PETER FROST heads to Scotland’s Northern Isles to share the secret of his favourite holiday destination
It must have been one of the best school trips in history. It is 1919 and the First World War is over. Almost the entire Imperial German Fleet is imprisoned in Scapa Flow, Orkney.
Politicians argued. Bored German sailors roller-skated round the decks. Then the orders came, the ships would be handed over to the British Admiralty. The German High Admiral in command of the captive fleet however had other ideas.
He ordered his sailors to scupper the entire fleet and the ships went down with flags flying. The school kids of Stromness on their boat trip watched wide-eyed.
Today scuba fans still dive on the ships and we lesser mortals can view the wrecked fleet from a trip boat with its own remote submarine camera.
Orkney is a place of surprises; my first one came at the waterside campsite at Stromness. I emerged from the campervan with my early morning cup of coffee and looked out over the sea.
Suddenly a head appeared in the water and fixed me with its beady eye. Soon at least fifty be-whiskered seals were watching me.
It’s not unusual to see seals, dolphins, porpoises or even whales from the beaches, cliff tops and trip boats of Orkney. Some of the best sightings are from the ferries to and from the smaller islands.
Agatha Christie, my wife Ann often reminds me, gave great advice on picking a husband. “The only man worth marrying is an archaeologist” was her tip. “… they are the only men who get more interested in you as you get older.”
For anyone seeking such a husband there can be few places in the world with more archaeologists than Orkney. There are hundreds of sites and many active digs still go on.
Best of all here in Orkney they are generally happy to share the experience of uncovering the past with visitors – no ‘keep out’ or ‘do not touch’ signs here.
Maes Howe is stone-age tomb almost perfectly preserved and protected; it’s older than Stonehenge, indeed twice as old as the Great Wall of China.
It is almost perfect; however there is some graffiti inside the chamber. Let’s go back just 850 years. Not long in the long, long history of Maes Howe.
A small group of Vikings stumbled across the tomb, and like tourists do they wrote on the walls. Most of the Vikings just wrote their names. There are a few rude remarks about the girls back home and the girls of Orkney. Graffiti doesn’t change.
More important and more serious is the language of the graffiti. This is almost certainly the best examples of Viking runes ever discovered. Runes were the Viking’s written language designed to be carved with an axe on stone.
Our last Orcadian visit to the stone-age took us to the beautifully restored Neolithic village at Skara Brae. Here at least eight stone-age houses have been excavated and restored to differing extents.
In 1939 a terrible disaster occurred. A German U-boat slipped through the Orkney’s incomplete defences and sank the battleship Royal Oak with the loss of over 800 British sailors. Many of the dead were young cadets.
Winston Churchill demanded that the entrances to Scapa Flow be defended. Italians prisoners of war did the work and the barriers they built still carry the main roads between the islands.
Those same prisoners also built themselves an amazing Italianate chapel. It was based on a redundant Nissen hut decorated only with paint and consummate skill. It’s a remarkable thing to see.
Whether you explore Orkney’s mainland or the countless outlying islands, whether you are in search of history or wildlife Orkney’s main attractions will always be the wild and watery landscape.
So if you are looking for one of Scotland’s best kept holiday secrets, do what I do, chill out to the natural relaxed rhythm of Orcadian life here in Scotland’s Northern Isles.
This article first published in the Morning Star, 2012