It’s a place where nothing much ever changes, which is part of Orkney’s charm, says Stephen McClarence.
The Orkney islands have recently been named the happiest area to live in Britain. I’m not remotely surprised. My wife Clare and I have been going there for 25 years; we got married there 10 years ago; the place radiates contentment – as the splendidly named National Wellbeing Survey has proved.
So what’s Orkney’s secret? “The sense of community,” says Debbie Low, owner of the Kirkwall Hotel, a great Victorian landmark dominating the harbour at Kirkwall, the islands’ capital. “Down in London it’s so impersonal. You can walk round the streets and nobody cares about you. Everyone helps everyone else here.” Receptionist Johnny Edwards glances up from his desk. “It’s the gentle pace of life,” he says. “Except when the wind’s behind you.”
Or except when the fog’s beneath you, as it was the evening we were due to arrive. Our flight up from Aberdeen (where we’d flown from Manchester) circled Kirkwall for half an hour and we gazed glumly down at – well, not so much a blanket of fog as a hefty grey eiderdown of it. So we flew back to Aberdeen, spent the night there, and took a morning train to Inverness and another to Thurso to catch the Orkney ferry.
It was a pleasantly gradual way to get there, giving us the chance to enjoy one of Britain’s greatest rail journeys, meandering up from Inverness. It was also our first experience of the Hamnavoe, the new Orkney ferry, which is as plush as an ocean liner.
And that was the end of the drama for a fortnight. The lyrical, contented landscape takes about – oh, probably an hour or two to lull us into submission. It surely helps explain the islands’ happiness, along with their strong sense of their own identity and the continuity of their history, inextricably linked by seafaring with other northern lands, particularly Scandinavia.
The key to it all is Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral, essentially a Viking building. It’s a welcoming place, carved from warm pink sandstone and, despite its considerable size, cosy rather than awesome. Wall-mounted gravestones are carved with skulls and crossbones, but it’s the tomb of the Victorian Arctic explorer John Rae that draws most attention. He dozes in death, smiling, his hands cupped behind his head, the book he’d been reading open at his side. We have coffee at the Pomona Cafe, where people are talking about a disreputable-sounding place called “Sooth” – basically the whole of the UK apart from Shetland.
The Pomona, little changed in the 25 years we’ve known it, serves cakes and pastries with lurid icing, luscious cream and hundreds and thousands by the hundreds and thousands.
Around its walls are 1930s paintings of Orkney scenes, including the monuments that have since become a World Heritage Site. There’s Skara Brae, the neolithic village on the shore of the west coast of Mainland (the confusingly named biggest island), Maes Howe, an astonishingly well preserved cairn, and two sets of standing stones – the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.
Brodgar is a staggering place, a great circle of monoliths in an open land-and-seascape, under a vast dome of sky. It’s assumed (because no-one really knows) to have some ritual significance, like a great roulette wheel of Destiny.
Up the road one way is Marwick Head, with its towering cliffs. We watch the soaring seabirds and, on the way back, see a field of perhaps 150 curlews, pottering around, beak-prodding the ground and occasionally flapping their wings with a great flourish.
Down the road the other way is Stromness, Orkney’s second town, with its straggling ribbon of a main street. More and more galleries and gift shops open every year, giving it an arty-touristy feel, like a Scottish St Ives, but it’s a more melancholy place than that, like a slumbering Brigadoon. Steep narrow alleys climb the house-packed hillside off that main street. One is called the Khyber Pass.
Over the years, we’ve visited most of Orkney’s 20 or so inhabited islands, on invigorating ferry journeys. This time, we return to Shapinsay, 25 minutes away from Kirkwall and bristling with curious placenames: Banks of Runabout, Taing of the Busy, Inskift of Skewnesstoft, Cumlins of the Maovi, Noust of Agricola.
We coincide with the annual agricultural show, a chance to gaze at enormous bulls and admire the prizewinning home bakes . The engaging island museum is full of photographs of generations of agricultural life.
We visit the Italian Chapel, built by Italian prisoners of war, its murals of gold-winged cherubs only just avoiding kitsch. And we walk the cliffs – most dramatically at Deerness, where we’re buzzed by “bonxies” (great skuas), the Lancaster bombers of the bird world. The sunshine is searchlight-bright and the waves crash against the cliffs.
In the evening, we do nothing more exciting than watch the comings and goings of the inter-island ferries. I reckon the National Wellbeing Survey got it just about right.
The Kirkwall Hotel (01856 872232; www.kirkwallhotel.com) has B&B doubles from £80.
The very helpful tourist information centre in Kirkwall (01856 872856; www.visitorkney.com) can advise on travel to and within Orkney.