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Time Traveling in Orkney
Feature article picture Time Traveling in Orkney

Time Traveling In Orkney

As important as Stonehenge or the Pyramids of Egypt, the 5,000-year old archeological treasures on Orkney are an astonishing window to another world.


I particularly remember the sea pools, crystal-clear teardrops amongst the rocks, left behind by the receding tide. Gulliver-like, I gazed into their mysterious depths and witnessed huge battles, life and death struggles, being fought there between the small creatures that were trapped uneasily together until the sea returned to release them.

Running along golden, deserted sands, my brother and I would stop to examine strangely-shaped sea shells and the intricate, spreading purple, blue and yellow of stranded jellyfish. We chased the small, brightly coloured birds, ringed plover and dunlin, which scurried, feeding, in the brown-fringed wavelets brushing the shore.

It was a good-to-be-alive time, that once-in-a-lifetime age of innocence when there are no answers, only endless questions and a simple acceptance of our own importance and significance in the daily web of existence. And when evening came, spreading out the gentle hills and moors, merging sky with sea, we fell asleep to the sound of curlew crying down the wind and of waves breaking on ragged cliffs.

These are my first and most enduring memories of the Orkney Islands, a two-hour sail across the broken waters of the Pentland Firth from Caithness, the Viking "land of cat." Since then, we have taken our own children to these magical lands, and my wife, Ann, and I return often to Orkney from our home in Tongue in North Sutherland to enjoy the endless beauty and special serenity of these distant isles.

In Orkney, the present is inextricably and amicably bound together with the past. I know of no other place in the world where this is so uniquely and comfortably apparent. The history and heritage of these Northern Isles inescapably surrounds both visitor and local alike. Neither is it in any way oppressive. It is a natural fact of existence extending from Neolithic times, 5,000 years ago, to the present day.

You can fly into Orkney, but, at least for me, the only proper way to arrive is by sea, as our ancestors did thousands of years ago; hunter gatherers, clad in animal skins, trekking north with their families up the Great Glen and crossing the six miles to Orkney from mainland Scotland in rough-hewn boats. They found a fertile land, rich in wildlife, where the sea provided an endless source of food and sustenance.

The physical evidence of the lives they lived is one of Europe's greatest treasures: Maeshowe burial chamber, the village of Skarra Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, built before the Great Pyramids of Egypt. These monuments are recognised by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) as being The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2007 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on The Palace of Holyroodhouse by Barb Taylor.

Photos: © Charles Tait Photographic Ltd.