Orkney 2008

Photo: orkney. Our latest holiday destination was to the Orkney islands, where we had been hankering to go since seeing some beatiful locations on Phil Cunningham's television series 'The Music of Scotland'.

Orkney looked absolutely stunning and the reality very much lived up to our expectations. Before setting off I was weighed down with leaflets, books and information about the islands provided by my friend Jackie, who has visited the place many, many times. However, so much was going on before our trip that I hadn't managed to do much preparation other than have a brief look at the very informative website www.orkney.org. This provided me with some facts, so I knew that it was a good place to 'get away from it all, that Orkney was located off the northern tip of Scotland where the North Sea and the Atlantic meet and that it was an archipelago of 70 different islands with a population of around 20,000.

Photo: atlantis lodges. Jim had also done a little homework and had had a chat with one of his work colleagues about our trip, Jean Alcock, who recommended that we book into the Atlantis Lodges. We duly spent four nights at this brilliant self-catering accommodation situated in Finstown, overlooking the Bay of Firth. It proved to be an ideal spot, very peaceful with a lovely outlook and mid-point between the two main towns - Stromness and Kirkwall.

It was also very convenient for lots of the wonderful tourist attractions Orkney has to offer, however, so enamoured were we with our accommodation that we found ourselves eating in much more than we had planned. It was so lovely looking out on the splendid view from our window, with the water coming right up the walls of the house. The view was ever-changing with the ebb and flow of the tide and we were treated to a diverse range of wildlife and some spectacular skies.

The house was well kitted out with everything we needed and Inga, who dealt with the booking and housekeeping stuff, could not have been more friendly and helpful. It was also great value, however, the main selling point was the location. Superb. So thanks to Jean for the great tip, which we can now pass on.

Photo: lunch stop nr loch ness. We spent our last two nights were spent in the Kirkwall Hotel, which was a complete contrast to the quiet and calm of our Finstown abode. The hotel was the place where it was all happening in Orkney's capital; the hotel moves along at a fairly hectic pace and the place was fairly jumping with youngsters living it up till all hours. If you ever go there then be sure and book for dinner at the crack of dawn because if you leave it too late you won't get a table for love nor money. The food was superb and we had a lovely dinner there one evening also their breakfast porridge and blackpudding were both pretty special. The staff are very pleasant and the hotel is in a nice spot overlooking Kirkwall Harbour, however, if we ever go back, and I hope we do, we would definitely head for the Atlantis Lodges.

It's a long, long drive to Orkney (about 8 hours including 2 decent stops) so our plan was to build the journey into our holiday and not make it an ordeal. We were blessed with great weather and enjoyed the drive both ways. Going up we took the longer route through some of our favourite spots including Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe and then drove along the banks of Loch Ness to Inverness then via Wick and John 0'Groats to Gill's Bay. From there we took the short ferry crossing (1.20 mins) to St Margaret's Hope on the island of South Ronaldsay. This was about half an hours drive from our final destination at Finstown.

Photo: storehouse. We had no definite plans about where we were stopping off on our journey but we were incredibly lucky with our choices and had a lovely lunch at an award winning restaurant just south of Loch Ness. I've forgotten the name but Jim took quite a few photographs the the cottage next to it. Then we stopped off again for al fresco afternoon tea at The Storehouse at Foulis, overlooking the Cromarty Firth. A really lovely spot, where we had our first taste of the very addictive Orkney Ice Cream.

On our return journey we took the more straightforward route on the A9 to Perth, Stirling and Home. We stopped at Brora to stretch our legs and we had a very pleasant lunch at Cathie's Coffee Shop. However, it was a very misty day and we did not see much scenery until we reached Dornoch and we had another little stroll around this very pleasant place. We intended stopping off again at the House of Bruar, Blair Atholl, but by the time we got there it was closed so we stopped for dinner at Pitlochry and then had a wander around this very lively and attractive wee town. We even caught a parade complete with pipers. Nice place for a run out of Glasgow some evening, so we may go back before the summer is over.

Photo: houses stromness. We really loved Orkney, the scenery and the colours are amazing and the people are very friendly and for the main part we had lovely sunny weather. While we were there it was Shopping Week at Stromness - there was a real buzz around the town and a big effort had been put into dressing the shop windows. Some of the shops there are really lovely and my favourite was Quernstone, a beautiful shop selling knitwear, jewellery and, to my delight, some incredible buttons. I'm a sucker for great buttons so I was delighted to acquire some very unique designs to brighten my winter woollies.

One of the things that I loved about Stromness was the clear link between land and sea, with every house facing the sea having its own private access to the water from the backyard. This means that you can't actually walk along the sea front, athough, you can walk down lots of quaint little lanes and investigate small private jetties. Very unusual and appealling.

Stromness also has the most fantastic gallery The Pier Arts Centre. It's easy to understand why this building won Best Building in Scotland Award 2007, it is fabulous. We enjoyed it so much that we went along twice. The special exhibitions were super and included the work of Orkney artist and photographer Gunnie Moberg with scenes from Orkney, Shetland and the Faroe Islands. Camilla L?w's sculpture with its clean, modern lines also looked terrific in the fine setting. The Gallery is very light and airy with great views over the sea.

Photo: birsay lighthouse. Their permanent collection has been highly lauded and we spent ages wandering around admiring various pieces. Jim loved Relief by Robert Adams and i liked Allan Wallis' simple sea themed paintings. We both loved the very dramatic and colourful 'Colour Spectrum Series 2005' work by Olafur Eliasson. The staff we met, Rebeccas and Sandra, enjoyed working in such a lovely place and this was reflected in their friendly attitude. The Pier is an absolute breath of fresh air - if you get the chance to go to Orkney don't miss it.

A bit of a contrast and another favourite place that we visited more than once was Birsay, with its many attractions. This includes the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island, that you can walk to along a narrow causeway when the tide is out. It took us quite a while to reach the island as we were distracted along the way by the rockpools and seaweed. However, we finally made it and enjoyed a long hike up to the lighthouse. We walked along the cliffs being pounded by the ocean and also saw some of the historically interesting remains from the settlements of the Picts and Norsemen, who lived there many, many years ago.

Photo: seals. We returned to Birsay for another major attraction, the seals, just a short walk through the fields near The Birsay Bay Tearoom, a nice place for lunch or a coffee. Both times we visited Birsay we were very lucky with the tides and our timing was great for spotting the seals sunning themselves on the rocks and frolicking in the water. Unfortunately, the day we went along we forgot our 'better' camera but we were able to clamber over some rather treacherous territory and to get a good view of the seals and take some shots. It was fascinating watching their antics. Orkney has an amazing amount of wildlife and we saw all sorts of birds including lapwings, herons and shags but no puffins.

We could have happily wandered along beaches all day but could not ignore some of the major attrctions such as the amazing Neolithic Village at Skara Brae and the Standing Stones of Stenness. We also visited the intriguing Italian Chapel on a drive to South Ronaldsay and Burray, however, the remote beaches had a major impact and we enjoyed just driving around with no clear destination absorbing the calm and beatiful scenery bathed in the most amazing light. Our favourite beach was a tiny wee beach with silver sand that we came across on a trip to Shapinsay. It was just idyllic - a perfect place for beachcombing with lots of silver sand scattered with beautiful shells. We had the place completely to ourselves but a previous visitor had clearly been equally impressed and conveyed this by spelling out the word 'Happiness' in limpet shells on the sand.

Apart from lapping up the glorious scenery and relaxing in the peaceful atmosphere during our daytime excursions, we enjoyed a couple of very entertaining evenings. One of our destinations in Orkney was 'The Reel', a very interesting enterprise, created by The Wrigley Sisters, Hazel and Jenny, a very successful traditional music duo, who have travelled the world and achieved international acclaim. Now settled back in Orkney they have set up 'The Reel', a cafe and music shop and venue for traditional music sessions and tuition. The sisters are enthusiastic in their aims to keep traditional music alive on the Island and at week-ends you can go along in the evening and take part, or just listen to the music at the sessions. I found out about The Reel before our visit as Jim is keen to investigate many different musical styles as he moves away from his many years as a rock musician towards acoustic music and we were searching for some opportunities to listen to traditional music in Orkney.

Photo: happiness. He was lucky enough to be able to set up a coaching session with Hazel Wrigley, not only a gifted musician but an extremely pleasant woman with a talent for teaching. Jim enjoyed hearing all about the history behind the specific style of music played in Orkney and we also went along on the Saturday evening to listen to the music at one of their famous sessions. Jim was encouraged to play some of his own songs, not traditional Scottish music, but, nonetheless, very well received. The Wrigley Sisters are currently trying to acquire new premises, which would give them much more flexibility to develop musical projects and a greater range of resources in the centre of Kirkwall. Seems to me that they are a major asset to tourism on the island and also highly instrumental in keeping the art of traditional music alive in the area. So here's hoping that very soon we will hear about the establishment of 'The Cog', Centre for Music.

Apart from finding out a bit about the music of Orkney on our trip, we also learned quite a lot about local folklore, when we went along to a story-telling evening at Via Folk Arts Studio at Sandwick. A hugely enjoyable event focusing on the sea legends - it was enthusiastically presented and included music and dancing. The entertainment also illustrated just how strong the links are between the Northern Isles and their Scandinavian neighbours - a really good night out and well worth a tenner.

Orkney islands are amazing with lots to see and do and plenty of friendly folks to chat to. Apart from the spectacular scenery, the islands are steeped in history and blessed with a remarkable heritage. We only touched the tip of the iceberg in the seven days we spent there. However, we will definitely return and maybe next time visit more of the islands and perhaps even venture further north to Shetland.