Since moving to Orkney, I've found myself more and more interested in the Norse heritage of the islands. Unlike many other Scottish places connected with and ruled by the Vikings, it is hard to escape their legacy here.
I was excited to learn that a 1 day Orkney Viking itinerary had been put together by Destination Orkney which includes some of the most significant sites on Mainland. This seemed like the best way for me to start learning more about this era of local history so I set off on a beautiful autumnal Saturday to try the route out for myself. It turned out to be a pretty epic excursion which started on a tidal island and ended on a sea-stack, with a few top notch attractions in-between. It also transpired that visiting these sites outwith the popular summer tourism season meant I had almost every one to myself - result!
By the time I finished, I felt I had gained a much better understanding of the Norse settlers that colonised Orkney, which at one time held a central position in the Viking world. However, I also discovered that much is still unknown about them, including when exactly they arrived (probably the 8th century) and whether they arrived peacefully or took the land by force.
Whatever the answer to those questions, it is agreed that Norse culture and dominance quickly took over, and it was not until 1468 that Norse rule in Orkney formally came to an end. Today, evidence of their habitation can be found in structures, artefacts, place names and even the Orcadians themselves as DNA tests have shown a significant percentage of islanders have genes that can be traced to Norway.
It is hard not to be drawn in by this intriguing island heritage and if you want to find out more, the Orkney Viking itinerary is definitely a good introduction.
ABOUT THE ITINERARY AND MY ADVICE
The itinerary is one of several autumn and spring themed day trip ideas that are being introduced by Destination Orkney over the coming months as part of their 'See You at The Weekend' campaign. I'll be trying them all out so stay tuned for lots more Orkney inspiration from me.
If you intend on following the full Viking itinerary then I would advise some advance planning as you will need to take in to consideration tide times, booking tours and opening hours. Due to these variables it is unlikely that your route will be exactly the same order as mine.
The day is quite intense as there is a lot to do and see but if you're short on time and want to visit all the attractions mentioned then it is doable, just be prepared for a full day out.
Alternatively, you can select a few sites to visit and take your day a bit easier or if you have more time, spread the itinerary out over a couple of days and enjoy it at a more relaxed pace.
I've included a list of the locations below, with a map at the bottom of the page. I've also provided the approximate minimum time needed to visit (although you could spend much longer at most sites) and some helpful tips at the bottom of each attraction to make your Viking adventure planning as easy as possible - don't say I'm not good to you...
ORKNEY VIKING ITINERARY LOCATIONS
Brough of Birsay
TIME REQUIRED - MINIMUM 30 MINUTES TO VISIT THE ISLAND + ADDITIONAL 15 MINUTES IF YOU ARE ALSO PLANNING TO VISIT ST MAGNUS CHURCH
My day started off just after sunrise as I made my way across the tidal causeway to reach my first destination, the Brough of Birsay. Pink skies lit up the island ahead and as always I was full of excited anticipation at the thought of visiting somewhere new.
I actually wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived but I can honestly say the site surpassed my expectations and set a pretty high bar for the rest of the day. It probably shouldn't have been a surprise that the Brough of Birsay was a special place to explore. Archaeological excavations here have revealed that this tidal island was a place of power, first for the Picts from the 600s and later the Vikings, who arrived there in the 9th century and developed the Norse settlement over the next 300 years.
It is also thought to have been the home of Earl Thorfinn the Mighty, Orkney's most powerful Earl which would have made it a very important place. Earl Thorfinn was the grandson of Malcolm II, King of Scots, and during his lifetime in the 11th century he built a kingdom larger than any other Earl of Orkney.
The settlement is very clear to make out and I loved the fact you can walk around it so freely. Although it is mainly the foundations that are left, it felt pretty easy to imagine what it would have looked like. Standing within the living space of Viking houses gave me goosebumps as I imagined who might have called these buildings their home. Their lives almost felt within touching distance.
The remains of houses, a sauna, blacksmith's workshop and a significant church surrounded by monastic buildings have all been discovered here along with some fascinating artefacts that are now housed in Orkney Museum. With such a packed itinerary ahead, I couldn't linger here as long as I would have liked but it felt like the perfect introduction to Orkney Viking history.
Back on the mainland I took a walk along to St Magnus Church in the village of Birsay. There is still some debate as to whether this is located on the foundations of Christ's Kirk built by Earl Thorfinn in 1064. Although this is widely accepted view, others speculate that Christ's Kirk was located on the Brough of Birsay.
As Christ's Kirk or Christchurch, was the burial place of Earl Thorfinn and also the murdered Earl Magnus (later St Magnus), it plays an important role in Norse history. Pilgrims visiting the grave of Magnus told stories of 'heavenly lights and a strange fragrance'. Claims of visions and miracles led to him being declared a saint and his remains exhumed before later being interred in St Magnus Cathedral, which was built in his honour and on my 'to visit' list later in the day.
TIPS FOR VISITING
TIME REQUIRED - 90 MINUTES
Maeshowe is probably better associated with Neolithic rather than the Norse chapter of Orkney history. However it turns out this unassuming green mound is not only one of the finest Neolithic buildings to survive in North West Europe, it is also home to the largest collection of Viking runic inscriptions to survive outside Scandinavia.
The interior of the chambered tomb can only be visited on a guided tour which I had pre-booked, so I made my way to the Historic Scotland visitor centre and joined a small group of fellow sightseers. After a short bus journey and an easy walk, we bent over and shuffled our way along the gloomy passageway that leads in to the central chamber.
Once inside, our guide talked us through the 5000 year old history of Maeshowe which along with the Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Sternness and Skara Brae, make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While the first part of our tour concentrated on the Neolithic history, I was paying extra attention during the second half, which delved in to the Viking connection. Thousands of years after the tomb had been abandoned, it was broken in to by Norsemen during the 12th century. They left behind around 30 runic inscriptions around the walls of the central chamber, which many refer to as Viking graffiti. There are tales of treasure, crusades, references to women and even carved animals. However, mostly they have just signed their names which is not too dissimilar to graffiti you find on walls in the 21st century. Thanks to signatures like "Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes", "Arnfithr Matr carved these runes with this axe owned by Gauk Trandilsson in the South land" and "Arnfithr the son of Stein carved these runes" we have a good record of the people that visited Maeshowe during this period.
TIPS FOR VISITING
TIME REQUIRED - 20 MINUTES TO VIEW THE VIKING EXHIBITS, MINIMUM OF 1 HOUR TO SEE THE REST
If you want to find out more about the history of a place, a visit to the local museum is generally a good idea and my next stop at Orkney Museum in Kirkwall helped me to better understand the culture and beliefs of the Norse settlers. The museum building is like a tardis inside and it is easy to lose an hour or more here exploring the various rooms and floors which cover the many periods of Orkney's past from the Stone Age to the present day.
On this occasion due to time constraints, I bypassed the other exhibits and made my way straight to the Viking room. I spent some time reading the various information boards and inspecting the numerous artefacts that had been discovered locally, including some from my first stop of the day at the Brough of Birsay.
However, it was the story of the Scar boat burial dating between 875 AD and 950 AD that intrigued me most. Discovered on the island of Sanday, the site was excavated in 1991 and the Viking burial that was revealed there has left many questions. Three bodies had been laid in a boat along with a number of significant and ornate artefacts which are on display in the museum, including a gilded brooch, a sword, gaming pieces and an eye-catching whalebone plaque that has been beautifully carved with dragon heads.
The three bodies that were discovered belonged to a woman in her 70s, a man in his 30s and a child aged around 10 or 11. It is unknown how they were related or how they died and as most Viking boat burials only contained one body, it is also unknown why they were buried together. The goods found with them suggest they had some wealth and power but other than that, we know very little about them. It also amazes me that the burial remained hidden until it was partially exposed by a storm in 1985 which makes me wonder what else we might uncover in the future.
TIPS FOR VISITING
Got more time to spend on Orkney?
St Magnus Cathedral
TIME REQUIRED - MINIMUM 15 MINUTES TO LOOK AROUND, LONGER IF YOU'RE DOING A PROPER TOUR
St Magnus Cathedral, known as the 'Light in the North', sits directly across the road from Orkney Museum, so I headed over there next to have another wander around the interior. I've probably explored inside about 4 or 5 times now, but every time I visit, I notice something new. As it was part of the Visit Orkney itinerary I was following, I opted to include another look inside.
If whizzing around the Viking sites all morning has left you a little weary, then the cathedral is also a good place to sit in peaceful and inspiring surroundings while you recharge before the last couple of stops.
St Magnus is the most northerly cathedral in the UK and its distinctive red sandstone tower dominates the skyline over Kirkwall. An architectural treasure left over from the Viking period, it was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus.
Magnus was an Earl and joint ruler of Orkney along with his cousin Earl Hakon. However, Hakon decided he wanted Orkney for himself so he betrayed Magnus and had him killed on his instruction on the island of Egilsay. As mentioned earlier in this blog, Magnus was buried in Birsay and it was said that miracles and healing happened around his burial site. This led to him being proclaimed a saint and his remains were later moved to Kirkwall and eventually his relics were placed in the cathedral that had been built in his honour.
The founder of St Magnus, Earl Rognvald, was also later pronounced a saint and his relics were also placed in the cathedral in a stone pillar opposite the holy remains of his uncle.
TIPS FOR VISITING
Earl's Bu & Church + Orkneyinga Saga Centre
TIME REQUIRED - 10 MINUTES + AN ADDITIONAL 30 MINUTES IF YOU ALSO VISIT THE ORKNEYINGA SAGA CENTRE & WATCH THE FILM
I personally found the Earl's Bu and Church at Orphir the least impressive of the Viking attractions on the itinerary as there really isn't much left to see. However, a visit to the neighbouring Orkneyinga Saga Centre helps to bring the site to life through an audiovisual display and some information boards. Throughout the day I kept coming across references to the Orkneyinga Saga, but I didn't really understand what it was until I went to the visitor centre.
The displays explain that the Saga is the story of the Earls of Orkney and some other famous Vikings. It was compiled from various sources sometime between 1192 and 1206 by an unknown Icelandic scribe and is a mixture of historical facts, legends and a dose of extra drama. In 21st century movie speak they would probably describe it as 'based on true events' which basically means some poetic licence has been used to make it more entertaining for the audience and the Viking characters are portrayed larger than life.
The short film gives a bit of background on some of the Earls of Orkney and their exploits which seemed to frequently involve drinking and murder, with one of those murders taking place at the neighbouring drinking hall which was next on my list.
The Earl's Bu was a manor-house of the Norse Earl's of Orkney in the 12th century and was comprised of farm buildings, storerooms and a drinking hall. However, there is little visible evidence left of the Earl's Bu in Orphir which is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga.
The remains of the adjacent round church dating to the 11th or 12th century are slightly more substantial. Dedicated to St Nicholas, the church sits in a graveyard at the rear of the Orkneyinga Saga Centre and is the only surviving circular medieval church in Scotland. It is thought to have been built by Earl Hakon after he returned from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem seeking repentance for ordering the death of St Magnus.
As my day progressed, all the connections to the Viking sites and prominent figures started to make more sense and I finally began to feel like I had a better understanding of this pivotal but complicated era of Orkney's history.
With one final stop on my itinerary, I was looking forward to getting back out among the dramatic coastal scenery.
TIPS FOR VISITING
Brough of Deerness
TIME REQUIRED - MINIMUM 90 MINUTES
Although I have been to the Brough of Deerness once before, I must admit I had no idea of its Viking connections before I first visited. Like many places in Orkney, what starts out as a scenic stroll soon turns in to a journey through the ages, often taking you past some significant historical sites hidden among the picturesque landscape.
The walk to the Brough of Deerness is a worthy one in its own right thanks to the scenery and once you reach your destination, the remains of what is thought to have been a Viking stronghold is a bit like the icing on the cake. Heading off from the car park at Mull Head Nature Reserve, I soon passed The Gloup, an impressive collapsed sea cave that has become a local attraction in its own right.
A further 15 minute meander along a faint coastal trail provided the first views across to my goal, a large lump of a sea stack with a little ruined chapel on top. Initially it looks like it is impossible to reach, disconnected from the surrounding land you would need some pretty hardcore climbing skills to reach the summit, so thank heavens there are stairs!. Wooden steps to the bay below brought me to a slightly more intimidating set of steps leading upwards. Cut in to the rock, this route can be slippy when wet and I really didn't want to fall off the steep edge so I made good use of the attached chain which made it much easier to navigate. I actually think it adds an element of adventure to the walk which makes it even more memorable.
The remains of a stone chapel dating back to some time between the 10th and 12th centuries and the outlines of surrounding Viking period buildings are the climatic reward at the top. The chapel was excavated in the 1970s and found to have been built on the foundations of an earlier timber chapel. Christian features and burials were discovered as part of the later stone structure and it is believed to be among the earliest known evidence for Viking Age Christianity in the Scandinavian North Atlantic region.
The chapel continued as a place of worship until the 16th century although it still attracted pilgrims until at least the 19th century. It is not known why it was abandoned although theories centre around its isolated location. I found it a peaceful shelter to enjoy my flask of tea and bask in the autumn rays, while contemplating the countless people over the centuries that sought sanctuary or meaning within the same small space.
When I visited previously I had noticed the obvious outlines of numerous buildings covered in tufts of grass, covering almost the entire area surrounding the chapel. Thanks to following this themed weekend itinerary, I discovered that they are actually the remains of a Viking settlement, believed to be a Chieftain's stronghold which was not only fortified but was also a display of power and prestige. This conclusion is the result of an archaeological excavation that took place in 2008, with findings in keeping with this type of Norse community which is made up of an estimated 30 structures.
Standing on this small piece of clifftop cemented in my mind how hardy the Vikings must have been as I couldn't imagine living there, exposed to the fiercest and bleakest of Orkney winter weather.
To get a better understanding of the discoveries found at the Brough of Deerness, I made my way back to the Mull Head Visitor Centre just next to the car park. Various information boards and a model of how the settlement may have looked provide some useful background and if you fancy getting your archaeology geek on, there are even geophysical survey results to browse through.
TIPS FOR VISITING
With my last stop completed, I headed home with a head full of new facts and even more enthusiasm for researching further in to Orkney Viking history.
MAP OF ALL THE LOCATIONS MENTIONED
Disclaimer - This blog post is part of a sponsored partnership with Destination Orkney to promote their weekend itineraries, however as always all experiences and opinions are based on my personal experience
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