“This bloody town’s a bloody cuss
No bloody trains, no bloody bus,
And no one cares for bloody us
In bloody Orkney…
All bloody clouds, and bloody rains,
No bloody kerbs, no bloody drains,
The Council’s got no bloody brains,
In bloody Orkney…
Best bloody place is bloody bed,
With bloody ice on bloody head,
You might as well be bloody dead,
In bloody Orkney.”
That’s how a sailor posted at Scapa Flow during World War Two viewed Orkney.
Luckily I don’t hold such a dim view, though my reason for visiting Orkney was pretty bleak.
It all stems back to a murder case I covered in my reporting days – that of 26-year-old Orcadian backpacker Karen Aim, who was tragically killed in New Zealand in 2009 by 15-year-old Jahche Broughton.
Something about that case always haunted me, perhaps more so now, as I, like her, find myself on the other side of he world, living out of a backpack and relying on the goodwill of others.
As for being in Orkney, you really do get the sense that you are a million miles away from home.
Given Orkney’s remoteness, I opted (very reluctantly given my track record with tours) for a day tour from Inverness.
Unsurprisingly, when I board the bus it’s me and seven golden oldies, two of whom discover during the day that they share the same fetish of dressing up and pretending they live in a Jane Austin book.
But this tour strays from my previous tour experiences in that our guide actually likes people.
He was a Scottish chap who pretty much didn’t stop talking the whole day and broke up his encyclopaedic history lesson on Orkney with a series of one liners, including:
– ‘The Orcadian farmers pour whiskey on their grass… That way it comes up half cut.’
– ‘The Chinese just released a new cook book… 100 ways to wok your dog.’
– ‘Here’s where the old pig hospital was… They used to come here to get cured.’
He also told us there’s no trees on Orkney because it’s too windy and that Orkney’s only chicken farm was an epic failure as all the chickens blew away.
I’m not sure if he was lying about the chicken story, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise me given I visited in summer and this was the forecast.
Not being one for researching a place before I get there, I didn’t realise how bleak the weather was going to be, so I spent the day freezing my arse off and wishing I’d packed my puffer jacket.
I hate to imagine what it’s like in winter!
As for what to do in Orkney, luckily it’s dripping with history.
It’s home to Skara Brae – a large stone-built Neolithic settlement dating back to around 3200BC.
It has its own Stonehenge, called the Ring o’ Brodgar, which is actually older than Stonehenge.
And as much as I’m cathedral/temple/mosqued-out, Orkney is home to my new favourite place of worship.
It’s called the Italian Chapel and it was lovingly built by Italian Prisoners of War during World War Two.
The building itself is a simple bang together of two Nissen huts.
And inside, the chapel is decorated with whatever the Italians could get their hands on – the candleholders are made from old corn beef tins, the floor is from leftover concrete from their work constructing the Churchill Barriers, the walls are painted to look like bricks and the church bell was salvaged from one of Orkney’s many shipwrecks.
While I’m on the subject of shipwrecks – Orkney is littered with them, including the remains of the scuttled German fleet after World War One, the British battleship HMS Royal Oak, and many others that poke out of the water around the Churchill Barriers.
All in all I found Orkney to be a ruggedly beautiful place where you well and truly feel like you’ve reached the ends of the earth.
In many ways I imagine that’s how Karen Aim must have felt when she was in New Zealand.
I just pray, I, unlike her, will get to go home.