Orkney

I’m nearing the end of my 4-day visit to Orkney and I don’t want to leave. The stunning landscapes, friendly people and intriguing history have cast their spell and I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

The gently rolling green fields, sparkling waters and magical light made an impact the moment I disembarked the “Pentland Venture” at Burwick. The bus drive to Kirkwall took us from the island of South Ronaldsay over Burray and the four Churchill Barriers to the main island of Orkney. Some of the rusting block ships, sunk in 1914 to block the eastern entrances to Scapa Flow, are still visible today. I arrived in the capital city of Kirkwall, population 8500, 45 minutes after leaving Burwick.

Over the next 3 and half days I visited famous historical sites, researched my family history and rode local buses around the main island. The weather on Orkney changes dramatically throughout the day and while it may be 30 degrees in London right now it’s much cooler up here. The old adage “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes” is more applicable here then any other place I’ve ever visited. That said, overall the weather has been very good.

I visited Skara Brae, the best preserved Neolithic settlement in Europe, on Friday as well as the Ring of Brodgar (Standing Stones similar to those in Avebury and Stonehenge) and the Italian Chapel. The latter was built by Italian prisoners of war from two Nissen huts (a variation of Quonset huts) and was an amazing achievement.

My great-great-grandmother was born on Orkney and so I spent considerable time researching my family at the family history center. I made two visits and was really impressed by how friendly and helpful the volunteers from the Orkney Family History Society were. We uncovered several new leads but the highlight was definitely locating and visiting the cottage and manse lived in by my great-great-great-grandparents in 1841.

Using census records and old parish maps we were able to find the farm, called “Spurr”, that my 3xg-grandfather John Reid was living in with his mother Elizabeth Spence. His future wife, Jane Wood, was a servant at the St. Nicholas Manse, quite literally just down the road. The mystery of how they met is a mystery no more.

I’d like to especially thank George Gray for spending the better part of two afternoons helping me to unravel my Orcadian roots. I’d also like to thank Dave Higgins, a fellow End-to-Ender and the OFHS webmaster, for taking the time to drive me to the southern tip of Holm to visit the cottage and manse.

Today I visited Stromness and after spending an hour in its small museum I went for a short walk to Ness Point where I had excellent views of the island of Hoy. Stromness was the last port of call for all Hudson’s Bay Company ships and a lot of Orkney men were recruited and soon found themselves in Rupert’s Land. As a result there are a lot of Canadians with Orkney roots and a lot of Orcadians with Canadian roots. Some of the men married Cree women and either moved back to Orkney or sent their children here to be educated. I’ve included a photo of Login’s Well in my photo gallery. Captain Cook’s ships and Sir John Franklin’s ships also drew water from this well before heading out into the Atlantic.

One of Orkney’s most famous HBC men was the Arctic explorer Dr. John Rae. In addition to mapping huge portions of the Arctic he was also credited with finding the lost Franklin expedition. He was also vilified for implying that there were signs of cannibalism and as a result was never given the credit he truly deserved. In 1865 he carried out a survey for a telegraph line that included a visit to Vancouver Island. For my readers from Victoria: I believe that Rae Street was named after him … Rae Street was later renamed to Courtenay Street.

If you want to read an account of an explorer who could walk 50 miles a day in ice and snow then I highly recommend “Fatal Passage” by Ken McGoogan.

Tomorrow I return to Inverness via the Orkney Bus and my 8-day walk to John O’Groats will be retraced in reverse, and in just under 3 and half hours.

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6 thoughts on “Orkney

  1. Looks beautiful Steve!
    That ancestor’s cottage looks a little lonely – maybe you should buy it for summer vacations!

    • Wouldn’t that be nice … it would make the perfect Orkney retreat. It’s owned by the couple that own the farm just up the road but I didn’t get a chance to speak to them. Maybe next time.

  2. Wow. Fascinating time on the Orkneys. It always was and is more so now on my wish list for the U.K. It has to be exciting to make such great finds in your genealogy research.

    • Hi Bob … Orkney is a history lovers paradise. I never even mentioned in my blog the significant WW1 and WW2 events which took place at Scapa Flow … the sinking of the “Royal Oak” being one of the most tragic. You would definitely love it. The genealogy research continues and yesterday I uncovered (and confirmed) my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents (James Spence and Christian Wood). Cheers, Steve.

  3. I have a hard time relating to 15th and 18th century history, but for some reason I can relate to WWI an WWII history even though both pre-dated my birth. So back in our scuba days, my wife and I were both tempted to dive Scapa Flow; alas, our visit to Orkney was for but one day, and we had not brought our scuba certifications. I’ve always regretted having passed up that opportunity, but we did buy the T-shirts at the dive shop! The Orkneys are delightful; thanks for bringing back the memories.

  4. Hi Steve
    that cottage of your ancestors looks very nice.
    Buy it and book us for 2 weeks June 2011 !!!!

    Must be a great, but also strange feeling standing there and realising that about 7 generations ago people lived there who are part of your roots and that you came 7 generations later to memorise that.

    Cheers Lucie & Bert

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