August is the best time to visit Scotland, not only because of the festival in Edinburgh, but also due to the fact that the heather is in bloom and the highlands become coated with a blanket of purple, which is a sight to behold. Leaving Edinburgh, I head north through St. Andrews, known as the birthplace of golf. As I continue north along the east coast and into the highlands, I marvel at the hills of heather and the spectacular views from cliffs dropping into the sea. My destination is Thurso, Scotland’s most northerly town, which is really just a gateway for me to catch a ferry even further north to the Orkney Islands.
Orkney is a series of about 70 islands of which only 21 are currently inhabited, located approximately 10 miles north of Thurso by sea. My ferry lands at St. Margaret’s Hope on the island of South Ronaldsay, which is connected to the islands of Burray, Lamb Holm and Mainland by causeways also known as the Churchill Barriers. The causeways, created as a barrier to prevent ships from entering the waters during World War II, were built by Italian prisoners of war brought to the islands in 1942. These prisoners also built the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, where I stop for a look.
Mainland is the largest island and home to the Orkney capital, Kirkwall. Dating from 1137, the red sandstone St. Magnus Cathedral is the main focus of the town. The history and architecture of the islands is very different from Scotland. Orkney remained under Norse rule until 1468, when it was given to Scotland as a dowry in the marriage of King James III to Margaret of Denmark.
Orkney boasts some of the best-preserved archeological sights in Europe, including Neolithic villages, burial tombs, and impressive stone circles. Skara Brae, the 5,500 year old village, was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999 and is a must see. This intricate maze of stone dwellings sits right along the coast and was uncovered in 1850 by a violent storm. Another mystical sight to see is the Ring of Brodgar. The stone circle has 27 of the original 60 stones still standing and you are permitted to walk right up into the circle for a closer look. Just down the road, remains of a smaller circle, the Stones of Stenness may also be seen.
After a magical day in Orkney, I return by ferry to the north coast of Scotland and continue my journey south to Loch Ness. For me Loch Ness is a magical place like no other. I grew up watching so many television documentaries about the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster (not to mention Big Foot, but that’s another story.) The first sighting of the monster dates back to around 565 A.D. Recorded sightings increased when the main road that runs along the length of the loch was completed in the 1930s. Loch Ness is large and deep measuring 23 miles long and averaging 2 miles wide and over 800 feet deep. I stop along the loch at the ruins of Urquhart Castle. The castle sits right along the loch offering a history lesson and an incredible vantage point from which to search for the elusive “Nessie.”
There are so many fabulous sights to see in this country of highlands, islands, culture, history and mystery, I can’t begin to cover them all today. I hope your interest is piqued and you will consider exploring this beautiful land for yourself someday. So pack your positive attitude and sense of adventure and take a journey with me and my “Passport to Adventure.”