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Stone village in Orkney proves one of a kind

A massive storm swept through this region and so we remained tied up in Kirkwall. In retrospect, this looked providential. We were able to visit the Broch of Gurness and the town of Stromness, and those of us who had not yet managed to explore Kirkwall got to visit St. Magnus Cathedral, with its John Rae memorial and gravesite, and the dazzling Orkney Museum. At least eight people sallied forth to check out two distilleries -- Highland Park and Scapa. They returned expressing satisfaction.
Local guides joined Adventure Canada staff aboard the buses and added colour and context. We got out to the Broch of Gurness, arguably Orkney’s most under-rated archaeological site. Here an Iron Age dwelling tower stands at the centre of a well-preserved stone village, offering a unique experience that extends into the Viking era. Visitors can get right down into the site and poke around in the ruins of ancient people’s houses.

This is vastly different from walking around outside even the wonderful Skara Brae, where you are forced to become the 21st century observer. At Gurness, you scramble over inconvenient slabs of rock and march up a winding causeway to duck and plunge through an awkward low doorway. More than one visitor predicted that ours will be the last generation to enjoy Gurness with such freedom.
We drove also to Stromness, home to 2,500 inhabitants (Kirkwall, the capital, claims 8,500). Everyone loves the atmosphere of this town, the main street winding along the coast, the sporadic views of the water, the cobble stones in the streets. Three times a day the NorthLink Ferry glides into the harbour from mainland Scotland to deliver and collect cars and people.
Riding in buses, we visitors enjoyed the open, panoramic views of the big sky, the rolling hills, the expanses of water. In Kirkwall, St. Magnus is famous for obvious reasons. But the Orkney Museum across the main street . . . that’s a happy surprise. Here we encountered the Picts, the Celts, the Vikings, the Lairds. So much history, so little time.

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.