Sailing North Atlantic Islands: Orkneys, Shetlands and Faroes

Posted by Pat on June 2, 2015 in Travel |

23 – 26 May 2015

5000-year-old hauntingly beautiful, wind-swept village of Skara Brae.

The Sea Spirit sails relative calm waters around Scotland then heads north to the Orkneys. This is new territory for me and an area of the world heretofore not on my bucket list. However, this particular cruise’s itinerary is my reason for signing on. My next stop is Kirkwall on the Orkney Archipelago. Seas are calm and gray, skies are flat gray, but temperatures are pleasant. A wonderful environment for sailing.

Kirkwall is a small village, more Scandinavian than Scottish, located on Mainland, the largest of the more than 70 islands of the Orkney Archipelago, a few degrees north of Scotland. First mentioned in an Orkneyinga saga in 1040, Kirkwall was founded in 1305 and has a colorful Norse history. Towering over the small town is the magnificent sandstone St. Magnus Cathedral, built by the Vikings during their 500 year reign over these islands.

We are driven through hilly green countryside, told Spring is late, rains have left fields soggy, and sparse grass exists for cattle and sheep, many of which are remain in winter quarters (huge stone barns). Newborn lambs are shivering in their thin wool coats. The rolling landscape is tranquil but hardy. Stark, treeless terrain accentuates the ever-present harsh winds; the highest point of land is 1000′. We follow the coastline around Scapa Flow, made famous for its role in both World Wars. It’s an immense body of water used as a British naval base and site of the sinking of the German fleet after WW I.

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Stone houses and barns and miles of rock walls

We reach the Neolithic heartland of Orkney, an area designated as a World Heritage Site due to its wealth of pre-historic archaeology. The Orkneys are predominately sandstone. Over 400 million years of erosion have left the sand and rocks I see all over these islands in the form of huge houses, farm buildings and pasture walls. Volcanic layers of basalt are everywhere.

Our big bus maneuvers narrow roads to the hauntingly beautiful, wind-swept moors of Skara Brae. This 5000-year-old village has been retrieved from the sand dunes which buried it after inhabitants moved elsewhere. Remarkable dwellings, built of quarried dry-stacked stone, are below ground level and seem cozyily protected from sea winds. With no trees and hardly a bush for a wind break, building recessed homes seems quite sensible. The Visitor Center has a fine interpretation center on life at Skara Brae.

Surrounding farms are idyllic with huge stone houses and barns, miles of pasture enclosed with miles of rock walls, countless sheep and curious Shetland horses. It is cool and very breezy, white caps paint the seas. This is a tough land that demands tough people to survive and prosper. No one knows why the inhabitants of Skara Brae left but my guess is the women got sick of being blown about and combing the snarls from their wind-swept hair.

Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar

Passing the Standing Stones of Stenness, we stop at the Ring of Brodgar, a ceremonial circle of stones dating back 5000 years. The grounds are wet from rains, the wind blows, but the site is fascinating. Yes, it is easy to compare to Stonehenge. However, there appears to be no link. Little is known of its builders or its use. The stones, thin slabs about 15-25′ tall, were quarried from the area and set into a circular pattern. Covered in lichen and moss, they stand silently, refusing to divulge their secrets. Depending upon their stories, it may be better this way.

St. Magnus Cathedral

St. Magnus Cathedral

Returning to Kirkwall, I tour Viking-built St. Magnus Cathedral, a huge sandstone edifice considered to be the finest medieval building in the north of Scotland. Inside is the memorial and “Book of Memories” commemorating those sailors who went down with a torpedoed British ship in Scapa Flow in WW II. The old cemetery has to be skipped as the rains begin to fall, adding to the gray atmosphere of the Orkneys but detracting from my desire to roam about.

Unique kelp-eating sheep race about North Ronaldsay

Unique kelp-eating sheep race about North Ronaldsay

We sail north to the Shetland Island of North Ronaldsay. Winds and seas are vigorous, to say the least. We ‘yippe-ki-yay-ki-yo’ zodiacs to a wet landing on the northeast end of the island at Dennis Head. There is an old 1789 lighthouse and a new 1854 lighthouse. Between them are dozens of skittish, kelp-eating sheep. They appear unaccustomed to visitors with very bright orange jackets, or perhaps associate orange with sheep shearing. Sheep run everywhere, leaping over their own shadows, racing to one end of the pasture only to reverse direction to run back. Perhaps they just show off their racing skills.

The wind is brisk, the racing sheep fast. I walk among rock walls and over rocky beach. This island will never lack for rocks. Furthest north of the South Orkneys, this low island was inhabited by Vikings and several Neolithic archeological sites remain. One is the burial site for Halfdan Longlegs, son of a Norwegian king, who in 1200AD murdered his father’s friend. Halfdan fled to Orkney thinking this a fine place to live, even tho it was governed by the son of the man he killed. Halfwit move. I won’t repeat the gruesome details of Viking retribution suffered by Halfdan. Travel to North Ronaldsay and seek out his story.

A rain squall rushed through, the old lighthouse moaned to itself, the tide went out stranding us for an extra hour with the crazy leaping sheep, and a group of Orcas passed by looking for an easy lunch. Eventually, Flipper, our zodiac driver, easily outrace them over the waves and joyously bounce us back to our ship.

Afternoon finds me off the Shetland’s Fair Isle. Swells are inundating the zodiac platform and making boarding dangerous so we swap positions with the Ocean Nova, another visiting ship. Ironically, it was on the Ocean Nova that I sailed around the Antarctic in 2007. Two geographic poles coming together for me.

Atlantic Puffins

Atlantic Puffins

The reason I risk huge swells and don waterproof pants, bright orange jacket and clunky walking boots is for the Atlantic Puffin. The cliffs are home to a huge puffin colony. These cute little birds are as interested in us as we in them. Busy watching us, gossiping with their life-mate about our fashionable coats no doubt, dirt flies everywhere as they ready their burrow for the egg of the season. Puffins have a colorful, bright bill and neck plumage so maybe they are interested in us because our orange coloring matches theirs. Their enemy is the nasty skua which avoids all orange-coated visitors and puffins know it. As long as we gawk and take photos, puffins know they are safe to waddle about, visit neighboring burrows and play. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship. Not the most graceful of flyers, puffins loose their large bill and most of their bright color in winter. These monogamous birds can also stuff up to 61 fish crosswise into their bill.

Unfortunately for these little entertainers, they are also a source of food for people of these islands.

DSC09404The Shetlands are islands of unusual land formations; steep and rugged cliffs thrust from the sea with almost golf course type greens atop their flat tops, angling like a lovingly-baked birthday cake with green icing that has collapsed from the center. Thousands of puffins and terns nest in these cliffs. Sheep also feed along these steep cliffs, sometimes loosing their fate to gravity. The most isolated of Britain’s islands, Fair Isle is 3 miles long and 1.5 wide with 70 tough people living here. Yet, in this most isolated of spots, I meet Laurie, our expedition leader to the Antarctic in 2007. Small world. And in the Shetlands, always a windy one.

It’s over 210 nautical miles of rough seas and 22′ swells to the Faroe Islands. Swaying, pitching, riding the swells, we bounce and slap our route across the North Atlantic Sea to Torshavn, the capital of the Faroes. Founded between the 9th and 10th centuries by Vikings and as an exclusive trade route between the Faroes and Norway, it was not until the 19th century that free trade with the world was opened. Now, fishing and tourism are the main economy.

Eighteen green islands in the North Atlantic, the Faroese are semi-autonomous from Denmark with their own flag and currency. Their layered cliffs are young, arising from volcanic activity some 50 million years ago. Masses of volcanoes created this huge plateau of basalt then erosion, weather and seas broke up the layers of basalt to create the 18 dramatically shaped Faroe Islands.

Kirkjubøur

Kirkjubøur

We dock in Torshavn, capital of the Faroes. A scenic drive past streams, sheep pastures and craggy mountains takes us to Kirkjubøur, a tiny hamlet of 40 people or so with fantastic views of a bay and its mountainous neighboring islands. Founded in the 12th century, village highlights include an active church built in the 1100s and the massive gothic ruins of St. Magnus Cathedral which is being slowly restored.

The Roykstovan Museum is covered with the traditional turf roof and made of logs said to have drifted all the way from Norway over 700 years ago. The building has served as the home of farmers for centuries and occupied by the same Faroese family for 17 generations. In fact, I can hear the children playing in the next room as I tour the museum and its artifacts.

The ruins, bay views and backdrop of towering cliffs are spectacular. But it is the Highland Cows that probably capture most of the photos taken – cows and attempts to get that perfect photo of the countless twin newborn lambs prancing, jumping and running with joy as they test their new legs and freedom.

Torshavn

Torshavn

Returning to Torshavn, I stroll narrow lanes of the old part of town called “Tinganes” with its colorful warehouses and small wooden red, green, black, and yellow turf-roofed private homes – cozy homes but expensive real estate. The sparkling blue bay and yacht harbor is filled with rowing clubs and sail boats zipping over the water. But it’s Whit Sunday so this charming town is all but closed. I see few dogs and rarely a cat. Instead, pets seem to be represented by lambs. DSC09525Adorable, a pair, one white one black, cry and scratch at the bright blue door of an Icelandic cottage, wishing to get in or papa to come out. Soon, he appears and the lambs jump about like puppies until, each tucked under an arm, papa starts off for a walk. Idyllic picture as long as I don’t think too hard about Christmas dinner.

All this charm and idyll is lost upon me as winds pick up. Tomorrow’s excursion is already cancelled because of 50 knot gusts at our destination. Ah, Icelandic weather is like a temperamental menopausal woman. So, we remain in port overnight. Too bad town is shut tight. Maybe I can return to watch the lambs.

It’s 6:30 am Tuesday May 26 so we must be in the Faroes. Sea Spirit seeks a place to land, much like the Vikings centuries ago. With mountains of basalt rock on both sides, we sail between fiords of tall rocky cliffs and sprouting green grass. Having snowed last week, many peaks wear snow caps. Everyone speaks of a late, cold and wet spring. Spots of blue appear overhead but it is generally misty and cold.

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Quiet but charming Elduvik

Elduvik, or “fire bay,” lies along the deep Funningsfjord, backdropped with the highest mountain range in the archipelago. However, when I say “highest” it’s relative as no mountains on Iceland are that high, the tallest around 4500 feet. Across the water are salmon farms and what was the very first Viking settlement. We land our zodiacs in a stunning natural gorge, once the sole landing spot for locals. From here I scramble up slippery rocks and stairs to the pathway leading into the village. Where are the people? What I see are colorful houses, earthen dugouts for lambs and storage, a church, cemetery, and post office. Lambs and geese abound, people not so much. A road does connect this remote village of 50 or so with Torshavn.

After a fantastic BBQ served in the dining room and thankfully not the windy, wet deck, we sail past what was to be our afternoon landing at Gjógv, “the ravine,” a tiny village of 25 residents at the top of a deep and narrow ravine. The seas and winds are too energetic for zodiac landings so we witness cliffs, rock outcroppings and shores from a distance, listening to Icelandic legends of “the giant and his wife” and similar Viking tales about the formation of these ruggedly sculptured islands. Winds blow waterfalls to bits.

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Cliffs, “the giant and his wife” and waterfalls that don’t reach the sea

This is the northern part of Eysturoy Island. At one time, 50 million years ago, this part of the Faroes were two large volcanic islands. The departure of the ice and rising of ocean levels created the scenic fjords and narrow gorges of the 18 islands of today’s Faroes. A road and countless tunnels both under the mountains and the fjords now connects these islands and villages, once isolated from each other.

Icelanders, according to one survey, are the happiest people in the world. Happy people love their country and describe it with pride. Perhaps that is why they describe their ‘mountains’ as “6000 meters shorter than Mt. Everest,” a new and interesting perspective to mountain life. I guess that means I used to live in and hike mountains that were 23,000′ shorter than Mt. Everest. My current home is 29,000 feet short of Everest’s peak, the “top of the world.” Gives one pause for thought, if nothing else.

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