Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Unsung Places: Orkney in the North Sea

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Islands were sliding by in the North Sea as I looked out the window of our small plane. First the isles of Sanday and Eday, then Westray to the left and finally our destination, tiny North Ronaldsay, came into view. I sat there thinking, I'm going to an island that's only four miles [6.4 kilometers] long and two [3.2] wide, in an eight-seat airliner sponsored by the local distillery, to see an island where they have a stone fence built specifically to keep the sheep out on the rocky beach so they'll only eat seaweed. And the hotel on the island is a bird observatory run by the doctor for the National Health Service who has a total of some 60 inhabitants to care for.

I couldn't help thinking: I've got to tell somebody about this place.

The place is Orkney. Seventy islands (20 inhabited) off the northeast coast of Scotland—and a lot more skerries and holms than you'd care to count—with a history as old as the Pyramids. I've been coming back ever since I did a story on Orkney for National Geographic with writer Bill Bryson over a decade ago. For a place that is nearly treeless it sure gets under people's skins.

Perhaps it is the endless quirks and oddities that only island life seems to generate with such grace and profusion that makes these places endearing. Start with the fact that the main island is, incongruously, called "Mainland" and then go on unfettered by logic from there. But Orkney's trump card is history: Stone Age history, Viking history, World War naval history (both World War I and World War II, when submarines sank battleships in Scapa Flow and the whole German fleet was scuttled on one day).

Here's a short don't-miss list for photographers:

Ring of Brodgar. Marching like giants, the stones standing on this great henge were erected 4,500 years ago, part of a huge Neolithic spiritual world still mysterious and fascinating. Just down the road about a mile [1.6 kilometers] are the Stones of Stenness, itself a major stone circle. And along the road between these two you'll see more standing stones in the yard of a nice lady who lives there between Loch Stenness and Loch Harry. In other words, not a bad place for photography.

Skara Brae. Stone Age folk were living in this village long before Stonehenge was built. Preserved by drifting sands for nearly 5,000 years it was finally discovered in 1850. Inside the houses stone-built "dressers" still held everyday items like combs. You can see where the families slept and the nearby sea where they fished. Few sites evoke this sort of human-scale connection across time.

Tomb of the Eagles. Farmer Ronald Simison discovered this rich tomb in 1958 while sitting in his pasture. Incredibly he then eventually excavated it himself and will still, today, take you on a tour into the heart of the Stone Age burial. His farmhouse museum still has some of the skulls he discovered.

St. Magnus Cathedral. Orkney is part of Scotland, but don't be fooled: these islands are Viking territory. Their great monument is St. Magnus Cathedral in the island's largest city, Kirkwall. Towering over the narrow streets, the red sandstone cathedral honors Orkney's patron saint, an early Viking who allowed himself to be martyred (an ax blow to the head did the trick) for the sake of peace. (His skull resides in one of the hulking columns and there is a good beer, Skullsplitter, brewed in the islands.) And Kirkwall itself would entice most photographers.

Broch of Gurness. Just a few miles down the road from Skara Brae is the next generation of ancient village, the Broch of Gurness, "only" about 2,000 years old. Broch builders of the era built this stunning stone tower house, which then attracted the people whose huddled houses surround it. The view across to nearby Raasay invites you to take the ferry over and explore its numerous tombs.

Island hopping (by ferry). From Kirkwall the island ferries simply beg you to go island hopping. Go up to Shapinsay to see Balfour Castle or to Westray for fresh fish in the village of Pierowall and a visit to Noup Head where seabirds nest on the cliffs above the lighthouse. Most of the ferries run by Orkney Ferries are RORO, as in roll-in, roll-off, meaning you can take your car. But the ferry to North Ronaldsay is still a lift-on, lift-off service: you drive your car onto a net, which a crane then lifts onto the deck of the ferry, where it sits alongside the pens of cattle and containers of groceries being delivered to the islanders once a week.

Island hopping (by air). Perhaps just for sport consider island hopping by air aboard Loganair's inter-island service. That's how we got to North Ronaldsay, whose 60 folk depend on the three daily flights. Roundtrip airfare was $20! You might find yourself sitting next to the Royal Bank of Scotland's "flying banker" or middle school students taking the flight from their home on Papa Westray to school on Westray, barely a mile away. This flight is the world's shortest scheduled airline route: 96 seconds from takeoff to landing. The Highland Park distillery sponsors the air service, so the aircraft carry the whisky brand's black paint scheme and logo. You'll want a picture of yourself with the plane. And maybe with the farmer who doubles as ground crew on North Ronaldsay.

Highland Park. Nobody argues the point: Highland Park is one of the world's great whiskies, perfectly reflecting the character of its island roots. But besides that they do really good distillery tours, part of the lore and legend of Kirkwall for 200 years now, busy at work every day.

Italian Chapel. Far from home during World War II, Italian prisoners of war on Orkney transformed a lowly military building into an ornately painted, trompe l'oeil Catholic church. Restored and beloved, it sits just off the road by one of the "Churchill Barriers," which the prisoners built to keep German submarines out of Scapa Flow.

Stromness. In Viking times this small town was called Hamnavoe, meaning "safe harbor." The layout of the town reflects ancient seafaring roots, the houses clinging to the harbor, the incredibly narrow main street behind them a seeming afterthought now lined with some very trendy shops. Whaling ships departed this village and Hudson's Bay men brought back Native American brides from the Canadian frontier. Don't be surprised to see sailing ships tucked in by the ferry back to mainland Scotland.