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.
Earlier this year I enjoyed my first proper trip to Royal Deeside when I stayed at the gorgeous Mill of Dess Lodge. As I found out, this is an ideal area of Scotland to base yourself if you are a lover of castles and the outdoors, and I'm definitely a fan of both. I pretty much split my time between scenic walks and historical ruins, with a few great restaurants and cafes thrown in for good measure.
One of my favourite local discoveries was Burn O'Vat, an amazing bowl-shaped geological feature which was carved out by glacial melt at the end of the last Ice Age. As it was just a 15 minute drive from my accommodation, I headed there earlyish in the morning as it apparently gets quite busy later in the day. After parking at the Burn O'Vat visitor centre car park I set off on the very short and easy walk to reach the 'Vat' itself.
The route is well signposted and crosses a green wooden bridge before carrying on past a second bridge and then coming to an abrupt stop at a rock face - or so you think!
If you look closely, you will spot the narrow entrance-way which leads to the natural amphitheatre beyond. The next section to reach the gap does require a bit of agility to get over the boulders and across the stream, but isn't too strenuous and is actually quite fun!
Arriving at the entrance feels a bit like an Indiana Jones moment, with the possibility of ancient treasures or a forgotten civilisation hidden beyond the giant moss covered boulders. Okay, I'm being a little dramatic but its hard not to let your imagination run wild in a place like this, especially when there's no-one else about.
Crossing the stepping stones, negotiating the well placed tree trunk and the glimpses of a waterfall just add to the feeling of adventure although I should probably add that waterproof footwear will come in handy if the water levels are high or your balancing skills are lacking!
If you were to guess the location of the highest villages in Scotland, I bet your first thought probably wouldn't turn to somewhere south of Glasgow in the heart of the Scottish Lowlands. Yet, not only does Wanlockhead in Dumfries and Galloway hold the claim to fame as the highest village in Scotland at 1531 ft above sea level, it is also the next door neighbour to Leadhills, the second highest village in Scotland, situated just across the regional border in South Lanarkshire.
Both settlements developed and grew thanks to the discovery of the most important lead-zinc deposit in Scotland which brought mining and jobs to the area, with gold and other rare minerals also found locally. Although mining no longer takes place, the evidence of it is everywhere, from the visible heaps and shafts to the libraries, cottages and museum.
Easily reached in less than an hour on the M74 motorway from Glasgow, a combined visit to Leadhills and Wanlockhead makes an ideal day trip. This is an area that definitely doesn't get the attention it deserves on the Scottish visitor trail despite having plenty of history and numerous unique attractions.
As heading off the typical tourist route in Scotland is my speciality, I decided to leave Glasgow behind and head south to make a day of it among the beauty of the Lowther Hills. To say it was a unique adventure is an understatement and the locals I encountered were as friendly and passionate about their area as they come.
If you're looking for a day out with a difference, I highly recommend the short detour from the motorway to visit these two distinctive Scottish villages. If you still need convincing, here is a summary of what I got up to along with a few more ideas for exploring these underrated regions -
Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway
My first stop, and one of my main reasons for visiting Leadhills, was to take a trip on the Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway. It is Britain's highest narrow gauge adhesion railway at almost 1500 ft above sea level and was built on the original track bed of the Caledonian Railway which closed in 1938.
During the summer months you can take a 25 minute rail journey to the village of Wanlockhead, although disappointingly on the Saturday that I arrived there were no trains running. Despite checking ahead as advised on social media and on the website there was no mention of a closure and there were several other disappointed visitors that turned up while I was there. I'm assuming this is down to the fact that the railway is run by volunteers, so just be aware that checking ahead does not guarantee the train will be running when you get there.
However, I did enjoy looking around the small station and the signal box, there is also a rather unique toilet which is basically a shed on the platform with a toilet inside! If all had went to plan, the train would have taken me on a journey along a line that connects Scotland's two highest villages, passing the disused Glengonnar Mine along the way.
Leadhills Railway is an interesting wee place and the train journey is still something I would love to do so I'll try again at some point in the future and report back with more info.
Hopetoun Arms - the highest residential hotel in Scotland
As Leadhills is Scotland's second highest village it might not come as a surprise that it is home to the highest residential hotel in Scotland at 1297 ft above sea level. As my plans for the day had gone awry, I decided the Hopetoun Arms was a good place to get a cup of tea and reassess my itinerary. I hadn't actually made any real plans for the day other than taking the railway to the mining museum, however the hotel staff came to my rescue and provided me with a leaflet for the Leadhills Heritage Trail. It piqued my interest and I decided that it would be next on my agenda, but not before I finished my generous serving of tea.
The Hopetoun Arms is a family run hotel with a homely atmosphere, with historic charm and period features. This year it has also won the Scottish heat of the 'Window with a View' contest after a guest submitted a photograph from his bedroom view overlooking the village and the surrounding Lowther Hills. You'll have to book a stay and decide for yourself if the hotel has the best view in all of Scotland.
Leadhills Heritage Trail
Thanks to the Leadhills Heritage Trail leaflet, I spent the next hour on an interesting saunter through the village. If you don't manage to pick up a leaflet, there is a board with a map of the route just opposite the hotel, although it doesn't have as much information on it.
The circular trail is marked with 9 points of interest and one of the more notable sites is the grave of John Taylor who is recorded as having died in 1770 at 137 years of age! There were poor birth records at the time and his age was calculated by his personal recollection of an eclipse of the sun in 1652. Accurate or not, he sounds like an interesting character and his story has made him a local legend.
Other attractions along the way include the Leadhills Miners Library (see below), the village square and the curfew bell which was rung to inform minors of shift changes and accidents.
The Leadhills Heritage Trail is an easy walk and helps to bring the story of the village to life. It also encourages you to explore some of the backstreets and historical objects which you might otherwise miss.
Footdee or 'Fittie' as it is pronounced locally is one of Aberdeen's hidden gems although it actually sits in plain sight. Having read about the quaint former fishing village just before my last trip to the 'Granite City', it sounded like the kind of place I definitely had to explore.
As I drove by the modern leisure complex that runs along the beachfront I kept my eyes peeled for my destination, but even when my Google Map indicated I was right next to the historic quarter, I still couldn't make out anything obvious.
Footdee really is tucked away off the main tourist route and is easy to miss if you didn't know it was there despite its proximity to the busy promenade, which is why it is still very much considered a hidden gem.
'Today it is a vibrant little area with an eccentric mix of orderly cottages and quirky ramshackle outbuildings with little evidence of its previous life as 'Fish Town' - obviously I loved it!'
With some more investigation, I discovered one of the narrow entrances that led me to rows of almost uniform mid-19th century cottages, organised in neat little squares. The planned community was originally built to re-home the city's fishermen who were living in poor quality housing around the harbour area. The design dates back to 1809 and was the concept of renowned local architect John Smith who is more famously known for his alterations to Balmoral Castle.
Today it is a vibrant little area with an eccentric mix of orderly cottages and quirky ramshackle outbuildings with little evidence of its previous life as 'Fish Town' - obviously I loved it!
I entered through North Square, which was one of the original areas to be built along with South Square. Footdee started out with 56 small 'but and ben' style homes, however due to an expanding population and overcrowding issues, further buildings were added increasing the total to 80 homes. Middle Row was added in 1837 and Pilot's Square in 1855. which contained better quality 2 storey high housing for the pilots of the ships entering and leaving the harbour.
The first thing that struck me was how similar all the cottages were which I later found out was due to them all being built to the same width, height and breadth, with matching windows and doors. It was only after the council sold off the housing in the 1870s that homeowners were allowed to make any changes to their property. Many expanded upwards but due to the limited local building materials available, the original character of the village has been preserved.
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