I arrived in Stromness on a grey, wet and cold May morning and was still captivated by it. I’m sure my imagination was already sparked by it being the home of George Mackay Brown, one of our finest writers and poets and who died in 1996. His evocative writing about Orkney had already seen me racing across to the island of Hoy to see wild and lonely Rackwick Bay(it lived up to expectations).Now here I was standing below the unassuming first floor flat that was his home, marked by a small blue plaque.
The village’s streets glistened in the rain and were utterly deserted. Everyone was indoors keeping cosy, despite it being May and early summer.
The stone built houses with their crow-stepped gables leaned in protectively on all sides, providing me with some shelter from the cold, damp weather. I had tantalising glimpses of the wind whipped surface of the North Sea through occasional gaps in the rows of buildings, where small stone jetties and harbours gave easy access to launch small boats.Orkney is a Kingdom of the Sea and what a wild and lonely sea it is. Like the Hebrides, there is an ever changing often pin sharp light unique to small northerly far flung islands.
I walked out beyond the attractive cluster of houses on Stromness’s single main street which runs parallel to the more modern harbour area, with its container ships and ferries; all of it a much bigger, industrial and less picturesque affair than anything in the Hebrides. And then suddenly the sea appeared once more to my left, leaden grey and silver, across a narrow strip of open grass.It was like walking out into the light again.Looking back at the village, it seemed dark and severe but the atmosphere of the place was quite tremendous. It was as a small village should look like in this unforgiving landscape of wild North Atlantic storms and ferocious winds and seas.Hard scrabble and raw, not pretty but solid and grey.I thought it looked wonderful.
The local Museum has a big focus on the Polar and North West passage explorers of old who stopped in Stromness en route to more remote lands again.One such adventurer was local boy John Rae, after whom the Rae Passage is named. Franklin, on his ill-fated journey to discover the North West Passage, made his last landfall in Stromness and there is a plaque which marks this. (I’ve always had a great interest in Polar exploration so was fascinated by all this.) There was a lot on whaling also.
The display on Mackay Brown was disappointingly small. I thought there might have been more given his worldwide reputation and the sheer beauty and influence of his writing.
I was keen to see the Art Gallery , a fairly new building which really enhances the village.In fact, it’s a joy of a building to wander around, whether the modern, often abstract art appeals or not. It sits right at the water’s edge, all glass walls and light and the sea.
Then it was time for a latte fix and warm scone at Julie’s Cafe and relief at getting out of the wind.I’d spent the previous night on Hoy at Rackwick Bay, the endless rain and wind not condusive to a night in the tent, so I’d slept in the car (fairly reasonably.) Now, it was time to catch the ferry from St Margaret’s Hope back to the Scottish mainland.I’d spent barely 24 hours on Orkney but had managed to see it’s finest sites quite easily – the Ring of Brodgar, Standing Stones of Stenness , superb Maes Howe and of course Skara Brae.Not to mention the Brough of Birsay and the stunningly beautiful St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.
I was very impressed with Rackwick Bay however – as wild and forbidding a shore as you could imagine.
Enormous boulders, smoothed into what looked like large multi coloured cannonballs, comprise the ‘beach’ though some sand is exposed at low tide.With the pink sandstone cliffs overlooking all and a jade green ocean crashing onto the rocks, it is quite a place.
And of course a very short drive away from Stromness is the Ring of Brodgar, Maes Howe and the Standing Stone of Stenness. None of these world famous sites take very long to access with a car from the village.
For other favourite villages please see – villages