Suitcase and World: Scotland! The Shetland and Orkney Islands.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Scotland! The Shetland and Orkney Islands.

St. Ninian's Isle and the tombolo connecting it to the mainland, Shetland Islands
(Photo by ThomWi. Licensed under Public Domain)

When I first started giving thought to the itinerary for this trip, I turned to the country's official tourism website for ideas.  By the way, that website is so informative that that is pretty much the primary website I used to plan this trip.  Another very useful website is Historic Environment Scotland which provides a lot of information on historic sites (there are lots!) throughout Scotland.

But I digress.  Back to the trip itself.

After spending countless hours perusing web, I came to the conclusion that the best of Scotland lies in the Highlands and Islands and so that's where I shifted the focus of this trip to.  I then used the two sites, mentioned in the opening paragraphy to do my actual planning.

I quickly learned that the small country is comprised of nearly 800 islands!  They are grouped into four clusters of islands - the Shetland I and Orkney Islands which collectively make up what is known as the Northern Isles, the Outer Hebrides and the Inner Hebrides which also includes the so called Small Isles.

I knew from the get go that we would want to go to the each of the four clusters and so with that in mind, planning began.

Lerwick, Shetland Islands
(Photo by Gilles Messian. Licensed under CC BY 2.0)
The Northern Isles are served by NorthLink Ferries and their website is very easy to use.  You do need to keep in mind that if you are an early planner like me, the schedules for the coming season are not available until around December of the previous year. I simply subscribed to the site to get notification of when we could buy tickets and I pretty much did that immediately just to get that task out of the way.  The tricky part about the schedule is the day and time that the ferries actually sail as the ferry that you might want to take does not sail every day to the destination that you want to go to so you do need to have some flexibility in your itinerary.

Shetland Islands

Our Northern Isles trip begins with a bus ride from Edinburgh to Aberdeen. From there, we board an overnight ferry to Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands.  We'll spend a few days exploring the Shetlands.  I have rented a car for the time that we are in the Shetlands.  Even after months of research and planning, I still don't have a firm itinerary so we will be paying a visit to the iScotland Visitors Center to get information and nail down a daily itinerary.  The Shetland Islands also publishes a very useful tourist website at

When it comes to the Shetland Islands, there are three things for certain.  The first is lots of spectacular scenery.  Our car and map will take us to many scenic places. I just hope the weather is nice....not a cloudy day on our nature days would be good.  Fingers and toes crossed.

The second is that we will be driving from Lerwick down south to Sumburgh Head.  Why?  Because that's where one can easily spot puffins!  Yes, it's all about the puffins!  There is a Puffin Cam that live streams all the action on a section of the cliff sides where the seabirds, including the puffins, return to nest.  I've looked at the feed several times, over the course of the past couple of months, and I've not detected a puffin but then again, the camera is positioned just far away enough that it's a bit difficult to make out the species of the birds unless you are an expert and I am not.

(Photo by Nigel Duncan. Licensed under CC BY 2.0)
The third thing for certain is that we will be visiting Jarlshof which are the ruins of a Neolithic and Norse settlement.  This will be our opportunity to learn more about the ancient history of the Shetland Islands, which given their proximity to Norway has a lot of Nordic influence which carries through to today.

It is believed that the Shetland Islands were inhabited by Neolithic farmers around 3000 BC, if not early though if there were people in Shetland very much before then, the evidence hasn’t yet been found.

Before the Vikings invaded the islands around 800 AD, they were occupied by the Picts during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods. You can read about their history on Wikipedia.

As the Vikings consolidated their position, they brought Christianity to the islands.  As well, Shetland became the northern third of the great earldom that was based in Orkney during the Viking golden age. The Orkneyinga Saga tells tales of that period and contains numerous references to Shetland.

Norse rule of Shetland ended as the result of a marriage treaty in 1468 between James III of Scotland and Margaret, a Danish princess. The Danish struggled to raise the funds for Margaret’s dowry, so that first Orkney and then Shetland were mortgaged to Scotland. Shetland was annexed to Scotland in 1471 and despite several attempts by the Danes to reclaim the islands, they have remained a part of Scotland ever since.

Nearby Jarlshof is another ancient site called Old Scatness.  According to the website, it will not be open on the days we're in Shetland but maybe we can drive by and see it from a distance.  I intend to get more info on this from the Visitors Center in Lerwick.

Shetland Pony
(Photo by Miles Wolstenholme.  Licensed under CC BY 2.0)
One of the things I hope that will happen while we are in Shetland are that we will spot the iconic Shetland ponies.  They are just too darn cute and from all that I've read, can be seen pretty much grazing in fields along the roads so we just have to keep our eyes out.  I think all the ponies are domesticated so I am not anticipating on seeing any wild herds and if those do exist, they will not be in truly remote areas of the islands....not any place where we will be.

Small horses have been kept on the Shetland Isles since the Bronze Age. People who lived on the islands probably later crossed the native stock with ponies imported by Norse settlers. Shetland ponies range in height at the withers from approximately 70 centimeters (28 inches) to a permitted maximum of 107 centimeters (42 inches). The harsh weather of the islands have given them extremely thick coats which can be almost every color, including skewbald and piebald (called pinto in the United States), but are mainly black, chestnut, bay, grey, palomino, dun, roan, cremello, and silver dapple. Registered shetlands are not leopard spotted (Appaloosa), nor do they carry the champagne gene, though these colors are sometimes seen in Shetland-sized crossbreds.
Shetland ponies are short and stocky but extremely strong for their size. They were first used for pulling carts, carrying peat, coal and other items, and plowing farm land. Then, as the Industrial Revolution increased the need for coal in the mid-19th century, thousands of Shetland ponies traveled to mainland Britain to be pit ponies, working underground hauling coal, often for their entire (often short) lives. Coal mines in the eastern United States also imported some of these animals.

Today, one of the most famous Shetland ponies in Scotland serves as the mascot of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. He is Lance Corporal Cruachan IV and when in his uniform, he is conducts his duties alongside his human counterparts.

Lance Corporal Cruachan IV and the Royal Regiment of Scotland standing at attention as Queen Elizabeth II inspects the guards outside the gates to Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

In 2012,  a three year old black Shetland pony called Cruachan IV stepped into the experienced and respected horseshoes of Cruachan III, who retired at the grand old age of twenty-three.  His first official appearance was at the 1 SCOTS Homecoming Parades in April 2013. 

Cruachan IV currently lives at Redford Barracks, in Edinburgh, Scotland with his best friend Cruachan III and they are looked after by a Pony Major.   Here's a video of how Cruachan IV is readied for his day of duties.

During ceremonial occasions, Cruachan IV wears an in-hand bridle with a snaffle bit. His saddlecloth is tartan (Government Tartan 1A) and gold, with an embroidered badge of The Royal Regiment of Scotland. Over his saddlecloth he wears a black leather roller and crupper.

He has a stripe of a Lance Corporal and two medals, one for the Regiment’s service in Afghanistan and the other for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

The other thing that I hope will happen while we are in Lerwick is that I get to meet a woman named Ina Irvine.

A few months back, I did a post on my Facebook page about a Fair Isle sweater that I knitted for myself decades ago.   It wasn't until I did the Facebook post that I went back to the book and saw a page listing all the designers that had contributed to the book.  Imagine that for decades I never knew who designed the pattern that I have been in love with from the moment I laid eyes on it!  It was then that I found Ina's name.  Then began the web search for a woman named Ina Irvine.  After a bit of searching and crosschecking I found her on Facebook! She lives in Lerwick and so I decided to reach out to her to tell her the story of my sweater and to invite her for a cup of tea or coffee.  I just want to meet the woman who shared her artistry with fellow knitters and thank her.  So far, I've not heard back from here but I'm thinking that she's not using Facebook Messenger so I will try another avenue to see I can make contact.  I don't know when I will ever be back in Lerwick after this visit so this is my one and only shot and I am giving it my best try!

Orkney Islands
From Lerwick, we will board a night ferry to Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands.  We arrive close to midnight but thankfully, our Airbnb apartment is located just a short walk from the ferry dock.

I have rented a car for two days I have already planned an itinerary that includes drive routes for those two days.  Each day's itinerary is color coded making it easier to identify on the map.  I'm a bit obsessive when it comes to trip planning details like this 😀

We will pick up the car the day after we arrive into Kirkwall and my plan is to, right off the bat, do the historic circuit that will take us around to see many of the ancient sites that dot the main island.  You can find a complete list of the sites at

Skara Brae
(Photo by Wknight94Licensed under CC by SA 3.0)
We will definitely be visiting Skara Brae, the ruins of an ancient Neolithic settlement that is by many accounts, the largest of such sites in all of Europe.  Skara Brae consisted of eight clustered houses, and as occupied from approximately 3180 BC to about 2500 BC.  It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.

The Neolithic village of Skara Brae was discovered in the winter of 1850 when wild storms ripped the grass from a high dune known as Skara Brae and exposed the ruins of ancient stone buildings. The discovery proved to be the best-preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe.

Skara Brae was inhabited approximately 5,000 years ago - before the Egyptian pyramids were built, and flourished for centuries before construction began at Stonehenge. It is not only the age of Skara Brae alone that makes it so remarkable and so important but also the degree to which it has been preserved which includes the fact that there are remains of what appears to be furniture.

All the houses were built of flat stone slabs and were set into large mounds of midden (household trash) essentially making them subterranean homes which is smart given the harsh winter weather conditions in the region. The houses were linked by covered passages.

The interior of each house comprised a single room with a floor space of roughly 40sq m. The ‘fitted’ stone furniture within each room comprised a dresser, two box-beds, a centrally situated hearth and small tanks set into the floor, perhaps for preparing food.
The villagers were farmers, hunters and fishermen. No weapons have been found at Skara Brae and the settlement was not in a readily defended location, suggesting a peaceful life for the villagers.

Village life appears to have ended around 2,500 BC. No one knows why. Lucky for us, we get to visit Skara Brae and get a glimpse into what it was like to live here 5,000 years ago!

Ring of Brogdar
(Photo by Stephen McKay. Licensed under CC BY 2.0)
Another of the historic places on my Orkney itinerary is the Ring of Brodgar Stone Circle and Henge, an enormous Neolithic ceremonial site that is generally believed to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. The site is a massive stone circle, originally consisting of 60 stones – 36 survive today. There are at least 13 prehistoric burial mounds.

By definition, the Ring of Brodgar is a henge, considered one of the largest in the UK. So exactly what is a henge?

A henge is a Neolithic period structure. It is a roughly circular or oval-shaped flat area of ground enclosed and delimited by a boundary earthwork - characteristically an external earth bank surrounding an internal ditch that in turn surrounds a central flat area measuring at least than 20 meters (66 feet) in diameter. Henges sometimes, but by no means always, featured stone or timber circles, and circle henge is sometimes used to describe these structures.

Most henges have either a single ditch or a pair of concentric ditches surrounding the central area though there are exceptions to that design arrangement. At the Ring of Brodgar, the ditch surrounds the standing stones.

The soil and bedrock taken from the ditch was used to build the henge bank which generally lay outside the ditch. The one exception to this structural design is Stonehenge which actually has an external ditch and an internal bank.

The sizes of the banks varied proportionally with the size of the ditches. Typically, however, they seem to have been fairly broad at the base, five meters to 30 meters wide and up to five meters high.
Access to the central area was via formal entrances through the earthwork. Most henges have either one entrance or two opposed entrances.

The original purpose and function of henge monuments is not fully understood however, because of the arrangement of external banks and internal ditches it is generally accepted that they are ceremonial or ritual monuments.

We'll also be visiting the Standing Stones of Stenness, a smaller henge located just a short distance from the Ring of Brodgar.  Stenness has fewer standing stones that Brodgar but each is much larger in size making the site easily visible from a far distance.  You can read more about the Stenness here.

After a full day of seeing ruins, ruins, and more ruins, we will have a day to drive out to see the real countryside of the Orkneys.  I've not marked down a lot of places so the idea will be to just have a relaxing day.

On day three, we will be doing something completely different.  I don't know how I came upon it, but I discovered that you can take the world's shortest commercial flight in the Orkneys.  The moment I read this, I knew we had to do it so I am literally planning an entire day's itinerary around 2 minute flight!

From Kirkwall, we will take a bus to the airport and board a Loganair flight to the remote island of Papa Westray, landing at 9:54am.  We will be met by our guide, Jonathan Ford, who will take us on a day tour around Papa Westray.  He will then bring us back to the airport in time to catch our 4:52pm Loganair flight which will land in the equally remote island of Westray at 4:54pm - 2 minutes later! Depending on weather conditions, the whoppingly far 2.8 km (1.7 mile) flight will take between 75 and 180 seconds! Imagine arriving one minute later than scheduled because of bad weather. The plane only has six seats so I will be running to score the one up front so I can video the entire flight. Once we land in Westray, we have a 7 minute layover before we catch our flight back to Kirkwall and from there, we catch the bus back into town.  All in day's travel and it's always an adventure!

Stromness, Orkney
(Photo by Geoff Wong. Licensed under CC BY 2.0)
Like Lerwick, Kirkwall is not exactly a booming metropolis filled with tons of tourist attractions.  In fact, I think we can probably cover all the main sights in about 2 hours and that might be stretching it.  This leaves us time to explore another town on the main island - Stromness.  I've not done any research into what we can see and do there as I figure we can take on this task while we're in Kirkwall.   Unlike the photo though, we won't be seeing the town from the vantage point of the water as we will be arriving via public bus from Kirkwall.

All toll, we'll be in the Shetland and Orkney Islands for a week.  I know we can easily spend more time in both places but if we use our time wisely, we'll make the most of our short stay.  I cannot wait to go!