Some touristy stuff in Orkney…

Unsurprisingly the weather dictates a fair chunk of life up here and since this blog is not intended to be a (very) rough guide, what follows is just a random collection of thoughts and impressions in no particular order…

So what have we learned?…that modern scotch whisky could not exist without bourbon or maybe sherry and that prior to someone buying a load of old casks to keep their raw whisky in, it was just that…raw and tasteless. Except that the tiny Scapa Distillery let us taste some of their raw spirit from the heart of the distillation and uniquely they had managed to keep the malted barley flavour. It was very different from what we now know as scotch…and very nice…and unobtainable. Scotch whisky can only be called scotch if it has been matured for at least 3 years…and nicked flavours from the Spanish or Americans! The other slightly disappointing fact…the barley for many distilleries (in this part of Scotland at least) is all malted in Berwick on Tweed (in England!) and then brought up in lorries….disappointing fact number 2 is that the raw spirit is then tankered back down south to be put into casks…and then brought back up for ageing here. Not quite as romantic as we thought. However, the tastes are still great and we’ll keep on drinking the stuff.

A windy walk out round the headland opposite Hoy did little to reassure us for the passage out of Scapa Flow when we finally depart for the Western Isles. More strong currents with ‘roosts’ (local word for rough water and overfalls) means careful planning about both tide and wind strengths and directions. Local sailors are, as always, incredibly helpful and reassuring, but also warn about getting it wrong!

The residents of the graveyard have a wild and windy view over to Hoy which, whatever the weather, seems to have a cloud topping giving it an odd volcanic appearance.

Our trip to Inverness noted a surfeit of barbers (Orcadians are much less well coiffed) and queues for the ice-cream parlours…this bit also seems to be an Orcadian predilection. In the middle of nowhere for us (but centre of the world for the many Neolithic Orcadians at Maeshowe) there is a bungalow selling ice-creams. It turns out not only to be open, but in the 35 minutes we sit there waiting for the bus, there is a continual stream of people coming in…some to sit like us, others just to get take away…they are also locals. Perhaps they are closer to their Neolithic roots than we think.

We have been hoping to find local music on our trip. Half expecting fiddlers or pipers to be sat in cosy pubs by the peat fire. This was in part rectified by an outfit called Rack and Ruin at the Royal Hotel in Stromness. They are from Cullivoe on Yell in Shetland…and they play mostly blue-grassy covers mixed with some Scottish, Shetland and Irish folk. The usual chaos of pub bands, involving cables worthy of the Stones and enough duct tape to stretch across the Pentland Firth, eventually comes together around 10 and the place starts jumping. A slick ‘sting’ operation by (Wives? Mothers?) the merchandising crew involves one flirting shamelessly with drunk men (and women) while the other sizes them up and throws a perfectly fitting T Shirt across the room.

A deft move and the mark is left wearing the shirt and fishing for yet another tenner…she helps!

At 1.30 they are either out of T shirts  or songs or both. The whole pub sings a Shetlandish song and then spills out into the street. Drunk, rowdy but never lairy and a great evening even for this folk-sceptic.


One thought on “Some touristy stuff in Orkney…

  1. Just for the record, unlike Scapa, Highland Park are one of the few distileries that still malt their own barley – although the barley they use is not grown in Orkney. Grain crops do not ripen well this far north and H.P. use barley from Aberdeenshire. The H.P. malting process uses heat and smoke from local peat to halt the germination process and preserve the sugars in the grain that produce the alcohol. Unlike peat from many other parts, the peat in Orkney is formed mainly from heather roots and stalks rather than pine woods and Highland Park maintain the it it the Heather peat smoke which gives HP whiskey its unique flavour!


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