The New Zealand accent does offer some difficulties when abroad, certainly travelling through the United Kingdom, where the dialect seems to thicken the further North you travel. In London you will get mild laughter as you skew between being a Zimbabwean and an Australia, only for your vowels to betray your true heritage. To the British ear, ’ten’ becomes ‘tin‘, ’and’ is heard as ’ind’, ‘fish’ of course is ‘fush‘, and in an ice cream shop in Yorkshire, ‘mint’ may well be confused with ‘meant‘. If you are a Kiwi in the British Isles, you will do well to find an alternate word to ‘deck‘. There should never be any room to manoeuvre on your own name though, but here I now found myself in the Orkney Islands, my ancestral homeland, unable to pronounce my own name.
Orkney, an archipelago situated off the northern coast of Scotland, comprises 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited, and it was the largest of these islands, “the Mainland”, that I had just arrived in to from Glasgow.
My taxi in to Kirkwall, the largest settlement on the islands, was driven by a friendly ex sailor, with an accent as thick as porridge, who was only too happy to offer me advice for my trip, if I could distinguish what he was saying, and him me. It was taking some time. We could not agree on my surname, and though my ancestors had left Orkney for New Zealand over a century earlier, the name ‘Wards’ and its variations still remained in parts of Scotland, but to an Orkneymans ear the vowels I was regurgitating from the deepest parts of the Southern Hemisphere, would have required a knife and fork. I paid and thanked him, and exited the taxi in to the town square of Kirkwall, nameless.
But I had not come to Orkney with the grandeur notion of seeking out some historic hamlet, family heirloom, or an Earldom. As much as possible, my family tree had been done. In recent years I had maintained contact with a distant cousin who had retired to Cornwall, from Stromness, the second largest settlement on the Mainland, and his insights into life on Orkney had piqued an interest to visit.
It was August, the warmest time of year, and the noon sun projected the long shadow of St Magnus Cathedral across the town centre where I now stood.
I had learned of St Magnus Cathedral on Christmas Day previous, as I had shared an ale with a new friend in Edinburgh. His enthusiasm for how such a structure came to be in an outpost of the world had struck me, and was glad so to make it my first visit in Kirkwall. Known as the ‘Light in the North’ and Britain’s most northerly Cathedral, the impressive structure was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus. The cathedral would not be complete until three centuries after Rognvalds’ death, his remains placed within the cathedral. Originally under Norwegian jurisdiction, in 1486 the cathedral was assigned to the people of Orkney, and to this day belongs to Orkney, not to any church or creed. Though its exterior is impressive, and dominates the skyline of Kirkwall, I found myself amazed at the interior as I ambled around, easily one the best preserved medieval buildings in Europe.
Neighbouring the cathedral is the Bishops Palace, built in the same period as St Magnus for Bishop William the Old , crusading companion and friend of Rognvald. The Bishops Palace, and the Earls Palace directly opposite, have more or less remained in ruins for centuries, falling victim to foreign raiders and the harsh climate of the north, but all the more illustrating how well Orcadians have preserved St Magnus Cathedral across the centuries.
But how then did the people of Kirkwall preserve their appetites? This had just become a pressing question in my wandering, and so now nameless and blessed, strolled down the paved laneways to the harbour front for some Orkney fare. This of course coming in the form of fish and chips. All the eateries in Kirkwall proudly advertise their seafood as locally sourced, and why not, the ocean is only a stones throw from the deep fryer.
St Magnus Cathedral
Early the next morning I strolled out to the inlet of Scapa Flow, the road busy with rural traffic, each farmer giving me a wave as I wandered about. A great natural anchorage of the world, Scapa Flow hosted Viking long-ships centuries ago, but was more prominently historic during the First and Second World War. While the peacemakers of the world debated in Versailles what to do with the future of Germany at the conclusion of the First World War, 74 vessels of the German fleet was interned at Scapa Flow. After months of waiting, Rear Admiral von Reuter, the German in command at Scapa, took his chance as the bulk of the British fleet departed on exercises, and gave the order to scuttle the fleet.
The German crews had spent the idle months preparing for the scuttling, welding doors open and laying charges in parts of the ships. The British Navy were able to beach some of the vessels, but 52 ships were sunk in all. By the beginning of the Second World War, 45 of the 52 had been raised. By then the Germans had returned to Scapa Flow, but not with the intention of sinking their own ships, U-Boats having penetrated the ailing anti-submarine defences and striking the British fleet several times, which used Scapa as her main base. Still, seven ships of the First World War German fleet remain beneath Scapa Flow, and this has become a major destination for scuba divers, able to explore the historic wrecks which lie in close proximity and shallow waters.
Not being much of a diver myself, I roamed the coast for an hour or so, strolling past the weathered gray cottages that look out to the sea and wandered back to Kirkwall to catch the bus to Lamb Holm, the bus loaded with Australians and Kiwis, truly the antipodean traveller is every where under foot.
Lamb Holm, lies to the eastern entrance of Scapa Flow and is one of a number of several uninhabited island in the Orkneys. Fearful of the abundance of sea access for the German U-Boats in to Orkney, Winston Churchill ordered the construction of causeways between some of the islands to block them. 1300 Italian soldiers, captured in North Africa by now were interned in Orkney, and Churchill put them to work, constructing causeways that are now named ’The Churchill Barriers’, part of which links Lamb Holm to the Mainland. In 1943, it was agreed that a place of worship was required for the Italians and construction of chapel began, using limited materials the prisoners could commandeer. The shell was achieved by joining two huts end-to-end, the corrugated interior of the huts then covered with plasterboard, and the altar formed from excess concrete left over from work on the barriers. Domenico Chiocchetti, a prisoner from Moena in Northern Italy is responsible for the interior details, creating a concrete facade to conceal the hut shape. He used corned beef tins as candle holders, and a car exhaust as the baptismal font. At the conclusion of the war, and as his fellow countrymen departed Orkney, Chiocchetti stayed on Orkney to complete his work on the chapel, and he returned several times after the war for restoration work. Simply titled, ‘The Italian Chapel’, the ornate work is a hugely popular attraction in Orkney, and the chapel now is still used for services and weddings. It is difficult to reconcile the interior of the chapel with the exterior, the wily Italians having masterfully creating a beautiful interior with any junk they could land their hands on in Orkney.
I had realised by now, having missed the bus back to Kirkwall from Lamb Holm and so taking the long walk, that it had been foolhardy to have come to Orkney expecting to knock over so many sites at pace over a long weekend, after all, it is an archipelago. Even the Mainland is worthy of a week long exploration, before embarking to the North or South Isles of Orkney. But I was so far content with what I had seen, walking through the little hamlets, such as St Mary’s, commenting on the days poor catch with a retired farmer, visiting Holm Football Club, probably Britain’s most northerly football ground, admiring that Orkney has its own drama club, the Palace Players, and finding it surprising that Kirkwall hosts, not one, but two authentic Indian restaurants.
I walked from Lamb Holm for an hour or so, then a friendly young couple pulled alongside me in a battered land rover. Winding down his window, I braced myself to straighten out my vowels so I could parlay with the Orcadians, but they were in fact from Yorkshire, and offered me a lift back in to Kirkwall.
In should come as no surprise, but as of most of Britain, Kirkwall hosts a healthy number of drinking establishments per capita, and here I now sat with my new friends in the Torvhaug (Norse for peastack), near the water front. Never had I been offered a loyalty card when ordering a Guinness before, with the tenth pint being free this was a dangerous notion with a flight the next morning.
The Yorkshire couple themselves had lived in Orkney for two years, managing a farm a way out from Kirkwall, this being there ‘night out’ for the month, staying in the hotel opposite, and were able to offer some insights to life here. I listened with great interest when they explained to me of a famed Christmas tradition in Orkney, The Ba’ Games.
The weeks leading up to Christmas see the doors and windows of houses and business barricaded in preparation for the hundreds of bodies that will surge through the streets Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
A tradition dating back to the 1800’s, the Ba’ games is remnant of mass football games, with men of all ages and backgrounds competing for the prized leather ball. An explanation of the game reads:
“…There are two sides, the Uppies and Doonies, their names derived from Up-the-Gates or Doon-the-Gates, from Old Norse ‘gata’ for a road. The Ba’ is thrown up to the crowd at the Mercat Cross in Kirkwall. The Uppies’ goal is up the street opposite the Catholic church and the Doonies is down in the harbour - salt water must be involved for a doonie win. A Doonie was traditionally one born between the line of Old Post Office Lane and the harbour, with Uppies from the other side of the line. The Men’s Ba’ is thrown up at 1pm by an honoured Ba’ veteran or supporter to a crowd of up to two hundred players. The leather ball disappears into the scrum, sometimes for hours, and is keenly watched by excited spectators. There may be twists and turns as one side gains control, and there could be smuggling and fake runs up or down the street to cause confusion among the players. The game is over when the Ba’ reaches the goal of one of the sides and then comes the task of the winning team deciding who is the Ba’ winner. This is an honour given to a player who has played hard over several Ba’ games, not a one-off man of the match award. He gets to take the Ba’ home and it is traditional to throw a party open to anyone who has played…”
I would certainly be returning for that.
The pub itself was starting to bristle with locals, and the sound effect of multiple Orcadian accents was a joy, and although a Yorkshire accent can disguise itself among that chorus, a Kiwi can not, for I was described with no ill-will as a ’ferry-louper’ a few times, a non-native of the islands. I pointed out that I was a long returning native, my ancestors having left in the 1850’s. Again, having difficulty getting my surname across to the Kirkwall locality, I simply wrote it down, and to my great delight learnt there was still a Wards on the ’Mainland’ and I could expect him in this very tavern at around 8 pm, though he never did show.
The rest of the evening is shrouded in mystery, though we did dine on perhaps the best burger I have ever eaten, Rib-eye Steak, haggis, and onion rings, simply delicious. The following morning I dustily left my lodgings and made for my awaiting taxi, I was off to Edinburgh for a little of the Fringe, then down to Nottingham for some cricket, but seeing a familiar face in the taxi, I first had to do something about pronouncing my name.
The Italian Chapel
Old World Charm
Interior of the Italian Chapel
Travelling to Orkney
By air – You can fly to Orkney from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberdeen, and Shetland with good links to other national airports. CheapAir have you covered with a wide range of available services.
By car - If you wish to drive, head north to the ferry ports of either Aberdeen, Scrabster, Gills Bay, or John O’Groats (passenger ferry only May-September).
By sea – There are three main vehicle ferry routes to and from Orkney. NorthLink Ferries sail between Lerwick in Shetland, Hatston in Kirkwall and Aberdeen, with the company also operating the 90 minute service between Scrabster and Stromness. A quicker option again is the Pentland Ferries catamaran, which sails between Gill’s Bay, near John o’ Groats, and St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay (just over 1 hour).
By bus - Citylink buses run to Aberdeen, Thurso and Gills Bay, with ongoing ferry connections to Orkney. The Orkney Bus, which travels direct from Inverness to Kirkwall and utilises the John O’ Groats passenger ferry link, runs between June and the start of September.
By train - Travel by train to Aberdeen or Thurso, where you can catch a ferry to Orkney from the harbours listed above. More information on train timetables can be found on the ScotRail or National Rail websites.
There are plenty of accommodation options in Orkney, from hotels, bed & breakfast, and apartments. For a backpacker on a budget like myself, I stayed at the Kirkwall Youth Hostel, no frills and no fuss. Accommodation starts from $28 USD - booking in advance is advised for travellers wanting the best price. Kirkwall Youth Hostel is a two-star accommodation and has an 8.3 out of 10 rating from over 280 reviews on Booking.com.
July and August are the hottest months in Orkney with an average temperature of 25°C (77°F) with January and February being coldest, averaging 1.9°C (35°F). Being a similar latitude to Oslo, Norway and Stockholm, Sweden you can expect short dark days in winter but long hours of daylight in the summer.
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