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Orkney Islands: Ancient Stones and WWII Memories

Orkney, Scotland

The windy Orkney Islands, just off the north tip of Scotland, are flat, bald, stark, and stony. Long a center of Neolithic civilization, it has many of Europe’s top prehistoric sights. And, with its huge and strategic harbor, it became “Fortress Orkney” in both world wars.

Complete Video Script

The Orkney Islands, perched an hour's ferry ride north of the mainland, are remote, historic, and — for the right traveler — worth the effort. Orkney's dramatic cliffs and rock formations seem to herald a different world.

The ferry lands in the tiny port of Stromness. Stoney and humble, you immediately feel an island kind of charm.

Orkney's landscape is mostly flat and bald, with few trees and lots of tidy farms. The blustery weather keeps the vegetation low and scrubby. Trees just can't grow in the Orkney winds. With its sparse population, the island has no traffic lights. Most roads are single-lane, and driving here is a joy. Fine, sandy beaches seem always empty — as if lying on them will give you hypothermia.

Orkney, an archipelago of 70 islands, has about 25,000 people. The main island is called, confusingly, "Mainland."

The vast majority of Orcadians live in Kirkwall. Tidy and functional, this town's buildings are more practical than pretty. Its pedestrians-only main drag leads from the cathedral down to the harbor. It's a workaday strip, lined with simple shops and busy with locals who all seem to know each other. At the harbor, fishing boats bob and ferries fan out to nearby islands.

Today's economy is based mostly on North Sea oil and fishing.

The local pipe band brings a ruddy, distinctly Orcadian groove to the town center. It's a toe-tapping energy as everybody gathers together.

St. Magnus Cathedral towers about the town center. With centuries of tombstones and its weathered red sandstone, it's a reminder of a long-ago era that shaped this island's culture.

The church was built in the 12th century, when Orkney was ruled by Norway. In fact, it was part of a Norwegian parish. Norway is just 170 miles across the sea. The Vikings established Orkney as a trading post in the 9th century, and it stayed under Norwegian rule for 600 years. That's why this culture feels more Scandinavian than Celtic. The old Orcadian language, many town names, and the folklore — all Nordic.

Stepping inside, you're struck by the stout and harmonious Romanesque design, with its arcade of round arches leading to what must have been an awe-inspiring high altar in the Middle Ages.

Orkney is small, and its countryside charms are just minutes away by car.

To get the most out of our time here, we're joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Kinlay Francis.

Kinlay: Orkney has two big draws: World War sites and some of the best prehistoric sites in northern Europe. Orkney, at one stage, was the center of civilization, back in the Stone Age.

The island is dotted with monuments recalling the island's distant past. The Stones of Stenness — part of a dozen stones that made a big circle — are a reminder that 5,000 years ago Orkney had a busy civilization, with more people then than there are here today.

At the far-western shore, Skara Brae illustrates how some Neolithic people lived. They hunkered down in subterranean homes, connected by tunnels.

Kinlay: It was a big community — 150 people living here at one stage. A third of the village remains. Two-thirds were taken away by the North Atlantic. People lived under the ground, in stone-type igloo buildings with turf roofs, and they lived under the ground to keep the weather out, to keep them warm. They were powered by oil lamps, with whale oil and whalebone basins, and a very nice-looking community.

And all of this was accomplished without the use of metal tools. This, after all, was the Stone Age — before people learned to make and use metals.

A few miles away, sitting quietly in what seems like just another field, is a remarkable burial mound.

Maeshowe is the finest chambered tomb north of the Alps. For 5,000 years, people have lowered their heads to enter this sacred space.

Rick: Wow! This is great. Tell me about this place.
Kinlay: This is a burial chamber, and to our right and our left, and behind you, are three tombs. On winter solstice, at sunset, the sun streams through this position here, and illuminates the back chamber.
Rick: Wow!
Kinlay: The stone is sandstone, and it's been hand-carved and corbelled, vaulted into position, to make this beautiful chamber. And how Neolithic man managed to build this structure, no one really knows.

Orkney's arch of scattered islands forms one of the world's largest natural harbors. It's called "Scapa Flow." In the 10th century, Vikings sheltered their warships here, and, a thousand years later, in the 20th century, so did the British. Scapa Flow was a critical base for Britain's Royal Navy.

Back during World War I, to prevent German U-boats from sneaking between the little islands that define this harbor, dozens of old ships were intentionally sunk, to block the gaps.

You can still see many of these "block ships" breaking the surface today. But they didn't really do the job, as Britain learned, tragically, at the start of World War II.

Kinlay: In 1939, a few weeks after the start of the Second World War, a German U-boat slipped through a position just like this, into Scapa Flow, and torpedoed a British battleship at anchor. Over 800 men were lost. As a result of this, the British sent tens of thousands of troops here, to Orkney, to fortify the island with gun batteries and ships and airfields, and it became known locally as "Fortress Orkney."

Britain built barriers to make the harbor safe from more surprise attacks. Winston Churchill visited and decided to connect the islands by building causeways out of concrete blocks. Today, tourists drive along these "Churchill Barriers" as they explore the island.

Orkney's most charming wartime sight is its Italian Chapel.

Italian prisoners of war helped to build the Churchill Barriers. They were given these two prefab Quonset huts and, during their free time, they were allowed to scavenge whatever wartime scraps they could find to decorate them. They built a beautiful little Catholic chapel, that reminded them of their homeland.

Inside, you can see the creative work of those Italian prisoners: light fixtures made from ration tins, candleholders fashioned from brass shell casings, and painted windows with the illusion of radiant stained glass. Above the altar, Mary holds the baby Jesus, who holds an olive branch — a kind of prayer for peace. The chapel was completed in 1944, just two months before the Italians who built it were free to go home.