We visited Dunrobin Castle, built around 1401, probably on the site of a Medieval fort. Replete with paintings and treasures, it is home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland. The splendid vistas of the formal gardens, and beyond to the sea, give no hint of the hardship and catastrophe which befell the hapless crofters who once occupied the land. We were horrified to learn that in the 18th and 19th Century Highland Clearances, whole families were forced to the coast, their dwellings destroyed or set alight. The traditional clan system ended and the dispossessed were replaced by sheep. Many folk left for America, Canada and Australia in search of new beginnings.
Most of the group had colds or sore throats, spread by the air conditioner. The driver looked pale with red spots on his cheeks and we wondered how he had the energy to keep driving . Morag seemed in danger of losing her voice and I sucked on Vitamin C to keep the viruses at bay – usually works.
In wet and misty conditions we drove into Thurso, the Northenmost town of the British mainland. The Royal Hotel was comfortable but worlds away from the luxurious Marriott. A few rooms boasted a shower; we were happy enough with an enormous bath.
I said, ‘Won’t be dark for a while yet . Let’s take a walk.’After a Cointreau on ice we donned raincoats, put up umbrellas against the downpour and set off . Dodging pools of water on the deserted streets, Marjorie and I spent a delightful hour exploring a deserted Abbey with crumbling walls and old tombs.
At dinner Morag warned us it was liable to be cold and gloomy on the morrow. ‘Especially during the boat trip to Orkney. Rug up well.’
One of the men groaned, ‘With this weather, the Island’s going to be terrible.’
‘Have faith,’ I laughed. ‘say a little prayer.’
The adolescent children of the owner took care of the luggage and served at table. Later in the evening the lad, who couldn’t have been more than fourteen, appeared in his kilt and played the bagpipes with a real flair. His elder sister, similarly clad, alternated between the piano accordion and bagpipes then did a lively Highland jig, with warm applause for both.
Next morning we shared a table with the Americans, who watched in amazement as we added lashings of All Bran to our porridge. ‘Is that a national dish?’ Asked the man.
‘No,’ Marjorie laughed. ‘It’s a necessity.’ She went on to explain the importance of fibre in the diet.
We boarded the ferry at south Ronaldsay. Happily, the overcast skies and sleet that greeted our arrival on Orkney Island gave way to brilliant sunshine.
A chirpy guide told us what she did as a newcomer to the job when someone asked a tricky question, I just made it up.’ We all laughed. She pointed out an animal with big horns which looked like a goat. We exchanged glances when she assured us it was an Orkney Island sheep.
On an all-too-brief visit to a silversmith shop, which produces wonderful silver and gold jewelry in Celtic designs, it was a race to choose something and complete the transaction in an half hour. 40 others had the same idea!
Morag had told us our next visit was something else. Everyone was delighted and amazed by the Italian Chapel, created from two Nissan huts by Italian Prisoners during the Second World War. The interior is lined and painted to emulate bricks, carved stone,vaulted ceilings and buttresses. An Altarpiece depicts the Madonna and Child, there are stained glass windows. Material needed for the build was scavenged including wood from a wrecked ship for the tabernacle. Cast iron was fashioned into delicate filigree patterns, and who could have guessed that the light fittings in cutout designs were created from corned beef cans?Outside wild daffodils danced among the marvelously green grass and decorations include a sculpture of the head of Christ.
The Italians also helped build the Churchill Barriers, to protect the anchorage at Scarpa Flow, the Royal Oak having been sunk there by a U Boat in 1939. Huge cubes of concrete not only kept out enemy submarines, but also provided a series of four causeways. Churchill obtained money for the project by calling them Essential Civilian Roads. They remain a valuable link between these isolated islands and the mainland.
Our next a step was back into pre-history, the Ring of Brodgar, thought to have been constructed between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. The masses of cumulus clouds contrasted with the drab gray of the standing stones as we pondered the people who built it so long ago. It is 104 metres in diameter; a 747 Jet could easily fit inside with 33 metres in length to spare. It’s regarded as the finest known late Neolithic or Bronze Age stone circle. Much remains for archaeologists to discover on this site.
A delicious bowl of potato and leek soup at the Rolling Stone Hotel and we were ready to view the Neolithic village of Scara Brae at the Bay of Skaill. Dating from 3180BCE – 2500 BCE, and buried under sand for aeons, the site is in an incredible state of preservation. A wild storm in 1850 revealed for the first time in centuries the winding passageways of houses,stone built cupboards,dressers, beds, fish containers…Other items were found on the site including awls, needles,knives,beads, adzez,shovels.
Our guide told us Skara Brae is contemporary with the Mastabas of Ancient Egypt, the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa people in India. ‘You’ll be interested to know it’s older than both the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge.’
We all said ‘Wow.’ It made hairs stand on end to imagine people living here so long ago.’