Built in the 16th century by the 4th Earl of Caithness it eventually became the home of The Queen Mother.

Distance from Mey House: 1 Mile
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/JD1XE

We had driven past the castle several times over the years without ever registering it was there which is a surprise when you consider that there is a big brown tourist sign on the main road announcing its presence. The only reason I can give for this oversight is that it is so close to John O’Groats that we must have been nattering about our visit there to whomever happened to be in the car at the time and just driven straight past. Don’t make the same mistake we did!

The original structure (more of a fortified house than a castle) was built in 1573 by the 4th Earl of Caithness, George Sinclair, for his second and favourite son William.  William was murdered by his elder brother John who in turn was murdered, probably on the command of his Father (who was not a very nice man by all accounts). Eventually it passed into the ownership of the third son who managed to avoid an early death to become the 5th Earl!

Unfortunately, the spectre of an unnatural demise stayed with the castle when the 5th Earl’s daughter fell to her death from the window in the tower room. It is said that Elizabeth Sinclair had been imprisoned there by her Father to stop her from seeing a local ploughman with whom she had fallen in love. Whether her death was an accident, suicide or murder nobody knows but today, her ghost can sometimes be seen drifting around the castle.

The castle remained the seat of the Clan Sinclair with a heritage too deep to explore here but one of the Earls worthy of a special mention is the 14th Earl. A lover of technology, he owned the first steam car in Scotland and also created a ‘science room’ in the castle wherein he invented many mechanical and electrical devices becoming so knowledgeable that he tutored the Prince of Wales, (later King Edward), in engineering. The Prince visited the Castle during a visit to the region in 1876.

Today, the castle has an essence of the original structure but because of its continuous 400 year occupation, it has received many updates and modifications. Does this detract from its originality? Well, yes it does but its provenance is so strong and its metamorphosis so measured that the castle of today is a gem, even if it does lack visual drama (a consequence of The Castle of Mey being in such great condition).

Of course, it is the ownership and occupation by the Queen Mother that grabs today’s visitors and it is her tenure that dominates. However, take some time whilst visiting to see the rich and colourful history of the castle that lies still and deep just below the surface.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The castle is generally open May to September but check their website to confirm as the castle is shut during Prince Charles’ annual visit.

GREAT FOR: Heritage, history and a beautiful garden (see the post in the ‘Visitor Attractions’ section).

RECOMMENDATION: Stay in the Castle or Orkney Suites at Mey House and enjoy the view over the castle.

Two of the best chambered cairns in The British Isles, fabulous on the outside, mesmerising on the inside!

Distance from Mey House: 24 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/yyaOM

Why the cairns at Camster were unknown to me before we moved to Caithness I don’t really know but what I can tell you is that my first visit there, on a warm spring morning, was a revelation.

There are two cairns at Camster, ‘The Round’ and ‘The Long’ and whilst they may be contemporary with Maeshowe with respect to age, design and build, they differ in one significant way; they are bereft of a soil and grass overcoat (see the article in the Heritage section of ‘Explore’). Whilst they lack the landscaping of their Orcadian neighbour, the Grey Cairns did at least contain evidence (skeletal human remains, pottery and fine flint tools) which indicated that they were built more than 5000 years ago and were used as both a mausoleum and a monument for the dead (though we can only guess at their rituals and beliefs).

I approached the cairns along a single track road that passes arrow straight along a narrow valley and suddenly without fanfare, the cairns appeared, squat and naked in the landscape. To my surprise and great delight I discovered that not only was I alone, but there was also no visitor centre charging an entrance fee, no gift shop selling trinkets and neither was there a killjoy superintendent telling me what I could and could not do. Instead, I was met with a boardwalk path that led from the road across the peat bog straight to the cairns and, unusually for Caithness, there were some excellent information boards that explained what lay before me.

My biggest surprise however was that in these days of overbearing health and safety regulations I was able to enter the cairns all by myself! I must confess to being a little cautious at first, not quite knowing what lay before me along the narrow unlit passages, but as I crawled through on my hands and knees I got a sense of what the ancients experienced. The passage to the round cairn is about 20 feet in length, less than 2ft wide and maybe 30 inches in height and it was no accident that it was built with these diminutive dimensions; you were supposed to feel like you were passing from one world through to another, perhaps even to feel like you were being born. Once I eventually reached the end of the passage, the chamber opened up and I was able to stand and gain some relief from the cramps. Here, deep inside the cairn, the exquisite craftsmanship of the Neolithic builders was revealed by the light from a discreetly hidden window in the roof (thank goodness there was no fluorescent lighting to ruin this experience like at Maeshowe). I laid on the floor for ages, captivated by my surroundings before I was reborn again, passing back down the passage into the warm light of the living.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Now as then, the Cairns are in the middle of nowhere. Either take the unnamed road heading south off the A882 at Watten or (preferably), take the signposted turning north just after Lybster off the A99.

GREAT FOR: Heritage without the Disney treatment.

RECOMMENDATION: Take a torch and a spare pair of trousers (your knees will get wet).

Four thousand years of human habitation and a spiritual hotspot – but it’s not on Orkney!

Distance from Mey House: 27 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/KsPX7

If you are travelling to the far north to investigate ancient human history then no doubt you will be headed for Orkney. However, en-route to the ferry you are likely to drive through an area of Caithness that for thousands of years was of such importance to pre-historic people that they built at least 35 burial cairns, 15 brochs, 2 hill forts, 5 sets of stone rows and hundreds of roundhouses.  This wasn’t some sleepy backwater, this was Stone Central!

The Yarrows Trail sits right at the heart of this hotspot and it offers you the chance to experience an ancient human landscape in a walk that takes a little under two hours. To be honest, the first time I visited the Trail I was disappointed, not by the archaeology but by the lack of curation – there are no information boards to guide the casual visitor and the way finding posts that do exist are poorly defined. I left frustrated and went home to research and produce my own guide returning several weeks later to take the Trail again.

With my own guide in hand we were able to identify the six cairns on the Trail and spy several others off in the distance. The first two (travelling in an anti-clockwise direction) are Neolithic (c.4000BC to 3500BC) whilst the ones at the summit are later in date (c.3500BC to 2500BC). Excavations have yielded fragmentary human bone in great quantities including teeth, finger bones, torso less skulls and skeletons. These deposits indicated a range of burial practices, including whole body entombment, cremation and excarnation. It is believed that the excarnation process was performed on the rocky outcrop that you pass as you make your way up the path toward the high point on the trail.

The descent from the ridgeway moves you from the houses of the dead to the homes of the living. As the ground levels off, the eagle eyed will spy the foundation circles of several Bronze Age roundhouses and on the shore of Loch Yarrows are the impressive remains of a late Iron Age broch (c.350BC), the presence of which indicates that the population of the time felt threatened enough to defend itself from its enemies.

No one knows for sure why this 22 square mile area was so important to our ancestors. Perhaps the bowl of fertile land situated next to fresh water and encircled by high ground was cherished and revered for practical and spiritual reasons (just as it was at the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney or Stonehenge in Wiltshire)? Perhaps it was because stone – the material that was critical to the survival of the Neolithic people appears to ‘grow’ out of the ground here?  Or maybe it’s because from the top of the ridgeway you can see for 40 miles on a clear day? Perhaps it is for all of these and others beside.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: This area is very isolated and it is advisable not to go alone especially in winter when the weather can change quickly.  The walk is over uneven ground with steep inclines and declines, the ground is extremely boggy (wear waterproof footwear) and it is definitely unsuitable for those with restricted mobility.

GREAT FOR: Switching off the modern mentality and imagining life as an ancient.

RECOMMENDATION: Email us and we will send you our own Yarrows Trail guide to take with you to help you make the most of a fascinating landscape. Plus, read the EXPLORE blogs on “The Grey Cairns” and “Lybster Broch” to learn a little more about the type of structures you will find here.

Thousands of years of human settlement can be found on the Strathnaver Trail – starting with the Stone Age and terminating abruptly with the brutal Highland Clearances.

Distance from Mey House: 44 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/8Am9FXmKieQ2

We have taken the trail at many different times of the year and in all weathers. The first time we visited was a bright and sunny January day but as Sally-Ann isn’t a big fan of the cold, we decided to limit our ‘on foot’ excursions and aimed for the old Grumbeg settlement (point 2 on the trail) stopping along the way at the distinctive church at Syre (point 4). What we hadn’t bargained for was the spectacular vistas as we traversed the 17 mile route; snow-capped mountains dominating the skyline looking down upon the beautiful river Naver as it weaved its way through the winter landscape and a herd of Stags that stood motionless on the hillside. Magical.

Grumbeg had been occupied since Neolithic times (the remains of a chambered cairn are within the settlement) and the area continued to be occupied through the Bronze Age and onto the earliest Christian era (its walled burial ground, now mostly ruined, dates back to the 9th century). Life continued relatively unchanged for the next millennia until 1816 when the Duke of Sutherland decided that he could make more money from renting the land out for sheep farming and who, without too much deliberation, forcibly evicted the five families whose ancestors had lived at Grumbeg for at least 5000 years. How very sad and inhumane.

Eager to learn more about ‘the clearances’, I sought out the larger pre clearance village at Rosal (point 5). Unlike Grumbeg it is well curated with excellent information boards and drawings depicting the life and lives of its long departed inhabitants. I thoroughly enjoyed this site but was initially deterred by the advertised 4 mile return hike to reach it. However, having now completed it, I can share a short cut to save you at least 3 miles of that! Just ask us and we will let you in on the secret.

If hiking or ‘looking at a pile of old stones’ (Sally-Ann’s comment) is not for you then do at least stop in at the Strathnaver Museum (point 16) to learn about the history and heritage of the area – it’s worth the meagre entrance fee. Finally, make five minutes in your schedule to head to point 14 on the trail to witness the wonderful view across the breath-taking Torrisdale Bay (see photo).

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: There are 16 points of specific historical interest highlighted on the Strathnaver trail, some directly accessible from the roadside (points 3, 4, 9, 10, 14, 15 and 16), some a short walk (2, 11, 12, 13) and some require a determined hike (1, 5, 6, 7, 8). Waterproof footwear is recommended for all but the easiest to reach!

GREAT FOR: The scenery!

RECOMMENDATION: Download a copy of the trail guide here or stop in at the Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill to pick one up.

Founded by Vikings in 1137 to commemorate the martyrdom of Earl Magnus, this mighty church became Britain’s most northerly Cathedral.

Distance from Mey House: 36 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/jk7Hk

Really old churches like Saint Magnus’s are such wonderful buildings that in the modern age it is all too easy to be subsumed by its history and prominence as a visitor attraction and forget that it was once a destination of pilgrimage and is (still) a place of worship. On the day we visited (as part of an ‘Orkney Uncovered’ tour – see the blog) we found the Cathedral bereft of tourists and worshippers and we had the run of the place, it was magical!

In antiquity, Orkney was ruled by the Vikings and it was seldom a peaceful dominion. In the early 12th century, the province was ruled by two Earls – Hakon and Magnus – the first inheriting the title by birth and the latter by bequest from the King of Norway. Earl Hakon was a typical Viking warlord whilst Earl Magnus was a pious God fearing man and despite their differences, they ruled Orkney amicably for over a decade. However, in 1116 the two men fell into dispute and at an assembly convened to make peace, Hakon murdered Magnus by striking him over the head with an axe; diplomacy Viking style.

Magnus was laid to rest but soon after, the rocky area around his grave became a green field upon which several apparitions were revealed and many miraculous healings occurred including the restoration of the sight of William the Old, Bishop of Orkney. These miracles were attributed to Magnus and he was duly canonised in 1135 just prior to the construction of the Cathedral within which his remains were interred in a hidden cavity.

Over the next 400 years, the building grew in size and reputation. Despite its pre-eminence as a (then) Catholic house of prayer, it was spared the worst of the Tudor reformation though its colourful wall paintings were lost, whitewashed away by the protestant zealots. It was besieged in 1614 by government forces who tried to expel rebels who were hiding inside through the use of massive firepower, the scars of which still pepper the west end of the building to this day. Over the following three hundred years the Cathedral began to fall into disrepair until a programme of restoration began in 1913 during which the Tudor whitewash was removed revealing not only the wonderful hue of the red sandstone blocks but also a hidden cavity containing the bones of a man, the skull of which was cleaved apart by a sharp weapon, Saint Magnus himself!

As we stepped inside the magnificent building on that bright January morning, we were struck by the warmth and beauty of the place. We wandered throughout the building under the direction of our personal guide from Orkney Uncovered who introduced us to numerous historical and ecclesiastical artefacts, some of which were obvious whilst others, like the dungeons, were hidden. Throughout the church were a plethora of monuments some ancient, some modern and whilst all were fascinating, none outshone the simple yet beautiful memorial to HMS Royal Oak.

There is no doubt that St. Magnus Cathedral deserves its place as one of the top tourist attractions on Orkney though we wish we could have heard the place filled with the sound of the organ, the voices of the choir and the peeling of bells; without these the building’s true purpose remained elusive.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Services of worship are held every Sunday morning at 11.15 and on a host of other holy days throughout the year. The Cathedral is open to visitors seven days a week during the summer (1st April to 30th September) and six days a week during the winter (closed Sunday except for the worship). There is no charge to enter.

GREAT FOR: The world renowned St. Magnus International (music) Festival held each midsummer.

RECOMMENDATION: Take a guided tour if you can or buy a guide book if you can’t. For specific questions, seek out the Cathedral custodian, who is a font of information and can often be found around the building undertaking one of her many duties

A village built around 3000 BC and occupied for seven generations before it was abandoned and buried under drifting sands.

Distance from Mey House: 52 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/q3zRO

Long before I was familiar with Orkney I knew about Skara Brae, such is its reputation as one of Europe’s greatest prehistoric sites. I had seen countless TV programmes featuring the settlement and I was fascinated that not only had these buildings survived in such amazing condition for longer than the pyramids have existed but so too had their fixtures and fittings! They certainly don’t build them like they used to!

The eight small houses set into the earth to protect them from the Orcadian weather were home to up to 100 inhabitants, who survived by rearing cattle and sheep and growing cereals in the surrounding fields.

Today the village is located right next to the white sandy shore of the Bay o’ Skaill, however originally it would have stood quite some distance from the sea. But from the moment it was built coastal erosion slowly brought the shoreline closer to their front door and, over time, it became harder to farm the surrounding land as blown sand and salt water spray made it less productive. It is likely therefore that the village withered and died rather than being abandoned in some cataclysmic event. Yet the very sand that contributed to its demise, preserved it for us.

My Father and I visited on a clear crisp November day and after taking some lunch in the excellent café, we made our way, with quite a sense of trepidation, to the village which was a ¼ mile walk.

As we approached, the noise of the sea rose in a crescendo creating a fanfare that culminated in the appearance of the village huddled in the green earth; an ancient moment frozen in time.

After a few mesmerising minutes it struck me – these homes may be 5000 years old but they were amazingly familiar; a living space, a bed, a fireplace, somewhere to keep your precious possessions, a front door to protect all that you value and a roof to shelter you from the elements. Seeing the houses, devoid of life yet still so inviting was an incredibly humbling experience and it made me realise that to be human today is little changed from what it was to be human all those years ago.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The site is open all year and an entrance fee is payable. There is a short walk from the visitor centre to the village along an unmade pathway (it may not be suitable for those with restricted mobility).

GREAT FOR:The reconstruction of one of the houses that you can stoop your way into. Once inside, it is easy to imagine how secure its Neolithic inhabitants would have felt and it truly gives an idea of scale for what you see at the main site.

RECOMMENDATION: Seeing it in the off season made for a more authentic experience. If you can’t be there then, get there early in the day to miss the hordes.

Echoes of 19th century industry, mighty cliffs and churning sea make for a wonderfully provocative location that is well worth the physical effort required for the return journey!

Distance from Mey House: 29 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/z2tuH

It was a blustery but bright January day and Sally-Ann and I needed a break from the renovations at Mey House as well as some exercise to work off the extra pounds gained over Christmas; we headed off to Whaligoe.

Harbours suitable for landing fish were in short supply in Caithness during the 19th century and any spot, no matter how unsuitable, was adapted to meet the demand. So it was that in the last years of the 18th century, Whaligoe Haven was converted from what Thomas Telford described as “a terrible spot” into an industrious fishing station.

330 stone steps were carved into the 250ft sheer cliffs, zigzagging their way down to the quay where up to 20 small fishing boats would land their catch. Women of all ages would gut and salt the fish, load them into baskets and haul them on their backs up the steps to the fishing station at the summit. The harbour flourished for a 100 years but it went into decline along with all the other fishing in the area and ceased operation in 1960.

Whaligoe Haven is a natural inlet and on the day we visited, it was swamped by fearsome waves creating a cauldron of seething water and white foam – which made an amazing vista for the descent. Reaching the bottom we had the good fortune to meet a couple who were knowledgeable about Whaligoe as without their insight, we would have been ignorant of much of what lay before us (there are no tourist information boards). For instance, the circular pit, (now filled with sea water) would have been filled with cows’ urine into which the fishing nets were dunked to preserve them; the iron grill once sat above a fire onto which a pot of tar would have been heated to provide pitch for waterproofing the boats and the nearby rock upon which the boats were lain to carry out the process is still covered in tar even to this day.

Our ascent to the summit of Whaligoe Steps was punctuated by the occasional stop, not a pause for breath I hasten to add, but to read the graffiti carved into the stones over the decades.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: There are absolutely no signs on the main road to signify the presence of Whaligoe Steps! Just off the A99 south of Ulbster, look for the signs for “The Cairn of Get” and just past it take the lane that heads toward the sea. The car park is small but DON’T use the resident’s spaces unless you specifically want a confrontation!

GREAT FOR: Vibrant history and some healthy exercise.

RECOMMENDATION: Reward yourself with a beverage or snack at the Whaligoe café (see separate post under Food & Drink), which is at the head of the steps. But be warned, it doesn’t serve your usual café fare.

Perched at the edge of the north Caithness coast is the 11th century ruins of St Mary’s Chapel, the oldest religious building in Caithness.

Distance from Mey House: 20 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/yUomJ

I stumbled upon St Mary’s chapel and the surrounding landscape purely by accident. Driving west one day to visit Strathnaver Museum we saw a brown sign indicating the location of a tourist site that I was totally unfamiliar with. So pausing by the side of the road, I googled it. The top listing was from Historic Scotland and all it said was “A simple dry-stone chapel, probably of 12th-century date”. Not feeling particularly inspired by this, I checked out the “Days Out” app from Visit Scotland to see what they had to say but it said nothing.

Now, if it wasn’t for the fact that the purpose of the “Explore” section of the Mey House website is to review locations and destinations on behalf of visitors to the far North, I would probably have just shrugged my shoulders and driven off. But I didn’t; I drove the mile or so to the end of the lane and we took to the pathway.

The mile or so walk to the chapel is an event in itself. We passed the ruins of what I assume was an old homestead which my Father picked over in search of interesting memorabilia (he has an addiction to picking up and carrying home old stones) and tramped over a bridge crossing a fast flowing river. Taking the steep unmarked path up the west side of the inlet we passed another tumble down ruin and headed out along the edge of the coast towards the chapel and its graveyard. The walk, of maybe a mile, took quite a while as the view of the ocean, the breaking waves, swimming seals and the general drama of the place presented me with so many opportunities for a photo.

When we eventually arrived at St Mary’s we found a typical walled enclosure surrounding the ruins of a roofless chapel and its monumental grave stones, some of which date back to the 1600’s. A small chapel probably built in the 12th century once existed on the site and what remains there now is the original nave. The site is perched close to the edge of the retreating cliffs which until comparatively recently, was also the site of an ancient settlement which was claimed by the sea in the 1970’s. The chapel, with its separate nave and chancel, is of the same design as the chapels found on Orkney and together with the bank and ditch enclosed settlement that once was its neighbour has led the experts to presume that the first settlers of Crosskirk were of Norse (Viking) origin.

I was surprised to see that located right next door was a wind farm, as at first it detracted from the sanctity of the place. But after a while, it struck me that this place was chosen by our ancestors as a good place to live and work and that this is just as true today as it was in the 12th century. The continuity of occupation is actually keeping the place alive.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Don’t take the lack of interest in the place by the authorities as an indication of a poor destination. The walk may be a couple of miles up and down some unmade (slippery) paths but the effort will reward you; particularly if you are a bit of a nut for some historical romance and drama.

GREAT FOR: Untamed coastline and seal watching.

RECOMMENDATION: The location of the Chapel is not at first obvious. Keep following the coastline westward until you find the graveyard; all other ruins up until that point are not your final destination!

Built by a tyrannical overlord who made Orcadian life a misery!

Distance from Mey House: 54 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/RRMX6

The Earls of Orkney inherited their titles and lands from their Norwegian monarchs in the 9th century and from what I have learned, there were precious few ‘good uns’ in the lineage. However, the Earl that built the palace at Birsay was a particularly nasty piece of work, even by their low standards!

Lord Robert Stewart, an illegitimate son of King James V, was granted lands in Orkney by his half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots. His grip on authority was tenuous, the resultant insecurity leading him to exert tyrannical control over his subjects and such was his behaviour that he was reported to his father, the King, who imprisoned him in Edinburgh whilst the allegations were investigated. Blood being thicker than water meant that he was soon released to wreak revenge upon his enemies for reporting him in the first place!

It is because of this confrontational relationship with the Orcadians that the palace at Birsay was built – as much a fortress as it was a residence. Standing by the shore of Birsay Bay, and dominating the village, the palace is constructed around a central courtyard and today it is difficult to imagine how it would have appeared in its heyday, but according to several contemporary accounts it was described as a “sumptuous and stately building” and was elaborately decorated with paintings of biblical scenes.

My father and I called in to see the ruins of the palace on a bright November afternoon. We found it deserted and we were pleasantly surprised to find such an authentic period building not to be surrounded by gift shops, tea rooms and the ubiquitous visitor centre though one did get a sense that the villagers endured the palace rather than embraced it. The building is in a ruinous state today, which is no surprise considering that its decline commenced soon after the Stewart dynasty on the islands ended in 1615.

Thankfully the information boards at the site were very good, giving plans of the original layout of the building and how it probably looked in the 1580s. Would we have made a specific journey just to see the palace? Probably not, but if you are headed out to the Brough of Birsay so see the wealth of Pictish and Norse history then it’s well worth the quick diversion.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Either follow the signs on the A967 for Birsay (located in the NW corner of Mainland) or take the B9056 north from Skara Brae. There are few signs for the Palace.

GREAT FOR: Adding to the Heritage tour of the western coast of Mainland.

RECOMMENDATION: There are no tourist facilities at the site but there is a small village shop if you need refreshments.

At over 4000 years old, The Ring of Brodgar is a striking example of a Neolithic henge and part of the World Heritage site, “Heart of Neolithic Orkney”. You’ll leave with more questions than answers…

Distance from Mey House: 47 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/VSm5Y

The Ring of Brodgar is an icon of Orkney and I was familiar with its imagery long before I ever knew what it was called or indeed, where it was located. It was a bright and still November afternoon the first time I visited the ring and we found ourselves alone and free to wander the stones in complete isolation to absorb its beauty and mystery.

Little is known about the Ring of Brodgar and all that can be said with absolute certainty is that it originally consisted of 60 stones (27 still remain standing), that it is 104 metres in diameter and that in antiquity, was surrounded by a circular ditch that was up to 3 metres deep and 9 metres wide. Beyond this, everything else is pure informed speculation!

It sits within a landscape that was clearly of ritual importance to its inhabitants; stand within the Ring and you can see the much older Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe chambered cairn and several other Neolithic sites. However, of probable greater significance to the inhabitants was the natural environment in which all of these sites are set with the Ring of Brodgar sitting at the centre of a natural bowl, surrounded by water and encircled by distant high ground. Why this was important is unfortunately lost to time.

Just like Stonehenge, the circle suddenly appears on the horizon as you make your way toward it but unlike Stonehenge, its majesty cannot truly be appreciated from a distance. The information panels at the entrance were disappointing and so we were glad that the significance of the site and its landscape had been explained to us by our excellent guide at Maeshowe; without this we would have been left with a headful of questions (my fault for not buying a decent guidebook before we travelled).

Now I don’t want to be critical nor do I want to encourage the desecration of the site by commercialisation but the lack of a decent guided tour of the Ring (I’m thinking of something like the audio phones that you can hire at Stonehenge) really just leaves you to walk around in a giant circle with a quizzical look on your face.

Nonetheless, the stillness of that afternoon and the fantasy of what filled my head made for a very special few moments as we watched the low orange sunlight sparkle on the water and light up the clouds.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The Ring is open all year and there is no charge for entry. There is a small car park located near to the Ring as well as a couple of parking bays for the disabled adjacent to the entrance but I didn’t see anywhere secure to leave bicycles. The Ring of Brodgar is situated in the centre of the RSPB reserve (http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/b/brodgar/).

GREAT FOR: Mystery and heritage.

RECOMMENDATION: Try to visit when it’s quiet and make sure you take a good guidebook!

An inspirational and astounding destination created during WW2 by prisoners of war using scavenged materials. If you visit Orkney, this is a must see!

Distance from Mey House: 28 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/y01nk

I had seen a few images of the Italian Chapel and vaguely knew the story but on my first trip to Orkney, it wasn’t on my list of venues to visit. As we drove out of the Pentland ferry port at St Margaret’s Bay toward our intended destination (Maeshowe) we passed a sign for the Italian Chapel and without really giving it much thought, we made a speculative diversion.

After the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow and the loss of over 800 lives, Winston Churchill ordered sea defences to be built to protect the British fleet whilst at anchor there. Work commenced in 1940 and to speed up the construction work, 550 Italian POW’s were relocated from North Africa and incarcerated in a hastily created POW camp. The camp had few facilities so the prisoners requested permission to build a Chapel which was granted; construction commenced in 1943 and it was largely complete by the end of the war.

On the day of our visit, the car park was empty and I took this as a sign of the chapel’s popularity. My Father and I approached the entrance and it was at this point that we noticed that the façade was obscuring something quite austere; an old WW2 Nissen hut. Optimistically, I tried the door handle and I was surprised to find it unlocked (it was after all Remembrance Sunday and well outside of the tourist season) but what an outstanding surprise waited in store; it almost took our breath away!

Stepping through the door we were transported instantaneously from the austere exterior into an ecclesial masterpiece that wouldn’t have looked out of place in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Ornate pastel imagery adorns every part of the roof transforming the utilitarian hut into a place of vibrant yet tranquil worship; the artwork depicts brick walls, carved stone, vaulted ceilings as well as frescos of angels and an altarpiece depicting the Madonna and Child.

I only realised as we left that we had arrived at about 11 o’clock on Remembrance Sunday and it seemed completely appropriate to be in a church built by prisoners of war on the very day the whole nation was pausing to remember the fallen.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: It’s open all year and there is no entrance fee.

GREAT FOR: Starting (or concluding) your visit to Orkney.

RECOMMENDATION: The church is on the main drag from the ferry terminal so there is a good chance that you and the world will divert off en masse at the same time. Call in on your return journey as you are less likely to encounter hordes of visitors; the chapel is best encountered with a little peace and quiet.

At least 5000 years old and sited in a mystical landscape, this is not only a monument for the dead, it is also a monument to those that built it.

Distance from Mey House: 45 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/CBLyD

For many years I lived so close to Stonehenge that I would often just drive pass without giving it a second glance but such is the reputation of the World Heritage Site at Maeshowe, we couldn’t ignore it on our inaugural visit to the Orkneys.

The cairn is a Neolithic burial chamber, built around 2700BC but not much is known for sure about how it was used. At 7m high and 37m in circumference, it is the biggest cairn in the area and its relationship to other nearby monuments suggests that it played a significant part in the lives and beliefs of the people that built it. Best guesses suggest that on the shortest day of the year when the sun shines down the 10 metre long entrance passage illuminating the tomb inside, the living would bring the bones of the dead and place them in the side chambers of the cairn. It is assumed that precious objects were also placed as offerings as part of this ceremony, but no trace of these has ever been found as the cairn was robbed by the Vikings in the 12th century (we know it was the Vikings as they left behind the most amazing graffiti to explain themselves)!

My father and I visited Maeshowe on a beautifully sunny November day and we were surprised to discover that we were to be the only visitors on the next guided tour. We made our way from the visitor centre toward the grassy mound that sits about 150m from the main road and were escorted into the tomb by our friendly and knowledgeable guide. You enter the tomb by passing along a passageway that is only about 3ft high and 30ft long which is quite an experience, particularly if you find yourself too close to the visitor in front of you (I don’t think I have ever been so intimate with my Dad)!

Once inside the tomb you are presented with the most stunning stone masonry. It would be an exceptional feat of engineering if it was constructed today but to think this was built 5000 years ago by people who had nothing more than rudimentary tools is quite something. However, if I am honest, despite its antiquity and undisputed significance, it did feel rather hollow and lacking in atmosphere bathed in modern lighting. With a little bit of imagination, however, you can recreate how our ancestors might have experienced it, assuming of course you follow my recommendation…

Inside-Maeshowe-(D) MOD Runic-inscriptions-maeshowe-(D) MOD

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: If you have restricted mobility or hate confined spaces then going into the tomb is probably not for you.

GREAT FOR: Lovers of prehistory.

RECOMMENDATION: We were lucky enough to experience Maeshowe with only three of us being in the cairn. Goodness only knows what the experience would be if you were unfortunate enough to be part of a tour that consisted of the maximum permissible number of visitors (25); disappointing I would suspect. Go early or late in the day or, even better, go in the off season like we did!

An Iron Age settlement in a spectacular location and too easy to miss as you speed toward John O’Groats.

Distance from Mey House: 12 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/Uf3mf

Nybster Broch is sited right on the edge of the cliffs that border the northern part of the Bay of Sinclair – a coastline that has been important to the control and defence of Caithness from the Iron Age right through to modern times.

As is often the case in Caithness, I had passed the broch site numerous times and not known it was there. I eventually found it one summer’s day when I called into the small and unremarkable looking “Caithness Broch Centre”, which is located in an old schoolhouse by the side of the A99 just south of John O’Groats. I entered the centre and was greeted by an attendant who invited me to take a look around the starkly modern interior, which housed a dozen information boards and four glass display cabinets containing a small selection of Iron Age, Pictish and Viking artefacts. The centre took no more than 10 minutes to navigate and as I wandered out feeling rather underwhelmed, the attendant looked up and asked “would you like to visit the broch?”

“What broch?” I enquired! At no point during my tour had it been made obvious that a quarter of a mile away was probably the most important of the 200 brochs located in Caithness!

If you are like me, then there is a good chance you won’t know what a broch is – so here is a quick lesson. A broch is a dry stone tower with small cell like rooms contained within its walls and is essentially a primitive yet effective forerunner to the medieval castles. Nybster Broch was built about 100 BC and it was formidable – protected by sea cliffs and encircled by a ditch and rampart, its central structure was cut into the bedrock and its walls were up to eight metres thick. The broch was a considerable height too, probably consisting of two floors and capped by a thatched roof. To gain forced access into the broch an attacker would not only have had to overcome the defensive ditch and rampart, avoid the weapons thrown from the lofty vantage point at the top of the tower and battle their way along a very narrow tunnel that led into the tower but then rotate a large pivot stone (an Iron Age security door) that blocked the entrance into the main centre of the structure. Phew!

When the archaeologists excavated the site they found all manner of everyday items from bone needles, tools, small gaming pieces, weapons and even pieces of human bone all of which pointed to the broch having numerous functions during its heyday; an instrument to project power to the peoples of the surrounding area during times of peace as well as a place of refuge during conflict. Today, all that remains of the broch are its considerable foundations, the majority of which remain hidden under the grass and soil. To fully appreciate the site for what it is and what it was, I suggest you visit the Broch Centre first as this will help to add some detail to what Sally-Ann would refer to as ‘a pile of old stones’.

By the way, should you skip the visitor centre and just head straight to the broch you may wonder what the Victorian monuments are for. These were erected by the amateur archaeologists and local villagers who dug the broch in the late 19th century as ostentatious memorials to commemorate their activities. Ironically, with the passage of time, these artefacts of vandalism are now historical items in their own right.

Visitor-Centre-(D) MOD Broch-(D) MOD

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The Caithness Broch Centre is open mid April to mid September (closed Sundays) and is free to enter. The broch itself can be found by taking a single track road leading off the A99 which is located 100m south of the visitor centre – as is often the case, there are no signs indicating its whereabouts! A small car park is situated at the end of the lane.

GREAT FOR: Spending 30 minutes being educated on how the people of Caithness lived 2000 years ago.

RECOMMENDATION: Visit the Caithness Broch Centre before visiting the broch if you can.

Sitting alongside the amazing beach at Balnakiel is the ruins of a 16th century church that once catered for the pre clearance village that was once sited there.

Distance from Mey House: 86 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/BEmPu

It’s well worth a nose around; its graveyard displays an impressive array of tombstones and just inside the church itself you will find the tomb of the notorious mass murder, Donald MacMurdo. It is said he killed more than 18 local people in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and he was so worried the families of his victims would reap revenge upon his corpse that he paid the local Laird to entomb him within the walls of the church.

The ruins themselves are interesting enough but the place takes on a magical quality as the sun sets, particularly in the long, light summer months. I’ve lost count of the number of times Sally-Ann and I have been here and just sat and watched the sunset whilst sat upon the old walls of the church. In fact, so much do I love this place that I shipped my best friends up here from Glasgow (Alastair and Liz), Leeds (John and Julie) and my brother and his wife (Chris and Sarah) all the way from Bogota to celebrate my 40th birthday here! After one particularly pleasant day on the beach, we sat and watched the sunset and I think that evening they understood why I have come to love the Highlands so much.

Balnakiel-Church-2-(D) MOD Balnakiel-Church-3-(D) MOD

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: There are no toilets or refreshments available at Balnakiel so make sure you make good use of the facilities in Durness, or at the Balnakiel Craft Village, before heading to the beach.

GREAT FOR: Photography and walks along the adjacent Balnakiel beach (see separate post in ‘Natural Landscape’ section).

RECOMMENDATION: Watch the sunset over the bay.

Once an impregnable medieval stronghold and now the most spectacular ruin.

Distance from Mey House: 24 Miles
Google maps link: http://goo.gl/maps/DsFtH

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe near Wick is one of the oldest castles in Scotland and its location, perched upon the cliff edges makes it one of Scotland’s most iconic too! We had seen countless photos, watercolours and oil paintings of the site but had not visited until one glorious Easter weekend we decided that we fancied a break from Mey House and we headed off in search of the castle.

The origins of the castle go back to the 1300’s when it is supposed that Henry Sinclair began its construction after the Earldom of Orkney passed into the Sinclair family. It is not difficult to understand why he chose this site as, from the promontory upon which it stands, he could see all the way up the northern coast as far as John O’Groats and Orkney, right around Sinclair’s bay and then south towards Lybster not to mention right out across the North Sea toward Scandinavia. As well as being surrounded by fertile land, the site also has a protected inlet right alongside the castle which not only provides a haven for boats but is also completely hidden from view when approached by sea.

The castle was heavily fortified in the late 1400’s and it reached its zenith between 1544 and 1582 under the 4th Earl (who also built the Castle of Mey). From this point on, it was downhill for the castle as it fell out of favour with the later Earls and its decline into ruin began in earnest when Cromwell’s men used it as barracks during the civil war. Its complete demise came in 1680 when a Sinclair family dispute saw the castle stripped of floors, doors, roofs and furniture and it was never to be occupied again.

We learnt about the castle’s history from the excellent information boards at the castle itself and the accompanying illustrations really brought the place to life. However, as is so often the way here in Caithness, the tourist authorities have done a very poor job of promoting the castle and if I had been a casual tourist, I would never have known that it was there at all (if this place was on Orkney it would be signposted for miles but there is not a single sign alerting visitors to the presence of the Castle nor any directional signs on how to reach it)! Disappointing.

Castle-Sinclair-(D) MOD Castle-Sinclair-2-(D) MOD

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: From Wick, follow the signs for the hamlet of Staxigoe which is located approximately 1.5 miles to the east of the town. Once at Staxigoe, follow the left hand turn signposted Noss Head and follow this single track road to its end. The castle is a (signposted) 10 minute walk from the car park.

GREAT FOR: An insight into history and a fantastic view.

RECOMMENDATION: Be there at sunset, it will move you.