts creating much interest. We finally returned to the little harbour and our sea transport to the island of Wyre.
The long crossing between the islands as we sailed to Wyre allowed ample time for enjoying the beautiful scenery and the most unbelievable weather that had been with us since the first day of this tour. Our destination CUBBIE ROOS is reputed to be the oldest stone castle in Scotland? While the earthworks and moat survive little remains of the tower above the level of the earthworks. What can be seen of the stonework shows fine use of local material and gives a good picture of how this remote island site once commanded all approaches by sea.
Returning to our boat we sailed for the BROCH OF GURNESS. This magnificent ruin and its settlement was a marvel and had everyone examining its passageways and chambers. The extensive works are sited by the seashore and gave us another glimpse of life in those long gone days before Scottish history began. Journeying across the island by coach we made our way to our next destination.
At Birsay we saw the first of the two earls palaces on Orkney this being EARLS PALACE-BIRSAY - the reading required to understand this and the next two site visits should give your brain good excercise. This large and sprawling ruin is all that remains of what had eventually become an enclosed courtyard structure. Many signs of the various stages of building had us struggling to understand its long development. This previously grand palace is set in a remote area of the island.
As our Orkney journey completed a full circle and re-entered Kirkwall we glanced wistfully at the Highland Park - Whisky distillery that our guide pointed out, as we whisked past. Our destination was that amazing complex of wonderful architecture that is the centre of the ancient capital of the Orkneys. When our coach stopped between Saint Magnus's Cathedral, The BISHOPS PALACE, and the other Earls Palace we were reaching the end of another long day and had just enough time to visit all three sites. Here I have cheated and incorporated two places in one sketch. Through the side doorway of the Cathedral you can see the huge defensive tower that sits at one end of the Bishops long Hallhouse or Palace. The climb to the top providing spectacular views of Kirkwall and the many islands of these Orkneys.
Just a stones throw (or an arrow shot) from the the Bishops Palace stands that other Orkney Palace, the most spectacular EARLS PALACE-KIRKWALL. We quickly realised why so much has been written about it. Not so much a Palace, more an exhibition of how to incorporate every possible Scottish architectural feature into one building in the grandest scale. While we must give tribute to those who visualised and completed this work of art, we realise as we read, that those same people had characters and lives as complex as the building itself.
Too quickly it was time to board the coach and leave Kirkwall. On our return journey we stopped to visit and admire the famous World War 2 Italian Chapel, before catching the ferry back to John O'Groats and the end of another wonderful, Graham Coe organised, weekend.
THANKS TO OUR HOSTS
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View our extensive collection of castle postcards (circa 1900).