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Sunday, June 5, 2010, in Kirkwall, Orkney

Hi all. We’ve been in the Orkney Islands this week, working our way closer to the Scottish mainland. Last week, we were in the Shetland Islands, north of here. We arrived on the very solemn and generic celebration of Bank Holiday Monday and we’re docked in the main town of Kirkwall.

This eleventh-century town was built around a church (kirk means “church”) of Saint Olaf of Norway. Like the Shetlands, Orkney was Norwegian until 1468, part of the pawned lands as dowry for the Norwegian princess Margaret. Today’s Kirkwall centers on the St. Magnus Cathedral, begun in the twelfth century.

Well, within moments, I realized that I’d have to learn a whole new fake language in Orkney. The Shetland word peerie, meaning ���little”, translates to peedie in Orkney-speak, and new words occasionally showed up to baffle me. Furthermore, Orkney boasts its own insane winter ritual as an alternative to Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa. It’s Ba’.

Ba’ refers to both the game and the ball with which it’s played. It’s a fierce competition between, and I’m not kidding here, the Uppies and the Doonies. The Doonies try to push a small ball into the sea using whatever it takes. The Uppies need to push the ball up. Because of some recent gerrymandering of borders (whether you’re an Uppie or a Doonie depends on your place of birth), the Uppies now outnumber the Doonies considerably, and win disproportionately as well. But this remains a fight to the end. Homeowners and shopkeepers with buildings along the route nail wooden planks across their doors and windows just in case the action comes too close. Pounding somebody’s head through a door wouldn’t deter a combatant.

We began our walk at Bridge Street, which is not a bridge at all (Castle Street doesn’t have a castle, either.) The street came to be a bridge because it was a main route to the original Norse church. After lots of rain, the street was flooded, and the stepping stones submerged. Celebrants, worshipers, mourners, all who were headed for the church, arrived there with muddy, soaked feet. In time, the town covered the “burn” (which is a creek, near as I could tell), with a proper, and dry, bridge.

The main attraction in town is the cathedral, and we were surprised to find that the tour of the upper areas, offered four times a week, was completely booked for the duration of our visit. Instead, we inspected the carvings of memorials honoring congregants over the centuries and the Romanesque architecture. We didn’t see the dungeon, although the cathedral is rumored to have one. Then we crossed the street to the Bishop’s Palace now in ruins. Across the street from that was the Earl’s Palace, built by the Earl of Orkney, Patrick Stewart. Lord Orkney commissioned this palace because the Bishop�������������s Palace wasn’t meeting his needs. He built the new structure using forced labor, that is, workers that he didn’t actually have, on land that wasn’t actually his. To acquire the land, he framed the rightful owner with charges of theft and had him executed. It’s a mean world, though. For one thing, with stolen land and stolen labor, somehow Lord Orkney still couldn’t stay out of debt. For another, apparently his son Robert went into the family business. Soon after the palace was built, Lord Orkney’s son seized it and other properties. In the end, the son Robert and his father Patrick Stewart were both executed for treason. Legend says that Patrick’s execution had to be delayed a few days, to give him time to learn the Lord’s Prayer. The palace looked nice, though.

Right across the street from all of this is the town’s museum, a maze of small rooms, each depicting a historical period, and featuring an array of artifacts. This was enough of a morning’s activity for us, which is just as well, because we’d nearly exhausted the sightseeing that Kirkwall has to offer. In truth, there’s a wireless museum, but it’s the radio kind of wireless, and that didn’t tempt us. If there had been the Internet sort of wireless in museum form, or any form, we’d have jumped on that. We hadn’t yet found a place to sit and surf at high speeds in Orkney.

The next day, we’d hoped to ride standby on a tour of the archaeological remains in the area, but just like airline standbys, we were left waiting in the gate. We decided to try again the next day and execute our backup plan, a trip to Hoy to see the Scapa Flow museum.

Scapa Flow is a body of water very well sheltered by several islands, and it was used as long as 1000 years ago by the Vikings as a safe harbor and possible longer ago than that by the residents of a nearby 5000-year-old settlement. There are lots of big currents around here, but the name has nothing to do with a flow. It’s a corruption of a long Norse word Skalpeid-floi that means “bay of the long isthmus”. You can’t make fun of foreign words when your own language has stuff like “isthmus” in it.

The British always based the navy in the English Channel, but in the run-up to World War I, decided to place the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow to protect the North Sea. At the time, the base was largely unfortified. When the armistice was signed but Versailles was still in negotiations, seventy-eight German boats were interned in Scapa Flow. There, the German crews waited for word restlessly. When the cease-fire ran out and word hadn’t arrived about the extension that ultimately led to the treaty, the German officer in charge of the fleet gave the order to scuttle the ships, leading to, among other things, the presumed last casualties of the war.

The navy base resumed operations in preparation for World War II. A German submarine penetrated the harbor and sank the HMS Royal Oak, killing hundreds. Terrible as it was, this attack might well had been catastrophic. The Royal Oak was an old vessel that housed some personnel, but the main fleet had left on a mission two days earlier. The Royal Oak was all that had been left in the harbor when the submarine had crept in, so that’s what it took.

Soon the islands surrounding the harbor were connected by causeways, in a project personally commissioned by Winston Churchill, and the harbor became the main base for the British Navy. The sunken ship is now a protected site, and many of the wartime-era buildings are gone, but a pump-house now serves as a museum that tells the story of the base, and an oil-tank is a cinema for continuous showings of the story of the base. You have to get used to the line of rivets across the screen, but you get a real sense of the place when you visit.

When we’d left the boat, it was windy and chilly. Once we got out of the marina and into town, it was still cool, and still breezy, but the weather was much easier to ignore. We’d probably ignored it a little too much; when we got back to the boat, Second Wind was pressed against the pontoon by twenty-five knot winds. Some of our helpful neighbors had put their own fenders on our lifelines, as some of ours had been popped off the pontoon by relentless pressure. Art adjusted what he could and watched until he was sure that we were safe, and finally the winds calmed down over the next several hours.

The next was a luckier standby day, and we boarded the bus for a tour of the most important archaeological remains on Orkney. The first thing you notice along the roads (and this was also true in Shetland) is that there simply aren’t any trees. Once in a while, a decorative tree festoons a home or a farmhouse. But the rolling hills, moors, no doubt, were smooth and carpeted with bright green, interrupted on occasion by a lone wind generator or communications tower.

Orkney has an oil terminal on Scapa Bay, but invests in renewable energy sources as well. Wind generators dot the landscape (never in farms, it seemed, or even, well, gardens, more like bud vases) and they are looking at wave and tidal sources for generating power. A windmill stands defiantly within sight of the flames of the Flotta Oil Terminal.

Our driver narrated our ride, noting that the distillery we passed was owned by Chivas and a dairy farm that made the Orkney ice cream ubiquitous in Kirkwall. Later on the ride, I noted on my own when we passed the dairy farm responsible for the Grimbister cheese I’d been eating in sandwiches and salads. Indeed, cows were everywhere. Many are dairy cattle, but there were Aberdeen Angus cattle (some of the finest beef in the world comes from Scotland.) The geography is probably a haven for them, without any pesky trees in the way. Not so much for squirrels, though, which don’t appear anywhere in Orkney. The driver told us that the cattle live indoors in the winter, and they actually seem to skip for joy when they finally are let out in the spring. He told us that Orkney gets 240 days of rain, and the rest of the time it’s drizzling. Winds of 140 miles per hour aren’t unheard of. The record high temperature – ever – is 72 degrees Fahrenheit (21C). This was consistent with our experience thus far.

We rode around the Scapa Flow bay and entered the “other” Orkney town of Stromness. The hour allotted was more than enough time to eat lunch and see the entire commercial area. By now it was obvious that we’d been dealt a glorious day for an outdoor tour. The sun was shining, and we shed layer after layer. Back on the bus, we headed out to the highlight of the trip, Skara Brae.

In 1850, a severe storm blew off the tops of sand dunes near the sea and uncovered a prehistoric community, older than the Pyramids of Egypt, and older than Stonehenge. This Neolithic (about 3200-2200BC) community survived 500 years and then disappeared. This visit brought a broad smile to my face. This happened first, because it was in such great shape. Skara Brae had been covered intact for centuries, and excavated when people were already careful about such things. Secondly, so much of the construction was in stone. Yes, that’s part of why it survived so well, but that isn’t what kept making me smile. It’s just that the whole place looked like the town of Bedrock I remember from my childhood. Remember the front façade of Fred Flintstone’s house? This is exactly what this place looked like. Did Hanna-Barbera do their research here? I kept expecting Deeno, the pet dinosaur, to come bounding out of a little nook, or to see a vacuum cleaner made out of a raptor.

What was genuinely thrilling was to see the amount of data that researchers can derive from what would look to me like dirt and clay shards. The display was straightforward and innovative. From the mock-up of a residence at the visitor center (so that visitors don’t trample the actual site nearby), there’s a path leading “through time” to the Skara Brae site. Along the way, the museum has placed concrete blocks inscribed with time periods, starting with now, back a century or two to some familiar event. As you walk, you walk through time, going back to the Romans, the Greeks, and the Egyptians. You realize how long ago this must have been, and then you arrive at the site, which is a cluster of small and identical “houses” and another “room” which was probably some sort of workshop. This was the Stone Age; no iron tools available. But they know what people ate, and how they farmed, hunted and fished, and it’s even possible that some of the items found were dice for some sort of fireside game. It was thrilling to see and gratifying to know that people have been able to derive so much knowledge from this discovery. And they keep finding more of them.

We moved on to more antiquities in the area. First, we visited the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle (or henge, like Stonehenge) from 2500-2000BC. This circle features 27 megoliths (large stones), though it is believed to have once held 60. These stones are in an exactly-proportionate circle six degrees apart. Maybe they were related to the sun, to provide insight about when exactly to plant crops. Maybe they had religious significance. But the most intriguing aspect is that they exist at all. What was so important to these people that led them to this enormous undertaking which would last through the ages?

Nearby, we also stopped at the Standing Stone of Stenness, a similar 12-stone circle, though only a few remain. These stones are larger than those at the Ring of Brodgar, and might have something to do with the moon. We didn’t stop at Maes Howe, a large ancient funeral mound with yet another standing stone acting as bouncer in front of it. In all of these cases, the light – either at the summer or winter solstice – is perfectly positioned to illuminate the stones in an eerie way.

When we got back to the boat, a single biplane was performing acrobatics over the commercial harbor next door. At times, he’d swoop, frontwards, sideways, or upside down, not very far at all from the boat and its 80-foot mast.

Orkney is making an effort to keep its storytelling traditions alive, as is evidenced by events advertised in handbills on storefronts. So I decided to look into some of the traditions that once existed, and some that still endure. For example, Orcadians were traditionally very superstitious about childbirth. One concern was that the pregnant woman was targeted by evil fairy folk, specifically the trow, which, from what I can see, was like a troll. So to protect her, she’d sleep with a Bible in the bed with her as well as a knife, both of which were presumably for defense. When the baby was born, these items were transferred to the baby’s cradle. After all, what could keep a baby safer than having a large knife in its crib?

But that was the past, and now we’re so much more civilized. Or are we? I was wondering why certain shops were advertising that you should bring your blackening to them. And not the laundry, either. It turns out that the blackening is a wedding tradition. It’s a pretty raucous custom: the groom is kidnapped by his friends who immediately take off all of his clothes. This event, I might note here, takes place outdoors all year round. Grooms generally don’t look forward to this part of the wedding, it must be mentioned. His friends cover him with a mixture of treacle, flour and feathers. Bear in mind that this is a celebration and not a sentence for some awful crime. Then they take this poor naked sticky feathered guy out on the back of a truck and drive him around, making as much noise as they can with whistles, drums, and shouting. It doesn’t surprise anyone if the groom-to-be ends up in the water, no matter what time of year it is. And finally, equality has come to tradition; apparently there is a female version of the blackening as well.

We discovered a wee parade on Saturday night featuring the Kirkwall City Pipe Band. Though “pipe band” sounds a little like the materials you’d use for crafting with children, the pipe under discussion is what we foreigners would call bagpipes. Bagpipes might be of very ancient origin, and aren’t limited to Scotland, but that’s where you’d normally find them, complete with tartans and knee socks.

The body of the pipe, where the air is stored, isn’t anything gross like the organ of an animal (they save those for stuff we eat). It’s a whole animal. The various openings for the pipes were once the connections between the animal and its head, or its limbs. This tells me that music was once important enough that people would be willing to sacrifice all of the parts of the animal that they could eat for a song.

We arrived on the main street, which had been cordoned off in front of St. Magnus Cathedral, and instantly heard strains of “My Bonnie Lassie”, a song I recognized but didn’t know that it had lyrics. Art knew it, though, and so I had one of these moments when you realize that you don't know anything at all about the man you'd been married to for decades.

There were dozens of performers and maybe hundreds of onlookers, probably the whole town. The little kids were running up and down the lawn of the Cathedral, and the families of performers were making videos as the pipers and drummers marched in formation as they entertained the crowd for about an hour. Art recognized two of the songs (although he didn’t know the title or the lyrics to the second one), but some of the onlookers were singing along with many of them. Some of the performers weren’t in kilts; we assume that they were all just trainees. Some of them were quite young. The seasoned performers who led the pack, including the man with a great baton in the front of the battalion, all reminded me of the village elders in Pennsylvania who translate the prognostication of the groundhog in Punxsutawney each year. In all, it was a captivating enough show that I was delighted to see it to the end, even if I couldn’t tell one melody from another.

We’ll be leaving here for the mainland, probably tomorrow. Please don’t forget to write to us. Our Internet access hasn’t been fabulous, but getting email is no problem and we love to hear from you.

Love, Karen (and Art)